A Tour of Regions Beyond
With the end of the riot started by Demetrius, peace returned to the church in Ephesus, and Paul was able to implement his plan to leave. He gathered the disciples, gave them his blessing and his embrace, and departed for Macedonia. Luke summarizes in just a few words all the events intervening between his landing in Macedonia and his coming finally to Greece, yet scholars have pointed out that they must have spanned at least a year. We uncover a fuller story of events by consulting Paul’s epistles, especially Second Corinthians and Romans, for Second Corinthians was written at the beginning of this period, when Paul was in the Macedonian city of Philippi, and Romans was written at the end, when Paul was in the Grecian city of Corinth.
From Second Corinthians, we learn that after Paul left Ephesus, he traveled north to Troas, where he hoped to meet Titus as he was coming back from a mission to Corinth that he and an unnamed brother had undertaken at Paul’s request (2 Cor. 2:12–13; 12:18).
No doubt Titus’s main assignment in Corinth had been to resolve the contentious issues still crippling the Corinthian church. But in Troas, Titus was nowhere to be found. Deprived of news from a possible scene of trouble, Paul suffered growing anxiety. He feared that a once healthy church might be crumbling under internal stresses. His soul was so grievously troubled that he declined opportunities to minister in Troas and hurried across the sea in the hope of finding Titus in Macedonia, but he was not there either.
Paul then decided to stop and wait rather than try to intercept Titus at a point further down the peninsula. Inner peace eluded him. The time of waiting brought fightings without and fears within (2 Cor. 7:5). But soon Titus came—according to tradition, the meeting place was Philippi—and gave Paul a comforting report (2 Cor. 7:6–16). One faction of the Corinthian church was remaining faithful to Paul and striving to follow all of his instructions. Titus could say of these believers that they had refreshed his spirit. Yet in the remainder of Second Corinthians we read that another faction of the church had not backed down from ridiculing Paul and defying his authority (2 Cor. 12:11–21). To warn the rebellious faction of coming discipline and to bestow his blessing on the loyal faction, Paul wrote Second Corinthians. Presumably he penned and dispatched it from Philippi soon after conferring with Titus.
At about the same time, probably while he was still in Macedonia, Paul wrote his first epistle to Timothy. Before leaving Ephesus, Paul had sent Timothy into Macedonia to prepare the churches there for a visit by their founder (Acts 19:22). But by now, Timothy had finished his mission and returned to Ephesus. Indeed, he had returned even before Paul’s departure, and Paul, when he left for Macedonia, had left Timothy behind to superintend the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3). It seems likely that Paul publicly installed Timothy as his replacement. The purpose of First Timothy is to detail the young man’s responsibilities in his new role. It would be a mistake to date the epistle later in Timothy’s career, because when Paul wrote it, he could still say, "Let no man despise thy youth" (1 Tim. 4:12).
After sending off letters attending to the needs of Corinth and Ephesus, Paul could refocus his energies on active ministry. Since he was presently in Macedonia, he no doubt started by revisiting all the churches that he had founded there on his previous missionary journey. He must have felt that further teaching on the things of God would provide a critical shield for their newfound faith. But as he looked westward, he could see only spiritual darkness. The whole western side of the Balkan Peninsula as well as all regions northward along the Adriatic Sea remained untouched by life-saving truth. Doubtless it was at this time that, according to a reminiscence in the book of Romans, he made his foray into Illyricum (more recently known as Yugoslavia) (Rom. 15:19). Perhaps he crossed the mountains obstructing the way to his new mission field by following the same Via Egnatia that we described earlier. Once he descended into the plains beyond, he probably toured all the major cities near the seacoast. A walking tour of the whole region, including the approach from Philippi and the final leg to Corinth, easily covered a thousand miles. It is for this reason that scholars view verses 1 and 2 as a radical condensation of time. What seems to be a brief interval might have stretched over a year.
Luke gives no clue as to Paul’s companions during this major work of evangelism. Luke himself must have been elsewhere, because whenever he was an eyewitness of Paul’s ministry, he recounts what happened in great detail.
After touring Macedonia and regions beyond, Paul proceeded to Greece, probably continuing directly to Corinth, the normal place to catch ship for Syria.
From Greece to Troas
The term of his sojourn in Greece, three months, may refer to the winter season when no ship attempted to sail on the stormy Mediterranean. By going back to Corinth Paul fulfilled his promise in Second Corinthians that he would come to the believers there a third time (2 Cor. 12:14). His preceding letter to the Corinthians reveals that one of his purposes would be to collect contributions for the church in Jerusalem, which was full of needy brethren (1 Cor. 16:1–8). Paul’s most memorable achievement in Corinth was composition of the Book of Romans. Phebe, the godly woman who delivered the letter, attended the church in Cenchrea just outside Corinth (Rom. 16:1). The letter seems designed to serve three main purposes.
- He wanted to encourage the believers in Rome. To prove how much he loved them, he would make the long, demanding journey necessary to see them, and he would come at first opportunity, as soon as he had fulfilled a pressing obligation (Rom. 15:22–24).
- He wanted to persuade Jewish believers to lay aside all disdain for gentile believers. Yes, gentile society was plunging downward to the depths of corruption—a trend they could see readily enough in the Roman world, where life was cheap and vice of every imaginable kind was rampant (Rom. 1:21–32). But Paul cautioned them that God judged a man not by his heritage but by his heart—a truth he stated most succinctly and eloquently in Romans 2:24–29. Paul revealed also that God’s program for mankind was designed to bestow blessing on gentiles as well as Jews. For the sake of gentiles, the gospel would now go to the whole world (Rom. 3:21–30). But the Jews would not lose their special standing. Someday God would turn His attention back to His chosen people and grant salvation to all alive at Christ’s return (Rom. 11:25–26).
- He wanted to be sure that the Roman church was well-grounded in the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. The book reads much like a college text. No doubt it contains material that he had often used when instructing other churches. Down through history, the book has been rightly admired as the definitive treatment of law vs. grace and a host of other questions that we must answer properly if we wish to preserve the faith of our fathers. Luther’s exposition of Romans was one spark that touched off the Protestant Reformation.
Probably while Paul was in Corinth, Paul was joined by men from several of the principal cities that he had evangelized during his missionary journeys. Somehow by prior arrangement they all came together at the same place and the same time. The place of assembly was Corinth, because Paul meant to make no other stops before traveling to Syria. Who were these men? Earlier, when Paul instructed the churches to collect funds for the needy in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1–4), he told them to set trusted men apart for the task of delivering the money. These were doubtless the group who gathered around Paul in Corinth (Rom. 15:25–27). Each was a church delegate carrying money that had been raised in compliance with Paul’s direction. The seven who are named were Sopater of Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus of Thessalonica, Gaius of Derbe, Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia (who perhaps represented all cities in the province including Ephesus), and Timothy. Notice that probably for the sake of security and accountability, some churches sent two delegates.
We are not told what city or province Timothy represented, perhaps because his purpose in coming was not to travel as a church delegate all the way to Jerusalem, but only to serve temporarily as Paul’s assistant. Perhaps he had left his duties in Ephesus sometime earlier so that he might help Paul through the last stages of his ministry on the Balkan Peninsula.
Paul’s intent was to sail directly from Corinth to Syria, a stopping place on the route to Jerusalem. But his testimony for Christ had again aroused hatred among the Jews who despised followers of the crucified One, and they plotted to kill Paul, going so far as to prepare an ambush. Luke does not disclose details of the plot, but apparently it assumed that Paul would leave Corinth by ship. Becoming aware of his danger, Paul changed his itinerary. Instead of going to Cenchrea, the eastern port of Corinth, and catching a boat bound for Syria, he turned inland and headed for Macedonia. His enemies had not found it hard to guess his original plans. Except for the warning, he doubtless would have set sail in one of the pilgrim ships that picked up Jews from Mediterranean ports and carried them toward Jerusalem for celebration of Passover. On such a ship, full of Jews hostile to Paul, he would have been an easy prey.
Paul journeyed northward in a sizable company of men including Timothy, all the the church delegates, and perhaps others as well. Not only were they protecting the money; they were protecting Paul. When Paul reached Philippi, yet another man became his companion. He is not named, but the appearance of "us" in verse 5 and "we" in verse 6 signals that Luke had joined the party, perhaps serving as a delegate from the church in Philippi.
Now the same seven who came north with Paul separated from him and sailed across the Aegean Sea to the port city of Troas in Asia. There they waited. Paul and Luke remained in Philippi until after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which Paul evidently wanted to observe. As always, he felt bound to uphold the traditions he had inherited. He hoped that by not forsaking his Jewishness he would cement better relations between Jewish believers and the gentile believers won by his ministry. Perhaps on this occasion one of his purposes in staying behind was to teach the Jewish believers in Philippi an encouraging lesson—that becoming a Christian did not require them to renounce their Jewish identity.
Luke was not Jewish, so far as we know. We may therefore assume that what kept him from sailing off with the other seven was not the feast, but Paul’s welfare. He knew that Paul should have a companion when he traveled to Troas. After the feast, the two men immediately moved on, reaching Troas within five days. An earlier voyage in the reverse direction had only taken two days (Acts 16:11), so on this crossing the ship must have struggled against adverse conditions.
Now the whole company was reunited, but they postponed further travel for another seven days.
A Life Restored
A body of believers existed at Troas, showing that by now the gospel had spread to every significant city and town in Asia Minor. Paul and his company joined these believers when they gathered on the first day of the week; that is, on Sunday. The first suggestion in the New Testament that Sunday had become the time of a weekly church gathering is in First Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:2). The second is here in Acts 21:7. It was the practice of Christians in all the churches derived from Paul’s ministry, and perhaps in other churches as well, to meet on Sunday evenings for a meal followed by a service. The meal was later called a love feast.
During this meal celebrated in every local assembly, the gathered believers broke bread together, just as Jesus and His disciples had done on the night before His death. In reenacting the Lord's Supper, they were obeying the Lord's command. He had told the church that they should never cease to share bread and wine as a memorial of His body and blood, given as a sacrifice for their sins (Matt. 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20).
We do not know how long the love feast in Troas continued into the evening. But after everyone was done eating and perhaps after others had spoken, Paul took the floor and began to preach. The word for preach is the source of our English word "dialogue." We infer that Paul's presentation was far from a formal sermon. It was rather an informal talk, conversational in style. And in contrast to modern preachers, Paul did not feel bound to stop after forty minutes or so. He went on preaching until midnight. If we surmise that he started at about eight o'clock, he was still going strong four hours later. Perhaps he retold his triumphant missionary tours, or perhaps he offered an in-depth discussion of salvation by faith, as we read in the Book of Romans. Whatever he spoke about, the congregation as a whole was undoubtedly delighted to have the great apostle as their guest speaker. No doubt they hung on every word.
Yet there was a young man present who failed to pay attention. His name was Eutychus. Perhaps he was like many young people today, who find Romans rather heavy reading. Or maybe midnight was past his bedtime. For whatever reason, he fell asleep. And his place for sleeping could not have been more ill-chosen, for the gathering took place in a large third-story room, and he was sitting in the window. No one saw his peril while there was still time to save him. Suddenly, he toppled out of the window and plummeted to the ground perhaps thirty feet below. In horror, many rushed outside to his aid, but it was too late. He "was taken up dead." The wording leaves no doubt that in the professional judgment of Luke, a physician present at the scene, the boy was indeed dead. Shock and dismay swept over the crowd, completely erasing from their thoughts all of Paul's edifying words. A time of joyful fellowship instantly turned into a time of grief. Not only had a believer died, but the believer was a young man. A moment's mistake had erased all the potential of a full life dedicated to God.
Paul himself was deeply moved by the tragedy, and embracing the boy, he urgently pleaded for his life before the throne of God. In so doing, he exercised his privilege as a believer guided by the Spirit of God to do works as great as Christ had done (John 14:12). God heard his plea and miraculously restored the young man to life. Then Paul, looking around at the anxious and distressed congregation, including the young man's friends and perhaps his family as well, gave them all the glad news that life had returned to his body. But he had not yet regained consciousness.
The interruption did not put an end to the meeting. Paul returned to the upper chamber, and after taking an invigorating snack, he resumed conversing with the saints. They all knew that he was leaving the next day and that they would never see him again. So, they wanted to glean as much precious truth from him as possible before he departed, even if it meant getting no sleep. As it turned out, no one went to bed. Paul kept talking until the break of day.
Then, although neither he nor the church had taken any sleep, they all remained together to see him off in the morning. Just before he left, they brought Eutychus to him so he could see that the young man was alive and uninjured. Together they rejoiced at his recovery, and no doubt they lifted their voices to God and thanked Him for the miracle.
Progress toward Jerusalem
The next few verses relate Paul's journey from Troas to his next place of ministry, Miletus. The many exact details are characteristic of those portions of Acts where we find first-person pronouns; in other words, of those portions speaking of events that the author himself observed firsthand. The reason Luke's eyewitness accounts are always rich in information is that he could rely on his own memory. Although we find no obvious spiritual lessons in the record of Paul's exact movements, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include it because it has been invaluable for proving the authenticity of Acts. Modern authorities have established that all the references to places and sailing routes are perfectly accurate.
Sea travel in those days was seldom direct. A ship normally stopped at many ports on the way to its destination in order to renew water and other supplies, as well as to exchange passengers. From Troas, Luke and certain companions sailed without Paul to Assos, a short distance away. There they waited for Paul to come by foot.
Luke does not reveal why Paul preferred to walk, but commentators have suggested many possible reasons. Because of his compelling desire for souls, perhaps he wished to preach along the way. Or perhaps he simply wished to spend time some time alone with God. Or perhaps he wanted to focus his mind on what would be the right course of action when he reached Jerusalem, a place of danger. Or perhaps he did not walk alone, but took his son in the faith, Titus (Titus 1:4), so that he could have uninterrupted face-to-face conversation with him. The evidence we have suggests that when Paul reached Miletus and boarded a ship bound for Syria, Titus did not continue in his company but moved onward to Crete. When Paul later wrote to Titus, "left I thee in Crete" (Titus 1:5), he did not mean that he himself went there on his way to Syria, but that he left Titus behind in the general region of his departure.
At Assos, Paul's friends picked him up, and they all sailed further down the coast of Asia Minor to Mitylene. They went next to Chios, Samos, and Trogyllium in succession, and came finally to Miletus, an important city about thirty miles south of Ephesus. Paul had resolved not to visit the church at Ephesus, lest the delay prevent him from reaching Jerusalem before the feast of Pentecost. While in Corinth, he had doubtless wanted to reach there by the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but the plot against his life had set back his schedule fifty days.
Farewell to Ephesus
Yet Paul resolved to tarry briefly at Miletus so that the church leaders in Ephesus might come and bid him farewell. So, after he and the others in his party had disembarked, he sent a message summoning the Ephesian elders. Not only did they come, but because they knew Paul’s desire to press on quickly to Jerusalem, they came without delay.
Paul then delivered a speech designed to protect them from dangers that would certainly arise in the future. The chief danger he foresaw was that false teachers would seek to draw believers away from the truth they had received from Paul. Paul therefore spent much of his speech urging them to maintain their respect and love for Paul himself, the apostle God used to bring them the gospel of the Kingdom.
A Needful Reminder of Their Debt to Paul
He started off by reviewing the many proofs of his love for them. He compiled an impressive list of all the sacrifices and sufferings he had endured for their sake.
- During the whole period of his stay in the city, he had given his time entirely to ministry, remaining with them "at all seasons." He had not abandoned them for any vacation or any time of seclusion or any personal quest. He had fully devoted himself to serving their welfare.
- He had served them with all humility of mind. Despite the high rank he could have attained in the world if he had pursued a career within the circles of Jewish government, and despite the high rank he did attain in the work of God, he never demanded to be treated as their superior. He dealt with them as a man loves his friend. He refused to stand aloof as a man of higher rank so that he might show them the meekness of Christ.
- in order to help them, he was willing to shed many tears. He made himself vulnerable to grief, whether the grief of disappointment when men turned against the truth, or the grief of pain when men abused him.
- As a pioneer missionary, he exposed himself to soul-endangering temptations that he might have avoided if he had taken a safer course in life—if, for example, he had remained sheltered within the strong church at Antioch. On the front lines of evangelism he was continually tempted to shirk his duty. The easy choice always beckoning to him in the midst of battle was deliverance by compromise, or by keeping silent, or by running away. But he always stood firm in his duty.
- He met continual opposition from the Jews, whose hatred carried them to the point of conspiring against his life.
- He "kept back nothing." That is, he did not spare himself from hard work, but was diligent in using every available method to win souls. He taught in the synagogue. He gave public lectures. He went from house to house.
- The message he preached to both Jews and Greeks was by its very nature unpopular. He gave them the true gospel, which set two requirements for salvation: repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The hard part for Greeks was the call to repentance. The Greeks were a proud people who indulged themselves in sensual excess with hardly any sense of shame. For them, the call to repentance made no sense, because chronic sin had worn away their conscience. We find the same indifference to sin in the contemporary world, especially in Europe, America, and other places where there was once a respect for the Bible.
The hard part of the gospel for Jews was the call to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Christ. The Jews had heard through grapevines rooted in Jerusalem that Jesus was a man with strange powers. But they decided He was a sorcerer, and, since He could not save Himself from a disgraceful death on a cross, they viewed Him with contempt. The Jews did not want a Messiah who made a public spectacle of His helplessness against the Romans.
Yet after offering this recital of all he had endured in Ephesus, Paul was not done recommending himself to the Ephesian elders. He knew that enemies of the truth would try to subvert the believers in Ephesus by attacking Paul. They would chisel away at his reputation in an attempt to discredit his doctrine. Perhaps the mudslinging had already begun. Therefore, as a tactic for defending the spiritual welfare of the believers in Ephesus, Paul did not hesitate to exalt himself in their eyes.
He told them next that his sufferings for Christ were not over. He would soon go to Jerusalem, where he expected to find trouble. In every city he visited recently, the Holy Spirit had shown him that he would fall into "bonds and afflictions." In other words, he would be persecuted and thrown into jail. The testimony of the Spirit had perhaps come to him personally, as he waited upon the mind of God, or perhaps had come to him through prophets in the church. In apostolic days, the Lord gifted certain believers with the ability to make predictions.
Yet Paul was not deterred by all the glimpses of future sufferings. He intended to push on to Jerusalem, for two reasons.
- He was "bound in the spirit." Like the similar expressions we have already discussed or will discuss later (Acts 18:25 ; 19:21; 21:4), this one must refer to the Holy Spirit rather than to man’s spirit. From the Holy Spirit, Paul derived a clear sense that God wanted him to make another trip to Jerusalem. After all, to deliver the substantial gift that he and his companions were carrying for the poor in that city was surely God’s will. Likewise, it was surely God’s will for Paul himself to present the gift. Since everybody knew that he was the apostle to the gentiles, no one receiving money from his hands could deny that gentiles must have been the chief contributors. The gift when finally distributed to the needy would therefore strengthen the bond between Jewish and gentile believers.
- He attached no value to his own life. From his perspective, the overriding objective was to finish his "course with joy"—that is, with the satisfaction that at every step along his path he had not veered from the work that God had given him to do.
Formal Transfer of Responsibility
In his speech to the elders, Paul went on to reveal that he would never see them again. The news surely brought them great sadness of heart. No doubt their great respect for him was coupled with great love. He was, after all, their spiritual father. We can imagine that Paul's tone here and throughout his speech was never harsh, but tender, for he loved them even more than they loved him in return.
Then Paul declared to the Ephesian elders that he had fully met his responsibility toward them. No man in Ephesus could blame Paul for failing to bring him the gospel. Therefore, the blood of no lost man stained Paul's hands. Paul summarized his obligation to the believers in momentous words, full of instruction for church leaders ever since. He said that he had "not shunned to declare unto [them] all the counsel of God."
The Coming of Grievous Wolves
Now Paul turned to his greatest concern. The reason he had been exhorting the Ephesian elders never to forsake his leadership is that he knew false teachers would try to seize leadership in the future. He called them "grievous wolves," an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus characterizes false prophets as wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15). Their purpose, Paul said, would be to devour the flock. In other words, they would seek to prey upon believers, extinguishing their spiritual life in order to feed their own appetites, whether greed or lust or love of power.
Paul said these predators would arise from two sources. Some would "enter in among you." That is, they would come into the church for the express purpose of leading believers astray. Even when they first associated with believers and joined the church, they would be hypocrites with evil designs. Other predators would arise "of your own selves." Paul meant that they would start off in the church with a sincere profession of faith, but would eventually prove their faith defective by turning aside from the truth and taking others with them.
How should the church defend itself from wolves? Paul said that responsibility for guarding the flock fell primarily on the shepherds, such as the elders he was addressing. They held the office of overseer by appointment of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gave them their position mainly for one purpose—that they might guard the flock from error by feeding them truth. Theirs was a solemn responsibility, for the safety of the flock was dear to the heart of God. Jesus had purchased His people at the price of His own blood. It was obvious that any shepherd whose carelessness allowed wolves to decimate the flock would face an angry Judge.
To assure success in protecting the flock, Paul advised two measures: to watch and to remember. By "watch," he meant that they should keep a sharp lookout for wolves, just as a conscientious shepherd always keeps one eye on the shadowy margin of the flock. By "remember," he meant that they should never forget his warnings. For three years he had warned them with tears. Hearing these words in the context of Paul's whole speech, the elders no doubt understood that he was concerned about several distinct perils: that they might become evil workers themselves, or that they might tolerate evil workers, or that they might simply neglect to nurture the flock of God.
Further Defense of His Ministry
Paul concluded his speech by bestowing a final blessing and a final exhortation. The blessing was a prayer on their behalf. After serving as their spiritual father for many years, he relinquished his role and gave them instead to the care of God and God's Word. Commending them to God was a blessing because he knew that they were safe in God's hands. As the fountainhead of all grace, God could be trusted to bring them to perfection. Through the Scriptures, which Paul called "the word of his grace," God would build them up and prepare them for an eternal inheritance.
Paul's final exhortation is a bit surprising. He might have dealt with many other issues, but he focused on the importance of working hard at a mundane occupation. He did not want the Ephesian elders to become so spiritual that they lapsed into laziness. Only by pursuing a livelihood could they acquire resources to support the weak. By "the weak," he was referring to children and poor widows and others who were unable to support themselves. He reminded them that when he ministered in Ephesus, he himself did not forsake his work as a tentmaker. He kept working with his hands so that he would not need to take anyone else's money.
The principle underlying his unselfish diligence in earning his own bread was expressed by Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." We are indebted to the Book of Acts for transmitting this wonderful saying to us, for we do not find it in the Gospels.
Paul urged the men standing about him to make Jesus' words the motto of their lives. He wanted them to pursue godliness, and the essence of godliness is not to please self, but to please others.
A Tearful Parting
After Paul finished speaking, he knelt down with the others, and he prayed that God would surround them with protection and encourage them with blessing. Then the moment that they all wished to avoid finally came. Paul was ready to leave. Here were grown men, capable of stern self-control, but when faced with the departure of their spiritual mentor and father, they wept sorely, with deep and genuine grief. They fell on Paul's neck, kissed him, and said goodbye. They treated him as their dearest loved one, and indeed he was, for at great personal cost he brought them the way to eternal life. They owed him everything, and they knew it. The chief cause of their pain was Paul's revelation that they would never see him again. He spoke truly, for he never returned to Asia Minor or Greece, the fields where he labored for so many years. In their reluctance to let him go, the elders undoubtedly followed him step by step to the ship and kept him in sight until he sailed away.