Unreached Network

Reverse pentecost

As Pentecost Sunday approaches, I have been reflecting on the Reverse Pentecost in Acts 20-21, as the narrative slows down and comes in for a landing.

Just as Pentecost AD 30 is a key moment at the beginning of Acts, so Pentecost AD 57 represents another key moment where the story comes full circle.

Paul is determined to get to Jerusalem for Pentecost (20:16). Our journey starts in Philippi at Passover (20:6), giving Paul and his companions seven weeks/ 50 days to travel to Jerusalem. Between Passover and Pentecost are seven weeks (Hebrew: Shavuot), or 50 days (Greek: Pentecost), which represent the journey out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to Sinai.

People tend to read Acts unevenly, getting more out of the first half than the second half. I want to tell the story of Acts 20-21.


There has been growing tension between the emerging Gentile Church movement and the existing Jewish Church centred in Jerusalem.

Paul has gone way further than the Jerusalem elders would have expected or been comfortable with, both missionally-contextually and theologically.

The Epistle to the Galatians has probably found its way to Jerusalem, and is pretty incendiary!

Added to this, the political atmosphere between Rome and Jerusalem is rapidly deteriorating in the late 50s. Numerous violent rebellions against Rome have begun and been put down brutally by Festus. Nationalistic feeling is running high, and the Judean climate is xenophobic. That’s why the brothers keep warning Paul not to go up to Jerusalem, e.g. 21:4. Polhill writes:

“It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. The Jerusalem elders were in somewhat of a bind. On the one hand, they had supported Paul’s witness to the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Conference. Now they found Paul a persona non grata and his mission discredited not only among the Jewish populace, which they were seeking to reach, but also among their more recent converts. They did not want to reject Paul. Indeed, they praised God for his successes. Still, they had their own mission to the Jews to consider, and for that Paul was a distinct liability.”

In this context, we read in multiple epistles that Paul has been gathering from among the Gentile churches an important financial offering for the church in Judea. It’s really important to Paul – it dominates the letters at this time.

The purpose of the offering is to try and bind the churches to each other. In the Near East, money/gifts are about relationship. If I accept your gift, I am accepting your friendship, we have reciprocal obligations now.

In a context of suspicion and prejudice in both directions, that’s what Paul wants to do. He has been collecting this offering amongst the churches in Asia Minor and Greece, mentioning it in the letters. It’s a big deal, because it’s his last chance to try and tie these churches together.

The seven Gentile companions

“Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychius and Trophimus.” Acts 20:4.

Travelling with Paul are the fruit of the Gentiles, representatives of the churches that Paul has planted. Philippi may be represented by Luke, who is writing. Corinth may be represented by Paul himself, maybe by Erastus the treasurer. They are together accompanying the offering to Jerusalem – because it’s not just about whether the money will be accepted, but whether the brothers will be accepted by the Jerusalem church.

Named according to geography (a sweep from Greece to Asia), in a similar fashion to Acts 2:9-11, but here the people from these places have names, have stories, are representing churches that Paul has established. We note that there are seven names, like the seven deacons in Acts 6, but now they are Gentiles. Seven, the number of completeness, the number of heaven.

The Journey

Having celebrated Passover (perhaps with Lydia/ her Jewish house church in Philippi) they set out eastwards. Christians celebrated Easter at Passover until Constantine changed the dates.

You can only really sail after Passover on the Mediterranean. These guys want to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost (16), in the opposite direction of prevailing Mediterranean winds and currents (they are travelling clockwise, Mediterranean currents favour anticlockwise).

Eutychus (20:7-12)

This story recounts the resurrection of a young man on the first day of the week. There are so many ideas in this story, linked to the days of Unleavened Bread, that are Easter words. Luke, who loves resonances between Luke and Acts, crafts the similarities between the endings of both books in a telling way;

  • First day of the week
  • Upper room
  • Breaking bread
  • A long goodbye sermon before an exodus (7)
  • Sitting up all night with lamps
  • Third floor building/the third day
  • Resurrection from the dead (10)
  • Breaking bread/daybreak

Acts starts with the disciples (all Jewish) in an upper room between Passover and Pentecost (1:13). Now we have Gentile disciples in an upper room between Passover and Pentecost. See what God has done in 30 years! (also how Luke finishes, 22:12, 24:30-35).

Eutychus (whose name means, ironically, “Lucky”) is probably a slave. Also, he is called “boy” (12) – a diminutive used to address enslaved people.  Mostly certainly he is an enslaved person, worn out from a long day’s work, who falls asleep. The gospel has penetrated to Gentiles and slaves. Peter raised a Jewish woman from the dead (9:36-43), Paul raised a Gentile slave from the dead.

On the beach

Paul’s emotional farewell speech to the Ephesian elders on the beach at Miletus is like the farewell speech of any classical hero, and like the final speech of Jesus, showing resolve for the coming trials, entrusting the church to the Holy Spirit, warning of wolves.

Chapters 20-21 slow down to show us the 7 weeks involved in the journey (narratives often speed up or slow down for dramatic effect). Read this, counting the mentions of days or weeks, and you will see that Luke is determined to make this point. Seven disciples travelling the seven weeks to the feast of the sevens.

What do we learn from this account?

The first Pentecost resulted in the outpouring of the Spirit and the triggering of mission to the Gentiles.

Now the fruit of that mission, 3 decades later, is being brought to Jerusalem. Pentecost is a harvest festival when one presents one’s first fruits to the Lord. Is that what Paul is doing here? Bringing both a financial offering and a people offering up to the Temple, up to the Lord, at Pentecost.

Pentecost was a prophetic sign of the destination of the gospel in all cultures and languages through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Paul wants to show that the seeds sown 3 decades previously in Jerusalem are indeed bearing fruit among many cities and ethnicities.

Witherington writes,

“The timing of the delivery of the collection at Pentecost may not be accidental, for it was, according to Acts 2, then that Peter proclaimed the good news that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that all who called on the Lord’s name would be saved. The coming of these Gentiles with the collection to Zion on this occasion would have considerable symbolic significance, especially in light of prophecies like that found in Zech 8:20-23.”

Paul knows how problematic it could be taking a boatload of Gentiles into Jerusalem for a holy festival. He knows he personally will be seen as ritually unclean having spent years among the Gentiles. But he is hoping that the gift will make way for the giver, that the church will rejoice at what God is doing, that meeting real-life Christ-followers from these far-flung places will dissolve the suspicion generated by rumours and gossip and hypotheticals. He is hoping to create a counter-cultural gospel reconciliation, a church that loves in the opposite direction of the prevailing political climate, a personal and real bond between Christian brothers from very different worlds.

May our Pentecosts come full circle.

May we travel determinedly against the prevailing winds, whether the natural Mediterranean currents or the metaphorical political and cultural temperament.

May the aspiration of reaching every nation and language translate into the reality of names and stories and faces.

May the first fruits of the great harvest be presented at the Temple.

May the Global Church be united in brotherhood and peace and mutual respect.