I recently went to a conference which was to help Christians get better at talking to people about Jesus. And the speaker was a guy called Randy Newman. (Well done for spotting he's American.) And he began like this: "For some Christians, talking about Jesus comes naturally. And I'm not one of them. Some Christians just can't help sharing the gospel. I find I can help it very easily. Some Christians say they can't sleep if they haven't shared the gospel with someone that day. I sleep just fine. Some Christians always pray when they're on a plane or train for a conversation with the person next to them. I pray for an empty seat." Which was refreshingly honest. And he said, "A lot of the time that's because I'm still afraid of how it will go."
Well, I e-mailed some of you to ask what you were most afraid of in this department, and the top answers (in reverse order) were:
In third place, 'I'm afraid I won't know what to say.'
In second place, 'I'm afraid I'll put people off.'
But way out in first place was: 'I'm afraid of how people will react.'
For example, what will my first year flatmates think of me the first time I invite them to something at CU or church? Or what will my headteacher do when I ask him or her if I can start a Christian Union? Or, what will my colleagues do if I pray with a patient?'
Well, tonight we're going to see how Jesus' first followers faced far bigger fears – and yet kept talking about Jesus. So to learn from them, let's turn in the Bible to Acts chapter 4. In this series on being a disciple – or follower – of Jesus, Graham Daniels spoke on becoming one; then we looked at trusting in Jesus' death for our forgiveness; and last week, at reading the Bible to get to know him better. This week, we come to: talking to people about Jesus. So look down to Acts 4, verse 1:
"And as they were speaking to the people…"
So 'they' were the apostles Peter and John. And, in chapter 3, the risen Lord Jesus had just healed someone through Peter, and everyone was running to get a look. So Peter grabbed the opportunity to say, 'That was done by the risen Lord Jesus – and it's a sign of how one day he'll put everything right, when he raises everyone who's trusted in him from the dead.' So verse 1 again:
"And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody…"
And I'd been them, I'd have been afraid – because these were the very same Jewish leaders who'd got Jesus crucified just weeks earlier. And people who were prepared to silence Jesus like that would presumably be open to most methods of silencing his followers. So look on to verse 7. The Jewish leaders have gathered next day,
"And when they had set [Peter and John] in the midst, they enquired, 'By what power or by what name did you do this?' Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, 'Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.'"
So Peter isn't praying for an empty seat next to him on the plane, is he? He goes for it. And, verse 13:
"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished."
Academics and the tertiary-educated can easily look down on people with no letters after their name, can't they? People like Jesus.
And then they sent Peter and John out. And look on to verse 17 for what they decided:
"'But in order that it [the message about Jesus] may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.' So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.' [Which is a verse that puts me to shame – because, as Randy Newman said, I find I can help speaking about it very easily.] And when they had further threatened them, they let them go…"
So what are you afraid of in telling people about Jesus? A 'no' to an invitation? A strained friendship? A Chinese family angry that you'll no longer worship the ancestors? Peter and John were looking more at…re-arrest, imprisonment and death. So whatever kept them talking about Jesus should keep us talking about him, if only we can learn the lesson from Acts 4. And it's a two-part lesson, and here's part 1:
1. Realise that Jesus is King – and that no opposition can change that (verses 23-28)
Look on to verse 23:
"When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, 'Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them…'"
Which is an example of how prayer restores perspective – especially corporate prayer, as you listen to what others pray and it gets you out of your own head and view of things.
So here, they've just been hauled up in front of the people in ultimate control, with all the power. But as they pray, they're reminded that actually it's the Lord who's in ultimate control, with all the power – because the Maker of everything and everyone is by definition sovereign over everything and everyone.
And 'sovereign' just means completely in control. Which means that nothing happens without God allowing it. Nothing happens which takes him by surprise, or because he couldn't help it. That was true of what Peter and John had just been through. And that's true of whatever we've been through or are going through right now. That doesn't mean we always have the comfort of knowing why he's allowed or allowing something, or what exactly he's doing through it. But it does mean we have the comfort of knowing that he's not lost control, and that it's part of his plan – which (mysteriously to us) does involve evil as well as good. So, verse 24 again:
"Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, [And then they quote Psalm 2:]
'Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed.'"
So turn back in the Bible to Psalm 2 – where we're now in the Old Testament, which was written before Jesus, to point forward to Jesus. And there you'll see Psalm 2, which begins:
"Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed?"
So the Lord's 'Anointed' was the one anointed to be king over his Old Testament people, Israel – in other words, David or any of his successors. And the picture in Psalm 2 is that the surrounding kings and nations aren't keen on him being king, because he and his people Israel remind them of the one, true God they should be living for – which they don't want to be reminded about. So they plot to get rid of him. But, verse 1 says: they 'plot in vain' – because they're pitting themselves against God. And verse 4 says how God sees any opposition to him – from the Humanist Society to the so-called new atheists to anti-Christian governments. Verse 4:
"He who sits in the heavens laughs;
[It's like when your toddler grabs you round the legs and says, 'I'm going to get you out of my way.' And you just keep gently walking on and say, 'Oh yeah?']
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
'As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.'"
In other words, the Lord says, 'I've decided there will be a king forever on the throne of David, and no opposition can change that.' And that king forever is the risen Lord Jesus – he's the king Psalm 2 was pointing to.
So now turn back to Acts 4 and verse 25 where they quote Psalm 2 in their prayer:
"'Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed'."
And then they use Psalm 2 like a lens to look through, to make sense of what happened to Jesus just weeks earlier. Verse 27:
"for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel…"
And you expect it to say, 'to do whatever they wanted – to get rid of him.' But look what verse 28 actually says:
"to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."
Because God is sovereign, and he has a plan, and the plan is for Jesus to bring people back under God's rule and to be their king forever. And the irony is that the opposition – Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman soldiers – couldn't change the plan, they could only serve the plan by sending Jesus to his throne. So they thought crucifiying him was game, set and match to them. When in fact he died so we can be forgiven and live back under his rule. And then he rose again to return to heaven, and share the throne of this universe with his Father. So all the opposition could so was: serve God's plan. It couldn't change it, and never can.
So that's the first lesson from this prayer. They've not actually asked for anything yet, have they? But the point is: as we pray, as we think who we're praying to, as we voice Bible truth about who we're praying to, as we hear others pray, prayer restores perspective. And in this case, it helped them to realise that Jesus is King – and that no opposition can change that.
Many of us will already have run into personal opposition to the gospel – friends who've been offended by what we've said or invited them to, family who've told us they think it's rubbish, or that they never want us to talk to them about it again (as my Dad said to me). And that's hard. And, increasingly we're likely, also, to run into official opposition to the gospel – for exampole, if LGBT compliance and a secular definition of 'equality' become required of us. ('Wear the rainbow lanyard – or else' is becoming the voice of modern-day 'inclusion' – blind (apparently) to the way it is so offensively excluding.) And that will be hard. But we need to remember that although the opposition to the gospel may not want to hear it, and may try to silence it, it can't change the truth of it – that Jesus has died for the forgiveness of everyone, and has risen, and is king, and that everyone will meet him – as Judge or Saviour – in the end. And if you're still just thinking this all through – maybe you just came tonight to support one of the people being baptised – why not take away a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? and give it a read and see what you make of it?
So that's Part 1 of the lesson here: realise that Jesus is King – and that no opposition can change that. And Part 2 is this:
2. Ask God to Give Us Boldness to Keep Speaking for Jesus (verses 29-31)
Look on to verse 29, where they finally actually do ask for something:
"'And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.' And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness."
So in verse 29, the main thing they ask for themselves is:
"grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness"
And the original word translated 'boldness' was the word they used in normal, everyday life for 'freedom of speech' in society. So they're asking, 'grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with complete freedom of speech – not holding back out of fear'.
And they were asking that against the background of their freedom of speech being threatened by the authorities of the day. Just look back to verse 17 for a reminder of that, where the Jewish leaders say to each other,
"'But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.' So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus."
So they probably wouldn't have minded if Peter and John had just stuck to speaking about God. Just like today if you tell people you believe in God, they might think it's sad you need that psychological crutch, but they probably won't mind – because you're not implying it's got anything to do with them.
Whereas the moment you start speaking about Jesus, you are implying it's got something to do with them – because you're not saying, 'This is just my personal, private belief.' You're saying, 'This is about someone who really lived and died and rose again. And that's not just in my head – that's out there in history. And if it's true, it's true for everyone including you.' That's why the moment you say the J-word, the atmosphere changes, doesn't it? Because people sense that you're saying, 'This is true… so all of that isn't; and this has a claim on you.'
And that's why the Jewish leaders wanted to suppress all talk about Jesus – to protect themselves from the challenge of his claims. And our freedom of speech today is being threatened for the same reason – people wanting to protect themselves from the challenge of Jesus' claims. And which of his claims people find most offensive varies from time to time and place to place. But right now, where we are, his claims as Creator that:
- there are only two genders –male and female,
- and that the only place for sex is loving, heterosexual marriage,
- and that marriage is for life
are massively offensive to the culture that's been created around us in the last fifty years.
So, for example, you may have read about the Christian doctor sacked recently for refusing to affirm the so-called chosen sex of a transgender patient. The judgement against Dr David Mackereth said (quote), "A lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism… are incompatible with human dignity..." So that's a judgement, recently made in our society, that the beliefs of many of us here are "incompatible with human dignity". In response, Dr Mackereth said, "I believe… I have to appeal in order to fight for the freedom of Christians to speak the truth. If they cannot, then freedom of speech in this country has died."
So, just like in Acts 4, our authorities are now threatening our freedom of speech at an official level. Which is an additional fear to deal with – on top of the ones we already have at a personal level about how friends and family and neighbours and colleagues will react to us talking about Jesus.
So how do we respond?
Well, the answer is: not by trying to feel bold, but by praying to be made bold. I don't know if you've come across The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis. It's a book of imaginary letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to the junior devil he's training up. And in one letter, Screwtape tells him how to mess up a Christian's prayer life (quote):
"The simplest [method] is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them… trying to produce feelings… by the action of their own wills. So when they meant to ask Him for charity, let them instead start trying to manufacture charitable feelings by themselves… Or when they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave."
So the answer is: not trying to feel bold, but praying to be made bold. And it's really striking that that's what the apostle Paul, at the end of a lifetime of speaking about Jesus, asked people to pray for him. He wrote in Ephesians:
"and [pray] also… that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel..." Ephesians 6.19
And it's tempting to think, 'But no-one was bolder than Paul – did he really need prayer for that?' And the answer is: yes, because boldness for Jesus isn't something we have naturally; it's something we need to be given – and given freshly for each occasion.
So back to Acts 4, verse 29. They ask:
" … grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
[And I'm not going to go in to whether we're to expect today the same kind of ministry of miracles as the apostles had in Acts. So on to verse 31 to see the answer to their prayer for themselves:]
"And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken,
[which, unlike here, wasn't just because they built the Metro too close to the building – there's nothing supernatural about that rumbling every five minutes, in case you were wondering] and [then here's the main answer to prayer that Luke highlights:] they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness."
Now the Bible says: our lives are like houses where Jesus should be living as King, or live-in landlord, if you like. And when we first say to Jesus, 'Please forgive me, and come in and take over the running of my life', he comes in by his Spirit. And I can still remember the totally new sense of his presence which that brought, and the totally new sense of what he was pleased by and of the sin he was grieved by – if you like, of how he wanted to reorder 'the house', and what he wanted to chuck out. And by his Spirit, Jesus is either in the 'house' of your life, or he's not (yet). You can't have 50% or 75% of his Spirit in you. It's either 100% or not at all.
So what does it mean in verse 31 that Christians – who already have his Spirit living in them – can be 'filled with the Spirit'? Well, the best answer I've come across is from Jim Packer in his book Keep In Step With The Spirit – where he says: 'Being filled with the Spirit is not a matter of you having more of the Spirit, but of the Spirit having more of you.' Using the picture of the 'house' of our lives, being filled with the Spirit happens as Jesus, by his Spirit, takes more control of more of the 'rooms' – the different areas – of our lives.
So here in Acts 4, Peter and John & Co might have been tempted to give less of themselves to Jesus, to his Spirit in them, by going quiet about the gospel – to protect themselves. But instead, by his Spirit, God gave them a strengthened sense of his presence, and so a strengthened sense of wanting to please him rather than their listeners, and of wanting to be faithful to God and to the truth above all. And so they talked more, not less, about Jesus – and so the Spirit had more, not less, of them.
So that's the second part of the lesson here. We need to ask God to give us boldness to keep speaking for Jesus.
That means we need to be honest with each other, like Randy Newman who I quoted at the start, about how we're not naturally bold. Let's not pretend to one another about this. I'm as feeble as you are – maybe feebler, sometimes – at this.
And we also need to copy this prayer – both on our own and with others – and to pray it regularly.
And very importantly, we also need to realise that the sign that it's being answered is not some wonderful freedom from fear, or some amazing experience that makes it all easy. Because the sign that it was being answered in Acts 4 was, verse 31, simply that:
"they… continued to speak the word of God."
In other words, they didn't give up. And the sign that God is answering this prayer for us will be that – despite our fears and all the pressures around us – we don't give up either.