17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.
18 And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you,
19 serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews;
20 how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house,
21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
when they had come (v.18) — It was 70 miles by land from Ephesus to Miletus. The elders probably took a 12-mile boat trip and then came 25 miles by land.
serving (v.19) — as a bond-servant — a word used in Scripture only by Paul
kept back (v.20) — a term often used of a cowardly soldier holding back in battle
repentance (v.21) = turning the mind
Repentance is just the sick man’s acknowledgement of his illness. It is simply the sinner recognizing his guilt and confessing his need of deliverance. Do not confound repentance with penitence. Penitence is sorrow for sin …
Do not confound repentance with remorse. Remorse generally consists in grieving because you are found out. How many a man in prison is filled with remorse, because he got caught! Remorse is not real repentance.
Repentance is not penance. It is not trying in some way or other to make up for the wrong things of the past. Repentance is far more than that. It is judging oneself in the presence of God; turning right about face, turning to God with a sincere, earnest desire to be completely delivered from sin. And when a man takes that attitude toward God and puts his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he finds salvation. — Lectures on the Book of Acts, by H.A. Ironsides, pages 475-476.
In verse 24 of [Acts 20] the apostle makes it clear that the particular ministry he had received of the Lord Jesus was “to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” This was his special ministry. But this does not mean that he would not confirm what Peter and the twelve had taught about the Messiahship of Christ. Could anyone suppose that those who persisted in denying that the crucified Jesus was the true Messiah could possibly trust Him as their personal Savior? Assuredly not! And thus it was that Paul sought first to convince the Jews everywhere that “Jesus is the Christ.”
So it is also that in the passage before us he declares that he had testified to both Jews and Greeks, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.21).
Now it is quite true that as repentance was the message of John the Baptist, Christ and the twelve, so grace is the message for today. But this does not mean that repentance has no place today. Repentance is not penitance; mush less is it penance. it is rather a change of mind and attitude. Grace had been Paul’s special message up to this time yet repentance was a part of that message, as was also faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts Dispensationally Considered, by C.R. Stam, pages 248-249
I have never personally heard anyone take issue with verse 21, but I included the quotes from Ironsides and Stam because they, and some other commentaries indicate that some dispensationalists do. They, apparently, hold that, since repentance was the message of the 12 apostles to the Jews, Paul shouldn’t be preaching it because his message was one of grace. I think Stam covers it pretty well. I pretty much agree with Ironside regarding the meaning of repentance, although he takes it further and concludes that the message to both Jews and Gentiles was identical.
I think (at this point in my studies — I am willing to be convinced otherwise if further study warrants it) that, at this point, there still was a different message for the Jews. The kingdom was still being offered and would continue to be offered until Acts 28. That was the message for the Jews, and grace was the message for Gentiles. But (and I think this is important), there were many aspects of those two messages that were the same. Among these aspects were repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever Paul was speaking to, the members of his audience needed to realize that they were sinners, that they could not save themselves by any attitude or effort of their own and that they had to acknowledge their “lostness” before God. That is repentance —a change of mind from trusting that they were OK and capable of taking care of themselves to one of realizing they were sinners condemned to death before God’s righteousness.
And whoever Paul was speaking to needed to realize that the only way of salvation was to place his or her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ — for the Jew, as Messiah; for the Gentile as Savior.
I don’t think Paul was saying here that the message to both Jew and Gentile was identical. That wasn’t the purpose of his discourse. What he was doing was making the point that he had been faithful in his ministry wherever he went, preaching the essential truths whoever he was speaking to no matter the opposition. It’s a danger to take a verse like this and separate it from its context and make it mean more than it was intended to mean. I think that’s what’s happening with both those who have dispensational issues with this passage and those who take it to mean there were no distinctions between Jews and Greeks at this time.
One further note: After Acts 28, I think the Jews were set aside and their prophetic, kingdom program was postponed (until after the rapture) and, from that point and still today, there is no Jew or Gentile — we all stand before God equally guilty and in need of His grace.