The scene in Acts 20:1–12 is painfully unfamiliar to the modern churchgoer. The Apostle Paul is gathered with the saints in Troas on Sunday in an upper room. The parchments are rolled open and he is preaching. Luke tells us that he spoke “until midnight.” This means that Paul probably began speaking early in the evening, and as midnight approached, he still had not concluded his sermon. Luke is clearly playing up the long duration of Paul’s speaking as he adds: “Paul still talked longer.” In the back corner of the room was a young man, probably between ten and fourteen years old, “sitting at the window,” beginning to sink into a deep sleep.
This scene challenges many things that modern Americans think about coming to church. Many think of Sunday worship as a place to grab a cup of coffee, enjoy great music, and hear a few insights and stories from the pastor in a comfortable atmosphere. Many current books on preaching idealize creating a comfortable atmosphere, with entire chapters on what people are able to handle when they attend worship.
We’re seeing the consequences of idealizing modern expectations for worship. In fact, we live in a day of little appreciation for the necessity of even attending church. Though the statistics vary, some report that less than 20 percent of Americans attend church on Sunday. If the trends continue, over the next decade very few Americans will be attending church. This signals trouble for Christianity in the United States.
The question of what has brought about this exodus from the church is a challenging one to answer. Is it the consumerist, entertainment-driven model that is leaving people empty and with little reason to attend? Is it the abandonment of the Sabbath that has created the sense that nothing about gathering to worship is important or holy? There are certainly a variety of reasons for the decline, but there is no question that one of the greatest contributions is the demise of faithful preaching.
In our day, few people appreciate preaching and understand its importance. However, Acts 20 showcases Paul’s commitment to preaching in a way that defies much of what modern preaching books say we should do. In passages like this, the Holy Spirit challenges our assumptions of what the ministry of the Word accomplishes. Why were these early Christians so committed to gathering around the spoken Word when its delivery might last late into the night?
In Acts 20:1–2, Luke tells us that it was Paul’s purpose to visit the churches he planted and encourage them. The stage is now set for these Apostolic convictions to face an extreme test. Imagine the following scenario: Your pastor has been preaching for around five hours, and it’s now midnight. As he is preaching, a loud scream of a mother overtakes the room as her son falls off the balcony, hits the ground, and dies on the spot. Everyone rushes down the stairs only to find the lifeless body of the young man.
Whatever amount of encouragement Paul had given, it was replaced with the greatest possible discouragement. The congregation in Troas had just been confronted with their greatest enemy: death. The comfort of the Word was completely eclipsed by the horrific death of Eutychus.
To be sure, this story has a happy ending. Luke says that Paul rushed down and took him up into his arms, saying, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him” (v. 10). God, through Paul, raised Eutychus that day from the dead.
The question is whether Luke intends for us to see Eutychus’ resurrection as the answer in this passage. The book of Acts is challenging for modern readers because the extraordinary miracles described here are not common to our experience. We have never seen any so-called faith healer raise the dead. To us, it can feel like a book for wishful thinking. All would be great if our loved ones were raised—now. All would be wonderful if the pastor could solve our sorrows—now. This kind of immediate answer is what we want—now. Our connection to this story, however, ends with a lifeless body on the ground. All of our loved ones still remain in the grave.
This is why it is important to observe that the story doesn’t end with Eutychus’ resurrection. Luke records that Paul immediately brought them back to the upper room, broke bread, and continued to speak with them until daybreak. Paul immediately gathered them again around the Word and Christian fellowship. Paul knew something more was needed for these saints in Troas to help them understand the miracle.
The best sermon illustration ever was provided for Paul that day, and he was ready to give its application. We can only surmise what he said, but it probably went something like this: “All of you cannot stop looking at me as if I raised this man from the dead. The God of heaven and earth has glorified His servant Jesus and has raised Him from the dead, and I am a witness of this fact [Acts 3:12–16]. See what Eutychus’ resurrection is saying to you, it is Jesus who says, ‘I am the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore’ [Rev. 1:17–18]. You must listen to Him in everything that He tells you. Believe in Him and you will live!”
This passage is not about the length of a sermon. This story is meant to challenge us as to what we really believe is happening when we gather around the living Word of God. It is through the preaching of the Word that we receive actual grace to keep us through the misery of this life.
Jesus has given us His body and blood and triumphed over the grave as the answer to all our sin and misery. As we are joined to Jesus’ body, it is just a matter of time before our bodies too will be raised in the final resurrection. For the present, however, it is the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom that is the way the Holy Spirit keeps and comforts the church throughout this present age.
If there is ever going to be a reversal of people leaving the church, it will begin with a recovery of true preaching. Meeting the risen Jesus through the preached Word is the only way to create a true hunger for what is happening every Sunday.
Christopher J. Gordon
This article appeared in the Tabletalk online blog on June 12, 2019.