Monday, August 06, 2012

Repost: Was Paul preaching a sermon when he met with the church at Troas?

(post in honor of my friend Joe)

There are some cornerstone verses that are used to prop up the traditions we have come to expect in the traditional church, verses like 1 Cor 9:14 as a defense of paid clergy. These verses, taken out of context, are offered up as an unquestionable bulwark that makes cause even the mere suggestion that some of our traditions may not be as defensible as we think to be met with derision, dismissal and often anger.

One of the most frequently cited of these verses is Acts 20: 7-11. It is part of the cultural mythology of organized religion that these verses describe a proto-worship service, the earliest example of the church a) gathering on Sunday and b) listening to a sermon. As I hope to demonstrate in this reposting of Was Paul preaching a sermon when he met with the church at Troas?, this is not only not apparent from the text itself when studied as a whole but in reality what is being described is something quite different, radically so, from what we normally practice on Sunday morning.


Back to this topic again.

Like a certain canine owned by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, there are people who will reflexively respond to the assertion that there is no command or example regading monologue sermons in the New Testament with “Oh yeah, well what about Acts 20:7?!?!” It never fails. What is also apparent is that this response is based on a knee-jerk reaction. Teacher X that I respect taught that in the account of Paul speaking to the church in Troas in Acts 20, what was going on was a sermon. In fact more often than not it will be accompanied by a joke about not complaining about how long someone "preaches" because when Paul preached to the church in Troas, a young man fell asleep and fell from a window! Hilarity and chuckling ensue but no one asks “is that really what happened or is that just what we were led to believe happened?”. Well I am asking!

I think some of the problem comes from the King James translation. Most Christians are familiar with the language in the KJV (i.e. our Father who art in heaven) and in the King James language from 400 years ago, it certainly sounds to our ears like Paul is "preaching", which of course means a sermon. If you read the King James rendering, this is what you get (emphasis mine in all three examples):

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.

The English Standard renders it slightly differently but in an important way.

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. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. 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. 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." And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

The same is true with the NASB. The New American Standard renders it:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead. But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, "Do not be troubled, for his life is in him." When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left. They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.

What is the difference? In the King James translation, the word “preach” is used twice and that word has a connotation of a monologue sermon because of our cultural understanding of what “preaching” involves. But both the NASB and the ESV strongly suggest that Paul was involved in a conversation with the assembled body by rendering it “talked with” and “conversed with”. So which is correct? I am not a Greek expert but I think we can draw some conclusions from what we have been presented with that support my contention that Paul was involved in a conversation, not a sermon.

First, there is the ESV/NASB translations which imply that Paul was involved at least partially in conversation with the church, that he was interacting with the people there and not merely “preaching unto them” a sermon. Certainly Paul would have been leading the conversation as an apostle but there is nothing to suggest that the gathered church sat mutely while he spoke. Given what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 14, he definitely would have expected all of the brothers to bring something to the meeting (a hymn, a prayer, a teaching, etc.) and not just sit quietly and listen politely. 

Second, does it make any sense at all to assume that Paul was preaching a sermon for perhaps eight hours? At least twice the church was eating so he certainly wouldn’t have been preaching then. Just from a practical standpoint, there is no way he was the only one speaking. If you have ever spoken to a group you know that it is draining and hard on your voice. An hour is a long time to speak, two hours is pretty extreme. By contrast I can talk with friends for hours on end because I am not the only one talking.

Third, trying to draw a parallel between Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ entrusted with writing large swaths of the New Testament as an authoritative text and your local church pastor delivering a spiritual lecture is foolhardy. I think it is ironic that many people will embrace Paul as their role model when they think he is supporting their traditions, like sermon preaching, but not when he exhorts church leaders to earn a living by working rather than coveting money from the church, something that happens a few verses after Paul allegedly was preaching a sermon in Acts 20:7.

Fourth, the purpose of the church gathering is important to look at. The church was gathered together to “break bread”. This was not a worship service where the expectation was that they were going to get a sermon, they were there as the church for a meal specifically as a going away meal with Paul (and they met on Sunday not because Sunday is the "sabbath" but because Paul was leaving the next day but that is a post for a different day). Certainly there were important conversation about matters of theological importance and certainly there likely was prayer going on (based on Acts 2:42) but the gathering was for a meal. Paul spent a lot of time speaking with the church because he was leaving the next day and apparently he had lots to talk about. Keep in mind that he was there for a week and during that time was no doubt also engaged in teaching and laboring alongside the believers in Troas.

What seems apparent from Paul’s time with the church in Troas in Acts 20 is that he was talking with the church in Troas while they were gathered to share a meal. Paul likely was leading the conversation because of his unique position in the church as an apostle but the church was engaged in conversation with him, an assertion I base on the text (“talked with” and “conversed with”) and on the sheer implausibility of Paul preaching a monologue sermon all night. Those who claim that Acts 20:7 is an example of monologue sermons in the New Testament have a difficult task because a) it is the only place they can even try to turn to and b) the actual text itself doesn’t support their contention unless you read Acts 20:7 convinced that your tradition is correct before you even start to read. If you base your notion of the centrality of sermons in the life of the church on Acts 20:7 you are on pretty shaky ground indeed.


Anonymous said...

I read your blog posts every day as a way to challenge my thinking because I have quite different views to you! Still, many of your posts are refreshing and help me to think through why I do what I do as a Pastor and minister. This post is more than a little bewildering to me however. You seem to have a main assertion [that the church cannot base its ideas of corporate worship involving a sermon on Acts 20:7-11] but yet you also take some ill-advised swipes at a few other things. To put it bluntly, I think your assertion is without merit based on the words in the Bible and the verification of the traditional understanding by the practice of the early church.

On to the post today though. You make four points. The first is that Paul was not merely preaching but was talking with the church and this implies a full conversation which Paul was 'leading.' I think this is a possibility because of the word involved (dialegomai) but this would be the weakest possible understanding of this word. A far more sensible approach, and the traditional one, is to understand by this that at some periods Paul preached and at other periods Paul was answering questions and engaging the church in discussion. So a simple picture of the night's activities would suggest Paul was preaching for some time and then spent time answering questions and then returned to preaching again. Rinse and repeat. So I think your first point is weak because you seem to assume the weakest possible use of the word involved while ignoring its context.

Your second point, which is related to the first one, seems to suggest that a weak understanding of the word dialegomai is required because of the weakness of your own voice. As a Pastor, I have preached for more than an hour on several occasions. Travelling in Africa, I have witnessed preaching go on for more than two hours. Is it tiring? Absolutely! Is it impossible? No, of course not. In fact, just last night I went to visit some people who are members of my congregation. The visit started at about 8:15 and ended at about 11:15. Did I talk the whole time? No, I did not. Was I exhausted by the end all the same? Yes, I was. Why? Because during the entire conversation my spiritual care for them was causing a lot of work inside my brain as I was praying silently for them and also thinking of ways to answer their questions and respond to their feedback. To suggest that preaching for two hours is easier than answering questions from a group for two hours is not realistic, in my opinion. My experience is the opposite.

Your third point is unworthy of you I think. To belittle pastors by comparing them to someone who wrote swaths (sic) of the New Testament is not pleasant or even particularly wise. Paul was not a great man because he wrote lots of the NT. Rather, the Spirit guided Paul in the writing of the NT and so Paul described himself as the worst of sinners. The pastors I know do not compare themselves and their sermons to the Apostle Paul or to the New Testament as if we are somehow extra clever. Rather, any spiritual authority which is put into our sermons comes from God Himself and is not related primarily to our position as pastors/leaders.

Anonymous said...

Your final point reveals a misunderstanding of the text itself. The actual words in the text indicate two things:
1.) Gathering on a Sunday as the first day of the week was normal for the church.
2.) The purpose of the gathering was not merely to have some fried chicken. The words used for the breaking of bread parallel the usage in Acts 2:42 for the Lord's Supper. This is what is intended.
I quote here from the "People's New Testament Commentary:"
"On the first day of the week when, etc. The language shows that it was the custom to meet on the first day of the week, and shows the leading object of that meeting. This was not a farewell meeting for Paul, for then the day of the week would not have been mentioned, but the regular weekly assemblage of the saints. They came together, primarily, to break bread, i. e., to observe the Lord's Supper. Dean Howson says: "We have here an unmistakable allusion to the practice, which began evidently immediately after the resurrection of our Lord, of assembling on the first day of the week for religious purposes." He also shows that the Lord arose on the first day of the week, showed himself to the apostles a second time one week later on the first day of the week, that the church was founded and the Holy Spirit shed forth on Pentecost, which was on the first day of the week. On the same day the disciples at Troas meet to break bread, the Corinthians meet, take collections (1Co_16:2) and eat the Lord's Supper (1Co_11:20), and the Lord on Patmos reveals himself to John (Rev_1:10). In addition to this, the early church writers from Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenæus, to Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Cyprian, all with one consent, declare that the church observed the first day of the week. They are equally agreed that the Lord's Supper was observed weekly, on the first day of the week."
Your final paragraph probably reveals your own assumptions. If I want to find examples of monologue sermons I could look at the Sermon on the Mount, Peter's first sermon, the sermon of Stephen, Peter's sermon at the house of Cornelius, Paul's speech in Pisidian Antioch and more. Beyond these examples, the acceptance of this type of worship by the early church points to its common practice at that time.
Many of your posts are helpful to me because they reveal a way of thinking which is useful for me to consider. This post seems less helpful.

Arthur Sido said...


Thanks for reading, I aim mostly to get people to think rather than to persuade. I doubt many people come to a radically different position by reading my hyperbole laced post but I do hope they get them to think.

On your first response. The point is that we don't know specifically what was going on. We assume traditionally that he was "preaching" but that certainly is nowhere indicated by the text. I am not at all convinced by what we traditionally understand because frankly many of our traditions are inherited from Rome and are not only not helpful but instead harmful. Even the use of the term "preaching" implying a monologue sermon is unwarranted. Preaching the Gospel involves telling people the good news of the Kingdom, not lecturing the church but again we just assume that "preaching" equals "sermon". So to put forth this event as somehow proving that the early church engaged in the tradition of the laity sitting in pews listening while one man lectures is completely untenable. Your supposition of a series of sermons interspersed with questions is possible but unknowable and without precedent anywhere in Scripture while Paul, the speaker in question, exhorts all of the brothers in the church to be prepared to be actively engaged in the gathering of the church, not mere spectators (1 Cor 14:26 ). This assumption of mutual participation is found throughout the New Testament, a monologue sermon by an elder/pastor is never found.

Your second point actually bolsters my own. I speak in public quite frequently and like you I am certainly able to talk non-stop for a couple of hours. I have never been accused of a "weak voice"! If you had more carefully read what I wrote, I said An hour is a long time to speak, two hours is pretty extreme.. You then follow up by describing a situation where you spoke with friends for three hours. That is far more analogous to what is happening in Acts 20 but even still you miss the point of the text. We assume the church gathered to eat a meal and they spoke until midnight. Even assuming they started to eat their meal at 8 PM, that is four hours. Then they talked more until daybreak, so perhaps 6 or 7 AM. So we are talking about 10 hours or more. Even your vaunted voice would give out. I am in no way suggesting that Paul did not do much or most of the talking ( a point I made with this statement Paul likely was leading the conversation because of his unique position in the church as an apostle...). What I am saying is that practically speaking it is silly to presume that he lectured for all or most of that time. Not only would that have been physically almost impossible but it would also be unsupported by the immediate context or the rest of the New Testament.

Arthur Sido said...

I understand your third point but I would say that clergy often insert themselves into the text, perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless. A prime example of this is 1 Cor 9 where Paul is speaking of the right, a right he rejected as stumbling block to the Gospel, to seek financial support from the church. Paul was not a local church pastor as we understand it nor were his travelling companions. He was an apostle, one sent out and if anything was an itinerant evangelist. Yet we find pastors referencing 1 Cor 9 all the time as Scriptural cover for their expectation that the local church should pay able bodied men to prepare and deliver sermons, visit sick people in the hospital and all of the other myriad functions that the church subcontracts to the clergy. It is not such a far fetched notion that modern vocational pastors insert themselves into the text.

On the fourth point. How exactly do the words indicate either of your points? What does the text say? It says they gathered on the first day of the week to break bread and Paul came to them on that day because he was leaving the next day. Well, doesn't that imply that they were engaged in some sort of ritualistic observation of the Lord's Supper on Sunday? Not at all. As you said The words used for the breaking of bread parallel the usage in Acts 2:42 for the Lord's Supper. So what does Acts 2:42 mean? Is it something for Sunday only? Not hardly. Look just a few verses later:

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, (Acts 2:46)

They broke bread daily with one another. So either they gathered in their homes to pass around plastic cups of grape juice and a nibble of bread or they shared meals in their homes. Perhaps not fried chicken but certainly not oyster crackers. Jesus instituted the practice of the Lord's Supper as a memorial meal during...a meal. We have reduced it to a once a week ritual that replaces the reality of a meal with something so much less.


Arthur Sido said...

The commentary you quote is full of assertions like:

This was not a farewell meeting for Paul, for then the day of the week would not have been mentioned, but the regular weekly assemblage of the saints. They came together, primarily, to break bread, i. e., to observe the Lord's Supper. Dean Howson says: "We have here an unmistakable allusion to the practice, which began evidently immediately after the resurrection of our Lord, of assembling on the first day of the week for religious purposes."

Which is great except that it doesn't follow. When you read the entire account it opens and closes with reference to Paul preparing to leave. The theme is not "church on Sunday" but "Paul sharing an evening with the church before he left". Absolutely the first day of the week has special significance but it doesn't follow that the church exclusively and rigidly gathered on that day as some sort of religious obligation. I don't know who Dean Howson is but he makes a bold assertion based on something that "evidently" happened but doesn't have any evidence for.

It also references 1 Cor 16:2, something else I see used a lot because it contains the words "first day of the week". Is 1 Cor 16:2 describing a church gathering on Sunday? Again, this is not the case.

On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Cor 16:2)

Each of you is to set some money aside and store it up. Each of you. Does that imply bringing it with you to church and putting it in the plate? How in the world does that follow from the text? What that would mean to me is that I was to save some money up weekly and keep it somewhere safe (since "churches" didn't have bank accounts back in the day) until Paul showed up and then he would have it sent to Jerusalem to help the church. There is nothing about the collection happening "in church". So yet again we have a traditional assumption forced onto the text when in fact it is not speaking of the gathering of the church at all. It is troubling when I read commentaries like that one and so many others that charge forward making assertions without a shred of evidence.


Arthur Sido said...

I want to look at your penultimate paragraph in more detail. You assert that I am a slave to my own assumptions but if I may you seem a bit blind to your own. This is commonplace. Your list of alleged sermons in the New Testament fails one central test. None of them are sermons as we understand them.

- Sermon on the Mount: This might be the most plausible if it were not for the fact that it is Jesus Himself giving a new teaching to His disciples. Jesus is not expositing a few verses of the Bible, He is speaking the words that make up the Bible. We see the word "Sermon" and make all sorts of assumptions.
- Peter's first sermon: Was this a sermon? I don't think Peter had any idea that he was going to be called upon here. He spoke for maybe three minutes, I timed myself an in a slow measured voice recited his "sermon" in about two. More importantly he was not speaking to a gathering of the church, he was actually preaching, i.e. declaring the Gospel to unbelievers. That is eminently Biblical but it is not what we call preaching when the church gathers.
- the sermon of Stephen: A sermon? Stephen, like Peter, is proclaiming Christ to a crowd of unbelievers. That is likewise perfectly Biblical but it is not a monologue sermon to the church. At the end he doesn't stand at the back of the church and shake hands, he is stoned to death.
- Peter's sermon at the house of Cornelius: This also fails the sermon test and is yet again an unscripted event where Peter is preaching the Gospel to unbelievers, not delivering a prepared talk to the church.
- Paul's speech in Pisidian Antioch: Paul is at the synagogue preaching to a crowd of, yes once again, unbelievers.

At each turn these examples prove to be nothing at all like a monologue sermon in the church and are instead examples of preaching the Gospel to the lost except in the case of Jesus delivering divine revelation from the mouth of God Himself.

Let me be clear and this is something I repeat again and again. Preaching is absolutely Biblical and the calling of all Christians. Preaching in the Bible is not the same thing as delivering a sermon on Sunday. It is intellectually untenable to draw an equivalence between believers in the Bible preaching Christ to unbelievers, often in an unscripted event, versus a clergyman preparing a lecture to be given as the centerpiece of a religious ritual that is presumably populated mostly by people who are already believers.

Is it possible that you are assuming into the text your own presuppositions and that in fact it is also possible that these presuppositions are based on traditions and not on the text?

Aussie John said...

Excellent article!

Applaud your patient, careful response to the comments.

It took almost fifty years of preaching and teaching before my studies allowed me to lift my eyes above the blinders of "the verification of the traditional understanding by the practice of the early church."as your correspondent states it.

"verification of the traditional" ????

Unknown said...

I think this is the first post written in my honor. Why is it that it feels like it is like "honoring" a Jew by writing a Cookbook of port recipes? I digress.

In my opinion Arthur- yours and Aussie John's newfound "enlightenment" isn't. -Just my opinion but perhaps I will "come to it" later as well...

Long diatribes and paragraph responses I have never seen change anyone's mind. The saber rattling with keyboards or pens always ends in both sides being more resolute in their position declaring themselves the clear victors in the debate.

The only point I can't seem to get you to empathize with/agree to on any level even though I try like a dentist getting a 5 year old to open his mouth so he can look is this:

The people of God should gather. They should have the Lord's Supper. They should open the word and those qualified (not a novice...apt to teach) should "preach, teach, dialogue, give a speech, proclaim," the Scriptures. They should rightly divide the Word of truth. Just because men are sinners, broken, like Peter, and the other fisherman...doesn't mean you can forsake assembling with them. From what I read You seem to eliminate the primacy of the local church full of people with sweaty feet and weaker brothers and women without headcoverings and use the universal church and orphans is Haiti as the reason. All are appendages- don't need to cut off any. How is it that you cannot be a part of any local church because none of them do it right and the leadership is all too arrogant? There. Now I have written a lengthy paragraph blah blah blah. My point is simply this, as the good book says, you cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Arthur Sido said...

Joe, my larger point is that how we meet and why we meet and what we do when we meet matter. Simple going along with the traditions of man because they are familiar and comfortable certainly is the easier path but that is not really the path we are called to. I am just asking people to think and study and rightly divide the Word. If that is being divisive then I am guilty as charged but I find it troubling that some so casually cast aspersions on those who don't walk the religious line but then get all bent out of shape and cry foul when legitimate and Biblical questions are asked.

Arlan said...

I agree few minds are changed while on the internet. See, common ground, we are off to a great start!

The statement that "The people of God should gather" I compare to the statement that "People should eat breakfast."

1. It is a good idea that I agree with, but I would not be able to state it as a must.

2. To say that one should eat breakfast is different than saying that one should eat breakfast at McDonald's (or any other fast food franchise of your choosing).

Let's just stick with point 2 for simplicity. It seems to me that most of the churches that meet in buildings are as wide of the mark as Denny's (or McD's) is for breakfast. I do not mean that I would never go, but as a regular habit it seems quite possibly as much harmful as beneficial.

Just because you get a bunch of Christians in one room does not mean they are functioning as a body of believers any more than it means they are dancing. Nobody's asking for perfect dancers but we want to see some spiritual movement by all - not one performer and some designated pre-programmed associates.