Acts 4:1-31; 5:17-42
Do you remember back in January, the Opposition leader Tony Abbot faced a storm of criticism, for sharing in a magazine interview, the advice he would give his three daughters about not having sex outside of marriage.
The fact that he wasn’t speaking about Opposition policy, but what his advice to his own three daughters would be, didn’t stop various people, politicians, commentators and others weighing in, roundly criticising him, for stating his view, shaped by his Christian faith, that the right place for a sexual relationship is between a husband and wife.
Similarly when Mr Abbot said he’d like to see fewer abortions performed in Australia, the shouting voices said his faith has no place public.
When the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen speaks with a Christian voice about the sanctity of life, calling for some caution in the headlong rush towards the routine destruction of embryos and the normalisation of euthanasia, he’s told to focus on his flock, and to stop speaking publicly.
In September last year an employee at the Catholic social services agency Centacare was ordered to remove a cross she was wearing around her neck, or risk losing her job. The explanation given was that since Centacare received government funding, she was prohibited from displaying a sign of her Christian faith.
That sort of opposition to Christianity, or a Christian voice is not unusual in our society, We’re constantly being told our faith has no place in public or social life.
And yet when the Anglican bishops of Melbourne called for a review of Australia’s immigration and detention policies, the non-Christian leaders in our society didn’t call for them to keep their faith themselves,
There’s no public criticism when, from a biblical worldview, Christians call for action on the environment, pay equity, on resourcing social services.
Interesting isn’t it, that no one thinks that Wilberforce, Wesley and Newton, should have kept their faith to themselves, 200 years ago when they were campaigning against slavery.
No one seems to think Henry Thornton, the parliamentarian and financial backer, for that group of abolitionists, should have kept his Christian faith and finances to himself.
Those men, the Clapham Sect, are heroes today!
I’ve never heard anyone say Dietrich Bonhoeffer, should have kept his faith to himself instead of taking a stand against Hitler and the Nazis in World War 2, and ultimately, paying for that with his life.
You see, the world around us, our society will tolerate the church, when our church is the sort of church that society wants.
When our church is the sort of church that society finds convenient,
When, even, the church busies itself doing things that the rest of society doesn’t really want to worry about.
But when the church speaks, about the uniqueness of Jesus,
The fact that every person must give an account before God,
The need for repentance and trust in Jesus in order to have a right relationship with God.
When our message is very clear on those things, our society is much less welcoming to anyone who would call themselves a Christian.
That is to say, a church that’s faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, is a church that should expect to encounter opposition.
And if you’re wondering, well, what sort of church is ours, are we the sort of church that’s going to encounter opposition, just cast your minds back, over what we’ve spoken about from God’s Word over the last few weeks.
1 Corinthians 1, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Acts chapter 1, The mission of the church is to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and life in his name in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Acts chapter 2, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
Chapter 3, the great call to Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,
Those are words that many in our community do not want to be spoken, they don’t want them spoken in here, and they don’t want them spoken beyond these walls
When our message happens to be one with which our society agrees, there’s no opposition, and you might think, “we don’t see much opposition”, and in comparison to churches in North Korea, Burma, Malaysia, and elsewhere that’s exactly right! But I wonder sometimes, if the reason there’s so little opposition from the world, is that our message is virtually indistinguishable from the message of the world.
David Cook who’s the Principal of the Sydney Missionary and Bible College commented, “When the world says: ‘We love your type of church, your style of Christianity,’ then the alarm bells ought to be ringing for us.”
I remember, when I was just starting out in ministry, listening to a lecture by Howard Hendricks. He’s an American preacher and scholar, and he was reflecting on the lack of opposition Christians face in countries like Australia, because he says the heart of our message is so often minimised or excluded, that is, verse 12, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
And I’ll never forget Hendricks thundering into the microphone, “when they’re crucifying you in the courtyards, you’ll know you’ve got your message right!”
When the gospel goes forward,
When lives are transformed,
When the name and the claims of Jesus are proclaimed.
There will be opposition
Obedience to Jesus means encountering opposition
Not every experience of the Apostles in Acts is an experience that we’ll have. We’re not told that everything that happened to them will happen to us. But it seems from reading Acts that the experience of the Apostles and the early church in encountering opposition is something that we’ll share in.
That obedience to Jesus means encountering opposition.
For the early church it came from a number of different angles, including these rulers, elders and teachers of the law. In chapter 4 and 5 of Acts we’ve got 2 separate episodes where basically the same thing happens, The apostles, at least Peter and John are dragged in to defend themselves before these authorities who are opposed to their message, and opposed to the effect this message of Christ is having on people’s lives.
This is the same group, who, Matthew tells us, were looking for false evidence against Jesus in order to be able to kill him, so they’ve got a bit of clout, they can do more than just rap you over the knuckles.
Here they use their guards and soldiers, their public positions and their influence in society, to try and stamp out the spread of the message of Jesus,
Does it seem surprising to you that this attempt to stifle the church comes from the religious hierarchy?
Even for Christians today, it’s sometimes the case that that the opposition to gospel ministry,
The opposition to new ventures in the name of Christ, comes from religious leaders or church hierarchy.
It might come as a surprise to you, or it might not, but there some in those positions in churches and denominations in Adelaide, who object to the message of Jesus,
To the claims that Jesus makes in the Scriptures,
And to the work of the gospel in people’s lives.
Wherever the opposition comes from, The challenge of being faithful to God in a hostile environment, seems from the book of Acts, to be the, normal, Christian, experience.
Take a look with me from the beginning of chapter 4, The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.
Before his death, Jesus had said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first”, and then the next day, he was executed.
Seems to me, that’s a fairly brutal sort of warning about the kind of treatment Jesus’ followers should expect. But still, we’re surprised sometimes, when we encounter opposition.
Just last week I received an email from The Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that seeks to support Christians who face opposition and persecution in different parts of the world.
The email was about the Linfen Church Network in China, and how, late last year, officials stormed a number of churches, destroying buildings, injuring church members, arresting the leaders and putting them in prison.
And now the main church building, which seats 5000 people, just recently built, has been targeted for demolition by the government.
I got another email from a similar organization, The Barnabas Fund, who told me that 1 in 10 Christians in the world live in daily fear of violence, death, loss of employment or imprisonment, because of this message, because of the name of Jesus.
I’ve got a T-shirt with Romans 1:16 written on it, and a picture of a cross, and on the front it says, “this shirt is illegal in 51 countries”
Whether it’s around the world, or even in our own cities and workplaces, homes and schools, encountering opposition should be the expected path for the Christian.
Now I realise that’s not a great way to cheer you up, to make you feel good about being a Christian, or even if you’re not a Christian but you’re interested in getting to know Jesus, me saying these things is not going to make becoming a Christian sound particularly appealing,
But also, I don’t want us to be thinking, “everyone’s out to get us, woe is us!”
Look at Acts 4 & 5. It’s hardly a disastrous episode in the life of the church!
The outcomes are great!
The church grows, thousands are added to their number,
This is a good news story
So what does it look like for Christians to encounter opposition, and to do it well?
Well, let’s have a bit of a think about Peter, who’s a key character here.
If you’ve read much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Peter doesn’t stand out as a solid, dependable character, does he?!
This is Peter who denied Jesus, disowned him, fell over himself to say he had had nothing to do with Jesus.
Peter, who couldn’t even bring himself to look the High Priest’s servant girl in the eye and admit to knowing Jesus.
Peter, who is now standing not before the servant girl, but before the high priest himself, and he says, you want an explanation for what happened to that man who was healed in chapter 3, you want an explanation for everything that’s happening in the lives of your people, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: 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 healed., that’s the man from the temple gate, Jesus is
“ ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’
Stand firm in the truth
Peter’s response to the opposition he faces, his response to being thrown into prison, is what, it’s to keep speaking the message that people are opposed to!
To keep speaking the message that got him put in prison in the first place!
He gives his opponents, one more opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus and respond to it!
It’s for their sake that he keeps repeating this message!
Encountering Opposition – lesson 1 – Stand firm on the truth.
Every now and then someone tells me that they like a particular person in the Bible because they feel some connection, some similarity with that particular person.
And more often then not, the person in the Bible who people tell me they feel like, is Peter!
And then, because I’m a bit cheeky sometimes, I say to them, “Oh wow, so you like standing in front of crowds of thousands of people and telling them about Jesus?
That’s the similarity you feel with Peter is it?
And generally, no, that’s not it!
People, warm to Peter, because they feel a connection to the way Peter is described in the gospels,
He’s enthusiastic, but gets things wrong.
He’s flawed, but restored, He’s forgiven, there’s a place in God’s kingdom for him!
Which is great!
But I want to say to those people for whom Peter is an inspiration, Don’t forget the rest of the story!
Don’t forget what happens to Peter! Peter doesn’t stay that frightened guy who can’t even admit to the servant girl that he knows Jesus. Look at this change!
Look at the way he faces opposition now! Not by denying Jesus and running out into the darkness, but here he is, proclaiming the truth of the gospel before the very council of leaders who condemned Jesus to death,
And look at chapter 5, it’s a similar situation, the Apostles have been put in prison, particularly for speaking about the resurrection of Jesus, because we’re told in 5:17, that the high priest and his associates, were members of the party of the Sadducees, and the Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead. So here was a key tenet of their doctrinal position being undermined!
But even more than that, it’s personal this time. The ruling council are jealous of the apostle’s ministry of teaching and healing,
Jealous of the crowds that they were gathering,
Jealous of the impact the gospel was having on people’s lives.
But this time God has miraculously delivered the apostles from prison, and he instructs them, keep telling people the full message of this new life, which is exactly what they do.
And once again, they’re hauled in before this council of leaders who demand an end to the teaching about Jesus, and what is Peter’s response?
Well, there is no trace of that man who cowered and lied and hid when he was challenged about his relationship to Jesus, Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!
And verse 42, Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
What’s happened to Peter?
The Holy Spirit, happened to Peter.
God equips his people to face the opposition that the Christian message will inevitably bring.
God equips his people to face the opposition that the name of Jesus will inevitably bring,
And the equipping that God provides is through his Holy Spirit.
Encountering opposition lesson 2 – be filled with God’s Spirit!
Peter, chapter 4 verse 8, is filled with the Spirit
Peter, chapter 5 verse 32 says, We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The Holy Spirit is the primary witness of these things.
The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to all Christians, to all who, obey him, Peter says.
That same gift that, radically re-aligned Peter’s life, which gave him such boldness and confidence, is the gift of God to everyone who trusts in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sin and rebellion against God.
So does that mean we’re all just going to be marching up to people courageously, telling them about Jesus, taking on our religious leaders, our political leaders, with the claims of Christ?
We’ll we read in the end of chapter 4 that even the apostles needed to pray to God for boldness,
But look at how they prayed, in that section from 23 to the end of chapter 4.
When they prayed for boldness to speak God’s Word, They genuinely, expect, God to give them that boldness, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
They are absolutely confident in God’s sovereignty.
He is, after all, as they say there, the maker of the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.
Which means what?
Which means the people opposed to them and opposed to their message, are people, created by God, people, rulers and nations who are under God.
The events about which they’re testifying are events which God’s hand brought about.
The one whose name they proclaim is God’s, holy, anointed servant Jesus,
They ask for boldness, and they absolutely expect God to grant it, so that his purposes can be brought about.
Encountering opposition lesson 3 – pray for boldness!
And we see exactly what happens when the apostles and these others pray for boldness, verse 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
I suspect though, that the boldness which the Holy Spirit might give you to in the face of opposition, might look different from the way the person next to you will be equipped to deal with a similar situation.
I know some people for whom ordinarily, boldness would mean simply saying hello to someone who’s not a close friend!
And yet I know other people who God uses to defend the uniqueness of Jesus, and the truth of his resurrection in front of hundreds of people in schools, in Anglican synods, in the media, in political circles, encountering all kinds of opposition
I want to encourage you this morning to pray that God will give you boldness so that you can face the opposition that the Christian faith attracts.
But don’t worry if your boldness doesn’t look like somebody else’s boldness.
The thing is though, even these Apostles, these men who could stand before the equivalent of the Archbishop of Adelaide, the Prime Minister of Australia and the Full Bench of the Supreme Court and say there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”, and “we’re going to obey God rather than you”, These giants of the faith as they’ve become, they don’t think they can go it alone, even with the Holy Spirit!
Did you notice what Peter and John do between these 2 confrontations?
Verse 23 of chapter 4, they went back to their own people
They went and caught up with their Bible Study Group!
Faced with opposition and threats, they met up with other Christians to share, to pray, to praise God, to implore God that they would be to continue to speak about Jesus.
Encountering opposition lesson 4 – Encourage one another in the good news!
We might think, that if you were an apostle you could go it alone,
Stand firm for the truth,
Refute wrong teaching,
Tell people about Jesus,
Just you and the Holy Spirit, out there at the coal face!
But that’s not what Peter and John do, Peter and John go and meet together with other Christians.
Is there a group like that around you? For the times when you face opposition?
To pray for you, for boldness, to care for you, to praise God with you?
I hope there is! If Peter and John, these pillars of the church, thought it was necessary for them, I’m sure that kind of prayer and encouragement will be of equal benefit to us.
Maybe you don’t have group like that but you think, “maybe that’s what I need, well, after Easter we’ll be launching our network of Bible Study groups,
Groups that meet together at different times of the week to pray together, to encourage each other, to study God’s Word together.
If you think that would be helpful for you in preparing you to face opposition, put your details on the Green Communication Card, and put it in the collection bag later.
To close, let me highlight one more thing about encountering opposition from this passage, the very end of chapter 5, They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name
In chapter 6 of volume 1, Luke’s gospel, he records these words of Jesus, Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
The apostles understand what the rulers don’t. The suffering, the, opposition they encounter, is a sign of God’s blessing.
The persecution for Christ is evidence of their union with Christ.
Everything is happening exactly as Jesus said it would.
Friend, don’t be surprised when you encounter opposition,
But let the fact that it happens, just as Jesus said it would, be a great encouragement to you.
The risen Lord is still on his throne.