Growing Opposition

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I want to start by asking you all to do me a favour. I want you to name in your head your favourite church leader. Now we all know we shouldn't have favourites – but put that to one side for now. Just humour me and have fixed in your mind the name of your favourite church leader. Now – and I know this will be hard – but imagine how you might feel if at your next meeting there is a knock at the door and that leader is arrested, put in prison, brought before the courts the next day and then whipped so badly they are left within inches of death. Their crime? Simple this: They spoke about Jesus.

We may not have faced anything like that in recent history in this country – but it still happens all across the world. For example I read this article on the Barnabus Fund website:-

“A group of believers in Uzbekistan was arrested at a meeting in one of their houses yesterday, 3 April. The police confiscated all books, note-books and a laptop which they found in the house. The Christians present were severely beaten and then all were released except one … (who is) … being held at the police station while the police are apparently trying to find evidence to incriminate him on charges of inciting religious hatred.”

Some day we too may face persecution as bad as that in the UK. Some of us will return to or maybe even choose deliberately to move to countries where that kind of persecution exists.

And when we do face hostile situations (and it doesn’t even need to be that bad) they can cause us to feel out of control. When, as we see in our passage for tonight, the full force of the government is set against God and his people it is tempting to think – how will the church survive? We begin to feel vulnerable, weak, like we are not in control. But situations like that don’t change the reality – they just reveal reality. They show us what is and has always been always true – that we are not in control of the church at all.

One of the big lessons of Acts is that God is the one in control. He is directing his church. God's plan, as Ian Garrett reminded us in his sermon a few weeks ago – is 'that all people, everywhere, should hear that Jesus is Lord'. We see that at the end of Luke 24:46-47

‘..The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.'

and Acts 1:8

'... you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

And God IS going to do it. That will happen! It is written and it will happen!

So far in the book of Acts we have seen how that plan unfolds – in spite of things that cause us to wonder if the church will ever succeed. We have seen opposition from outside the church and we have seen problems within it – all of which seem to threaten the growth of the church.

But tonight our focus is on external opposition. We will learn that there WILL be opposition but that will not stop the church growing because God is in control. We will also see how God's people are able to face that persecution gladly because they know that God is more powerful than anything that opposes them. While that opposition may tempt us to remain silent and so avoid suffering, we will not remain silent even if it means we may have to suffer.

So with that in mind please turn back to Acts 5 – if you're not there already. It's on page 1097. It's an exciting part of God's Word and as we look at it together, I want you to imagine that I am a new reporter and that I am interviewing Peter using 3 simple questions. Those questions will be my 3 main points:-

1. Tell us about a situation where you faced opposition for being a Christian?
2. What is the temptation for a Christian in a situation like this?
3. How did you react and why?


This account of what happened to the apostles is incredible – and they set us an example that Christians would want to follow. But - and this is important - we must never lose track of the fact that in the book of Acts is not the apostles but God himself.

So onto my first point: Peter - tell us about a situation where you faced opposition for being a Christian?

How would Peter answer? I don't want to put words in his mouth or add to what is revealed to us in the Bible – so let's look at the text before us for the answers. Follow with me from verse 17:-

17Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.

What had caused these members of the Jewish governing authority to be so jealous of the apostles? Three things: 1) dynamic growth of the church, 2) bold preaching of the message about Jesus and 3) vivid demonstrations of supernatural power. So they arrested them and put them in jail, with the purpose of bringing them before the Jewish Supreme Court – the very same court that Jesus had stood in and where he had been condemned to death.

But Peter and the apostles had been in that court room on one other occasion. Back in chapter 4, after exactly the same recipe of church growth, bold preaching and the healing of a man crippled from birth – they were arrested and put in jail, ready to be brought before the Jewish court. The basic outcome of that first trial was that they were

“commanded ... not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).

Their courageous answer – a sign of the holy spirit at work in them – was this:

"Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:19-20).

But this second time was a little different – because this time they did not stay in the jail all night. In wonderfully understated terms we read of their miraculous rescue. Read from verse 19

“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.”Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life."

Now we come to a wonderfully funny moment – imagine watching this on a split screen, showing in one picture Peter and the apostles teaching the people in the temple (v21) and in the other the court ushers sent by the fully assembled Jewish Supreme court finding the prison cells empty (v22)! Then again picture a man running from the temple having just heard Peter and the others teaching entering the court as the poor court staff are explaining that they have lost the prisoners (v23). Breathless, the man says (v25)

“The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people”.

And so the court security guards run off and arrest them again.

So – at last before the Jewish court - the High Priest reminds them of the outcome of the first trial. Verse 28,

"We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."

They are not intimidated! Again they answer courageously – a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in them – and say verse 29

'We must obey God rather than men!

Their courage causes the whole court to descend into chaos as they furiously demand that these men – guilty of contempt of court – are put to death. They were saved from this by just one man – Gamaliel - who encourages a more rational approach so instead, verse 40,

“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”.

Well that is certainly opposition. That simple word 'flogged' is easy to skip over – but it was an unbelievably horrendous punishment. The whips used would have had small pieces of metal or bone at the end and would rip pieces of flesh out of the back of the man. They would have been left almost dead.

So as we hear Peters answer to our question – we should be asking ourselves another one. What are we to learn from this account of Peter and the apostles facing opposition for being a Christian?

We need to be careful as we come to apply the lessons from an account like this. Acts is what is known as 'historical narrative'. As always, our key task is to understand what the author's purpose for writing was and that shows us how to apply it to our own lives. As we keep looking at the passage that will become clearer, so we will come back to the question of how I can apply this to my life.

For now, let me just say this: one of the repeating themes in the book is that opposition for being a Christian is perfectly normal. We should not be surprised – after all Jesus promised it. In John 16:33 we read,

'In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

And Paul tells is in 2 Tim 3:12

“everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”

Those words, and the book of Acts makes sobering reading for those who believe or teach a 'prosperity gospel'. To teach that if you become a Christian you will receive only blessing in every area of your life – especially financial prosperity and success in business and personal life – is a dangerous lie. That teaching claims promises that are simply not made in the Bible or twists those that are and leads to a false optimism. Yes it is true that we must not fall into the trap of false pessimism either – but our passage will soon knock that idea on the head too.

However – I suspect for most of us the issue is not so much believing in a 'prosperity gospel'. Rather it is believing in a 'comfort gospel'. We may not be expecting God to give us a life full of material blessings and the like – but maybe the issue for more of us is the expectation that if we live a good Christian life we will have a comfortable and safe existence.

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable! But the Bible does not give us any promise that our lives will be comfortable. And there is a danger: when life is comfortable we can so easily begin to believe the lie that we are in control. That bubble is sometimes only burst when we have to face opposition.

Or the desire for a comfortable life can become so important to us that we are unwilling to give up our comfort in order to obey God and take our part in his plan 'that all people, everywhere, should hear that Jesus is Lord'. Does that ring true in your life? I know it does in mine at times. So we are unwilling to give up our leisure time, or our money, or be willing to live in a less respectable neighbourhood or suffer a bruised reputation.

So let me ask you – where are you facing opposition for being a Christian?

So we have seen the apostles facing opposition for being Christians. Now let’s turn to my second question: What is the temptation for a Christian in a situation like this?

The answer to that question is easy. When faced with opposition for being a Christian the greatest temptation is to remain silent and so avoid suffering. Let me show you from the passage why I think this is how Peter would answer that question.

First look at verse 19

“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.”Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life."

Ask yourself: why did the angel break the apostles out of the prison? So they could avoid suffering? NO! Their instruction from the angel is short and to the point: tell the people the full message of this new life. In other words: Do not stop speaking about Jesus. And do not be tempted to change the message to something less likely to get you in trouble. Tell the people the full message of this new life.

The greatest temptation is to remain silent and so avoid suffering.

Second look a verse 28.

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.”

What was the main aim of those who opposed the apostles? Again – it's not rocket science – they wanted to shut them up. No more speaking about Jesus. It was the name of Jesus that caused the problem. They could do what they liked, as long as they didn’t speak about Jesus. And again look at verse 40

“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”.

The greatest temptation is to remain silent and so avoid suffering. If they had just stopped speaking of Jesus they would have avoided their suffering completely. After the first trial – apart from being in prison over night and facing a scary court the next day – they were released with no punishment. But they carried on speaking about Jesus so this time they were flogged, with the threat of more if they continued to ignore the orders to shut up. It would have been so simple – all that stood between them and a comfortable life was to stop speaking about Jesus. That is the greatest temptation they faced and we face it too.

So don't let those around you know you are a Christian and life is much easier – no hassle, no funny comments, no snide remarks in the office or colleagues trying to catch you out. Don't try and convert Muslims in Malaysia (or even pray for them to become Christians) and no suffering. Don't speak to your patients or students or clients or colleagues about Jesus – no threat of losing your job. Don't join the team visiting the homes in our parish – no risk that someone might be a little rude to you.

Again: let me ask you. Where do you feel that pressure? Where are you tempted to remain silent?

For the apostles, speaking about Jesus was not an optional extra – a task for the special 'evangelist' or church staff or super-keen types. No it was directly commanded by Jesus to all who follow him. The apostles viewed remaining silent as directly disobeying God, which leads me to the third and final question to ask Peter: how did you react and why?

Look with me again at those amazing words at the end of the chapter. Verse 41.

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 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.”

How did they react? They did not stop speaking about Jesus, even though that resulted in extreme suffering! What is more they considered it a privilege and a joy to endure suffering for the sake of the name of Jesus. They are incredible words – how I pray that we would share their reaction when we face suffering. What an amazing reaction. But if we're not careful they can just made us feel inadequate and that is not the point of these verses! Remember: the real hero of the story is God!

And knowing that God is the hero – that God is in control is why they reacted the way they did. The key verses are v29-32. Let me read them again:-

29Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. 32We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."

THE supreme reason they knew that God was in control was this: Jesus was raised from the dead. His resurrection from the dead has shown him to be Lord of the whole universe and ultimately the Prince (or leader) of the church. They may have been tempted to remain silent for fear of what man could do with them, but the reality was that disobeying God would bring them against a far more powerful force. They don’t even compare!

So what they had seen and heard – that Jesus had been killed and raised to life again to bring us repentance and forgiveness of sins – they had to speak about. They had seen Jesus nailed there on the cross, taking the punishment we deserved for our rebellion against him. They had seen God raise him from the dead to prove that all he had achieved for us had been completed.

They saw that as an obedience issue. So even if the highest authority in the land says 'stop talking about Jesus', they say (and so should we) “we obey God because his is a far, far higher authority and we know this because he has raised Jesus from the dead”.

It is that perspective that I believe this passage is all about: that God is in control of his church and nothing will stand against his purposes. That is the antidote to the 'false pessimism' that I mentioned before. This passage does challenge the greed, lies and false optimism of prosperity gospel teaching. But it also challenges the false pessimism that says 'oh we're just to expect suffering and everything to go wrong'.

The perspective of faith says ‘although we will (not might – yes will!) face persecution and opposition from those who are against God and therefore against his people. We are on the winning side!’ A man or woman of faith takes comfort in the fact that God is in control and he is as at work in his world! His plan is that repentance and the forgiveness of sins be preached in the name of Jesus to all nations (Luke 24:47) and that will happen! Persecution and opposition may come, but it will not stop what God was doing in the world.

So we are to hold strongly to the confidence of the apostles: that the God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead... [and]...exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour? If we do that, with the help of the Holy Spirit we too will stand firm against the temptation to remain silent or change our message.

God is in control. Another clue in the passage that this is the case is of course the miraculous way they are broken out of the prison – doesn't that show that the Sanhedrin are not running the show? It is quite comical – as they run around trying to organise their court and out the apostles walk. He is on control.

Maybe that is what influenced Gamaliel's perspective. Although he was not a believer in Jesus his comments again reinforce the idea that Luke’s purpose in this passage is in showing that God is in control. He argues from his experience that killing of the leader of a movement usually puts a stop to the growth of it. But he allows for the fact that maybe this is from God, and so warns them that if they fight against the Christians, they could be fighting against God himself. How true that is!

And it leads to the question: whose side are we on?
If you are a Christian. are you willing to bring your life in line with what God is doing in the world?

Be sure of this: God will achieve his purposes. And he will do that with or without the willing obedience of his people. Our disobedience will not stop his work: he is sovereign and he is not dependent on us. But dare we fight against God.

It’s worth clarifying that I am not saying that if we speak about Jesus we will be good enough to be accepted by God – like a reward. As his children – saved by trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross alone – there is nothing we can contribute to our salvation.

However – if we claim to be his children and we claim to order our lives around the fact that Jesus died for our sins, rose from death and ascended to heaven and if we are filled with his holy spirit, will we not expect to see increasing signs of a desire to speak about him and the power to do so?

But I know too that some of us here might not be Christians – let me refer you back to verses 29-32. It is stricking: right in the middle of this opposition – ever after their re-capture, they keep on speaking about Jesus. Even in the middle of the court trial they speak to those trying them, persecuting them, wanting them to see the truth of the gospel. Listen to their words:-

30The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.

It’s a reminder that Jesus was put to death . In Jewish culture would have been seen as a curse: hanging on a tree. Yet he died to take the punishment we deserve. He died instead of us.

31God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour {why?} that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.

Why does he use the word ‘Israel’ here when the book of Acts make it clear that repentance and forgiveness of sins is for the whole world?! It is because he is talking to people from Israel! He is saying Jesus died for the forgiveness of YOUR sins. And if you haven’t trusted in Jesus let me turn that question to you: have you trusted in his death on the cross? Jesus died and was raised to make it possible for you to have forgiveness of sins. Would you look into these things? An ideal way to do that is to join the course just starting called Christianity Explored that I would encourage you to join: details are in this flyer.

What about us? How will you react in the situations we’ve just been thinking about and why?

Conclusion

We have seen that the church will grow because it is God's church. We have seen that there will be opposition and pressure to be silent. We have seen that God is in control and he is more powerful than anything that opposes us. If we remember these things that allow us to avoid the temptation to remain silent, even if it means we may have to suffer.

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