Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 20:1-6

Paul in Macedonia and Greece

20 After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews[a] as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. 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. These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, 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.

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The ‘uproar’ referred to in verse 1 was the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:35-41).

Now it was time for Paul to go on another grand missionary tour, his third.

He sent for members of the church in Ephesus — ‘the disciples’ — and encouraged them in their faith. Some translations use ‘exhorting’, which means the same thing. Exhortation does not mean criticism, but rather encouragement — a building up.

With that, Paul bade them farewell and left for Macedonia.

From Ephesus, which was in Asia Minor (also note smaller map boxed in black), he travelled northwest to Macedonia, which is the northern part of modern-day Greece and is distinct from the Republic of Macedonia.

He visited the Christians in Macedonia — principally Philippi and Thessalonica — and gave them much encouragement.

St Luke, the author of Acts, documented Paul’s stay and conversion of the first European on European soil — Lydia — in Acts 16. Paul also landed in prison there.

Acts 17 has the story of Paul and Silas founding the churches further south in Thessalonica and Berea, which was relatively nearby.

Following his stay, Paul then travelled south to Greece (verse 2). Paul had already spent time in Athens (Acts 17, discussed here and here). From there, he founded the church in Corinth (Acts 18, discussed here, here and here).

Matthew Henry’s commentary describes these return visits (emphases mine):

1. He went first to Macedonia (Acts 20:1), according to his purpose before the uproar (Acts 19:21); there he visited the churches of Philippi and Thessalonica, and gave them much exhortation, Acts 20:2. Paul’s visits to his friends were preaching visits, and his preaching was large and copious: He gave them much exhortation; he had a great deal to say to them, and did not stint himself in time; he exhorted them to many duties, in many cases, and (as some read it) with many reasonings. He enforced his exhortation with a great variety of motives and arguments. 2. He staid three months in Greece (Acts 20:2,3), that is, in Achaia, as some think, for thither also he purposed to go, to Corinth, and thereabouts (Acts 19:21), and, no doubt, there also he gave the disciples much exhortation, to direct and confirm them, and engage them to cleave to the Lord.

Paul spent three months in Greece. He was originally going to set sail for Syria from there, but when it became clear that disgruntled Jewish leaders were plotting against him, he went returned north to Macedonia to sail from there (verse 3). He was going to Syria in order to visit the church in Antioch, which Barnabas founded and Paul strengthened (Acts 11). Earlier, whilst in Ephesus, he had intended to make a return visit to those congregations, along with the aforementioned churches in Macedonia and Archaia, home to Corinth (Acts 19). Then the riot in Ephesus took place.

Henry explains more about the plot against Paul in Greece, possibly assassination:

The altering of his measures; for we cannot always stand to our purposes. Accidents unforeseen put us upon new counsels, which oblige us to purpose with a proviso. 1. Paul was about to sail into Syria, to Antioch, whence he was first sent out into the service of the Gentiles, and which therefore in his journeys he generally contrived to take in his way; but he changed his mind, and resolved to return to Macedonia, the same way he came. 2. The reason was because the Jews, expecting he would steer that course as usual, had way-laid him, designing to be the death of him; since they could not get him out of the way by stirring up both mobs and magistrates against him, which they had often attempted, they contrived to assassinate him. Some think they laid wait for him, to rob him of the money that he was carrying to Jerusalem for the relief of the poor saints there; but, considering how very spiteful the Jews were against him, I suppose they thirsted for his blood more than for his money.

MacArthur also thinks the plot was murderous:

Well, he found out about the plot. So what do you think you’re going to do? Well he [looked?] after his life. And he knew that the whole world was after his life. At least the world he was going into.

Paul had companions with him from the churches in that part of the world (verse 4). Sopater, the son of Pyrrhus, was from Berea, home to discerning readers of Scripture. Henry tells us:

Sopater of Berea, it is likely, is the same with Sosipater, who is mentioned Romans 16:21.

There were two men from the church in Thessalonica: Aristarchus and Secundus. Neither commentator says anything about them, but we can be assured that if Paul chose them, they were worthy disciples.

In any event, those three were from Macedonia.

There was Gaius from the church in Derbe, and Timothy, who had been leading the church in Macedonia then went to Ephesus, replacing Paul. Some scholars say that Timothy’s hometown could have been Lystra, which was not far from Derbe and Iconium (Acts 16).

Of Timothy’s reassignment, as it were, Henry tells us:

Timothy is reckoned among them, for though Paul, when he departed from Ephesus (Acts 20:1), left Timothy there, and afterwards wrote his first epistle to him thither, to direct him as an evangelist how to settle the church there, and in what hands to leave it (see 1 Timothy 1:3,3:14,15), which epistle was intended for direction to Timothy what to do, not only at Ephesus where he now was, but also at other places where he should be in like manner left, or whither he should be sent to reside as an evangelist (and not to him only, but to the other evangelists that attended Paul, and were in like manner employed); yet he soon followed him, and accompanied him, with others here named.

Finally, there were two men from Asia, which, at that time, meant the eastern part of Asia Minor. They were Tychicus and Trophimus.

One might wonder why Paul took these good evangelists out of their present church assignments. Henry explains that Paul needed not only help but also personal enhancement, even though he was a powerful teacher and church planter:

1. That they might assist him in instructing such as by his preaching were awakened and startled; wherever Paul came, the waters were stirred, and then there was need of many hands to help the cripples in. It was time to strike when the iron was hot. 2. That they might be trained up by him, and fitted for future service, might fully know his doctrine and manner of life, 2 Timothy 3:10. Paul’s bodily presence was weak and despicable, and therefore these friends of his accompanied him, to put a reputation upon him, to keep him in countenance, and to intimate to strangers, who would be apt to judge by the sight of the eye, that he had a great deal in him truly valuable, which was not discovered upon the outward appearance.

One could think of them as a religious, yet personal, public relations team of sorts to smooth rough waters when necessary.

Note that Luke returned to the fold, having accompanied Paul in Macedonia. The two of them returned to Troas, thought to have been Luke’s hometown; at the very least, it was where they first met (Acts 16). The other evangelists named were already there to meet them (verse 5).

Luke says that he and Paul celebrated the Feast of the Unleavened Bread in Philippi (verse 6). MacArthur says:

The Feast of Unleavened Bread was, of course, the feast which lasted seven days immediately after Passover.

Whilst Henry says Paul had already put away his Jewish customs …

The days of unleavened bread are mentioned only to describe the time, not to intimate that Paul kept the passover after the manner of the Jews; for just about this time he had written in his first epistle to the church at Corinth, and taught, that Christ is our Passover, and a Christian life our feast of unleavened bread (1 Corinthians 5:7,8), and when the substance was come the shadow was done away.

… MacArthur says that Paul was still partially rooted in them:

He originally wanted to be in Jerusalem for Passover, but when the plot came up, he couldn’t make it. So now he had to put his plans off and hope to get there by Pentecost which was 50 days after Passover … And he’s missed the Passover [with the others in Troas], though he did celebrate it in Philippi and he [Luke] makes a note of that because it tells us again that Paul was still very Jewish in his heart and his attitude.

Either way, Paul loved Jesus Christ, he loved God and he loved people, especially his converts. Paul made his intense, arduous and dangerous journeys in service to all three.

Next time — Acts 20:7-12