December 17, 2017

Stay Awake for Preaching

Thomas Overmiller

What do preaching, teaching, and sleeping have in common?  All three occur in the story of Eutychus, the man who fell out of the third story window listening to Paul (Acts 20:7-12).  This brief narrative stirs the curiosity of any attentive reader and raises the question, “What is the point of the story?”  Did Luke throw this story into Acts to add some comic relief to an otherwise long historical treatise?   Some commentators answer the question by emphasizing the miraculous resurrection of Eutychus from the dead.  James Montgomery Boice elaborates on this point:

The significance of the incident may be this. Paul was not going to see these believers again. This is a farewell scene. Moreover, they were observing the Lord’s Supper, and it was clear that they would not do that together again until they were together in heaven. Before then they would all die, though they would be raised again. Maybe the story of Eutychus is a picture of our future reunion after physical death. If it is, then it is a picture from which we can take heart. We are alive now and are with other believers, but death will come and with death a parting. If this life were all there is, that would be the end. But it is not the end, because there is a resurrection, and we will meet again.[1]

While the hope of our own resurrection finds encouragement in this narrative, and any miracle of resurrection has significance in its own right, this emphasis does not seem to account for the way Luke recounts the full story.  At the very least, this does not seem to be the only purpose he intended to accomplish.

Luke was an eyewitness to this scene.  He was also a medical doctor.  If you had been a medical doctor and eyewitness, what would you have emphasized in retelling the story?  The characters he emphasizes are Paul and Eutychus.  Paul is already well-known, but Eutychus is introduced for the first and only time in scripture.  Luke mentions him to provide a case-study that is an example to every believer.  The case in question is made clear by a look at the details of the setting.

Luke calls Eutychus a “young man.”  He uses a generic term for this in verse 9; but in verse 12, he uses a word for “boy” or “child.”  This second word indicates that his age was probably between 8 and 14 years.[2] In addition to this, it is likely that Eutychus was a household servant, because the same word can mean “servant.”[3] If indeed Eutychus was a young household servant, then he had probably spent a good part of his day working before he joined with the believers in Troas to meet with Paul.  This is the first hint that Luke gives for why Eutychus would have been tired enough to fall asleep.

The next hint Luke gives relates to Paul’s preaching.  He apparently “preached until midnight” (v.7) and was “long preaching” (v.9).  In both instances, the word translated “preaching” is a word for a formal, reasoned address, such as a sermon.[4] The time of day that Paul began his sermon is not evident.  But since the believers would have worked during the day, like other Roman citizens, he probably began to speak somewhere between late afternoon and dusk.[5] In any case, a preaching service that lasts until midnight is a long service, especially for someone like Eutychus who had worked all day prior.

Next, Luke gives two more important details.  He points out that there were “many lights.”  Of course, these lights were not fluorescent.  They would have been candles and torches mounted on walls and tables.  The heat and smoke from these lights would have caused a stuffy atmosphere.  In fact, another possible meaning for this word is “intense,” e.g. Acts 22:6.[6] It is very likely that Luke recalled uncomfortably intense lighting at that meeting.  In addition to these lights, Luke points out that they were in an “upper room.”  Hot air rises, so the upper room would naturally be stuffy, with or without the additional effect of many intense lights!  Here again, Luke continues to layer the details.  Then he points out another.

He reiterates that this room is where the believers of Troas “were gathered together.”  This does not seem to be necessary, considering that he already stated this in verse seven.  But apparently Luke wanted to make the point that there was a group of people closely assembled in these extremely stuffy conditions.  The more people are in a room, the less comfortable the room becomes.  Luke wants to be sure that you visualize all of these details together.  Eutychus was an ordinary person who had worked all day.  He attended a church gathering in an upstairs room, filled with people and outfitted with many intense, smoky candles and torches.  The preacher, Paul, preached, and continued preaching all the way until midnight.

The net result of all of this is that Eutychus succumbed to this collision of overbearing factors.  To his credit, he did locate an open window (probably to get some fresh air), but he fell asleep anyway.  Luke apparently watched Eutychus from a side glance during Paul’s sermon.  He noted that Eutychus progressively yielded to falling asleep (“fallen into a deep sleep”), then suddenly slid down in his seat (“sunk down with sleep”), and finally fell suddenly to the street below (“fell down from the third loft”).  At this point in the story, Paul stopped preaching to run down and restore the life of Eutychus.  Luke notes that Paul threw himself onto the fallen young man and embraced him.  This would have certainly caught Luke’s attention, since he was a medical doctor.  Any modern-day EMT would recognize that this is not the kind of treatment to give a person who is suffering from a high impact injury.  It would put them at risk of further damage and injury.  But the general assumption seems to have been that Eutychus had died on impact.  Nevertheless, as Paul laid on Eutychus, he looked up at the anxious believers and declared in a simple, point-of-fact way that they should not be worried because Eutychus was okay.

As soon as Eutychus returned to his feet, Paul and the group of believers returned to the upper roon for more eating and teaching.  This is a remarkable fact.  It would seem that they would have convened the meeting, consoled Eutychus, and went home.  But they didn’t.  They immediately shifted their focus back to Paul.  The word (“talking”) used for Paul’s speech in verse 11 differs from the word used for “preaching” earlier in the narrative.  It indicates that Paul’s speaking changed from preaching to teaching in style.  Nevertheless, he continued “speaking” until dawn, and the people continued to be attentive.

So what is the point of all this?  The point seems to be that any number of physical realities cannot undercut the centermost importance of preaching and teaching God’s Word.  No matter how many reasons you may have for giving in to sleep in a preaching or teaching setting, they are not good enough to excuse falling asleep.  Let me say that one more time.  No matter how many reasons you may have for giving in to sleep in a preaching or teaching setting, they are not good enough to excuse falling asleep.  Your reasons may cause sympathy, and maybe they should.  It certainly is difficult to read the story of Eutychus and not have some measure of sympathy for his dilemma!  But as soon as he was restored to health, the preaching and teaching continued, late into the night.  Preaching was the preeminent thing on that occasion.

Preaching occupies a prominent place in the book of Acts.  Four sermons are recorded from Peter, six from Paul, one from James, and one from Stephen.  In fact, Luke ends the full narrative with the following statement:

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him (Acts 28:30-31).

In reality, Paul never stopped preaching.  Preaching and teaching is the way God gets His work done, whether it is preaching the gospel to the lost world or the whole counsel of God’s Word to the church.  So then next time you find yourself fighting sleep in a service or classroom, do everything you can to stay awake.  It’s that important.  Preaching and teaching are not compatible with sleeping.

Thomas Overmiller serves as a Bible professor at Baptist College of Ministry in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

  1. James Montgomery Boice, Acts : An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997), 342. []
  2. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts : The Spirit, the Church & the World, “With Study Guide”.; Originally Published: Leicester, England : Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. 1990., The Bible speaks today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 320. []
  3. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, “An Exposition of the New Testament Comprising the Entire ‘BE’ Series”–Jkt. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1989), Ac 20:6. []
  4. It is used for Paul’s public speaking ministry in the synagogues (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19) as well as in the school of Tyrannus (19:9). []
  5. Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ac 20:7. []
  6. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLG 2653, #7. []

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