Encouraging One Another
Main Idea: This passage illustrates some of the ways believers can give and receive Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered encouragement.
- Encouraging the Saints in Macedonia and Greece en Route to Jerusalem (20:1-6)
- How can we encourage the saints this week?
- Why don’t believers encourage other believers?
- Encouraging the Saints in Troas in Corporate Worship (20:7-12)
- Gather weekly to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection (20:7-12).
- Gather weekly to experience the Lord’s Supper (20:7,11).
- The privilege
- The pattern
- The power
- Gather weekly to hear the Lord’s Word (20:7-12).
This passage is famous for the story of Eutychus falling asleep during Paul’s sermon. The young man, whose name means “lucky” or “fortunate,” was unfortunately sitting by a window when he nodded off as Paul spoke. After his deadly three-story fall, God restored his life, and Paul continued preaching until daybreak.
The story is humorous because many of us can identify with the slow drift toward sleep that can overtake us during a lecture, sermon, or film. My good friend David Platt once fell asleep during prayer time at our mentor’s house! This poor brother, a committed disciple maker, had worked himself to the point of exhaustion and just couldn’t stay awake. Our spirit is often willing, but our flesh is weak. Such weakness reminds us that God alone is self-sufficient and doesn’t need sleep (cf. Ps 121:4).
But this story in Acts 20 isn’t mainly about how to stay awake during corporate worship. This section of Scripture opens and closes with the concept of encouragement in verses 1 and 12, though most versions have “comforted” in verse 12. Luke uses the same basic term (parakaleo¯; cf. “Counselor” in John 14:16) three times in this section (vv. 1,2,12). It appears numerous times in the New Testament, showing the importance of encouraging others in the mission. Here, in a Christlike and Spirit-like way, Paul comes alongside the saints in various places, strengthening them in word and deed.
The author of Hebrews tells us that all believers have the privilege and responsibility of encouraging other brothers and sisters in Christ:
Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception. (Heb 3:12-13; emphasis added)
We must encourage one another constantly. Our hearts are fickle; sin never sleeps; Satan is at work; and the gospel is of first importance.
Knowing the reality of the spiritual war and the need to fan the flame of Christians’ passion for the King, Paul makes several trips to build up the believers. This indicates to me that we need to elevate our concept of encouragement. George Adams said, “Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul” (in Thomas, Acts, 562). It’s a great privilege to give Christ-exalting encouragement to fellow soldiers and to receive it from others! Let’s look at how we can both give and receive encouragement.
Encouraging the Churches of Macedonia and Greece en Route to Jerusalem
After the riot in Ephesus, Paul executed his plans to visit Jerusalem via Macedonia and Achaia (19:21). We can fill in some of the details from Paul’s letters of 2 Corinthians (esp. chs. 1–7) and Romans, which he composed during this time. Paul went to give an offering to the poor saints in Jerusalem (see 24:17), a gift that no doubt brought much encouragement to the believers there.
Paul collected offerings from the Gentile congregations of Macedonia and Achaia (Greece), and presumably from Galatia and Asia Minor, in order to support the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. This offering would serve as a concrete expression of love, support, and solidarity. Paul tells the church in Rome that those in Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make this offering (Rom 15:26-27). They were “cheerful giver[s]” (2 Cor 9:7).
While making the swing from west to east, Paul had an opportunity not only to collect funds but also to encourage the saints in the faith, as he had done earlier in his ministry (see 14:21-22; 15:36,41).
During Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Paul and the Corinthians became embroiled in some drama. Paul apparently wrote a “painful” letter to the church during this time (2 Cor 2:1-11). Some believers in Corinth opposed Paul and attacked his apostolic credentials. So Paul sent a letter by way of Titus. Paul then waited for Titus’s report before visiting Corinth himself. When Paul traveled to Macedonia (Acts 20:1), he hoped to meet up with Titus to see how the Corinthians received his strong letter. He had stopped first at Troas and had an opportunity to minister there (2 Cor 2:12-13), but because Corinth was on his mind, and because Titus didn’t meet him at Troas, Paul moved on to Macedonia—most likely Philippi. When they met, Titus brought Paul good news: the offenders had been disciplined, and the church in Corinth had become reconciled to Paul (2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:5-13, Polhill, Acts, 415).
When Paul reached Macedonia (v. 1), having received this report, he then wrote 2 Corinthians. He sent it ahead of his own visit to the church in Corinth. We see in Acts 20:2-3 that Paul made it to Corinth, called a three-month stay in “Greece.” This would be Paul’s final visit to Corinth, and it happened in the winter of AD 55–56. While there, Paul wrote his majestic letter to the Romans.
But Luke only chooses to highlight Paul’s personal encouragement to the saints (vv. 1-2). Paul encourages the saints in person, spending a great deal of time with them. Paul told the Romans,
For I want very much to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, to be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1:11-12; emphasis added)
Paul’s letter to the Romans was a special, inspired epistle, yet he still wanted to visit the saints in person. John also related his desire to see the saints face-to-face (3 John 13-14).
We too must remember the value of encouraging others in person. We can do this through small groups and in a thousand other ways. When we love and encourage one another, the unbelieving world sees that we are Jesus’s disciples (cf. John 13:34-35).
Because Paul was about to be attacked at sea (v. 3), he changed his plans and decided to go north by land. Luke mentions a long list of traveling companions, which expresses the nature of ministry partnership. These guys probably are all delegates from the Gentile churches. They joined Paul as official representatives of their churches. Their presence and gift represented partnership. They also served to help protect Paul and the offerings. Paul mentioned the representatives in his letters (cf. 1 Cor 16:3; 2 Cor 8:18-24). He valued these coworkers (cf. Acts 27:2; Eph 6:21-22; Phil 2:19-24; Col 4:7-10; 2 Tim 1:2,8).
At least a few of these men went ahead to Troas (v. 5), but Paul and Luke observed the Passover with the Philippian congregation—as is evidenced by the “we” mention in verse 6; Luke had probably stayed in Philippi since the second journey (16:40). The Passover carried more meaning to Paul once he saw its fulfillment in Christ, the ultimate Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7-8). Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice gave the Christians not only salvation but also grace-generated motivation for sacrificial giving (2 Cor 8:9).
Consider two questions and some answers that emerge from this passage.
How Can We Encourage the Saints This Week?
First, we need to give to others. Paul collected funds to support the church in Jerusalem. This encouraged the saints in both word (as the representatives passed on a good word to the saints) and deed (in terms of the financial gift). Be on the lookout for needs in the body of Christ and give material possessions when possible (cf. Gal 6:2,10).
Second, we need to visit with others. Paul went to great pains to visit churches previously established. Follow his example. Don’t settle for e-mail or Skype contacts with your Christian friends. Be present with people. It’s dangerous to live in isolation. We’re made for biblical community. Sharing lunch is one of many things we can do to support one another.
Third, we must serve with others in ministry. These delegates surely brought Paul (and one another) great encouragement on this trip. One way to forge deep, uplifting relationships is by going after a common goal together.
Why Don’t Believers Encourage Other Believers?
I suspect the main reason believers often fail to encourage one another is that we think we’re too busy to do so . To this, I say, look at the apostle Paul for a moment! Even in his busyness he thought about others.
It could also be that we are often too self-absorbed to encourage other brothers and sisters. To this, I say again, look at Paul’s example. Great concerns about the future must have filled his mind. Death threats loomed. He desired to go to Jerusalem. Yet he thought about others and encouraged them rather than spending all of his energy focusing on his own problems.
We must realize that our failure to encourage is a sign that we really don’t love our brothers and sisters. We love our plans. We love ourselves. So may God break our hearts, leading us to repentance and showing us how we can encourage others this week.
Before moving on from this point, I want to touch on ten things that serve to discourage fellow brothers and sisters. They are things we should avoid:
- Being harsh toward or critical of one another
- Being angry with one another
- Envying one another
- Disrespecting one another
- Avoiding one another
- Being too busy for one another
- Puffing ourselves up in front of one another
- Squeezing the life out of one another
- Showing no patience with one another
- Gossiping about one another
Instead of falling into one of these traps, give yourself to the ministry of building up other believers in a spirit of love for Christ and for his people.
Encouraging the Church in Troas in Corporate Worship
Paul and his companions spent a week in Troas, probably awaiting the departure of their ship. While there they were able to worship with the church. Luke records an unforgettable worship service. Luke’s last phrase, “They . . . were greatly comforted,” expresses how much the service encouraged the people of God in Troas. Our worship gatherings too can serve as wonderful means of encouragement when we follow the pattern set forth here.
F. F. Bruce notes the significance of this gathering: “The reference to meeting for the breaking of bread on ‘the first day of the week’ is the earliest text we have from which it may be inferred with reasonable certainty that Christians regularly came together for worship on that day” (Book of Acts, 384). From this gathering we get an inside look at some of the priorities of the church gathered.
Of course, we shouldn’t try to apply everything here to our modern context. I don’t think that insisting on oil lamps or demanding a super long sermon would prove a good idea! Neither should we necessarily neglect what’s not mentioned here, like prayer. Rather, we should seek to transfer from this account what’s transferable.
Since Luke was present (“we,” v. 7), he could report several details. The gathering probably began around sunset, after the workday was complete. Paul prolonged his speech until midnight and later went on to speak until daybreak. The length of the sermon highlights the special occasion. The church and Paul knew they had limited time together, so they wanted to use every minute of it.
Further, the meeting took place in a home on the third floor. Lamps were in the room, and Eutychus (who may have been a young boy) sat in the window, trying to get some air. It seems as though Luke is trying not to attach blame to the sleepy young man as he shares what happened. Eutychus was fighting to stay awake as Paul “kept on talking” (v. 9).
After the deadly fall, Paul, by the power of Jesus, was able to raise this young man back to life (v. 10). His actions are not unlike those of Elijah, Elisha, and Peter (cf. 1 Kgs 17:17-24; 2 Kgs 4:32-33; Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44; Acts 9:36-41).
The church then had a meal (which included the Lord’s Supper), and Paul continued speaking until daybreak (v. 11). Luke then makes another comment on Eutychus, saying “they brought the boy home alive,” bringing great comfort to the church.
Let’s consider three applications.
Gather Weekly to Celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection (20:7-12)
Luke says the church met “on the first day of the week” for corporate worship. This day had been set apart by the Lord’s resurrection as the Lord’s Day (cf. Luke 24:1; 1 Cor 16:1-2; Rev 1:10).
The way Luke describes these events gives the impression that this was simply the norm for churches. Several ancient documents also describe how early Christians gathered on Sundays to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. Each time they did, they were reminding one another that the tomb is empty and the heavenly throne is occupied. This congregation in Troas met in the evenings. Sunday mornings became the more popular gathering time as culture and leadership changed.
There’s something special and significant about assembling together. There’s always more going on at a church gathering than meets the eye (cf. Heb 12:18-24). They give us a glimpse of the great gathering to come (Rev 4–5). And we never know what might happen at a church service! Imagine, for instance, how wonderful it would have been to attend the meeting at which Paul spoke and one of the guys in the youth group got raised from the dead! Meeting together for worship encourages us, and it reminds us that our greatest problem has already been solved: death has been defeated.
Yet there remains a spirit of indifference to weekly gatherings among many professing Christians. Many feel they’re too important to make time for Jesus Christ and his people. They think they should invest their time elsewhere. But gathering with the church is the best investment of time you could possibly make! If you aren’t prioritizing the assembly of the redeemed, beware! It may indicate that your relationship with Jesus isn’t what it should be.
Understand that there’s a vertical and horizontal dimension to our Christian meetings: both have tremendous benefits for the individual and for the crowd. Every believer needs the encouragement that comes not only from the risen King (vertical) but also from the King’s people (horizontal). The writer of Hebrews says,
And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching. (Heb 10:24-25)
You have a role to play in the weekly assembly. You come not to be entertained but to encourage and receive encouragement. For the good of your own soul and for the good of the souls of your brothers and sisters, protect corporate worship times.
Gather Weekly to Experience the Lord’s Supper (20:7,11)
Luke mentions the Lord’s Supper in the same way, as a common event in the life of the gathered church (see 1 Cor 11:17-34, “when you come together”). It was probably shared in the context of a meal. John Stott says, “Word and sacrament [the Lord’s Supper] were combined in the ministry given to the church at Troas, and the universal church has followed suit ever since” (Message of Acts, 321). Let’s consider three aspects of the Lord’s Supper.
The Privilege. Paul was able to remember Jesus’s substitutionary death through the Lord’s Supper with individuals who couldn’t have been Christians for long. It must have been an encouraging experience to see former pagans take the bread and the cup. It must have also been an incredibly joyous experience for the believers in Troas to take the bread and the cup with the apostle Paul. He had sacrificed so much for the cause of the gospel.
Imagine a modern missionary’s joy at serving Communion to new believers in his area of outreach. How much excitement would fill such a person’s heart as he held out the emblems of the Savior’s death to repentant believers? Just thinking about it reminds me of the missionary John Paton (1824–1907), who took the gospel to the people of the New Hebrides islands. After many trials and difficult seasons, Paton reported the unspeakable joy he experienced when he served the first Communion to a group of new believers at Aniwa:
For years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well-nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself. (John G. Paton, Ch. LXXIII)
Every time I read this story, I feel tears pool in my eyes. What a powerful picture it paints! What a privilege to memorialize the Lord’s forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper and to share the meal with other believers. Each of us was dead in sin and unworthy to take the Table until God made us alive in Christ. May we never get over the wonder of the gospel—the wonder of taking the bread and the cup, reminders of the Lord’s torn flesh and precious blood shed on our behalf.
The Pattern. So how often should we take the Lord’s Supper? It seems the early church took the Lord’s Supper weekly. After the church spread out from Jerusalem, became more stabilized, and began meeting weekly for worship, the Lord’s Supper became a weekly experience. John Stott says, “The disciples met on the Lord’s Day for the Lord’s Supper. At least verse 7 sounds like a description of the normal, regular practice of the church in Troas” (Message of Acts, 321).
Allow me to mention a few leading biblical scholars on this subject. Ray Van Neste says of Acts 20:7,
The breaking of bread is the term used especially in Acts for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (2:42; cf. 1 Cor. 10:16), and this passage is of particular interest in providing the first allusion to the Christian custom of meeting on the first day of the week for the purpose. . . . This passage need not mean the Lord’s Supper was the only purpose of their gathering, but it certainly is one prominent purpose and the one emphasized here. The centrality of communion to the weekly gathering is stated casually without explanation or defense, suggesting this practice was common among those Luke expected to read his account. These early Christians met weekly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. (The Lord’s Supper, 366, kindle)
Similarly, James Hamilton says,
I would suggest that Acts 20:7 (with 1 Cor. 10:16, 11:23-24) indicates that the celebration of the Lord’s supper was central to the early Christian gatherings—look at it again: “On the first day of the week, when we gathered to break bread . . .” (Acts 20:7). They gathered to break bread (Paul also preached all night, so the gathering probably started in the evening, 20:7-11), and the gathering happened on the first day of the week. . . . Everywhere the apostles went to make disciples, they planted churches. They always baptized new disciples into membership in those churches, and those churches met on the first day of the week to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, looking for his return, by partaking of the Lord’s supper. (“How Often Should a Church Take the Lord’s Supper?”)
Hamilton applies this to us today:
This means, I think, that if we become convinced that the earliest church took the Lord’s supper every Lord’s day—and if this was so widespread that when Paul and Luke are traveling from one place to another, they know that if they find a church gathered on the Lord’s day that church will have gathered to break bread—if we become convinced that the earliest church in every place took the Lord’s supper every Lord’s day, we will want to do the same. (Ibid.)
And finally, Van Neste concludes,
From these passages, a clear pattern emerges of a weekly celebration of Communion in the NT. . . . [T]his is the pattern in the NT and therefore would be the best practice. (The Lord’s Supper, 367, kindle)
I agree wholeheartedly.
My experience, and the testimony of many others, is that regular Communion is more meaningful, not less meaningful, than periodic observances. Charles Spurgeon believed this as well:
My witness is, and I think I speak the mind of many of God’s people now present, that coming as some of us do, weekly, to the Lord’s Table, we do not find the breaking of bread to have lost its significance—it is always fresh to us. . . . Shame on the Christian church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth of the death of Christ till he come. They who once know the sweetness of each Lord’s-day celebrating his Supper, will not be content, I am sure, to put it off to less frequent seasons. (“Songs of Deliverance”)
I don’t want to be overly critical on this matter. To be fair, in Scripture we don’t find an explicit command to take the Lord’s Supper weekly. If we did, I’m sure most Bible-believing churches would be doing so. Nevertheless, this does seem to be the pattern of the early churches. And it’s a wonderful privilege to enjoy!
The Power. The Lord’s Supper is powerful in its reception. While we shouldn’t go so far as to view the elements as transforming into the actual body and blood of Jesus, it’s also wrong to minimize the experience of the Table. Many Christians grow up only hearing what the Lord’s Supper is not. In hearing such negativity associated with it, they tend to have a low view of the Supper, assuming nothing special happens when we take it. In truth we should experience profound delight and deep joy when we come to the Table. We should take it repentantly, prayerfully, gratefully, and joyfully. J. I. Packer notes, “At the Holy Table, above all, let there be praise” (cited in Van Neste, Lord’s Supper, 363). Yes indeed. May we take Communion with holy praise to the Lamb!
The Lord’s Supper is also powerful in its proclamation. Sermons preach to the ear. The Lord’s Supper preaches to the eye. And the preached Word has great power. In the Lord’s Supper people get to see and hear the gospel proclaimed through the explanation of the elements. We shouldn’t minimize this fact.
When my youngest son was only six years old, I asked him about the worship service. He couldn’t remember much about my sermon, but he could remember the presentation of the Lord’s Supper. I was thrilled because what he remembered was the gospel!
The Lord’s Supper is also powerful in its unification. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks much about the call for unity at the Table because the “haves” weren’t treating the “have-nots” appropriately (1 Cor 11:17-34). At the Table we Christians confess our unity in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a powerful way to build community within the church because it illustrates that we are all one in him. We all come as repentant sinners, having placed faith in the same Savior and thus sharing the same hope. In Jesus we’re family. There are no distinctions. Skin color doesn’t matter. Paycheck size doesn’t matter. What matters is Christ’s blood, reconciling us to God and one another. Consider this powerful illustration of unity:
At the end of the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, on the Sunday after Appomattox and the surrender, a worship service was held in the historic Episcopal church there. It was an old church that had a balcony where the slaves of the owners had sat for many years, with their masters and their families sitting downstairs. The practice in this church had been to have two calls for the Lord’s Supper, one first for the whites downstairs, and then one for the slaves upstairs. But on this given Sunday at the first call to communion an older black man, a former slave, began down the central aisle, right after the call. Naturally enough there was surprise and shock downstairs, but what was even more of a shock was when an elderly, white, bearded gentleman got up, hooked his arm in the arm of the former slave, and they went forward and took communion together. That man was Robert E. Lee. There was forgiveness and healing and reunion at the Table that day, and thereafter there was no more segregated communion. This is indeed one of the functions of communion—the receiving and sharing of forgiveness. Jesus sacrificed himself so that our sins might be forgiven and so that we might be forgiving as well. (Witherington III, Making a Meal of It,132)
What a powerful picture of grace, forgiveness, and togetherness at the Table!
This togetherness is also a powerful sign of what’s to come. The Lord’s Supper is the sign of the messianic reign and a foretaste of the future, for in the Table, we’re proclaiming the Lord’s death “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Soon we will feast with the King and all the redeemed (cf. Matt 8:11).
Gather Weekly to Hear the Lord’s Word (20:7-12)
The church in Troas also gathered to hear the apostle Paul teach. Paul “kept on talking” until midnight (vv. 7,9), and then he “talked” with them until daybreak (v. 11). The first part of the evening may have been a lecture, an argument based on Scripture that could have included some questions and answers, whereas the latter address was more of a casual conversation. Regarding the latter, John Stott says, “It was clearly more free and open than a formal sermon” (Message of Acts, 321).
Obviously this was a unique event. But we should see from this text (and the rest of the Bible) that the preaching and teaching of God’s Word is to be taken seriously. Paul gave Timothy this instruction about corporate worship: “Until I come, give your attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones underscored the importance of preaching in his classic book on the subject:
Is it not clear, as you take a bird’s eye view of Church history, that the decadent periods and eras in the history of the Church have always been those periods when preaching has declined? What is it that always heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a Revival? It is renewed preaching. (Preaching and Preachers, 31)
However, we should not draw from this text that a speaker should preach ten-hour sermons! John Newton wisely said, “When weariness begins, edification ends” (in Hughes, Acts, 270).
How, then, should you listen to a sermon? Here a few pointers:
- Listen humbly. Realize that you need God’s Word. Don’t listen with a grudge or with a spirit of arrogance. Don’t allow familiarity with the text or even with the speaker’s general message to block your desire to meet Christ in the Scriptures.
- Listen intently. Do whatever you must to stay engaged with the message. Say “amen,” sit in the front, or take notes. Listen attentively, like the audience in Nehemiah 8. Fight the urge to fall asleep or to mentally check out.
- Listen biblically. Use your mind to weigh what is taught against what you already know of the Bible, as the Bereans did.
- Listen personally. Listen for yourself, not just for someone “who needed to hear that.”
- Listen communally. Listen for the good of your brothers and sisters. Who knows? It could be that you’ll hear something within the message that you can later use to encourage someone.
- Listen missionally. Don’t merely be a receiver of the Word; be a reproducer of the Word. Listen in order to make disciples of all nations.
- Listen practically. Think about ways you should change your behavior based on what you hear.
- Listen gratefully. Be thankful that God speaks to his people, including you!
Remember, too, that it’s important to get adequate rest before corporate worship. Prepare for corporate worship as you would prepare for other important events.
In summary, Acts 20:1-12 illustrates the ministry of Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered encouragement. We may encourage people in personal meetings, through financial offerings, in gospel partnerships, and in our weekly worship assemblies. In all things let’s commit ourselves to building up one another. And let’s be thankful that we have the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, with us, in us, and working through us for this ministry.
After all, we have the greatest news in the world to share. Our God raises the dead! The living Christ gives us power to persevere in the faith, to advance the gospel in the midst of persecution, and to sing in days of discouragement. Keep pointing your brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life. The gospel message is not only for the unrepentant sinner but also for the redeemed saint.
Reflect and Discuss
- How can we encourage other Christians based on this passage?
- Why do we often fail to encourage other saints?
- What about verses 1-6 most stands out to you? Why?
- Why is it important to be reminded of the resurrection weekly?
- Why is it important to gather corporately with God’s people?
- What does the Lord’s Supper communicate? Why is participating in it a privilege?
- Why is hearing the Word corporately important?
- How should we listen to sermons?
- What does the raising of Eutychus teach us?
- Take a moment to pray for your weekly gatherings in your local church.