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.