Have you ever been lost for words? No, I'm not speaking about 'senior moments' or of Kevin the teenager who grunts rather than speaks. But those times when you dry up and can't think of what to say. Last year the singer Lily Allen was literally lost for words. At a concert she stood up to sing but couldn't remember the words of her song. Fortunately one of her aides came to her rescue and downloaded the lyrics from the Internet! Public speakers may appear to be confident, but on stage (and without an Autocue) both actors and singers can easily forget their lines. That is true too of politicians and even of clergy. Though as you know some clergy are never lost for words!! Twice in the NT the religious leaders were reduced to silence. First, when they dared not ask Jesus any more questions (Lk 20:26, 40) and in Acts 4 when the simple testimony of the apostles silenced them once again. Unlike the religious leaders, the apostles were not lost for words. Why was this? Because Jesus had promised to give his followers both the words and the wisdom that could not be countered by their enemies
By way of introduction, how are we to look at these narrative passages in Acts? The book may be seen to be the Acts of the Apostles (that is from a human perspective) and also the Acts of the Holy Spirit (that is from a divine perspective). But is the book descriptive or prescriptive? Does it simply describe the day by day development and expansion of the early church; or does it provide a blue-print for subsequent generations? How we read the book of Acts has a marked effect upon our understanding of the nature of the church, and the work of the Spirit.
In Acts 4 we have the first confrontation with the religious authorities, and anticipating the second confrontation in the following chapter. As we look together at the text, three questions come to mind about the Jewish leaders. How were they to respond to the emerging church? How could they prevent its growth? How could they not lose their authority? It's perfectly clear that the religious authorities were rattled, disturbed, jealous, challenged and astonished by what they saw and heard. How unlike today! One historian has described the church of the 1930s as being like an old sofa – 'relaxing, unpretentious and less demanding on the user.' Today (we might say) the unused sofa is on the skip and out in the cold. Few take any notice of it. But what a contrast to the church of the New Testament! Humanly speaking the religious leaders could silence the apostolic leaders; they could restrict their movements, they could punish them or exile them. But they did not have the power to execute them. Their hands were tied by the rule of Rome. Yet within 40 years the city and its temple would be destroyed, and the Sanhedrin abolished. Yet at the same time the Christian church continued to grow.
But in all of their debate they ignored the Sovereign Lord and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Here in Acts was the start of a powerful religious revival. Later we see examples of revival at the Reformation and in the eighteenth century awakening. As you know, such revivals were characterised by two things: the sovereign work of the Spirit, and the fervent prayers of the believers. True revival comes from God not man. Here in Acts 3-4 we see evidence of the Spirit's power, and the prayers of the church. As an aside, in v.31 we see an anticipation of the later Quakers – when as they prayed they trembled in the presence of the Lord! Would that we might tremble in prayer!
There is a clear contrast here between human sight and divine insight.
a) Human sight (4:13)
The religious leaders saw the crippled man who had been healed (v.14). There could be no doubt about this. The evidence was standing before them! They saw too, the courage of Peter and John (v.13). They were astonished. They were dumbfounded. They were lost for words. How could men like this speak with such authority and with such boldness? And notice in v.13 how the apostles are described: They were unschooled. They were not illiterate or uneducated; but they had not been through an approved college course. In the eyes of the religious leaders they were ignorant of the Jewish Law. They were ordinary men. That is they were laymen. They had not been set apart. They had no professional qualifications. They were not members of the 'club'. Though they may not have had a theological degree or public authorisation, did you notice something else about them? The authorities 'took note that they had been with Jesus' (v.13)
Now this is not saying that theological education is unimportant; and to make a virtue out of despising theological training. For both calling and training are vital if we are to teach and to preach, and to present the Christian faith in a secular society. But vital too is that all Christian leaders have encountered Jesus; or rather that Jesus has encountered them! So that (by his love and grace and mercy) he has met us, and saved us, and called us. Some pulpits have a text carved into them and the words are only seen by the preacher. 'Sir, we would see Jesus'(John 12:21 AV). But how can we preach unless we are sent? And how can we preach if we don't know Jesus for ourselves?
b) Divine insight (4:19)
On being commanded not to speak or to teach, the apostles replied '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' (v.19). Here of course is the other side of the coin. The authorities realised that the apostles had been with Jesus, and Peter and John knew that too. How could they not speak about what they had seen and experienced? And what about you and me? How has our meeting with Jesus transformed us and changed us? Can other people see something of Jesus in us? Is it evident that we are Christian believers? And what had the apostles seen and experienced? We need to look back to Acts 1. What made the apostles so special? Certainly nothing in themselves. They were the living tokens of divine grace. They had been called by Jesus and sent out by Jesus. And when the early church sought to replace Judas what qualification did they look for? A theological degree? No! A professional qualification? No! They looked for an eyewitness – for someone who had been with Jesus from his baptism to his ascension. And most important, he had been a witness of the resurrection (Acts 1:21). How then could the apostles remain silent? How could the bullying tactics of the authorities stifle their testimony? At the end of the day it was a matter of authority. The apostles took their authority from God. They had to obey the Lord rather than men.
Now we may not have seen (as the apostles saw) and we may not have heard (as the apostles heard) but if we are Christian believers, we too have been with Jesus. God has opened our eyes and the Spirit has warmed our hearts and we have come to faith in the Lord. He has saved us to serve him, to worship him and to adore him, to testify and to witness to unbelievers. I wonder then, if we are Christians, can others see that we too have been with Jesus? The leading light of the Welsh Revival of 1904 was a man called Evan Roberts. Once when he preached someone said: 'There was some silent influence in the service touching the strings of the heart. I could not restrain from weeping through[out] the service, and the people, especially the young, felt this influence. I could not see the face of Roberts; those who could see it told me that his face was shining, his countenance was changing, and appeared as if under a wonderful influence'. Like Moses and Stephen, Roberts' face shone in the presence of the Lord. I wonder then, if we are Christians, can others see that we too have been with Jesus?
Though Peter was untaught and not a professional – he knew what he believed. And often isn't it the simple testimony that speaks more powerfully to us? Doesn't it speak more directly to our hearts than an academic presentation and well-reasoned apology for the Christian faith? Of course there needs to be a balance between a simple testimony and the exposition of the Word of God. But it needs the common touch.
Consider what Peter was up against. Humanly speaking the odds were stacked against him. He had to defend himself before the 71 members of the Sanhedrin (v.15). The Sanhedrin was the highest and most distinguished assembly within the Jewish community. In v.5 (we are told) it consisted of the rulers, and elders and teachers of the law. The Sanhedrin was led by the High Priest and members of his family (v.6). The majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees (those unpopular leaders who were rich and powerful aristocrats who represented the establishment); and a minority of Pharisees (a lower class who had the common touch). Just a few years later when Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin, the division between Sadducees and Pharisees was still evident. They were still divided. Paul said: 'I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead'. When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees who maintained that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all). (Acts 23:7-8). They were divided over the resurrection. The Pharisees believed it, but the Sadducees did not. No wonder then that the resurrection of the dead was highlighted here in Acts 4!
Notice vv.2 and 10: In v.2, the religious leaders 'were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead'. In v.10, 'It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead'. The religious authorities tried to silence Peter and John not because of the healing of the cripple (for the man was standing before them – and the miracle could not be denied). They even had to admit that it was 'an outstanding miracle' (v.16). Their aim was to stop the apostles from speaking any further about Jesus (v.17).
And why was this? Because of their preaching and teaching about the resurrection. For 2000 years Christians have believed in the cross and the empty tomb; in the death of Christ and in his resurrection from the dead. This is at the heart of the message of the apostles; it is central to our creeds and confessions; and remains an essential part of our preaching and teaching, our belief and our witness. 'Take away the resurrection' (says Paul in 1 Cor 15) and the Christian message falls apart, and Christian preachers are mere deceivers. May I ask you a question? How (and in what way) do you understand the significance of the cross and the empty tomb? Not just as historical events, but in terms of your faith and understanding. Not just as an abstract theological doctrine but as a life- changing event.
In Acts 4: we hear about the resurrection of Jesus, and did you also notice too the references to the name of Jesus? In Acts 4 there are six references to his name:
v.7 By what power or by what name did you do this?
v.10 It is by the name of Jesus that this man was healed.
v.12 There is no other name by which we must be saved.
vv.17,18 The apostles were told not to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus.
v.30 The name of your holy servant, Jesus.
In the Bible 'the name' is always important. When Moses was at the so called burning bush, he asked what if the people ask 'What is your name?' (Ex 3:13). The knowledge of the name provided authority and access; intimacy, knowledge and power. As you know the name Jesus means Saviour (Mt 1:21). But 'the name' is also significant, and reveals his identity and his power and his authority. The name of Jesus tells us whom he is (the Son of God). The name of Jesus tells us what he has done (saved us from sin). The name of Jesus tells us of his authority and power.
In the words of the song:
Jesus, name above all names,
beautiful saviour, glorious Lord;
Emmanuel – God is with us!
Blessed redeemer, living Word.
Knowing the name of Jesus brings us to the heart of our faith (in terms of our profession) and as we attempt to make him known (in terms of our witness). Yes, we all need to see and to believe. To know that simple life-changing, life-transforming experience of the LJC. We need to be convinced that there is no other name and no other way to God. The world faiths are not all on different paths leading to the same God. Their satellite navigation systems never bring them to their expected destination. There is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ! That point is made in v.12. 'For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved'. This verse is perfectly clear. There is no other way to the Father except through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the only way to God – over and against other faiths and cults.
This is made clear in the prayer that was used once at meetings of the Church Missionary Society. It is direct and to the point. Lord, take away blindness from the Jews. Let them receive you, O Jesus, as their Messiah, and proclaim your saving name among the Gentiles! Lord, deliver all [Moslems] from the delusions of the False Prophet. O you true prophet of your church, enlighten them by your Holy Spirit, and bow them down at the foot of your cross! Lord, pity blind idolaters who are kept in cruel bondage by the god of this world. Turn them from idols, that they may serve the Living and true God. For today, not very PC – but yet it clearly expresses truths we must not forget and ignore!
Like the apostles we need courage and boldness to proclaim the risen Christ; and to experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to testify to the faith that we profess. How will this be expressed? Certainly in words and in acts of mercy and service; and also as other people see in us something of the Lord Jesus, and to see that we too have been with him, and reflect something of the radiance of his presence and of his touch upon our lives.
I end with some words from Robert Murray McCheyne. Words that point each one of us to Jesus: 'I do trust you are seeking hard after him whom your soul loves. He is not far from any one of us. He is a powerful and precious Saviour, and happy are they who put their trust in him. He is the Rose of Sharon, lovely to look upon, having all divine and human excellences meeting in himself; and yet he is the Lily of the Valleys, meek and lowly in heart, willing to save the vilest. He answers the need of your soul. You are all guilt: he is a fountain to wash you. You are all naked: he has a wedding garment to cover you. You are [all] dead: he is the [way and the truth and the] life'. You are all wounds and bruises: he is the Balm of Gilead'.
In this coming week may the beauty of the Lord be seen in us, and may others see that we have been with Jesus!