Obviously, the gospel text is important on any Sunday. The congregation usually stands when that text is read. And it is usually quite easy to see that the focus of the text is, in some way, Jesus. But sometimes the messenger can receive more attention than the message. In an effort to focus more on the message, the focus this time will be on the First Reading, from the Book of Acts [20:17-35].
It is a rather obscure speech of Paul. But it is an important one. He is speaking to the Ephesian elders. One writer calls this ‘perhaps the most controversial and important of all the speeches in the Lukan account of him (Alan J. Bale, Genre and Narrative Coherence in the Acts of the Apostles, p. 192).’ In essence, it is most controversial because it is the most different when compared to Paul’s epistles. Also in essence, it is most important because it contains the word ‘gospel’ in its noun form. And this only happens two times within ALL of Luke-Acts (Acts 15:7 and 20:24). Instead of comparing this speech of Paul to his epistles, I would like to suggest comparing this speech to the speech of someone in the Old Testament.
Paul was a prophet, teaching the Word of the Lord. Samuel, in the Old Testament, was a prophet as well—and an important one. Both prophets were present at a time of transition. Paul was one of the apostles and was transitioning the followers of Jesus to be served by pastors. Samuel was transitioning the people to have a king. And both men were also thought to be writers (it is tradition that Samuel wrote the book of Judges).
There is one more comparison to be made. Paul is nearing the end of his road. He said that he is headed to Jerusalem and that ‘imprisonment and afflictions’ await him. Samuel is nearing the end of his road as well. In 1 Samuel 12, there is what has been called Samuel’s ‘farewell speech’. And what is interesting is that there is some significant, similar language.
What is that significant, similar language? With the perspective of scripture that values being in the presence of God, the ultimate King, who sometimes is also a judge, a significant word is to testify or witness. This means to state the evidence of a case before a king. These two things—of being in the presence of someone important and to testify/witness—are seen several times in this first paragraph of 1 Samuel 12 and are given in bold (within this ESV translation):
And Samuel said to all Israel, ‘Behold, I have obeyed your voice in all that you have said to me and have made a king over you. And now, behold, the king walks before you, and I am old and gray; and behold, my sons are with you. I have walked before you from my youth until this day. Here I am; testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.’ They said, ‘You have not defrauded us or oppressed us or taken anything from any man’s hand.’ And he said to them, ‘The LORD is witness against you, and his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.’ And they said, ‘He is witness.’
Usually we hear that the king is the important one and people walk before him, but, in this case, the king is walking before ‘you’, meaning the people of Israel. Is that accurate?
Yes, it is! Although it is unusual, Israel has some authority in this situation. Israel has authority because the Lord wants to give it in this special circumstance. He does not want to rule with an obvious show of power; he also does not want the king of Israel to rule in similar ways to other countries. Our God does not have to do things that the world expects, like the world does. He wants to rule in a hidden way, through some chosen special instruments or means.
It is the same way with pastors (elders). They are given authority because the Lord wants to give it in a hidden and gentle way. This is a special circumstance. God does not come down and rule his Church with an obvious show of power. He CAME down and ruled with love—a love which is based on what Jesus did on the cross; It was there that he was the king over sin, death, and the devil. What a king!
If you look at the speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul is talking about himself a lot. But the ultimate focus is not himself. He wants to transition his special (hidden) authority to the elders. You can see this in his use of the word ‘testify’.
In the above paragraph, that word is first used when Samuel says, ‘testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed.’ This first time, the word ‘testify’ literally means ‘answer’. And in this special situation, the phrase ‘before the Lord’ does not involve seeing his face like before. In other words, the way the LORD shows himself is in a hidden way AGAIN! The focus is rather on the frequent word, to ‘testify’. The LOVING LORD wants the right words to be spoken. He wants LOVING words to be spoken. Words convey the LORD’s love in a loving way.
That is the same case in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. He uses the word to ‘witness’ or ‘testify’ four times. The first three times have a prefix attached and make the witnessing emphatically important. The fourth time he uses the word (verse 26), he is simply stating that he is innocent, and compared to the LORD’s message, that is not the important thing.
In the middle time of the three, the Holy Spirit is testifying about what awaits Paul; again, not that important (verse 23). At the first and the third times, Paul is testifying about two things that are critically important: 1) repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 21), and 2) the gospel of the grace of God (verse 24). Both these things are extremely foundational AND contain some relatively new words within the New Testament. But we can look at that some other time.
The gospel text for this Sunday [John 21:1-14] is from the very last chapter of the four gospel accounts—if they are in their usual order. This fact alone helps us have a broader perspective.
The previous chapter, John 20, ended with this already broad perspective:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (verses 30 & 31).
Many have thought that the account should end there. But there is more. It should be noted that all the ancient manuscripts also include the next chapter. This chapter contains the ‘third time that Jesus was revealed (John 21:14; note that the text does not say that Jesus revealed himself; there is Someone working behind the scenes.)’.
The basic text for this Sunday ends at verse 14. So there is the option of including verses 15 through 19. And the chapter goes on until verse 25. Because the reason for this chapter is given within these last verses, the entire section is given here (with the ESV translation). There is a gradual heightening of the excitement level, especially since Peter three times had recently denied he knew Jesus. And the quotation ends with a possible world full of books!
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him a third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’ So the saying spread among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who had written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
After the 1700’s, because of the many advancements in civilization, some people were very optimistic that they could write down record about the past and therefore reconstruct it ‘as it actually happened’ (see the works of L. von Ranke). Looking at the last sentence of the quote above, there seems to be an optimism there as well. But it seems to be an optimism focused on the amazing actions of Jesus.
It also seems that the writer of this gospel account lived a while after Jesus ascended into heaven—that was certainly the tradition. (It is interesting that the word ‘saying’ that spread about the writer being around until Jesus’ return is the same Greek word for ‘word’ in the very first verses of this account; there is an important 'Word' at the very beginning of this account and a not-so-important 'word' at the very end.) And it also seems that more than one person has asked the writer not only if he would live until Jesus came back, but it seems he was also being asked for even more details about Jesus.
When a person wants what ACTUALLY happened, that person is asking for a lot. It seems that the writer of this chapter is giving them something extra, something that may not necessarily have been given so that the reader or the listener believes in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and has life in that name.
Do you want something that interests you, or do you want something that saves you? Do you want something that activates your brain, or do you want something that saves your entire body? This chapter is a good reminder that it is easy for us to get distracted from the most amazing action of Jesus. That special Word was made flesh, and that flesh went to the cross and the (eventually empty) tomb for sinful mankind.