Our study is from the book of Acts. This week we are in Acts 5:12-42.
Jesus has been crucified--murdered--by the combination of church and state, Rome in connection with the local religious leaders. But, oops, Jesus was in fact God and after His crucifixion He rose again. He has launched His New Testament church and the authorities are having a bit of a time.
You see, since Jesus is alive and now has the keys of hell and death, and furthermore, He has gifted His church with the presence of the Holy Spirit, signs and miracles are happening everywhere His church is working. This is actual Christianity--the toothpaste that won't go back into the tube.
This section of the book of Acts is one of triumph for the church and consternation for the authorities. Look at what's going on. Hypocrites have been put on notice; the dirt is still wet at the graves of Ananias and Sapphira. The church is growing by leaps and the authorities are completely stymied.
Signs and wonders are common, so much so that few specifics are given. The church is united. Acts 5:12 tells us they are meeting in Solomon's Porch.
Solomon's Porch is a very significant location, effectively the main public entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Where were the disciples conducting their outreach activities? They were gathered right there in Solomon's Porch, praying, preaching, doing miracles, and so on. The church is growing by multitudes of men, and multitudes of women. The operative word being multitudes. And the religious authorities who have murdered Jesus can do nothing about it.
It is a bit like Doug Batchelor preaching about the mark of the beast in Vatican City's St. Peter's Square right in under the nose of the pope. The pope would be unamused. And the authorities in Jerusalem were very unamused at this time. They have seen to the crucifixion of Jesus. What do you to to someone after you have murdered Him?
People are bringing their sick. They are lining the streets. They are being healed by the apostles. A continuing stream of people is trailing in from the surrounding cities bringing their ill and diseased. And check this: everyone who comes is healed. The record is explicit: 100% cure rate. Top that.
The priests and authorities couldn't top that. So they took the same step they took before. They took the apostles prisoner and scheduled a hearing.
Imprisonment and Angelic Breakout
Acts 5:17-21 tells us about their imprisonment. But God sends an angel during the late part of the night who releases them and commands them to "Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life." They do exactly what they are told. This is direct disobedience to the authorities. We need to keep in mind not only the commands to try to live in peace with the authorities which oppose God, but also that God's kingdom has an authority that no king, mayor, temple authority, governor, or head of state has. God's kingdom is superior over all human kingdoms.
I find it especially interesting that the angel commands them to preach "all the words of this life." Sometimes we just want to preach what we call Jesus, but the truth of Jesus encompasses many essential things. God's truth is presented by many servants in the Scriptures, and the Bible contains more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, precious and irreplaceable as those are. Additional truths critical to be understood are presented through many voices. All the words of this life are needful, so His servants present them.
The Hearing Begins
That morning, somehow unaware of what has happened, the authorities assemble for their meeting about the Christianity problem. The record of the first part of their hearing is seen in Acts 5:21-28. They send for the apostles, only to discover that somehow they are gone. But the apostles are not fleeing the country. They have been told to go right back and to speak the things God has given them to speak.
The discovery that they are again preaching at the temple must have provoked many troubling thoughts. The Jerusalem authorities send for them but are careful not to treat them roughly. The apostles come having been summoned. It is not the first time.
The hearing begins and the apostles are brought to the front and accused by the high priest. Of what? Of teaching.
Remember how we pointed out before that it is not really just the existence of the church that is so bothersome to the enemies of God, or even their gatherings for worship. What always bothers the authorities the most is when the church is doing what it is supposed to: teaching. Satan does not want God's people out freely proclaiming God's truth. When people are taught truth, they have to think about it. If it is taught with clarity, they will come to convictions about it. They will have to choose about it.
The Apostles Respond
The response of the apostles is glorious:
"We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him (Acts 5:29-32).
The disciples have clear heads. They see lucidly that the decision is between the commandments of God and the commandments of men. We need to pray that our vision will be that clear going forward. When coercion comes down from the state we very quickly find reasons to obey men. We are not anxious to stand in front of hot forks and revving chainsaws.
Peter and the apostles are not troubled with questions and uncertainties about God, although that is what is in vogue in our day. They have certainty. "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus" they thunder. They have no questions about that. It is settled in their minds and hearts that Jesus is Messiach. This is the continuation of Israel. They are part of this continuation of Israel. This is the pivotal moment for the history of God's people. They know this. Jesus is Lord. Next question.
Do they relent? Not at all. Peter responds and charges his accusers with murdering Jesus. Not only murdering He whom God sent, but in the worst possible way, by execution by crucifixion on a tree, the most cursed kind of death. In their minds this was the most shameful way one might be exxecuted. That is what they had given to Jesus.
But what had Jesus given the world? While they were trying to put Him to the most cursed death possible, what was Jesus trying to give them?
He came to give repentance to Israel. Jesus came to the chosen people to give to them something they must have but which they could have no access to other than by surrender to Him. He came to give them something they did not have within themselves and something we do not have within ourselves. Repentance.
How can we say this? Repentance is not a 2020 word. There is no emphasis upon moral virtue in our day. Those who have imbibed the spirit of our age the most freely believe that reality is socially constructed, that right is whatever the culture says is right, and that wrong is whatever the culture says is wrong. There is in their understanding no ultimate right or wrong; there is only the opinion of a group of humans. The intelligentsia of our day have thrown out the very idea of moral absolutes. All they have left are opinions.
Someone said truth is what the facts are whether you want them to be that or not. Everything else is just opinion. And if the culture decides what morality is, what right and wrong are, then it is not God but the mob that is deciding what truth is.
In that concept, there is no such thing as conscience; there is no God-given internal moral compass reacting to the facts of right and wrong established in this universe outside of your mind or mine. The only reason for turning from one thing to another then is because of the opinion of the mob and the power of the mob. The culture, apart from God, is only another mob led by it own self-interest in that moment. In other words, one might be led to change his mind, not because of his personal relationship to ultimate right or wrong, but because he seeks the reward of the mob or fears how it might punish him.
None of that is repentance. When the Bible speaks about repentance, our passage today is as good a starting place as any. Notice what we learn here. Repentance is a gift. It is not in us to repent. We cannot pay a heavy price to repent. The beauty of repentance is out of our price range. Repentance is available to us because of Jesus' death for us on the cross. Without Him, I lack the gift. Without it being given to me, it is an impossibility to me. All I could possibly do on my own is appease the mob or fear the mob.
The most insightful volume on planet earth about repentance is this one: Steps to Christ by Ellen White. She echoes the teaching of the Bible here, and puts it in very clear language easy for us to understand. Her words are 1000 times better than mine, so listen.
Balaam, terrified by the angel standing in his pathway with drawn sword, acknowledged his guilt lest he should lose his life; but there was no genuine repentance for sin, no conversion of purpose, no abhorrence of evil (p. 23).
See, repentance includes "conversion of purpose" and "abhorrence of evil." But she takes us farther, describing the feelings of Judas. When Judas betrayed Jesus, He admitted he had sinned "but there was no deep, heartbreaking grief in his soul, that he had betrayed the spotless Son of God and denied the Holy One of Israel" (p. 24).
In contrast, hear this beautiful, immediately following paragraph, and understand repentance:
But when the heart yields to the influence of the Spirit of God, the conscience will be quickened, and the sinner will discern something of the depth and sacredness of God's holy law, the foundation of His government in heaven and on earth. The 'light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,' illumines the secret chambers of the soul, and the hidden things of darkness are made manifest. John 1:9. Conviction takes hold upon the mind and heart. The sinner has a sense of the righteousness of Jehovah and feels the terror of appearing in his own guilt and uncleanness, before the Searcher of hearts. He sees the love of God, the beauty of holiness, the joy of purity; he longs to be cleansed and to be restored to communion with heaven (ibid.).
The will is involved but is not alone. There is also conscience. And there we have it--the law of God pops up right there. Not your opinion or mine; not the opinion of culture or scientists or politicians. Something entirely outside of us, written thousands of years before us, something not subject to our opinions, something that is free-standing, something that was here before you were born and which if you should die before Jesus' return, will be here still after your decease. The conscience is aroused from slumber and the holiness of God and His law is discerned.
The person feels convicted of his personal guilt before God, that he has been wrong. He feels he is not just disagreeing with a human mob, but with God.
God gives a gift to the sinner. He is shown God's love, the beauty of holiness, and the joy of purity. Those are not gifts given us from Washington D.C. or Hollywood or Netflicks or Youtube. To see and feel these things is supernatural. God does not force us to choose to love, or to be holy or to be joyful. But He shows us--involuntarily, that is, He compels, yes, forces us, to experience, if only briefly, those pieces. He shows us the reality of the spiritual part of reality. Again, He doesn't force us to embrace them, but He helps us by piercing through our bubble of blindness. But we can still choose to reject God's Godness over His world and His viewpoint of right and wrong.
True repentance feels these spiritual truths and embraces them. That is why we read, "the heart yields to the Spirit of God." Then comes the turning piece. The sinner, she said, "longs to be cleansed and to be restored to communion with heaven." The person wants to turn to right, turn to God. This is why she says on page 23, "Repentance includes sorrow for sin and a turning away from it."
David exmplified authentic repentance in the Old Testament when he pled with God and asked Him, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit wihin me" (Psalm 51:10). True repentance not only means feeling guilty but desiring holiness, not only agreeing that sin condemns, but choosing to turn to God in fact and action.
And no one can do this without God. Repentance is a gift.
But there is another element here we receive as gift from Jesus: forgiveness. Just as we cannot truly repent without the gift of Jesus, neither can we truly forgive without the gift of Jesus. Forgiveness is a gift.
Right about here, someone maybe saying, "Wait a minute, pastor. You are taking this too far. God gives us free choice and He does not force us to forgive others. He leaves it to me whether or not I will forgive another."
Just as we get to choose whether we will repent, so too we get to choose whether we will forgive. But the possibility of forgiveness is a gift from God to us just as the possibility of repentance is a gift from God to us. We cannot forgive unless God makes it possible for our hearts to forgive.
The gospels are bristling with stories of forgiveness, but for time let us turn to the single text you may be the most familiar with: 1 John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We have an important part in this, to confess or sins and admit our wrong. But let me keep our focus here on the point of what God does for us. He remains forever faithful and just. He is always just. He is never unjust. He knows we have sinned and we know we have sinned. He knows that the chasm is unbridgeable in human power. We are utterly lost. Unless God has mercy upon us, we cannot be redeemed. We will plow on and finally destroy ourselves.
But God loves us and has mercy toward us and wants to heal us. He knows that our guilt toward Him and our guilt toward others is like plutonium; utterly toxic, poisoning, deadly. Psychologically, it will eat us and destroy us from the inside out. It is imperative for us to get out from under its impossible burden, but on our own we are lost. God knows our psychology. He knows how we think, how we feel, how we set ourselves up for total spiritual failure.
With that in mind He wants to forgive us. Not a cheap, fake, sentimental, squishy, useless kind of forgiveness that accepts sin and is indifferent to actually changing us, but He longs to actually NASA us. That is the Old Testament word, literally, to "lift." He will take away the burden of sin entirely. That is why in 1 John 1:9 the promise is that He will forgive and the parallel Hebrew thought is the cleanse us from all unrighteousness, because when God forgives it is a real, enduring, powerful and perfect forgiveness.
In Steps to Christ I also read that
The world's Redeemer accepts men as they are, with all their wants, imperfections, and weaknesses; and He will not only cleanse from sin and grant redemption through His blood, but will satisfy the heart-longing of all who consent to wear His yoke to bear His burden. It is His purpose to impart peace and rest to all who come to Him for the bread of life (p. 46).
So don't feel like you have to make yourself perfect to be forgiven. What you need to do is trust in the love of God and ask Him to forgive you and then accept that He forgives you. Stay with Him. Walk with Him. Receive from Him. He will satisfy your heart longing and forgive you with the real stuff, the pure stuff. He is earth's only source.
Suffering but Free
Isn't it ironic that these chief rulers of Israel, these leading men and scholars and priests needed true repentance and true forgiveness and Jesus was the only person who could give it to them and He was ready for them to receive His gifts even then, even in that room, if they would. But there they sat, scowling, emotionally damaged, unrepentant, actually fearing only the mob. They thought politically rather than spiritually. They were full of calculations but the apostles were full of the Holy Spirit.
All there is in that room for almost every person of their tribunal is rejection toward Jesus and His followers. There stand the apostles while these important men chatter back and forth, almost foaming and raging, and working themselves into a lather to destroy, so that the Bible says that their reaction to Peter's words, was fury and open discussion of killing them (Acts 5:33).
At this moment, Gamalial who knows their mode of thought quite well, but who Himself sees that God was working through the apostles, intervenes. He asks that the apostles be put outside the chamber. And then He offers a quite calculated argument that satisfies the group to stop short of murder. By Gamalial's argument, to kill the disciples would be to validate their arguments. Their murderous attitude is briefly moderated and they decide to settle for giving the apostles an unforgettable beating.
God does not intervene to prevent this beating. As White writes,
Although the apostles were miraculously delivered from prison, they were not safe from examination and punishment. . . It was now their part to suffer for the sake of the One whose gospel they were preaching (Acts of the Apostles 81).
When was the last time you or I suffered for Jesus, truy suffered? Not, when were we last inconvenienced? But when did we last suffer for Jesus? It was a privilege for them to suffer for Jesus and they did.
But it was also a punting play by the Sanhedrin. Because although they treated the disciples with violence and forbade them to teach in Jesus' name,
They [the apostles] departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5:41-42).
The church was on fire and it was burning through the world. It cost the disciples something, but they were ready to do and dare for Jesus.
They were ready to pay any price for truth, for Jesus, and they did. Jesus gave all for His people and they gave all back to Him. But in Revelation three, the end-time church is portrayed as struggling with compromise, materialism, and blindness. God help His church today be ready to suffer for Him.
One concluding thought my brother, my sister: are you willing to suffer for Jesus? Are you willing to be inconvenienced for Him? Are you ready to receive His gift of actual repentance and actual forgiveness? Then He can put you to work for the kingdom.
Muskegon and Fremont MI district via internet Zoom 2020-04-18