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by Al Maxey

Issue #775 ------- May 29, 2019
Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

Alfred Edward Housman [1859-1936]

Tale of the Tumbling Teen
Examining the Eutychus Narrative

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the noted English playwright, of whom it is said, "He was arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history" [The Oxford Dictionary], prayed, "Preserve me from unseasonable and immoderate sleep" [Prayers and Meditations]. When I came across this quote from the writings of Johnson, I couldn't help but think of the young lad from the city of Troas who might have been well served by the offering up of this petition prior to the apostle Paul's lengthy discourse and dialogue that we find recorded for us by Luke in Acts 20:7-12.

Before we introduce Eutychus, the young lad mentioned above, we should make a few observations about the brief text within which we find the account of what befell him that fateful night in Troas. Acts 20:7-12 is perhaps one of the New Testament passages most appealed to, as well as most argued over, with respect to traditions turned tenets in that wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement denominated "Church of Christ." It is right behind Acts 2:38 as one of the defining proof-texts of "the one true church" on planet Earth. Verse 7, for example, has for generations been twisted and torn from its context to try and validate the conviction that the Lord's Supper can ONLY be observed on Sunday, and that it must be observed EVERY Sunday. Any deviation from this "divine pattern" will send those violating it straight to Hell. This, of course, is absurd, and it is easily refuted. I have dealt with it in quite some depth in the following: "The Lord's Supper: Focusing on Frequency" [Reflections #30] and "The Great Time Debate: Were the Events in Acts 20:7-12 Reckoned in Jewish or Roman Time?" [Reflections #173]. Many have even argued over whether or not the Lord's Supper is even being referenced in this passage. In other words, what exactly is meant by "breaking bread," an act mentioned twice in this text (vs. 7 and vs. 11)? Some say one is the Eucharist, but the other isn't (and some can't even agree on which of the two is the Communion and which is a common meal). I have dealt with that in quite some depth as well: "Breaking Bread: Meal or Memorial?" [Reflections #168]. We have also fussed with one another over the nature of Paul's presentation that night. Was it a sermon, or was it something else? Oh yes, we'll even squabble over stuff like that, although this question does lead to some rather interesting insights into the teaching styles employed by the apostle Paul that evening in the city of Troas. I have dealt with that in my article titled "Paul's Professorial Predilection: Education and Edification by Conversation as Perceived in Paul's Practice in Troas" [Reflections #548].

Because of the great weight given to each of these two matters (especially to the former), and because of the struggles and schisms that have arisen around them over the centuries, one would almost think nothing else was of any spiritual significance in that brief text by Dr. Luke. The reader, however, might be rather shocked to discover that these two matters are barely mentioned at all in the text, and that the incident that is given the most attention in that passage, and quite likely the only reason these six verses even appear in the book of Acts, is the tale of a teen who fell asleep during the sermon and fell out of a third floor window to his death! Just think: had Eutychus managed to stay awake and stay alive that night, how would we ever have come to know that remembering Jesus in the observance of the Lord's Supper could ONLY and EVER be done on Sunday, and that if anyone dared to remember Him in this manner any other day, God would burn them alive forever and ever?!! So, I guess poor Eutychus HAD to die that night so the rest of humanity until the end of time could get the DAY right for the Communion! How pathetic we must appear to our Father at times! Brethren, I can assure you that Dr. Luke did not include this section (Acts 20:7-12) to establish "NT LAW" with respect to frequency of observance of the Eucharist, nor did he pen these few verses to establish the primacy of one teaching style over another. He wrote those six verses to tell us the story of Eutychus; all the rest is just background (the "back-story").

Eutychus, a Greek name meaning "fortunate, lucky; one blessed with good fortune," is mentioned only here in the New Covenant writings. As to who he was, we have little information, although "Eutychus was a common slave name" at that time and in that place. Thus, "he may have been a slave who had worked hard all day" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 418]. This, in part, may help explain why he became so drowsy: he may well have worked all day, and was now up all night with other believers listening to the apostle Paul. It is also assumed by some, since this boy was present at that meeting, that he was a believer, or at least the child of believers (some suggest, however, he may have been the slave of a believer who was present that evening). We also know that he was young. In Acts 20:9 & 12 he is referred to as a "young man," although two different words are used in those two verses. In verse 9 the word is "neanias," meaning "a youth; one who is in the prime and vigor of life" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 276]. This would suggest a youth who was in his teen years, most likely. In verse 12, Luke uses the word "pais," meaning "a child, a boy/girl" [ibid, p. 298]. It was also the term used to refer to a young slave/servant boy or girl. This term, taken together with the previous word employed, suggests to most scholars that Eutychus was most likely in his early teen years. These words imply "that Eutychus was quite a youth, and not likely to be very directly interested in St. Paul's address. He very probably was a child of the house where the meeting was held" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 164].

We should also note, as these details may also have contributed to the incident that night, that this gathering was in an upper room (the 3rd floor), that it could very well have been crowded (since many would have wanted to see Paul), and that it was most likely rather warm and smoke-filled, for "there were many lamps in the upper chamber" (vs. 8). Any of these, and certainly all of them taken together, could easily have led to a state of drowsiness in this youth. We are told that Eutychus situated himself on the sill of one of the windows (vs. 9). This could have been for any number of logical reasons. Perhaps the room was stuffy and he needed some air. The room may also have been crowded, and the prime seating was taken by those who were older. The children and the servants would have most likely deferred to the adults and their masters. Maybe he could see Paul better from the window sill. We just don't know. Some scholars, however, have attempted to place blame on this boy, suggesting he made a series of "poor choices." Matthew Henry (1662-1714) felt this boy was exhibiting rowdy behavior, and had climbed into the window as an act of defiance. "Parents should bring their children to hear sermons as soon as they can hear with understanding (Nehemiah 8:2), even the little ones (Deuteronomy 29:11). Now this youth was to be blamed, for he presumptuously sat in the window, unglazed perhaps, and so exposed himself; whereas, if he could have been content to sit on the floor, he had been safe. Boys that love to climb, or otherwise endanger themselves, to the grief of their parents, consider not how much it is also an offence to God. He slept, nay, he fell into a deep sleep when Paul was preaching, which was a sign he did not duly attend to the things that Paul spoke of, though they were weighty things" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Some see "the hand of Satan in it" - that he designed this incident to be "a disturbance to this assembly and a reproach to Paul" for his long-winded sermon [ibid]. "Others think that God designed it for a warning to all people to take heed of sleeping when they are hearing the word preached; and certainly we are to make this use of it" [ibid]. "Let the punishment of Eutychus strike an awe upon us, and show us how jealous God is in the matters of His worship" [ibid]. This reflects the thinking of several hundred years ago: where sleeping during a sermon was condemned, being regarded as a mortal sin. Some pastors even quoted the following text, after referring their audience to the Eutychus story: "For death has come through our windows ... to kill off the children and the young men" (Jeremiah 9:21).

In my opinion, Matthew Henry, and anyone holding to the same interpretation of this event, has read a great deal into this text that was never intended by Luke. He makes some enormous assumptions about the motivation of Eutychus, and portrays him as a puppet of Satan, who was being used to bring chaos to a "church service." He's not the only biblical scholar who takes a dim view of this young lad's "error." In an article titled "Warning to the Wise: Learning from Eutychus's Mistake," written by Andrew Arterbury for publication by the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, this author wrote, "Eutychus's physical sleep provides a visible characterization of his spiritual laxity and irresponsible Christian behavior" [p. 59]. This author also points out that no other person that evening behaved in such an ungodly manner, yet this youth alone "falls asleep, which prevents his participation in the acts of worship. Moreover, his slumber has tragic consequences. Unlike Peter, Paul, Silas, and the church in Jerusalem, Eutychus is not alert to the work of God. Instead, when he falls asleep, he also falls away from the worshipping community, into the darkness" [p. 63]. The author concludes his article with this advice: "In sum, the downfall of Eutychus is certainly, to modern ears, a strange story, but it would have offered moral guidance to ancient readers. It would have offered a warning to the wise, a sobering reminder to all the readers of Acts. To the followers of Jesus it says, 'Beware of diverging from the authentic worshipping community.' It exhorts readers to learn from Eutychus's youthful and immature mistakes. It reminds the wise followers of Jesus that spiritual laxity must be avoided at all costs" [p. 64]. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) wrote, "No practice is more shameful, disrespectful, and abominable than that so common of sleeping in the house of God" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. John Wesley (1703-1791) lamented, "But alas! How many of those who have allowed themselves to sleep under a sermon, or as it were to dream awake, have slept the sleep of eternal death, and fallen to rise no more?!" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

In contrast to the above rather harsh views of Eutychus and his "major indiscretion," we find a much larger number of biblical scholars who do not regard this young lad's slumber as "sinful." J. W. McGarvey (1829-1911), one of the notable figures in the Stone-Campbell Movement, declared, "It is not always a sin to go to sleep under a sermon" [New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 181]. McGarvey, like many others, felt there were enough extenuating factors that night to excuse and even exonerate Eutychus. He could easily have worked all day, this was a meeting that would go all night long, the room was likely crowded, and many lamps were burning, so the oxygen level may have been below normal levels (which can quickly cause one to become drowsy), he was a youth/child (so probably not as focused on the preaching and teaching as an adult), Paul went on for hour after hour after hour (which can wear just about anyone down). All of these factors need to be considered before anyone rushes to indict Eutychus. In point of fact, he may well have stayed awake a lot longer than some of us under similar circumstances! Dr. A. T. Robertson, the well-known NT Greek scholar quotes from the study done by Dr. Hobart (Medical Language of St. Luke) who believed "that Luke shows a physician's interest in the causes of the drowsiness of Eutychus (the heat, the crowd, the smell of the lamps, the late hour, the long discourse)" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. Seeking the underlying causes of human behavior is not unusual to Luke the physician. Jesus, for example, found His disciples "sleeping from sorrow" (Luke 22:45), even after He had charged them to keep alert in prayer. Yet, Jesus did not condemn these disciples, for there was a legitimate cause for this slumber, as Dr. Luke points out. I dealt with that particular incident (and another post-resurrection analysis of these disciples by Luke) in Reflections #772 ["A Case of Joyful Disbelief: The Emotion/Conviction Confliction"]. Luke, by the way, was indeed in a position to write with a degree of authority about this incident in Troas, for he was actually present in the upper room when this all took place (this is one of several "WE" sections in the book of Acts).

There is actually a conviction by a good many scholars that if anyone was at fault in this upper room in Troas, then it was most likely the apostle Paul. Simply put: he preached too long! A couple of commentators, somewhat tongue in cheek, suggested that some preachers are so "full of themselves" while in the pulpit that it would take an act of God to shut them up! Some see the death of Eutychus as that "act of God" in the city of Troas that night. "If anyone was to blame, it was the apostle himself, who had been led on to talk so long and keep the meeting to unreasonable hours for young folk. Long services make too great a demand on the physical strength of young people. They are trying even to the older Christians, but their awakened spiritual interest will enable them to bear such fatigue of body. It was not wrong for Eutychus to sleep. He was simply overborne by the heat of the place and the lateness of the hour. Too often the young are punished for what is merely due to the influence of surrounding circumstances and the undeveloped bodily conditions. The relation of public services to the young needs careful and judicious treatment. Such services should take into due account, and deal considerately with, the physical infirmities of the young. It is possible, by securing variety in forms of worship, changing attitudes, and efficient illustration in preaching, to successfully resist the infirmities of the children. If we find our public services uninteresting, we may question whether we are not, like the apostle, ourselves to blame" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 164-165].

"There is not a hint," however, "that Paul took the incident as a rebuke for long-windedness. Nor were the people troubled by the meeting's length. They were eager to learn and only had Paul with them a short time. It was an evening of great significance for the church at Troas: Paul had taught them, they had had fellowship in the Lord's Supper, and they had witnessed a dramatic sign of God's presence and power" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 509]. When this tired teen took that tumble from the 3rd floor window that fateful night, plunging to the hard pavement of the street or inner court below, where he almost certainly died on impact; and when he was soon thereafter restored to life by the apostle Paul, and then several hours later, at daybreak, ushered back into the assembly with no apparent ill-effects, a very positive message was sent and received by those present that night: the presence of the Lord, and the power of the Holy Spirit, were in abundant evidence. "No wonder Luke says that they 'were greatly comforted'" [ibid]; and not just by the restoration to life of Eutychus, but the manifestation of the power of the Lord working among them - even for "the least of them" (one who may have been simply a child slave). ALL are precious in His sight! "They realized that it was the power of God in Paul that had performed this miracle, and that this work therefore testified to the truth of Paul's preaching" [Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 636].

There is another part of this narrative that has led to debate over the centuries: did Eutychus actually die, or was he merely stunned? Maybe he just had the wind knocked out of him; maybe he just appeared to be dead, and the people feared the worst, but had not checked him over thoroughly. "It has been disputed whether Eutychus was really dead or only in a swoon, and hence, whether a miracle was performed or not" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 557]. Some suggest that Paul merely performed a resuscitation of this youth who had fallen from an upper room window; that he was not yet dead when Paul got to him (although, left unattended, death might have soon followed). In other words, Paul served as a medic, rather than a miracle worker. They suggest this understanding based on the wording of Acts 20:10 - "Paul went down and fell upon him and after embracing him, he said, 'Do not be troubled, for his life is in him.'" We can't help but think of the similar actions of both Elijah (1 Kings 17:21-22) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:34). It is easy to see how one, with the medical knowledge we have today, could perhaps view these actions as an ancient form of CPR. Yet, the wording of Luke (a physician) in verse 9 certainly seems to contradict the CPR theory. When the first ones to get to him arrived, they "picked him up dead." "Luke, as a medical man, uses precise medical terms, and as an eye-witness certainly means to state that Eutychus was really dead. The words he uses can only bear that significance. There is no doubt that the incident is related as an instance of the power of the Apostle to work miracles, and that the historian believed him to have done so on this occasion" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 1, p. 379]. "Luke the physician is giving his verdict, and he plainly believes that a miracle was wrought by Paul in restoring a corpse to life" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 204]. "Efforts have been made to break the natural meaning of a restoration from the dead. That Eutychus only appeared to be dead is contrary to Luke's precise statement in verse 9. To stamp the story as an unhistorical anecdote which Luke mistook for an actual miracle in his account is contrary to Luke's known accuracy" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 418].

Acts 20:7-12 is a wonderful peek into an overnight gathering of disciples of Jesus in an upper room in the city of Troas. The purpose of this glimpse by Luke was not to establish rules and regulations for the Lord's Supper, nor was it to establish any kind of legal norm with respect to teaching/preaching style or methodology. Rather, it was a realistic, although very brief, look at a group of humans simply being human: eating, talking, sleeping, and dealing as a group with sudden tragedies that befell them. It was not really a "church service," as such; it was simply the church (the people: fully human, fully redeemed) serving and sharing with one another. Thanks to Luke, you and I get to be "the fly on the wall" in that upper room for one night. Yet, if all we bring away from this experience is another LAW to bind upon all Christians everywhere until the end of time, a LAW we can use to condemn and castigate our fellow believers, then our tumble from the Light into the Darkness is far more tragic and terminal than that of this teen. May God help us to learn to LOVE, rather than yearn to LEGISLATE. I leave you with a little poem I found on the Internet by that famous poet Anonymous:

Poor, sleepy Eutychus,
A-sittin' without a-squirmin'.
Perching on a window ledge
To hear an endless sermon.

St. Paul keeps on a-preachin'
To our hero snoozin' hard;
Then Euty leans into the air
And crashes in the yard.

But Paul is an apostle,
Quite unlike other men;
Down he runs to Eutychus
And gives him life again.

So if you're gonna sleep in church,
Don't from a window fall;
Cause the man up front a-preachin'
Sure ain't no apostle Paul.


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Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Al, your study titled "The Sin of Sectarian Salesmanship: Preaching the Church or Promoting a Sect?" (Reflections #773) is an excellent article! I have tried for years to point out to our congregation that the "Kingdom of God" could not possibly be equivalent to all of the church buildings in the world with "Church of Christ" on the sign out front. Some "get it," but a significant number of the more zealous workers refuse to see it, and so they accuse me of "blaspheming" the Lord's Church by mouthing such "heresy." Most in the Stone-Campbell Movement have heard of groups in more isolated places that picked up Bibles and came up with doctrine and "worship services" very similar to that of Churches of Christ, but such examples will not dampen the resolve of those who believe in the above equation. Neither do examples of "Satanic" Churches of Christ: those filled with legalism, sectarianism, and hatred for all who are not part of their specific sect. It's a good thing that the "restoration of the ancient order" was perfectly completed by 1975, or else we might all be in trouble!!

From a Reader in Florida:

When I was in my early 60's, I told an elder, "I really believe my opinions are the very best in the world." As his jaw dropped, I added, "Because as soon as someone convinces me he has a better one, I adopt it." I believe that all men are alike in this, except that some are so wedded to their present opinions that they will never listen to a different one so as to compare it to their present one - and so they never learn anything other than what they have already accepted as "gospel truth" (even though it may not actually be a part of the Gospel at all).

From a Reader in Canada:

You are completely aware, as we have known each other for years, that we both came from the same religious background. I am so thankful that my eyes were not tightly shut to new understandings of God's Word and His will. I am writing you because I got the impression from something you wrote near the end of your recent article "Atrophied Power of Comprehension: Always Learning, But Never Understanding" (Reflections #774) that you may have been hinting about retiring. If that is soon to happen, then I will truly miss your studies, just as I would miss my own sight or ability to talk. Your work means so much to me. I love you deeply, brother. However, I want to strongly suggest that you listen to your own heart (and that of your wife), then do what is best for your family. I had such a hard time stopping preaching and teaching, as I thought I was needed. However, when my health failed me, I had to stop. What I am saying, all based on a supposition of my own from what I thought you might have implied, is simply this: if you feel the need to retire, then do it. We lost Edward Fudge (a friend to both of us) a year ago, and I really feel he kept on keeping on, in spite of his health, for way too long. You have such a wonderful extended family, and the remaining years you have with them will benefit them all so much. Love your loved ones, Al. The rest of us will survive it. Brother, if I am out of line, just chalk it up to my "sometimers" mind (sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn't). We love you forever, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

"We" have always been taught to "defend the fort." When a belief "system" is more important than the One in whom one believes, then bad things are in store. It seems to me that we fail to allow people to question their teachers, try new things, and learn from mistakes. I like the attitude of the Bereans: "Hey, this guy might can do miracles, and do great signs and wonders, but I'm gonna check the Scriptures anyway to see if he has it right!" We teach Christianity by rote memorization rather than by just putting one step of faith in front of another. Failure is okay, as long as we get back up. We aren't thrown out of the Family because we once thought water was salvific and have since changed our minds, or that instrumental music is okay, or that it is now okay to sing out of the yellow song book instead of the blue one! Has all of this now taken precedent over WHOM we follow?! Keep at it, brother!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, you nailed it in your latest Reflections ("Atrophied Power of Comprehension"): "Most people just can't, or won't, understand because they don't want to change. They are too comfortable, and so they are afraid to admit they might be wrong!" Keep up the great work, and please know that you are getting the message out. I have introduced your writings to several, and at least a few of them have now studied themselves out of the "WE are the ONLY ones saved" crowd. I look forward to seeing the stunned faces in Heaven when some of my brethren meet one of those "evil denominational folks" gathered around the Lord.

From a Minister in West Virginia:

Though I have not responded to your Reflections in some time, I still read with appreciation your thoughts and conclusions. The most recent lesson was also read with interest and approval (though not sure what that is worth). It reminded me of a podcast I recently listened to of an interview with Peter Enns. I was not familiar with him. I found his thinking quite interesting, though I am sure very controversial. It is titled God is Not a Helicopter Parent. You may know of him and more of his thinking. If you have an opinion/response to his position, I would be interested. Your article "Atrophied Power of Comprehension" spoke to me in much the same way he did in his podcast. Blessings, brother, and keep moving - it's the best way to avoid atrophy!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I was just rereading your article "Aborting the Miracle of Life: Does Mankind Have That Right?" (Reflections #155). As I feel each time I go over this study you wrote, you have presented more than enough truth so that anyone should be persuaded to be Pro-Life! Thank you, brother, for this excellent study!

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