When we read the account of John 21:1-19, we can’t help but be struck by the similarity between the narrative of the chapter and the accounts recorded in Matthew 4:18-22 and Luke 5:1-11. Both stories take place by the Sea of Galilee. Both involve an enormous catch of fish. Both conclude with a call from Jesus to Simon Peter: “Follow Me!”
Bible skeptics love to seize on these similarities and claim they are different versions of the same poorly remembered (extremely poorly remembered, given the miraculous catch) event. Those poor dumb disciples! It’s a good thing the skeptics know much better than the disciples what happened, even though they were eyewitnesses and the skeptics aren’t, and the skeptics live thousands of years later.
Of course, the Evangelists didn’t get their facts wrong. Instead, they have recorded a display of the wisdom of Jesus. He is the One driving events both in Luke 5 and John 21, and the narrative in both cases is so similar because He makes it so for the benefit of His disciples, in particular, for the benefit of Peter.
Consider Peter’s emotional ups and downs over the past couple of months. During the Triumphal Entry, he, along with the rest of Jesus’ disciples, is convinced that Jesus is about to re-establish God’s kingdom on earth. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, he proudly declares his willingness to die for and with his Lord.
However, when he begins to fight, Jesus tells him to put up his sword. In fear and confusion, he denies his Master three times, as He had told him he would. He watches the One he thought was the Messiah die a painful, shameful, public death.
And then, against all expectations, on Sunday morning the tomb is empty. Jesus is indeed the Christ, though a different kind of Christ than Peter had ever imagined He would be. It is this Christ, mocked, beaten, crucified, and raised, who tells Peter for a second time, “Follow Me.” The words and setting are the same, but what Peter hears is very different.
So too for us. As any of us who have been disciples for any length of time know, discipleship has its twists and turns. Sometimes we ride high spiritually; sometimes we struggle. Sometimes we blow it as completely as Peter blew it.
Through it all, though, unless we give up entirely, we continue to learn. We understand better what it means to follow Jesus, to die to ourselves as He died that we too might attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Even more encouragingly, through it all, Jesus continues to invite us to follow. In His vast mercy, He gives us all second chances, like He gave Peter a second chance, and third, fourth, and fifth chances—as many as necessary. Our understanding will be different, but His call always is the same: “Follow Me,” until the day when no more following is necessary because we have joined Him where all of us always will be.
During Charlie’s address to the congregation last week, he revealed that our theme for the year is going to be “Be the Light”. It’s only natural that throughout a year as difficult as 2020 was, our thoughts would tend to turn inward. However, the elders want us to remember that we aren’t supposed to be lamps inside a bushel basket, keeping all that light for ourselves. Instead, we’re supposed to shine before others, so that they can see our good works and glorify God.
However, right now, that poses a problem for us. Like a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome, coronavirus has kept right on from 2020 into 2021. In fact, we’ve been forced to a truncated schedule of services because of the risk of infection. Add to that all the political turmoil and unrest, and our 2020 theme might seem as remote as the dark side of the moon!
What I’d like to talk about this morning, then, is three simple things that all of us can do, right now, this week, to shine. Let’s consider what it means to be a light in a dark place.
The first thing we all can do is ENCOURAGE AN ABSENT MEMBER. Here, let’s look at Hebrews 10:24-25. Across the brotherhood and even within the congregation, there’s been a lot of angst about this passage. If we cancel services, or if we isolate ourselves at home because we’re medically vulnerable, are we forsaking the assembly?
To be honest, though, I think that whole debate is missing the point. This text isn’t about assembling for the sake of assembling. It’s about assembling in order to encourage one another and stir up love and good works. There’s a real temptation here for us to get self-righteous, to start judging hearts because we think the only reason someone wouldn’t come is lack of faith, and we’re better than they are, right?
Brethren, rather than judging one another, we need to be concerned for one another and look for ways to help. All these people who haven’t been here, whyever they haven’t been here, are missing out on a serious amount of one-anothering. They haven’t been stirred up. They haven’t been encouraged by being around other Christians. I think our tech team has done wonders in working on our livestream, but watching church from home just isn’t the same as assembling with the saints.
In short, these Christians are people who have been on spiritual starvation rations, and that shouldn’t stir our contempt. It should stir our compassion. These are people who have been isolated from the love of the congregation, and we should want to help.
Here’s what I want to suggest, then. This week sometime, go through the directory, find someone who hasn’t been here, and call or write them. Don’t passive-aggressively hint that they really ought to be coming back to services, those slackers! Talk to them the way you would want to be talked to if you were in their shoes. Tell them that you love them, that you miss them, that they matter to you. Ask how you can help. I guarantee you that the impact you have will be far out of proportion to the effort you expend.
Second, let’s HONOR THE ELDERS. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. Let me tell you, brethren: after the 2020 they had and the 2021 they’re having, they richly deserve that recognition!
Part of the problem, I think, is that a good eldership is like a duck. Let me explain. You ever gone out to a park or something and watched ducks swim around on a pond? From the shore, it looks effortless, doesn’t it? They just go sailing serenely along. Underneath the water, though, it’s a different story. Those webbed feet are going like crazy!
That’s how it is with elders. You sometimes hear Christians croaking, “What are the elders doing? The elders aren’t doing anything!” They only say that, though, because they don’t see all the activity that’s going on under the surface.
Brethren, I think that if we knew how many hours the elders have spent this year trying to lead this church wisely, trying to balance our physical health against our spiritual welfare, we would be humbled by the depths of their self-sacrifice for us. They’ve been watching the disease data every day. They’ve been studying guidelines. They’ve been texting one another and calling one another and emailing one another and meeting with one another. They’ve been fielding calls from members, sometimes not very respectful ones. They’ve been praying. They’ve been tossing and turning, trying to figure out the right answers when nobody has the foggiest idea what the right answers are.
Through it all, they’ve done amazingly well. I can’t point to a single decision they’ve made in the past year and say, “That was just dumb.” All of us owe these good men a tremendous debt.
In return for all that, our respect is nothing more than they deserve. Let’s consider, then, three quick ways we can show them love and honor. First, we can defer to their judgments. Even if we don’t agree with them about something, we must acknowledge that God set them over the church, not us. We also might want to consider the possibility that six men chosen for their wisdom are right and we aren’t.
Second, let’s let them know that we appreciate them. This week sometime, send one of them a card or a text that isn’t bringing a problem to them or complaining about something, but is just saying “Thank you.” We could stand to do a lot more of that all the time, honestly. Third, let’s make a practice of praying for them, asking God’s blessing on them in a detailed way. Every one of them would tell you that they need it!
Finally, let’s PREPARE TO DO GOOD. Consider the example of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. We’re very familiar with this text because it tells us how to give to the Lord’s work, but there’s more going on here than merely that. We use this text as authority for indefinite collections, but that’s not what this one was. Instead, by contributing week by week, the Corinthians were preparing for Paul to come and take their cumulative contribution to help the needy saints in Jerusalem. They couldn’t send that collection right then, but they were getting ready for the time when they could send it.
In addition to all of its other unwelcome traits, I think most of us found 2020 to be a spiritually frustrating year. There were lots of things we wanted to do for the Lord and couldn’t. We canceled potlucks, singings, Bible studies, and get-togethers. In a year when we couldn’t even have all our own people assembled at once, it seemed pointless to invite visitors to our assemblies.
At some point in the future, though, all those restrictions will no longer be in place. Like the Corinthians, we need to get ready now for what we want to do then. I’ve already had some of you talking to me about things that you want to try in the future, and I think that’s great! Let’s all of us start thinking that way. Think about that devotional you want to host. Think about that neighbor you want to invite. Plan for how you want to do it, then, when you have opportunity, follow through.
Acts 4:5-13 recounts a fascinating series of events. The Sanhedrin summons Peter and John, a couple of uneducated Galilean fishermen, and demands that they give an account of themselves. However, rather than trembling before the majesty of the high court, Peter delivers one of the most impressive counterpunches in the Bible. He points out that a) he and John are being treated as criminals for the “crime” of healing a lame man, b) and they healed him by the authority of Jesus Christ, c) whom this same Sanhedrin had crucified.
Ouch. In about three sentences, the Jewish leaders go from being in control of the situation to looking like villains and fools. They reached out to poke the bunny and drew back a bloody stump.
V. 13 offers a fascinating insight into their reaction. They are first of all appalled at Peter and John’s boldness. Then, they recognize both of them as having been with Jesus.
It’s possible that this recognition was based on purely physical characteristics. More likely, though, the leaders recognized them because they acted like Jesus. They had learned from Him to speak with wisdom and confidence that the enemies of the gospel could not refute. Only the Master could have taught them that!
Today, do the people we talk to recognize that we have been with Jesus? The difference between us and worldly people should be conspicuous. We live in a time when people are corrupt, contentious, selfish, hateful, and foul-mouthed. Someone who has sat at the feet of the Teacher will be none of those things. The disciple of Jesus is holy, peacemaking, selfless, loving, and gracious in speech. If we have been with Jesus, when we walk away from the checkout line at Wal-Mart, the cashier will be smiling.
Does our online presence make it obvious that we have been with Jesus? Heaven knows that all the worst characteristics of human speech are distilled by social media! Sadly, I know far too many Christians who are gracious and kind in person but rancorous and contemptuous on Facebook. If we have been with Jesus, we will recognize the temptation that these platforms offer and govern our speech accordingly. Rather than fanning the flames of controversy, we will give a blessing, even to others thousands of miles away.
Finally, does our boldness in the proclamation of the gospel show that we have been with Jesus? Often, we don’t take the opportunities that are before us because we are afraid. Peter and John were literally on trial. They had every reason to be afraid, but they had been with Jesus. His spirit in their hearts drove away fear and emboldened them to tell the truth that needed to be heard.
We ought to be all these things, but if we aren’t, the solution is obvious. Be with Jesus! Spend time learning about His will, both in and outside of the assembly. Seek Him in prayer. The more we are with Him, the more evident He will become in every aspect of our lives.
For much of the past year, many Christians (myself included) have sneered at the Orwellian reporting on the racial unrest following the death of George Floyd. Journalists have repeatedly described the demonstrations as “mostly peaceful”, despite the devastation of entire city blocks. With contemptuous precision, we pointed to the rubble and described the proceedings as “riots”. We declared ourselves unsatisfied with progressive leaders’ apparently lukewarm condemnations of lawlessness.
These days, it seems the shoe is on the other foot. The same journalists who described the protests last summer as “mostly peaceful” do not hesitate to declare the disturbance last Wednesday an insurrection. Now, it is conservative politicians whose condemnations are insufficiently vituperative.
Conversely, I saw on Facebook the other day a report on the events by a brother and friend who was in attendance. He saw tens of thousands of people assembling without violence, and even though he participated in the march to the Capitol, he was not aware that anyone had forced their way inside until he saw it on the news. Though he condemned the violence, he deeply resented the depiction of himself and other innocent attendees as participants in a coup.
All of us, it seems, are mostly peaceful.
This is a difficult truth to acknowledge. In addition to all the other symmetries described above, both sides have attributed the worst behavior of their allies to false-flag enemies. The news last summer was rife with rumors that those who instigated the looting were right-wing extremists. This time around, brethren have continually claimed that the people who broke into the Capitol were antifa pretending to be Trump supporters. Unsurprisingly, the identity of any of these shadowy provocateurs has proven elusive.
The moral of the story is, apparently, that any group of people has bad people in it, and none of us like to admit that about our people. This is true with respect to Democrats and Republicans, and it’s true with respect to the Lord’s church too.
Most of us have had conversations with church-haters (either former members or members on their way out the door) who depict a very different church than the one we know and love. To them, people in churches of Christ are hardhearted, unloving, gossipy, mean-spirited, hypocritical, legalistic, more concerned with politics than Christ, and uninterested in grace. In response, we tend to either a) deny that we see such things, or b) claim that the people who act like that aren’t really Christians.
It is a hard thing to listen humbly to one’s enemies. It’s an even harder thing to separate the fiction that they wish were truth from the truth that we wish were fiction. However, if we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need a mirror like that.
I believe that most Christians are godly most of the time. However, I also believe that there is evil among us and evil within us, and the words of even the most hateful church critic contain an echo of something that is both ugly and true. Despite our salvation, we remain all too human. Only if we are willing to confront our imperfections honestly can we rise above ourselves.
If there is any verse in the Bible that is of particular significance to brethren, it is Acts 2:38. It says in so many words that the purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, a truth clearly taught in Scripture but rejected by much of the wider religious world. However, the rest of the verse causes us more perplexity. Peter says that those who are baptized for the forgiveness of sins will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What is that? Does this mean that everyone who is baptized will receive miraculous spiritual gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues the apostles displayed earlier in the chapter? Does it mean that all Christians will have the Holy Spirit personally indwell them? Or is something else going on here?
In order to understand the text, we first must acknowledge that the phrase “the gift of the Holy Spirit” does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit is the gift. For instance, when Jesus refer to “the gift of God” in John 4:10, He means a gift given by God (living water), not God given as a gift.
Second, we must recognize that Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 does not exist in a vacuum. It is the answer to a question, the solution to a problem. The problem and question appear in the two preceding verses. Peter’s sermon has convicted his audience that they have crucified the Messiah, and they want to know how they can escape punishment.
In reply, Peter tells them that they can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Two verses later, he exclaims, “Be saved!” Thus, there is a strong textual presumption that the gift of the Holy Spirit has to do with salvation.
This presumption is borne out by the rest of the chapter, particularly Peter’s citation of the Joel 2 prophecy in Acts 2:17-21. There, Joel (speaking by the Holy Spirit, of course) predicts the advent of the miraculous gifts. He says these gifts will be a twofold sign: that the day of the Lord is coming, and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
In 2:39, Peter affirms that this promise is not merely for his audience on the day of Pentecost or even for their descendants, but for everyone whom God calls to Himself. Today, 2000 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a generation no less corrupt than that one. If we want to be saved from the wrath to come, we too must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins. If we are, we will receive the same salvation promised on that day—the gift of the Holy Spirit.