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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 20



Verse 7


‘And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.’

Acts 20:7

In the present day there is a marked decline in the habit of people, generally, to attend public worship regularly, yet the present tendency is not peculiar to this age; it appeared in an aggravated form in the eighteenth century, which was commented on by Bishop Butler in the introduction to his Analogy of Religion.

I. There is a tendency in the present day to regard a service in church far too much as a human performance.—When it is over, people converse about the service just as they would about the merits of a concert or any other entertainment. They praise or blame the eloquence or the dullness of the preacher, they discourse on the solos or the choruses of the anthem, or on the reading of the prayers, or on the size and quality of the congregation; but when do we find the main thought of the departing congregation to be centred on the spiritual presence of God which they have felt and realised? Yet this is the one all-important consideration. The most suitable remark at the conclusion of a service would be, ‘It was well seen to-day how God, our God and King, went in the sanctuary.’

II. Those who really pray to God and meditate on His goodness cannot be satisfied without the visible manifestation.—In some careless, worldly families there is no gathering of the household for family prayer, and no public acknowledgment of God’s bounty in grace said before meals. The religious tone of a household is profoundly influenced by these observances. If a Christian family gave them up, and arranged that each individual was to say his or her prayers in private, and think his or her grace in silence, it would not be long until it was manifest that all difference between the family life of the godly and the careless households had disappeared. Public worship and public thanksgiving bear the same relationship to the nation as family prayer and grace at meals do to the household. Both to be effective must be ‘well seen.’ When they are not seen there is sure evidence that the decay of true religion has begun, which, if allowed to continue, must result in spiritual death. France is an example in the present day of the truth of this fact.

III. There are two ways in which we may take part in a service.

(a) Either as mere spectators coming to be entertained by music or to receive gratuitously the enjoyment of a service for which other people have paid; or

(b) We may come as true worshippers who desire to take our full share in promoting the glory of God, both by our presence and our offerings.

The services of the Church cannot be maintained in efficiency without the offerings of the people by which they are made real partakers in the whole service. Then, along with our offerings, we present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto our Lord God.

—Dean Ovenden.


‘For many years past the men of France have forsaken public worship, especially in the towns, where women and children formed the bulk of the congregations. The natural result has been a growing disbelief in the religion of that Church of which they were nominal members. We have reason to fear that the growing tendency of men among ourselves to absent themselves from public worship shows a tendency in our day which may lead to similar results in our land. Sunday work and Sunday amusements are certainly on the increase, and especially we may note the increase in family entertainments on Sunday, the result of week-end gatherings, which all point in the same direction, viz. the forsaking of the habit of attendance at public worship.’

Verse 9


‘There sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep.’

Acts 20:9

The point of the story for us is not that Eutychus slept, but that Eutychus was there. He had come to Christian worship early in the morning: he had done a hard day’s work: but he had come again at night to join in Christian worship. He had fallen asleep, because the room was too hot and crowded, because he was tired out, because, if you will, he did not care much for, or could not listen much to, sermons even from St. Paul. But he had come.

I. The sleepiness of Eutychus puts many a wakeful man and woman to shame.—In those days, for the majority of the Christian converts, who held subordinate positions and were not their own masters, the Lord’s Day must have been, not a day of rest, but a day of work, yet it was made also a day of worship. If the body had to be given to man, the soul was given to God. Now it is a day of rest—is it also a day of worship? Does Eutychus to-day, who has little to do, or his master, who has nothing, desire to worship God, his Father and his Saviour, as Eutychus of old did?

II. The comparison has only to be suggested and the contrast is plain.—It is obvious that what the necessities of work in the first century could not do—viz. override the greater necessities of worship—the exigencies of rest in the twentieth century are threatening to do. Nay more, rest, never more needful and salutary than it is now, is being driven out by what we call pleasure, but which is frequently not the recreation but the dissipation of our energies, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The fact suggests the question of fundamental importance to us all; Do we mean our religion, as did those primitive Christians? Is it with us the one thing needful, or is it merely a side issue? Do we look at it as a necessity or a luxury which can be dispensed with in the face of lower but more urgent claims? Have the old heroisms become impossible? Are we the stuff of which the martyrs are made?

III. Primitive worship was as to externals poor, bare, uncomfortable; without any subsidiary aids to devotion; an ordinary, secular chamber for its church. Yet the gathering is alive with the magnetic vitality of the speaker; it is moved and cheered by the consciousness of the Divine presence, according to the Divine promise. It is a picture for admiration and imitation, not with servile literalness, but in spirit and in ideal truth. It is useless to reproduce the externals without the invisible presence and power which transfigured them. The power of the early Church did not lie in the fact that they worshipped in upper rooms, but in the fact that they worshipped in spirit and in truth.

—Rev. F. Ealand.


‘The place was Troas, a city on the coast of Asia Minor. Romans had always cherished a warm feeling towards it because of their Trojan origin, a legend in which they had come to believe thoroughly. In fact, owing to the greatness of Troas and its legendary connection with the foundations of Rome, Julius Cæsar had actually entertained the idea of transferring thither the centre of government from Rome. Gibbon also tells us that some three hundred years later the Emperor Constantine, before he gave a just preference to Byzantium, had conceived the design of erecting the seat of empire on this celebrated spot from which the Romans derived their fabulous origin. It was of considerable commercial importance, as the port was the chief means of communication between Europe and Asia.’

Verse 21


‘Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Acts 20:21

Repentance must have in it three things. It must have in it hope; it must have in it love; it must have in it God.

I. It must have in it hope.—The sorrow which comes without hope, mere fear, is remorse. Remorse made Judas a suicide. Repentance made Peter’s tears, and Peter’s life of holiness and service.

II. It must have love, and ‘God is love.’ God is all love.

III. It must have God.—It is a real, deep sorrow for sin, because the sin has grieved God, with a strong desire and an earnest and immediate effort. With an innate sense to do right, because we love God, and we believe God loves us.

Repentance such as this is never the result of natural causes.

IV. The faith which believes without repentance would be presumption; and the repentance that has not faith in it is infidelity. The two are one, the two are one. ‘Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The degree of each is the measure of both.

—Rev. James Vaughan.


‘A lady went to Charles Wesley, complaining that she was the chief of sinners, the worst of transgressors, utterly lost and helpless. “I have no doubt, madam,” replied he, “that you are bad enough.” She instantly flew into a passion, declaring that she was no worse than her neighbours, and scolded the preacher as a slanderer. She had not the spirit of repentance.’

Verses 22-24


‘And now, behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy.’

Acts 20:22-24

St. Paul is here under the influence of a resistless power. As we look into the narrative we see gathering round this conviction of necessity, elements of uncertainty, of conflict, of difficulty, of peril, of possible death.

I. Things that hinder.

(a) At Miletus the farewell to the Ephesian elders. The sorrow of a great love to be no hindrance in Christ’s work.

(b) At Tyre certain disciples who told him ‘by the Spirit’ that he should not go up to Jerusalem. Contradictory voices and perplexities. The ultimate decision is thrown on a man’s own responsibility.

(c) At Cæsarea ‘a certain prophet named Agabus took Paul’s girdle.’ A Divine prophecy of danger is to be of less force than a Divine inspiration to duty.

(d) Intense emotion to be no restraint in the activities of service. ‘What, mean ye to weep and break my heart?’

II. Uncertainty of the future.—‘Not knowing,’ etc. The next step is in shadow. To-morrow is behind the veil.

III. Knowledge of the future.—We know not and yet we know. He who takes service with Christ may see in the light cast on life by His prophetic words, outlines of the narrow way. Whatever there is not, there will be a fellowship of suffering with the Master; and the closer the companionship, the more severe the suffering may be.

IV. A controlling principle.

(a) Following the spiritual lead the Christian is able to deal with unexpected events. The man under spiritual subjection has sovereignty over the varying events of life, and uses them as helps to the right course.

(b) In this experience faith must follow where reason can but dimly see. The Spirit of God is an all-sufficient guide to the spiritual man.

(c) In this experience the Right will become clearer in the progressive Light. Nor will the right be determined by the removal of difficulties; ‘bonds and afflictions’ may come, but in them and with them the inner peace.

(d) The consistency of St. Paul’s course. This is the outcome of the initial act consecrating the new life—‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6.)

(e) The bondage of the Spirit is the truest liberty.

V. The glorious end.—‘That I may finish my course with joy.’ Every man’s course will finish, but will he finish it having power then or helplessness? Under subjection to death or triumphing over it? Spiritual dominion results from the completeness of spiritual service.



Let us think of the future as something to be faced under the binding power of an inexorable necessity. ‘Behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem.’ There was no physical pressure, yet St. Paul had to ‘go.’

I. All men are under this necessity.—No man can stand still or retrace his steps; whether he will or no, the law of progression is written on his life, and by virtue of that he is bound in the Spirit to go on.

(a) Many would like to be stationary, to fix in permanence momentary enjoyment, and, like children, wish their holidays last for ever.

(b) Many would like to go back and live life over again. What would not some men give to recall the past, to enjoy its happy hours, to correct its mistakes, to embrace its lost opportunities, and to avoid its sins!

II. This necessity is qualified by the freedom of the will.—It is not left to us to decide whether or not we shall have a future; but it is left to us largely to determine what that future is to be. We cannot resist the current of time, but we can choose our position in it and our destination. How are we going to shape our conduct in the near future? Two courses are open to us.

(a) To let the will have its own way. Some men mark out their future with sole reference to self. We may be what we will to be. What is to be the governing principle for the coming year? Power, pleasure, wealth? If so, what shall it profit a man?

(b) To subordinate the will to God’s will. St. Paul does not say, ‘I go bound by the Spirit of God,’ but, looking at all the circumstances in connection with the principles on which his whole life was based, we are led to the conclusion that he means that. For some time past Divine indications had pointed to Rome, and the road to Rome (providentially) lay through Jerusalem. His business (being bearer of Gentile contributions) took him to Jerusalem; his religious duties would take him to Rome. Happy the man who yields to the constraint of the Spirit in both business and religion! Let that be your future course.

Verse 24


‘The ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus.’

Acts 20:24

These words from St. Paul’s charge to the Ephesian clergy who met him at Miletus tell of a ministry, and of Him Who commissioned men to exercise it in His Church.

I. The work of the ministry.—‘The ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus.’ The words imply a work to be done by a servant, a service to be rendered. There is signified the dedication and devotion of a life to the noblest and loftiest of callings. There must be henceforward a singleness of aim, a concentration of thought, of desire and purpose, upon one object by those who take upon themselves the exercise of this ministry. ‘This one thing I do’ is to be the motto of the minister of Jesus Christ.

II. The joy of the ministry.—Thus far I have dwelt upon the responsibility which attaches to us as the ministers of Christ. I am not forgetful of the fact, that there is the side of privilege and blessing beyond all that we can conceive. There is the joy of fellowship with our Master in the object which of all others is dearest to Him Who came to seek and to save the lost, and Who bids His under-shepherds diligently to feed the flocks committed to them. There is the joy too, than which there can be none greater in this world, of being used by God to comfort the souls of His people, and to help them on their way to heaven. And this joy will be granted in large measure to the whole-hearted and single-minded servants of Christ in their ministry, a joy with which none can intermeddle, and which, whilst it lasts, makes our days ‘as the days of heaven upon earth.’

III. The source of the ministry.—The words ‘which I have received of the Lord Jesus’ indicate the source from which we have our commissions. ‘No man taketh this honour unto himself but he that is called of God.’ Whilst we receive our ministry from Him, we exercise it on behalf of our brethren. If we fulfil it, we have nothing to glory of; for necessity is laid upon us.

Rev. F. K. Aglionby.

Verse 28


‘The Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.’

Acts 20:28

Taking the Bible as our one sure light upon the Cross, standing at the point of sight where prophets, evangelists, and apostles stood, and where their Master stood Himself, we venture humbly but with resolve to say that

I. The Cross of Jesus was the divine index to man of the evil of his sin, of the cost and effort necessary to enable the forgiveness of God to deal fully with that sin, and of the Love which, in order that such forgiveness might be our blessed portion, delivered up its Best-Beloved to die.

II. The Cross tells us irrefragably of the Life, risen and eternal, of the Crucified.—It calls us joyfully to a living Jesus, to be joined by simplest faith to Him in His life, that we may reap all the merits and all the peace of His finished sacrifice, and may daily live with a life which is ‘Christ in us, the hope of glory.’

Bishop H. C. G. Moule.


‘What a wonder, in the Christian Creed, is the glory of the Cross! Did it ever occur to us to think what a paradox it is? It would be so easy to conceive, beforehand, that some other symbol or sign than the Cross should have distinguished the Church and cause of Jesus Christ. Why not the Palm of victory? Why not the Crown of universal empire? Why not the Sun, risen with healing in his wings? Why not the mystic Tongues and Flames of pentecostal mission? As a fact, the Cross is the immemorial and universal heraldry of the Christian, and of the Church.’



We should measure the world, and our own love or fear of it, its praises, censures, rewards, and punishments, by the plumb-line of the Cross; and it is well that we should regard the divisions of Christendom from the standpoint of the Cross; look at them with the light thrown upon them in the Passion; measure them in the spirit of those splendid words: ‘The Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own Blood.’

I. Is the spirit of division rebuked from the Cross?—Was the outward as well as the inward unity of the Church an object or desire with Jesus in His Passion? Notice most briefly only three points:—

(a) First, the prayer of consecration of our great High Priest, on the very steps of the throne of the Cross. It is a prayer for the unity of the Church. Our Master was not indifferent to the losses of disunion. He was not unmindful of the blessings and gains of unity. ‘Neither pray I for these alone,’ the Apostles, the disciples, the little flock, ‘but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word. That they all may be one.’ Our Lord went to His Cross with an intense yearning for the unity of the Church which He was about to purchase with His own Blood.

(b) The measure of the unity of the faithful was to be found in the awful unapproachable oneness existing in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. ‘That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us … I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one.’ The unity of the Church was meant to be an outward expression of the unity of heaven, nay, of the very unity of God.

(c) Once more our Master prayed that His Church might be one in order that the world might believe in His own Divine Mission, and in the Father’s love for the Church—‘That they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me. That they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me, and hast loved them, as Thou has loved Me.’ The mission of Christ in history is disbelieved and disowned in consequence of the divisions of Christendom. Men cannot believe that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world when the instrument for extending that mission speaks with so many and scarcely harmonious voices. Neither can they believe in the love of God for His Church, ‘That Thou hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me,’ when the subject of the infinite charity of God seems to be so feeble an exponent of charity within itself, and consequently so impoverished a witness of the Divine charity to the world. ‘Thou hast loved them,’ therefore they must perforce love each other, and live, and pray, and work together with one mind in the house of God.

II. Suffer one or two closing words of counsel and hope.

(a) Ever remember that the divisions of Christendom are entirely contrary to the will of God. They are the result of the sinfulness and impatience of man, and are no slight contribution to the measure of the world’s sin, which nailed Jesus to His cross.

(b) To labour for peace, to labour and to pray, is to place ourselves on the side of God, to help to secure that most sacred unity for which Christ wrestled on the eve of His Passion, to aid in restoring to the distracted Church that gift of peace which it must be His will to restore, but for which we are not ready as yet.

(c) Deplore and forsake that spirit of self-will, the fruitful cause of so much disunion and so many misunderstandings. We carry our self-will and our self-love into our religion and almost every act of it. It asserts its presence too often in our worship of God, our work for God, our interpretation of the will of God. Self-will is too often the substitute for God’s will. Wilfulness spoils too often the glory of Catholic worship, it mars the harmony of the Catholic life.

(d) Above all, continue to pray for the visible reunion of the Church, for the healing of the wounds of Christendom. To pray thus very humbly and very hopefully is to carry on the prayer which was first uttered on the confines of Gethsemane; it is to impose a limit upon the reign of sin, it is to anticipate the hour when the divisions of Christendom are seen to be only a painful but Divinely permitted incident in the life of the Church which had a beginning in time—which has passed through her trials and her cleansing fires, and is now a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but holy and without blemish. The true spouse of Jesus Christ—the mystical bride adorned for her Husband.

Rev. C. W. H. Baker.

Verse 35


‘Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Acts 20:35

In these words, not recorded in the Gospels, but rescued by St. Paul from the oblivion into which they might have fallen, our Lord has given us a telling portrait of Himself. It was blessed for Him to receive, it was still more blessed for Him to give.

I. It was blessed for Him to receive, and as Man he did receive.

(a) He received from the Father, says St. Peter, honour and glory.

(b) It was blessed, too, for Him to receive, not only from His Father, but from His fellow-men. The cup of cold water, the alabaster box of very precious ointment, the washing of His feet with the tears of a penitent, the poor hospitalities of Mary and Martha, these, the few crumbs of love, which the grudging hand of man offered Him but now and then, He welcomed with joy.

II. It was still more blessed for Him to give—and His whole career was one of giving. The Father gave—He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. But it is the Lord Jesus Christ as man that we have before us, and His career on earth was all giving. It was meat and drink to Him to give. It was life and joy to Him to give; no fatigue could hinder Him, no weariness or want of rest, no burning noon-day sun, no ingratitude of men, no contradiction of sinners, no cold indifference to His love. In spite of all this He gave, and gave, and gave again, till, at last, He gave His life.

III. And now to come to ourselves.—We shall find that as it was with our Lord, so is it with His Church. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Let us apply the principle to the service of the Sanctuary. We come there to receive, but more especially we come there under an obligation to give.

(a) It is blessed in God’s House to receive. We bring our sins there for pardon, our weakness for strength, our temptations for the way of escape. We bring there our sorrows, and often, so often, do we find that He is with us Who is the Comforter, and we see a light of hope shining on our perplexities and our griefs.

(b) But the Sanctuary is the place not so much to receive as rather to give. For the good of our fellow-Christians each of us ought to have his contribution to bring, of money, if you will; but even more than that—of influence, of example, of spiritual fervour, and, above all, of intercessory prayer and of worship. We should feel our mutual responsibility as members of the same household, and be ever communicating that to our brethren which shall advance their spiritual well-being; and then more blessed still is it, in the Sanctuary, to give to God. Worship means not to receive from Him but to give to Him. It means praise rather than prayer.

—Rev. J. H. Drew.



The Apostle, summing up what our Lord Jesus Christ said, both by His lips and by His life, has really given us, in one place, the whole moral and spiritual side of life.

I. There are two principles on which men will and may proceed, any moral being will proceed—one is to give and the other is to get. And there are only these two. The moral value of all thoughts, prayers, deeds, the things that we do for ourselves or for our neighbours, the moral value is determined by the fact whether you have proceeded on the more selfish or unselfish of these two principles in your thought, your word, your action. Do not talk carelessly, for your talk has great moral value. Remember it is possible for a person to commit every sin against the law of God and against himself though he may be paralysed, or lying on a bed of sickness, utterly unable to move a single limb.

II. Our Lord’s example.—If we ask, where did the Lord Jesus say these words? Did St. Paul ever hear Him say them? I think we may say this in reply: He never did actually say them, so far as we have any record. He never uttered the phrase, but it was the motto of His life. If we ask ourselves the meaning of that life, from the cradle in the manger to the death upon the cross, we should say, He never said anything else, except this one thing, ‘It is more blessed to give than it is to receive.’ All that He ever uttered by His lips, all that in that most eloquent of all utterance, the utterance of action, it all amounts to this, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ for any moral or spiritual being. And a man can only live upon one or other of these two mottoes, can only have one or other of these motive powers in his life. He must either live, in each of his actions, to get something, or to give himself—to give something.

—Rev. W. Black.


‘We seem to see, in what we are told by the early ecclesiastical historian, and in all that we really know about St. Alban, that the principle was grasped by his heart when, without apparent cause for giving, he gave all that he had to give; he gave his life. Whether it was exactly to save the life of another, because he knew its value as the life of a Christian teacher, a Christian priest, or whether it was from the higher and more delicate motive, which was tinged simply with the feeling of what he seemed so to have grasped the principle of, that he was eager to carry that principle into execution, we cannot tell. But of one thing we may be sure. He did not say to himself as people say now, “Is such a thing necessary for me to undergo? Do you think that such a thing is innocent, is not wrong? May I safely do it without running any risk of my salvation?” No! he said, “How much can I do? What can I give? How much can I let my own heart grasp and feel that it has got hold of this great principle that to give is blessed—because I suffer in the giving?” This surely is the one lesson that the protomartyr of England teaches us. This one incident shines out, serene and bright through all the ages of the Church, and especially of the Church in this country. “It is more blessed for me to give than it is to receive.”’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 20:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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