Acts 20:36 And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.
As I write this post today, my mind and heart are reeling from the sudden loss of a dear middle-aged brother in our church who-it feels so premature and random-went home to be with the Lord as the result of an aviation accident yesterday. In Acts 20, I am struck by what a God-crafted gift prayer is when parting with another believer whether gradually or traumatically.
Here are some insightful thoughts I recently read on this verse and concept by Gordon J. Keddie:
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” So says Juliet to Romeo in the famous balcony scene from Shakespeare’s play. “Sweet” today means something amazing, enjoyable, and welcome, but in the Bard’s day its meaning was far more subtle—more like “not offensive.” The lovers’ parting is not an amazing, fabulous romantic moment, but rather an experience of sadness made less offensive by the prospect of a future reunion that will be all the more glorious. That, I think, catches something of the mood in Miletus as Paul leaves his brother-elders to travel on to Jerusalem and future trials. No one enjoyed this parting for they, Paul says, “will see my face no more” (v. 25). But the sorrow thus occasioned is tempered by other considerations and richer prospects that will render it “sweet” rather than tragic and irretrievable. (What a great way of articulating it!)
The parting of Paul and the elders was permanent, but not eternal.
Not surprisingly, their brief reunion rehearses what God has done, is doing, and will yet do in their lives. Paul first reviews the past blessings they shared together (vv. 18–21). He reminds them that his ministry had been selfless, earnest, faithful, and manifestly blessed by the Lord. Many were converted to Christ. He had faithfully proclaimed to Jew and Greek alike, “Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 21). The gospel had truly been “good news” among them.
He then turns to future challenges they will surely face (vv. 22–31). He will not be there for them. They will see him no more. But he had shown them the way to follow: he was “innocent of the blood of all men” because he “had not shunned” to declare “the whole counsel of God” (vv. 26–27). The point is that this is their calling also—let them get to work and proclaim the same gospel! Another challenge is that, as Paul goes out, “wolves” come in. Therefore they must “shepherd the church of God” (vv. 28–29). Furthermore, heretics will come from among them—they will need to be vigilant and, as Paul did for three years, “warn everyone night and day with tears” (vv. 30–31). Paul is saying, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
When it comes to present prospects, Paul commends the elders to God and “the word of His grace” (vv. 32–35). God is the source who alone can supply every need. The “word of His grace” is the means by which God communicates his enabling grace to his people. This “word” is Scripture (1 Peter 2:2; Matt. 4:4) and the “grace” is that of Jesus the living Word revealed in Scripture. He will build them up in their faith and establish them in their eternal inheritance with all the saints in glory (v. 32). Paul recalls a saying of Jesus’s—recorded nowhere else in Scripture—in which he said, “It is better to give than to receive” (v. 35). This is to remind them—and all of us—that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), and this is the perfect example of personal godliness for all of us to emulate in our life and service to the Lord.
Prayer is a “means of grace” tailor-made for farewells between Christians.
As Paul prays “with them all,” they weep and make their farewells (vv. 36–38). What did they pray for? The answer is, “All of the above!” That is, all that flows from the intersection of personal experience and the promises of God. Paul, the apostle who was father in the faith for these Ephesians, is being taken from them, but God will never leave them nor forsake them (Heb. 13:5). Furthermore, our earthly partings may be “permanent” here, but will give way to the eternal reunion of heaven. No one can separate believers from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). The believers’ every earthly sorrow will be made more sweet in the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes.
“Pastor, would you pray”-these were the wise, wise words we heard in the somber living room of the dear wife-turned-widow who had just received, moments prior, the jarring news of her husband’s transition to heaven. Sorrow silences the unnecessary chatter and requires us to press into the inexplicable, redemptive grace of God that we desperately need in a fallen world.
In light of all that this dear family, our church, and you may be facing right now on the sorrow front, what one thing can we do to receive and share God’s sweet grace-PRAY! Bitterness, in the shock and trauma of unexpected separation, is perfectly natural in our human condition but also the willful result of prayerlessness. A sweet, supernaturally steady spirit is the result and manifestation of the prayerful soul focused upon “the prospect of a future reunion that will be all the more glorious” not just despite but because of the present sorrow.
In a perspective that our gone-to-heaven pilot would appreciate more than we can imagine, here is the “30,000 foot view” of our temporal partings in the here and now:
1 Th 4:17-18 “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
(By the way, not to be melodramatic, but if this happens to be the last blog post that precedes my parting to glory, please respond to my passing with PRAYER! Don’t feel any pressure to say nice things about me; talk to God. That alone is where our hope and God’s grace if discovered/sustained anyway.)
How does prayer to God help your view of parting with others from a “sweeter” perspective?