September 25, 2016
This is an exciting day for us at Alliance – eight years in the making. It was in the Fall of 2008 we launched what was then our Growing for God’s Glory building campaign. God, in His sovereign and gracious purposes, had grown His church. We were out of room, so after much prayerful consideration, we decided to build. And over the past 8 years, you’ve given, sacrificially and faithfully. A couple years ago, we renamed the campaign Finish Strong – desiring to do just that – to finish well. This morning, we open half the building – the atrium which will serve a large gathering space, and two floors of educational space – Little Alliance and Adult Ed space for our Connection Groups. It’s all very exciting – providing much–needed space to continue to proclaim the gospel and gospel life – that is, to see people come to faith in Jesus, and then be discipled in their new faith.
That’s why we’re here – not to build a monument to our supposed success – but to make and build disciples – in an increasingly hostile culture. Last week, in our continuing study of the Gospel of Mark, we heard Jesus plainly share His mission – to bear a cross. To go to Jerusalem, be handed over the religious authorities, be killed – but, then be raised again the third day. He follows that with telling us His followers, that we, too, will bear a cross. I know you’re excited to hear that, but given this special day – I decided to take a break from Mark. Don’t get too excited – it’s only for today. But let’s take a break and see how the early church responded to growth, and the resulting opposition – that is, their cross. I think you’ll see why I’ve chosen this text, and why it can encourage us today – in the midst of celebration and opposition.
The story is found in the book of Acts. Jesus has already been killed and raised from the dead. In fact, He ascended into heaven in Acts 1, reminding His disciples before His departure they were to wait in Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told them when they were baptized by the Spirit, they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. In chapter 2, the Holy Spirit came just as promised, and this fledgling band of disciples was empowered to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus. The church was born, with 3,000 people added to the small group of 120 disciples in one day. Things were going very well. This would astonish any church growth guru. Which brings us to the next story. The text I want us to look at is actually the end of the next story that extends through chapters 3 and 4.
You see, the church was experiencing new gains, record-breaking growth. But with rising success came rising opposition. As we get to chapter 3, the beginning of the story, Peter and John were on their way to the Temple to pray. There at the temple gate called Beautiful, there lay a man crippled from birth. He was a beggar – this is the way he made his living – he could do nothing else. Peter looked at the man, and gave him far more than the paltry alms he asked for. “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” And with that, the man rose to his feet, and went walking and leaping into the temple, clinging to Peter and John, and praising God. A crowd gathered to find out what all the commotion was about. As they arrived, they saw this man, whom they had seen for years as a crippled beggar, completely healed. Peter, not wanting to miss such an opportunity, preached the gospel to this crowd, and the number of believing men alone grew to about 5,000.
Well, with all that activity, not to mention the teaching of the resurrection, the rulers of the Jews – chief priests, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – were quite upset. They arrested Peter and John and threw them in jail overnight. That next morning, they stood before the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, to explain their actions. The rulers asked this question: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” There could be no denying the miracle, you see – so how’d you do it? Well, that was an open invitation for Peter to share again, which he immediately seized. Now stop right there – this is Peter, the guy who denied he even knew Jesus to a servant girl. Now, he’s standing in front of the Jewish rulers, the very ones who killed Jesus, and He preaches. What’s the difference? The Holy Spirit – the same Spirit you have. Peter proclaimed the death, burial and resurrection to this group, boldly proclaiming salvation was to be found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
It is at this point in the narrative, after a brief private conference, the Sanhedrin commanded these two not to preach or teach in the name of Jesus anymore. This was the first persecution of the Christian church, a church whose history would be filled, to the present day, with the same opposition. They were threatened and released. What was the nature of the threats? We can only imagine, but if they crucified Jesus for claiming to be the Messiah, what would they do to these two who made the same claim – only now Jesus was the risen Messiah.
Let me point out this was a very significant point in the history of the church. They had just been commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus anymore. In fact, they had been threatened. What would they do? The church, humanly speaking, was on the verge of extinction. To obey the command for fear of reprisal would have spelled spiritual disaster. The fate of future generations weigh in the balance. Would the culmination of redemptive history be communicated beyond these few in Jerusalem? These disciples had at least a few options from which to choose, options that Christians have chosen throughout the centuries.
The first is called the Monastic option. They could have said, “You know, this world is so corrupt we can have nothing to do with them. They’re all of the devil. So, the only thing we can do as Christians is to retreat from the world.” And if you know your church history, that’s exactly what some did. They moved to the desert. They hid in caves. They became something of a curiosity, and people flocked to them, placing them on a spiritual pedestal. There wasn’t a lot to entertain people in those days, so a hermit in the desert became quite an attraction. When people came to see them, these recluses went to even greater extremes. One of them, Simon Stylites, decided to put himself on a pedestal. He built a 4X4 platform and put it on top of a pole. As people came to see, he built it higher. By the end of his life, he had lived on that platform for 30 years, and it was 70 feet above the ground. That’s one way to remove yourself from this world, but not necessarily a biblical one.
By the way, we can do the same thing today if we’re not careful. We can build physical or relational barriers that just as effectively separate us from the world. One way we do that is to spend all our time with Christians.
Another option, which some Christians have chosen when facing persecution, is to give in to the culture – give in to governing authorities. After all, to disobey might mean death. A live disobedient Christian is better than a dead obedient one, right? And so Christians under the threat of opposition have ceased their witness, and in some cases, have denied their Lord.
Of course, there is a third option, the one they chose. How did they respond to the threat not to share Christ? What was their reaction as the church faced extinction?
You already know the answer – after all, you’re here this morning. Your know future generations heard the good news of Jesus – you’re part of those future generations. You know, the end of the story this morning. You know after being told to be silent about Jesus, the disciples weren’t. But as we go to end of the story this morning, I want us to learn something. I think we have here the best way to respond to opposition. The best way to react when persecuted for our faith – especially when we are opposed for sharing our faith.
The end of the story, our text is found in Acts 4:23– 31. How did the disciples respond to the threat? Let’s read it (read through verse 30). Our outline this morning goes like this:
- Disciples Response to the Threats (23– 30)
- God’s Response to the Disciples (31)
How did the disciples respond? They prayed. But there is much to learn about what they prayed.
We see once they were released, the first thing Peter and John did was go back to their own companions. Actually, the word companions isn’t in the text; literally, it says they went back to their own. That’s the way the church – the community of believers – the family – works. They were in trouble, having just been jailed overnight and threatened, and the first place they wanted to go was back to their own. Isn’t it interesting to see that persecution drove these believers together? One commentary I read suggests perhaps one of the reasons for the disunity of the Western church is a lack of persecution. Think about it – when the church faces trouble from within, from meaningless differences, the result is often division. When the church faces trouble from without, from opposition, the result is often unity. External pressure seeking to destroy us drives us together. So, opposition within the church weakens and divides it; opposition without the church strengthens and unifies it. Almost like there’s a plan there.
Anyway, when these two were in trouble, they went to the church and shared what was going on. And as the church gathered in the face of threats, their response was prayer. The most natural response for children when threatened by a bully is to go running to dad. And that’s just exactly what they did. But look more closely at their prayer:
The first thing we see is how they addressed their Father: O Lord. The word there isn’t the usual word for Lord – it could be translated Master – or even Sovereign Lord as the ESV has it. It speaks of one with absolute authority, sovereignty, ownership and power. He is in control with absolute authority and power as owner of all creation – after all, He made it and rules it. Now think about that. Yes, they had been threatened by the local authorities, but they had the Sovereign Lord of the universe to whom they could appeal.
Notice, they acknowledge He made everything, giving Him right to ownership. He made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them, including these local rulers who were giving them a hard time. It’s like the old story of two little boys fighting in a schoolyard. As the fight begins, they start by arguing about whose daddy can whip who. “My dad can whip your dad!” Well, who’s your daddy? Not everyone can address their dad as Sovereign Lord – Master of the Universe. So we see they weren’t worried about the petty threats of neighborhood bullies. The same is true for us. We need not worry about opposition we may receive as a result of our witness. We are ambassadors – children of the King of the Universe – my dad can whip your dad. Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. That doesn’t mean we won’t face persecution or opposition – but it doesn’t matter. I read an enlightening article that pointed out this notion that the safest place to be in the world is in the will of God. While that is true spiritually, actually the opposite is true physically – to be in the will of God is to invite persecution. But we need not worry – our God is in control.
I once attended a seminar that included a section about the importance of evangelism. The presenter spoke of the fear often associated with speaking for Christ, and this is what he said, “You know, evangelism kind of scares me, too. But I’ve learned to speak to my pounding heart.” What better thing to speak to your heart than this truth – the Sovereign Lord is my Father – what can people do to me?
Secondly, as is often the case, they quote a passage from the Psalms and applied it to Jesus. They were so familiar with the Scripture it just became part of their prayers. And why this particular Psalm? Early on, even before the life of Jesus, this passage was seen as a Messianic prophecy, because it speaks of the fact that unbelieving nations with their rulers will take their stand against the Lord and against His Christ – which is exactly what happened.
The opposition to Christ was foreseen, even fore-ordained. The word for Christ is Anointed One in Hebrew, from which we get our English word, Messiah, and Anointed One in Greek is the word for which we get our English word, Christ. Messiah and Christ, then, both mean Anointed One and refer to the promised one to come and sit on David’s throne as the Redeemer. And when He came, the Messiah would be opposed. And, of course, this was fulfilled in Jesus. Indeed, Herod and Pilate and the peoples of the earth, including the Jews of Jerusalem did conspire against Jesus and put Him to death. Should they, or we, as His followers, expect anything less, is the implication. Certainly not, for Jesus promised this kind of treatment. We see that in His three passion predictions, which includes a cross for us.
But again, what is important is this treatment of Jesus was all according to what God had decided beforehand. He brought it to pass. We talked about that last week. Back in Acts 2, Peter had already preached on the Day of Pentecost, “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up.” The point very clearly is, God is sovereign. He is the One who has foreordained all that comes to pass, even the death of His Son. One commentary says it this way: “God is the supreme historian who wrote all history before it ever began.”
And so they were not concerned – nothing was happening to them apart from God’s plan. Peter and John’s arrest did not take God by surprise. This command not to teach or preach in the name of Jesus did not shock God. And there is nothing that has or will happen to us in the name of the gospel that will find God unprepared – in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. That verse in Romans 8 is actually in the context of suffering – Paul doesn’t say all things are good, but they are for our good. So we need not worry about our circumstances – we, like they, can leave them in God’s hands – they are often outside of our control, but never His.
Which leads to the next, most amazing thing to notice about their prayer found in verses 29 and 30. What had they been commanded not to do? Speak in the name of Jesus. What was their prayer in those verses? Lord, please deliver us from persecution? Deliver us from those who would oppose us? Lord, nuke the Sanhedrin. No. They didn’t pray any of those words. Look at verse 29, “And now Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.”
Knowing that it was God’s will they share Christ, and having been threatened not to speak at all, they prayed God would help them, not just to speak, but to speak boldly. This was not a prayer for protection, but a prayer for power. It was not, as one said, a sob of petition, but a song of praise. They recognized such boldness was a divine gift of God’s Spirit, not the result of bucking up – of human confidence and determination. This would be God working through them. Notice also, they asked that God would continue to do miracles among them so they might continue to see the results they had seen over the past few days. They recognized miracles validated their message and gave them a hearing to be able to share the gospel.
By the way, in the very next chapter, we read God did continue to do miracles in their midst, and they did continue to share the gospel. So much so, the high priest rose up with the sect of the Sadducees, who were jealous, and arrested the apostles again. Which apostles we are not told – maybe it was all of them. But at the end of chapter 5, we read these words:
40 …and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them.
41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. [suffering is not something we run to, nor is it something we run from] 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
Amazing. And all that is point one. But point two is only one verse – verse 31, and actually forms our conclusion. Just what exactly did God think of this prayer? Read verse 31 with me.
Three things happened. First, Luke says the place where they were meeting was shaken – it’s why I chose this text for today. We should not assume, as some have, they were so filled with the Spirit they began to shake. The text clearly says the place where they were meeting was shaken. There is a story told by Martin Lloyd– Jones, Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London during WWII. During the time that Germany was incessantly bombing London, this church continued to meet. On one occasion, a bomb fell a couple of blocks away and leveled a building. Pastor Lloyd– Jones said that the building where they were meeting was shaken so violently that it literally moved about a foot off of its foundation. His point was if man can make a bomb that will shake a building, he didn’t think it any big deal for God to shake a building. These early believers were so in tune with the mind and heart of God He gave them a visible display of His approval – I like that prayer. And He answered their prayer, which leads to the next two things that happened – they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
I listened to a sermon on this passage by the pastor of Park Street Church in Boston. He suggested perhaps the reason God doesn’t shake our buildings today when we pray is we don’t pray like this. We are far too concerned with our own agendas, with our own purposes, of using God like a magic potion to get what we want. Perhaps, he said, if we would pray more like this, with God’s “larger purpose” in mind, with a goal to enlarge His kingdom – there’s no telling what He might do.
You see, we can ask Him to do the same thing today. To shake our new building? He can if He wants too. I want to do His will in our new building, such that, despite the opposition, the glory of the gospel will shine brightly. You see, we can ask God to enable us to share the gospel of Jesus boldly. We can ask Him to give us opportunities to share our faith, and then give us the boldness to do so. And we can be confident He will answer that request, because it is His heart to do so – it’s why Jesus came. Through the years, I’ve read a number of evangelism how-to books, and they all stress the importance of prayer. Rightly so – evangelism begins and ends there.
My questions in closing this morning are these. Do we really want that kind of power in sharing our faith? Do we really want God to provide opportunities and boldness to share the gospel? Do we want to fill our new building with new believers, or do we just want to rearrange the saints? Then we shouldn’t just talk about it. We, like the early church should pray together that God will shake our hearts out of our lethargy, and that we will boldly share. Let’s stand together, and pray together like the early church did.