Who Rules? - Acts 4:1-22
A few days ago Debbie and I visited the Millennium Dome in London. However we soon discovered that New Years Eve was not the best day to visit as we could not get within a mile of the said Dome. So we viewed the giant upside down white beetle from across the Thames. But I don't need to go inside to know that among things one of the Domes attractions is what is known as the Spiritual Zone. In here there are exhibitions on all Britains religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism to name but a few. All in one part of the Dome competing for their own space. And that it seems sums up what many people think about religion. All religions lead to God anyway so why not give all religions equal hearing. Its been interesting to see the coverage different religions have received over the Millennium period. On BBC 1s massive coverage of New Years Eve they had various reporters at different Temples and religious sites across the country. The first Sunday of the New century saw a number of religious services at which were present leading members of parliament and the royal family and where different scriptures from different religions were read out. Were told that this century is to be a century of collaboration between the religions, because really were all climbing the same mountain, but just by different routes.
We live in a multi-cultural society. Now theres nothing wrong with that in itself, but just imagine for a moment I was the Archbishop of Canterbury and I got up in Westminster Abbey and declared "There is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. Everyone else is wrong." How would that go down? Worse than a David Beckham tackle I can tell you. Persecution is not a word we would use normally of Christians in this country, but to start saying there is only one Truth, with a capital T, and all the others are wrong is to invite a heated response, at the very least. As we become more and more tolerant in our country, any sort of difference will be picked up upon. Someone who publicly declares he is against practising homosexuality or gay marriage will be reviled. Someone who takes a stand for Christ at work saying he is the only way to God will be thought weird at the least, arrogant or even downright stupid.
Well in our passage for today, Luke is telling us about the growth of the early church and the beginnings of persecution. And the reason was that the apostles were standing up publicly and talking about Jesus. So far its been plain sailing for the early church, but now troubled waters lie ahead and the little boat of the church is beginning to get tossed about. How will the apostles cope? How will they react to this first whiff of trouble? It would be all too easy for them to be swamped by the pressure to conform, to succumb to the temptation to give up. And it would be very easy for us to do the same- maybe to water down the gospel, to take out the tough bits about judgement and sin. When the trouble begins its easy to give in. But not the apostles. They stood up and took the flak. And thats why were looking at the book of Acts these weeks before Jesus 2000, because the apostles were people who preached the gospel without compromise. And in our politically correct, multi cultural society, we can learn a great deal from them about standing up for Christ. And any individual who takes a stand for Christ at work or at home or wherever, will receive flak. So how will we respond? Well were going to look together at three qualities which the apostles had and well discover that they are very relevant to us as we seek to tell people about Christ two millennia on.
Let me recap the story. In chapter three of Acts, Peter and John went up to the Temple to pray. And as they were going in they met a man who had been lame from birth. Instead of giving him some loose change, Peter healed him on the spot in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This caused utter astonishment to those around as the congenitally lame man suddenly got up and leapt around the Temple courts. So Peter takes the opportunity to give an evangelistic talk to those around. He talks about Jesus and tells the people to repent and accept Gods gift of a new life. Now at that point the authorities step in. They close down the make shift meeting and cart Peter and John off to prison. Now why were the authorities so upset? Surely no-one could quibble with the healing of the man. That as Peter says in verse 9 was an act of kindness. No its not that they are worried about. Have a look at verse 2 where Luke tells us the reason: "The authorities were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead." It was the fact that they were talking about Jesus that really riled the authorities. And even more than that. It was the resurrection that really got to them. You see Luke tells us who was upset- it was the Sadduccees among others. And they were a religious and political group who did not believe in the resurrection. They were living for this world and they collaborated with the hated Romans to make their lives easier and to get themselves into positions of power in the country. So if someone comes along both teaching heresy and threatening to start a riot as sometimes happens in the book of Acts, then youve got to do something. So thats why Peter and John are hauled off to prison.
Now let me ask you? What would you do in that situation. You see I think Id be tempted to say, "Well your honour, I think there has been a terrible mistake. Actually I don't really believe the resurrection and as for Jesus, well nice teacher, but not the Messiah. Why dont we just forget this ever happened and Ill go back to fishing and you can brush up your robes." Is that what Peter does? No not a bit of it. Hes made the mistake of betraying Jesus once already, and when hes up against it a second time, he doesnt flinch a muscle. Have a look at verse 10: "It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead that this man stands before you completely healed. He is the stone the builders rejected, which has become the capstone." You see not only does he positively affirm his belief in the resurrection but he also says that the leaders of the nation have made the biggest mistake of their lives. Theyve gone and crucified the very Messiah theyve been looking for for hundreds of years. Thats why Peter quotes that verse from Psalm 118 about the capstone. Jesus was rejected by the chief priests and elders, but God has raised him from the dead. It was the resurrection that proved that Jesus really was the true Messiah, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. Thats why the speeches of Acts are full of the resurrection- because the fact that Jesus defeated death shows hes the King and Saviour of the world. So verse 12 Peter concludes, "Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Peter was absolutely convinced that Jesus was the only Saviour. He had conviction. He had no doubts at all. Thats why he said what he did. He was a man of conviction. If you reject Jesus you reject God. And notice that this isnt a matter of personal opinion. Peter says Jesus is the Saviour who must save us. If he doesnt then were heading for hell. Its as stark as that. Peter doesnt pander to the atmosphere of the day. He says what he knows to be true. He is a man of conviction.
Now let me ask, how does this understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ go down today? Its not at all politically correct is it. At the end of the day other religions are wrong, no matter how many good things they may teach. Fundamentally they are sending us the wrong way because Jesus is the only way. Now thats not to say that we speak ungraciously. We can commend the gospel by our manner and the words we use. But in the final analysis, Christians must hold out the uniqueness of Christ as the only way. We must be people of conviction. The brilliant news of Christianity is that we have the Truth to offer, with a capital T. Its very easy to hide behind politeness isnt it? You know that conversation with a neighbour when shes jabbering away about something and you talk about church and she says well of course there all the same arent they? And we mumble a sort of yesish. Peter has none of it. Hes clear in his convictions. There is no other way. Jesus is unique. Lets not be sucked into thinking that Christianity needs to pander to political correctness. It doesnt, in fact it mustnt, because otherwise we lose the gospel itself. How about next time the topic comes up at work, why not swallow hard and say, actually Jesus claims to be the only way to God and see where that gets you. In my experience people are generally happier to be told the truth than for us to pussy foot around and mangle the gospel. Conviction is what we need. And Peter was not short of it. He was absolutely convinced of the gospel and it showed in the way he spoke. What would happen do you think if that conviction was ours as earnestly as it was for Peter? I suggest great strides could be made for the gospel if Christians were convinced in their minds if the truth and stood by it through thick and thin. Peter knew the truth and spoke the truth. Well theres the first quality- Conviction.
Well having seen Peters conviction, we now see his courage. In fact its the one quality that the authorities pick up on. Verse 13 they note his courage. And theres no doubt that he is courageous. Hes facing the most powerful men in the country and he tells them not only are they responsible for the Messiahs death but they are also missing out on salvation because they refuse to accept Jesus. Just imagine standing before the Queen and telling her she is wrong about something, in fact that shed made the biggest mistake of her life. It would take some courage wouldnt it? And telling people about Jesus takes courage. But the brilliant news is that such courage is not from us. It is supernatural.
Have a look at verse 8. Luke records for us that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. Now that is very significant because just a few weeks or months before Jesus had promised his disciples that when they come up against rulers and authorities then they would receive the words to say through the Holy Spirit. Let me read to you some of Jesus words from Luke 21. His is speaking to his disciples and it is not long before his crucifixion, and hes warning the disciples what will happen: "They will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.....And I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to contradict." That was Jesus promise and he makes it clear in Luke 12 that this gift comes through the Holy Spirit. And as Peter stands before the authorities, he is given words to say. And lo and behold in verse 14 they are speechless. They can say nothing! Peters courage is a God-given gift.
And it wasnt as if Peter and John were great men. In fact the authorities remark how they were unschooled and ordinary men in verse 13. They were not great orators, they didnt have PhDs or impressive theology degrees. They were fishermen. Ordinary people, but they served an extraordinary God, who had given them a message of supreme importance. They were folk just like you and me, and God was able to use them to great effect.
Now if we are to bold in our evangelism this coming term then I take it we are to pray for boldness because that is exactly what the church prayed for at the end of the chapter. We didnt read it, but its striking that thats what they ask for. Just glance on to verse 29. The church are together praying in their post evangelistic service prayer meeting and they ask for boldness: "Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness." That was their request and what was the response? Verse 31: "They were all filled with the Spirit and spoke the word boldly." Their prayer was answered. The Holy Spirit was at work in them helping them to speak boldly.
Now very few of us are naturally bold. Most of us will need to pray for boldness in our evangelism, Even Paul had to pray for it in Colossians 4. So is that something we are praying for in our daily lives? God delights to answer those prayers. Why not make it your aim to pray for a conviction of the message of the gospel and the boldness to tell friends about it. Again lets ask, what would happen do you think if all of us here were both people of conviction and courage? Under God much good could be done!
In the late seventeenth century in southern France, a girl named Marie Durant was brought before the authorities, charged with the crime of effectively believing the gospel. She was fourteen years old, bright, marriageable and attractive. All she was asked to do was to renounce the faith. Simple. She refused and so was imprisoned with thirty other believers in a tower by the sea. For thirty eight years they refused to give in. Instead of the word "I renounce", which was all they were asked to say, she scratched the word "Resistez", resist, on the frame of the window. It's still there to this day, a living testimony to their willingness to be courageous and proclaim Christ as their Lord. Courage- Marie Durant had it, so did Peter, and its a gift that every Christians needs if they are to proclaim Jesus faithfully.
So weve seen two qualities so far- conviction and courage. Well now we come to the third- compulsion. A compulsion to tell the message. We saw in verse 14 that there was nothing the authorities could say. Peters speech was breath-taking and the evidence of the healed man was quite literally staring them in the face. So they ask for a little time. They have a recess in which their conclusion is to try scare-mongering. Verse 16: "Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name." So thats their plan. Thats all they can do. But when Peter hears the verdict, he gives a characteristically blunt reply. Verse 19: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in Gods sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
What a reply! Hes effectively saying that the authorities are standing in the way of God. Its God or them, and theres no choice. Its obeying God. And what is Gods command? To speak about what they have seen and heard! In other words the good news about Jesus, his death and resurrection and what that means for us! Peter was a driven man- he was absolutely sold out on obeying God and telling people about Jesus. He was compelled to do it! Its not as if Jesus is just some social reformer, or a pleasant rabbi who had a few wacky ideas. No if that were the case, then Peter could possibly cool it a bit and opt for a slower reformation of the religious system. But no! Hed met and been rescued by the King of Kings. And he had a divine commission as we all do, at least all of us who want to take Jesus seriously.
Peters compulsion forced him to take a stand against the authorities and for many Christians the same has been true down the ages. I came across the story of a man called Andrew Melville who stood up to James VI of Scotland who was meddling in the preaching of the gospel at the time. This is what Melville said to the King: "We must discharge our duty, or else be traitors both to Christ and to you, for there are two kings in Scotland. There is King James, the head of the commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James VI is, of whose kingdom he is not a lord, not a king but a member. We will yield to you your place, and give you all due obedience, but you are not the head of the church, you cannot give eternal life, nor can you deprive us of it. We charge you therefore to permit us freely to meet and to preach in Christs name."
Melville knew where he stood before God and knew his priorities. Now we need to be careful how we apply this. Its not as if we all go crazy and ignore the world around us and preach willy nilly and annoy everyone. We need to be gracious and wise. Nor does it mean we are freed from our earthly rulers and so none of us turn up to work tomorrow. No, that would be to misunderstand the NT. Rather as we live in this world we are to see that whilst all of us are under earthly masters of some sort be they the Queen and government, or employers or lecturers, at the same time were servants of another King, Jesus. And Peter knew that. He knew that he needed to make the most of every opportunity to tell people about Christ. He was compelled to. His priorities were shaped by King Jesus. He had no choice but to tell people about Christ. Often obligation is played down in the Christian life because were afraid of being legalistic. And that is a right fear. But we need also to remember that were Christs servants now- we serve a greater King. I wonder how much of our natural fears and shyness would be dispelled if we remembered who it was we serve, that is really serve. Thats why Peter was a man of compulsion- he was compelled to spread the gospel because he was serving the Master. Thats what got him up in the morning! In my own mind I sometimes translate Peters words "we cannot help but speak..." into "I might be able to at a push. But Im wrong. Who am I serving. I dont serve me, I serve Christ. And his command is to spread the gospel to the whole world and make disciples. And it begins in Hull. So do have that compulsion? Have you seen afresh who is truly the boss of your life. If you claim to be a Christian, then its Christ. And Peter was a man who knew who he served. He was a man of compulsion.
Later on in Acts, Luke talks about the early church as being the church that turned the world upside down. Well I guess like me youd love to see that here in Hull. No doubt you are praying to that end. Well keep praying. God knows how much our country needs that gospel message of salvation through Christ. But if we are to stand firm amid all the flak that we receive and amid the confusion and the strong temptations that drag us down, then we Christians need to pray for those qualities that the apostles had. We need to pray for a conviction of the true message about Jesus; we need to pray for the courage to tell that message; and to we need to pray that we will be compelled to speak it because were sold out to the King of Kings who rescued us.
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