THE THINGS THAT MATTER MOST
1 After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. 2 When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. 3 There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. 4 Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. 5 These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, 6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days.
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 9 And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. 12 And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted. 13 But going ahead to the ship, we set sail for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for so he had arranged, intending himself to go by land. 14 And when he met us at Assos, we took him on board and went to Mitylene. 15 And sailing from there we came the following day opposite Chios; the next day we touched at Samos; and the day after that we went to Miletus. 16 For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.
— Acts 20:1-38, ESV
These were the good old days for the Apostle Paul. He had completed his second major pastorate. He was finished with his third and final formal missionary journey. He was enjoying the last period of unfettered freedom in his life, which had about seven years remaining.
This was a season of unparalleled productivity for Paul, as six divinely inspired epistles were written (Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans), including his magnus opus, Romans. He would go on to write four prison epistles (Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians) and three pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy) to bring his total to thirteen, roughly half of our New Testament.
These were the days when the aging Apostle was thinking, teaching, preaching, and writing about what matters most. He makes these matters known to three important groups, the churches in Europe, the churches in Asia, and the Elders from the church at Ephesus.
The European Christians (vs. 1-6)
As the times begin to turn for Paul, Paul turns his time and attention to “the disciples” (vs. 1). He’s won souls, he’s planted churches, now he wants to develop the souls in the churches to be deep, devoted, disciples of Christ. Disciple and Christian are the same thing. If you are not exhibiting a reasonable practice of spiritual disciplines and an ongoing obedience to the word of God, then obviously you have not heard nor accepted the gospel properly. Disciples concern themselves with what matters most, according to Paul, who learned them from Jesus.
To preach and teach to Christians is a means of “encouraging them” (vs. 1), for true Christians, real disciples, love to hear the word of God. “He spent three months” (vs. 3), did Paul in Europe, primarily in Corinth, fortifying the Christians he had reached and the churches he had started. Fierce persecution aimed primarily at Paul arose again from “the Jews” (vs. 3), so much so that it became a distraction, so the Apostle and his entourage took their leave from Europe and returned to Asia.
What had Paul said to them? Why, the things that matter most, of course.
The Asian Christians (vs. 7-16)
In Asia, Paul continued in the same manor. The disciples’ disciplines come into clearer focus now. The church assembled (for this is what the church is, a holy assembly of God’s people gathered to worship Christ) on Sunday, “the first day of the week” (vs. 7), and part and parcel of their weekly worship was devoted “to break bread,” or the Lord’s Supper. Early church services probably began in the evening, as Sunday was just another work day in the Roman Empire at the time. Of course, the preaching of the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of every worship service.
Since this was Paul’s last time to worship with this group of Christians, his sermon was as long as the wind. Luke notes it lasted “until midnight” (vs. 7), then “Paul talked still longer” (vs. 9), going all the way “until daybreak” (vs. 11). You should never complain about your Pastor’s length of sermons again!
One member of the congregation, Eutychus, fell out of a window after falling asleep. So to add a miracle to the mix of worship activities, Paul raised Eutychus from the dead, much in the mold of Elijah (1 Kings 17:21) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:34-35). I think such gifts have passed with Christ’s personally appointment Apostles, so don’t count on this lowly Pastor to wake you up from the dead if you keel over during one of my sermons.
What was the content of Paul’s long, last sermon to the Asians? Why, the things that matter most, of course.
The Ephesian Elders (vs. 17-38)
The church at Ephesus consumed the largest chunk of Paul’s pastoral ministry (three years) and would become the most significant church in the world for the next hundred years. Paul decided against a return trip in person, for he had a date circled on his calendar, May 29, AD 57, to be in Jerusalem to celebrate the birth of the church at Pentecost. So, “He sent to Ephesus and called the Elders of the church to come to him” (vs. 17). What did he share with them in this colossal Elders Meeting? Why, the things that matter most, of course.
Now we finally get down to them, these things that matter most. They are transformational truths that serve as touchstones to those whose hearts have been touched and transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul preached and practiced each one of these seven things that matter most.
Be a servant of God.
“It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody,” said the prophet Dylan, offering the only two real choices, though I suppose the almighty self would be most people’s third choice. Paul’s favorite reference for himself was doulos or bondservant, and he is always found “serving the Lord” (vs. 19).
All of the Christian life should be seen in this context. Marriage, family, vocation, relationships, and associations are all opportunities to serve. If we tackle them with the mind of Christ and the example of Paul, there would be no divorce, all children would turn out well, productivity and prosperity would rise, we’d all be friends, and churches would be full.
Serve God by serving others. We cannot make this world a perfect place, but we can make it a better place. What matters most in this life is not who you are, or what you achieve, but whom you serve.
Share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is impossible to serve the Lord if you do not know the Lord, but many try. The great John Wesley did, in colonial Georgia, before returning to England where he was “strangely warmed” or born again. A multitude of others have bypassed salvation, entered into the church, gained false assurance, and done great harm.
But, if you truly know God by grace through “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 21), then you want others to know Him and be saved, too, and you will add to your church rather than taking away from her. Paul did this “from house to house.” Not a bad idea. Truly we should do this from person to person, at least among all the persons God places in our lives in meaningful relationship.
What matters most in this life is not how many sales you have made, or how many friends or likes you have on social media, but how many people have you told about Jesus Christ.
Be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul confessed that during his life and ministry he was “constrained by the Spirit” (vs. 22). This means controlled, led, or guided. A good parallel phrase is filled with the Spirit.
What fills you controls you. It could be drugs or alcohol, anger or rage, greed or lust, or other such things which lead to sinful and harmful outcomes. Or, it could be “love, joy, peace …” and other fruit from the Holy Spirit (ref. Galatians 5:22), which lead to good and godly outcomes.
Give God the pilot’s seat. You take the co-pilot’s chair. What matters most in this life is not what you control, but who controls you.
Have a high view of Holy Scripture.
Paul, in the midst of writing Holy Scripture, refers to it often. He spoke during these days of “the whole counsel of God” (vs. 27) and “the word of His grace” (vs. 32). These are clear references to what we refer to as the Bible and the gospel.
I have said before that Christianity is not bibliolatry; but, little or no regard for the Bible is not Christianity. The Bible leads us to Christ, and faith in Christ makes sense of the whole Bible.
What matters most in this life is not how many books you have read, if you have not read the greatest book ever written. And to sustain a life that truly matters, one must spend quantity and quality time with God’s word, alone and with God’s people.
Love the Church as much as Christ.
The church is taken lightly in this age, but Jesus bore it heavily. Outsiders may disparage her and insiders abandon her, but the church lives on. You’ve heard the new mantra of being spiritual without being religious, of being Christian without being church men and women. I don’t think Paul, and I know Jesus does not see His bride, His building, and His beloved that way.
You don’t die for someone unless you totally love them and want them to live on. This is the truth behind the relationship with Christ and “the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood” (vs. 28). Paul, too, gave his life for Christ’s church, and Christ’s church should consume a chunk of your life, too.
Jesus’ church still gathers every Sunday, in His name, and you should assemble with her regularly. What matters most in this life is not what company or club you belonged to, but what church, hopefully one that honors God by honoring His Son, His Spirit, and His word.
Give yourself away.
The only quotation Paul uses in this passage ascribed directly to Jesus is found near the end. “It is more blessed to give than to receive" (vs. 35). Though not a misquotation by any means, what Jesus actually said was, “You received without paying; give without pay” (ref. Matthew 10:8).
What do Christians receive without paying? The salvation of our immortal souls! Can a price tag be put on such a great salvation? By no means. But, we can spend the rest of our lives giving to God our time, our talents, and our treasure. I takes all three to truly worship the Lord and spread the gospel.
What matters most in this life is not what you’ve accumulated, but what you’ve given away. How much of your time, energy, and monetary gifts have you laid at Jesus’ feet?
The last thing Paul did was “he knelt down and prayed with them all” (vs. 36). This last act was a first priority with Paul, and all of the early Christians. So should be for us today.
In one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies (Steel Magnolias, because it reminds me so much of the four little DeVane girls in my life), Ouiser starts cursing, which is her native language, and Anelle starts praying, which has become her native language. When M’Lynn and Claire ask Truvy what’s going on, she replies: “Maybe she’s praying for us because we’re gossiping. Maybe she’s praying because the elastic is shot in her pantyhose. Who knows!? She prays at the drop of a hat these days.”
We should all pray at the drop of a hat, and we should drop the hat again and again. Prayer is simply constant communication with God. It can be private or participatory, mournful or joyful, penitent or opportunistic. Prayer helps our practice of the things that matter most, like “faith, hope, and love” as Paul put in another passage (1 Corinthians 13:13), or like serving God, sharing the gospel, following the Holy Spirit, reading God’s word, loving Christ’s church, giving, and praying. These are the things that matter most.
Our world is unraveling around us. We’re shooting balloons out of the sky. Our country is thirty-trillion-plus dollars in debt. Prisons are piled to the rafters. Six people were killed in Arkabutla, Mississippi on Friday. Nine children were shot in Columbus, Georgia on Saturday. So what are we doing about it on Sunday? Why, the things that matter most. If everyone would, the world would change.