Today, Acts 3-4: God's church is on the move! But the authorities are interfering. His church is preaching and teaching Jesus as Messiah. The secular authorities are uneasy. Why?
In our day we have to ask that question. That is because in our day, the state is, effectively, god. It decides, for example, which activities are essential and which, non-essential. Churches are closed by decree; abortion clinics are open by decree. The state decides we should keep six feet apart and we comply.
The state is today's undisputed orderer of the world. Not everything the state does is wrong and not everything right. But in today's headlines we see what might be our imminent future.
A Notable Miracle
And so let's take a good look at our chosen passage. Open to Acts chapter three. Peter and John are at Jerusalem. Evening approaches. They are on their way to the temple to worship. As they come to the gate beggars are perched roadside. "Alms! Alms!" they cry. We focus on one such beggar. He calls out to Peter and John. "Alms," he pleads. There he lays, lame. For decades every day he has been brought here to lay and beg. He is a local fixture.
Peter stops, looks right at him, and tells him he has no money but he will give him what he does have. Peter asks him to rise up and walk, takes him by the hand, and pulls him up. Amazement populates the man's face! He is walking! He is walking! He leaps and jumps and gives loud praise to God.
Many are just arriving at the temple to worship. Instantly a crowd gathers. Repeating his approach in Acts chapter two when God made the opening, he again seizes the opening, sends up a prayer, and instantly preaches to turn hearts to Jesus.
He speaks faithfully, rationally, and accurately. He accuses Jesus' killers of murder.
The mood is electric. Animated discussion is rolling through the crowd. The event has drawn the attention of the authorities. Now they interfere. Peter and John are led away to prison. But the church is growing, so much so, that at the beginning of chapter four the text says it is increasing mightily in believers. Its numbers jump to about 5000 men, so the size of the church about this time is likely 10 to 15 thousand.
Authority of Rulers on the Line
You might imagine that these officials were unhappy especially because they were the temple authorities. But look again at 4:5 and see that, actually, the group is a very significant one. The "rulers, elders, and scribes" are present and there is a great crowd at Jerusalem.
The rulers are furious with Peter and John. To them this is a very clear question of authority. This has their attention because they are not merely a minor set of temple police. These are the rulers of Israel, the elders, the scribes, the leading scholars, the leading lights. Their authority is called in question, and there is nothing so sacred to them as their authority. They have castles, and they like them. They have duchies and fiefdoms, their counties, their parishes, their circles of influence, and they are important, so they think, because these are the little fenced yards where they lord over others.
They will not easily turn aside. They can't. Because, for too many of them, their position is where they get their value. They are important people because they are important--not because the Lord Jesus loves them and died for them. And so, they are clinging to power, holding on with all their might. The teaching of the church is a threat to them; it puts their whole power base at risk. This is not a matter of reason, or conviction, or negotiables to them. This is everything.
Few hearts turn easily from self to Jesus. Instead, we cling to our baubles, our toys, our glass beads, as if our things were uber valuable and the things of God somehow inconsequential. Raw power is illusion because it is only human. Divine power, however, can change lives and give us that which we can acquire nowhere else. In the end, we are either satisfied with our own tiny, sandcastle kingdoms, or, we are ready to look up and see the King who reminds us He is Lord.
In the end, we are either satisfied with our own tiny, sandcastle kingdoms, or, we are ready to look up and see the King who reminds us He is Lord.
Isaiah saw Him. Oh, that we would see Him as Isaiah saw Him. Isaiah six. Remember?
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory! And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4).
This is not the vision of the rulers and the Sadducees. One must change perspective again to see them. The Lord is up high, but way down low, that is where you will find these miserable human rulers, desperately clinging their usurped authority. They look so small after we see the Lord. But there they are, all dressed up in full costume and at their most imposing. And they have a question for our apostles: "By what power or by what name have you done this?"
They can do nothing against the truth but for the truth. As we noticed last week God had made an opening. And now again, Peter enters through another new opening. First, he makes clear he knows whom he is addressing. "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, 'Rulers of the people and elders of Israel.'" Peter is addressing the governing authorities.
Peter does not smooth his answer. He says it is by the name of Jesus that the man has been healed. Which Jesus? The Jesus "whom you crucified!" How impolitic! How needlessly abrasive! But this man filled with the Holy Spirit calls them to account for murder.
God's Hard Answers to Hard Transgressions
It is true that a soft answer can turn away wrath. But there are times and places where persons filled with the Holy Spirit give an answer which is hard. When you have killed the Messiah, the answer must be hard. When you are violating His law the answer must be hard. The question about who Jesus is was not a subliminal question. It was not a what if or a maybe or a fuzzy thing. The very forces of good and evil had clashed, the people had chosen sides and many had chosen the side of the murderer and joined him to crucify the Prince of peace. And so, that is where the Holy Spirit leaves the question. At this point, the council decides to deliberate and sends the disciples out of the hall.
We will not linger long at these proceedings. The healed man is present, the city is aroused, and even the council feels it impossible to deny that a notable miracle has been wrought. That should have made them stop and think.
But many already had sealed their hearts against the Holy Spirit, and the urgent point of their deliberation is not their heart surrender but the quick implementation of some kind of stopgap solution, anything, to extricate themselves from the questions now beginning to be asked. The current issue needs to be rapidly put out of everyone's mind. And so, the decision is made: they will threaten severely. The disciples will be commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus any more.
And so, the disciples are brought back in and commanded not to speak or to teach in Jesus' name. But Peter answers, and his answer has much for us:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20).
This response--and notice this is from both Peter and John--evokes further warnings and desperate threats, but finally the disciples are released. In purely human terms, the council feels it must let them go, because it fears the people.
That reminds us of a saying we might all remember. It has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but the earliest appearance in print is from John Basil Barnhill, in a 1914 debate with a socialist. The statement was this:
Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.
Human Rebellion Nothing New
Here in Jerusalem after this miracle we have a case where the government fears the people. Could they have locked Peter and John away forever and thrown away the key, instantly they would have. But that was an impossibility, so remarkably was the Spirit working on the hearts of the people. And so, after more threats and calumny, the rulers of the people and the elders release the disciples. And it is especially at what happens next that I want us to pay close attention. Look across at Acts 4:23-31:
And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: 'Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: 'Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ. For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.' And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.
The Church Responds
First, notice that the members were not independent atoms; Peter and John went immediately to the other disciples. They went immediately to the church, to their congregation, and there they described what had happened. The gathered church listened as step by step they described what had occurred before and in the tribunal, and finally how the episode had ended.
Then they responded. How? They gave praise to God together. This was deliverance for the church and the church knew it, understood it, and they prayed together and united together in one accord, and responded with a Bible-based response.
Yes, I said a Bible-based response. Hear what they say in their prayer to God. To look at that, let's turn together to the book of Psalms, the very second Psalm, in fact. For you may notice that in their prayer the church knows its Scriptures:
In effect they said, You are God, You are the Creator. Everything is in Your hand. They read Psalm two back to God. Let's read Psalm two.
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against His anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure. Yet have I set My king upon My holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten Thee. Ask of me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.
What was man in the beginning? A puddle of slime? Were our ancestors proud little single-cell organisms, or dancing little viruses, life that came from non-life, marching up out of the sludge to evolve into sugar-water slurping, cell-phone addicted masters of the universe? If so, then we are gods. If we are the result of chance and arbitrary chemical reactions, then we can be rulers, then we can worship ourselves if we want.
But we are not that. Our heritage is that God said, "Let us make humans in our likeness, in our image." Our fate, our very existence, our very essence, is connected irrevocably, with God the Creator. We are creatures, He is Creator. Nothing is so definitive as that.
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? Because they forget that He is God. The kings of the earth set themselves. It's as old as Genesis.
And the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.' They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth' (Genesis 11:1-4).
It is not long after the flood, and already the people are determined to build themselves up. They want to make a name for themselves. See how quickly we begin building our sand castles, how quickly we lose eternity out of our sights and begin to think that we can reach up into the heavens all by ourselves.
And so, remember, we are thinking together at Psalm two. The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His anointed.
They want to rule. They see Jesus an unwelcome accessory in their world. He is in their way. Some of the descendants of Noah broke away and sought to build their tower. Their object was to found their own empire, independant of God. Ellen White has this to say of them at Patriarchs and Prophets, 123-124:
Had they gone on unchecked, they would have demoralized the world in its infancy. Their confederacy was founded in rebellion; a kingdom established for self-exaltation, but in which God was to have no rule or honor. . . For the divine statutes, which are 'holy and just and good,' (Romans 7:12), men were endeavoring to substitute laws to suit the purpose of their own selfish and cruel hearts. . . . There are tower builders in our time. . . . If the professed followers of Christ would accept God's standard, it would bring them into unity; but so long as human wisdom is exalted above His Holy Word, there will be divisions and dissension. . . . The time of God's investigation is at hand. The Most High will come down to see that which the children of men have builded.
We have taken some time with the tower of Babel because it is a premium example of our tendencies. When we forget God we will substitute ourselves for God. When David wrote Psalm two, did the Holy Spirit show him that ancient tower? David's Bible mostly consisted of the book of Genesis.
In Psalm two, human rulers are not only thinking of rebelling against God, they are actively engaged in rebelling against Him. But their machinations are useless. God uses those very machinations to prove that human government is flawed and inevitably unjust. The rest of the Psalm speaks of the futility of trying to out-god God. Jesus is Lord, and no other. So after calling Psalm two to mind, their prayer continues thus (we are looking at Acts 4:27-28):
Against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.
We Have Found the Enemy, and He is Us
Yes, scoundrels like Herod and Pilate are named. But Peter does not spare us. He groups with these would be god-replacing kings and rulers "the gentiles and the people of Israel." We also have these tendencies. We build our own kingdoms also. We pit our ways against God's ways also. It is endemic in us, it is in us as a population; we are forever just a few steps away from replacing God with ourselves. But that is us Christians; what about those who might be less spiritual, less committed to Jesus? How do they fare when they feel they have power over others?
The premise of America at its birth is that our rights are personal and natural because they arise from our humanity; they are not gifted to us by our government. We have rights and privileges because we are made in God's image. The disciples did not have freedom to assemble, freedom to preach, freedom to teach because the rulers of Israel granted them those rights. Those rulers were actively attempting to strip them of those rights. They had those rights because they were human. They were made in God's image. They did not approach the rulers and ask for permission to preach about Jesus. They did not ask for permission to heal the man at the temple gate. They did not file a request in triplicate with the Sadducees. When God made an opening, they preached and appealed to the hearts of their hearers.
In God's purposes He exposed the pretensions of the rulers. He let them have the needed rope and they hanged themselves. They exposed themselves for what they were: fearful tinpot despots desperate to be in control, desperate to evade responsibility for murdering the Prince of Peace.
The Bold Request
Now, they make request of God in their prayer. They call to God's attention the threats against them. Verse 29: "Look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus."
The church is going forward, but it refuses to budge without first acknowledging God as God, and asking His gift of presence and power to go with His active church, disciples all.
In answer to their prayer, they are filled with the Holy Spirit again, and after, they go out and speak the word of God with boldness.
When the day arrives when the state embarks on restricting us from teaching and preaching our Bible faith, from telling the truth about Jesus and His clear messages particular to the end-time, then we must be as bold as the early church.
What will we be up against? Against people who arrogate to themselves an authority they do not possess. For, as the rulers of Israel thought themselves charged with authority to limit the work of the apostles, so in days not far off will the rulers in our day claim for themselves the right to tell us what we are permitted to teach and preach.
We need to be alert and in tune with the Holy Spirit. There will be steps we can take at first to continue our work without placing ourselves in the most pointed conflict with the authorities, but that time will soon pass and then we will need to faithfully live and give Jesus' message no matter the consequences. God will show us how to be faithful then just as He showed Peter and John how to be faithful in Acts chapter four. Let's get His word in our hearts while it is day, that we may speak that word with boldness as day turns to night.
Muskegon and Fremont MI Seventh-day Adventist churches via internet 2020-04-04