Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Persecution and proclamation (Acts 3-4)

Here's the draft of a talk I'm due to give on Thursday at the University of Central Lancashire CU. Any thoughts, as ever, are most welcome.

As chapter 3 opens, Peter and John go up to the temple to pray. And as they go in they meet a man, lame from birth. But instead of giving him some loose change, Peter heals him on the spot in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You can sense the utter astonishment as the congenitally lame man suddenly gets up and leaps around the temple courts praising God.

Well, a crowd forms. And Peter takes the opportunity to address them. Everyone could plainly see that the man had been healed – and, not surprisingly, everyone was asking exactly how this could have happened. And Peter says this: ‘You have to understand that this happened because of one thing; in fact, because of one person.’ And so Peter speaks of Jesus. He speaks of how he exercised faith in the risen Jesus that this man could be healed. He says the result must be attributed not to chance, but to Jesus. In fact, in verse 12, he says that the crowd shouldn’t be surprised that this has happened. Because the power to heal came from no ordinary person! Look at how Peter describes Jesus in these verses – the author of life, raised from the dead by God (verse 15), the one who will restore all things to what God meant them to be (verse 21), the fulfilment of prophecy (verse 22) and the one through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed (verse 25)! The healing has come from the very author of life himself.

Now this is a very big claim. Peter is saying that the very one who gives life – in other words, the one true Lord of the Universe – has just healed the man. And so the healing had immediate significance for every single person there. Jesus, the Lord of the Universe made the healing possible, and given all of the people there were in the Universe, he was their Lord too. Yet they had rejected him. They thought he was a joke. And so, as we read in 3:19-21, Peter tells the gathered crowd to repent and accept God’s gift of a new life before Jesus comes back to restore everything.

But now let’s freeze the action. Because at this point a very surprising thing happens. The authorities step in. They close down the makeshift meeting and shoo people away. They cart Peter and John off to prison. It’s surprising because things seem to be going so well: the Spirit has come powerfully to equip the church. 3000 saved with just the first sermon. King Jesus is powerfully working through the church. So this disruption seems strange. What’s going on? Has God taken his eye off of the action? Well – no. Rather, what these chapters establish is a pattern common to the book of Acts. We’re going to see three characteristics of what happens as the gospel is proclaimed.

The first thing is that the gospel is rejected and Christians who proclaim the gospel are persecuted by some.

You might be wondering: why were the authorities so upset with Peter and John? The answer is spelled out in 4:2: “The authorities were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” It was the fact that they were talking about Jesus that riled the authorities. Specifically, it was the resurrection of the dead that really got them. ‘Resurrection of the dead’ is shorthand for the teaching that judgement is coming, and all people will be raised either to eternal life or eternal death. And Luke tells us who was upset: amongst others the Sadducees, a religious and political group who didn’t believe in the final judgement. And they did not like this talk about Jesus coming to judge and restore one little bit.

Additionally, given that the Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife, they lived as much as they could for the moment. And so they’d collaborated with the Romans to get themselves into positions of power. So Peter and John are doubly guilty to the Sadducees – not only as heretics, but also those who might jeopardise the good relationship the Sadducees had with the Romans. That’s why Peter and John are hauled off. To the Sadducees, the Jesus Peter and John spoke of did not fit their mould. He did not tick the right boxes. He did not say what they thought that he should say. Following him was costly. It might have cost them the benefits of power that the Roman authorities had given them.

So often people respond to Jesus in the same way today. Jesus gets in their way. He’s considered too costly to follow.

About 18 months ago, I’d just finished my afternoon’s work here in Preston one Friday and caught the train to Lancaster. I sat down and the guy next to me asks where I’m going. I say, ‘Lancaster’; he says, ‘You don’t sound from your accent that your from up here originally’; I say, ‘No, I moved up; He says, ‘Why did you move up’; I say, ‘Because of my job’; He says, ‘What’s that?’; I say ‘I teach the Bible to students; half of my time with Christians, and half of my time with people who aren’t Christians but who are interested in Jesus’ life and claims.’ He says, ‘Well that’s a bit like me – I’d like to know more about Jesus’ – and for the next few minutes we talk about Jesus.

So there we are, chatting about Jesus, and then all of a sudden, the man sitting opposite me, a scary Victor Meldrew look-alike decides to weigh into the conversation. His first comment is this: ‘Well, of course, you can’t trust the Bible as it was made up by the Catholic church in the 15th Century!’ And I say, ‘No, that’s not true, we have fragments from the NT going right back to the beginning of the 2nd Century.’ A little bit later, he says, ‘Well this all seems important to you.’ I said, ‘Well it’s a matter of eternal life and eternal death how we respond to Jesus and his teaching.’ He then gets to look a little bit uncomfortable and says, ‘Well what is Jesus’ teaching?’ I say, ‘Well, he claimed to come from God and said that we have all ruled God out and need to be forgiven.’ He says, ‘What? I need to be forgiven by God?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He says, ‘What? You’re saying I need to be forgiven?!’ Slightly more angry now. I say, ‘Well, it’s not me saying it! It’s Jesus, God in human form!’ He’s now angry, ‘I don’t need to be forgiven!’ I’m still speaking nicely to him. I said, ‘I’m not saying you’re a nasty person; what I am saying is that you have ruled God out. Can you not think of any way in which you’ve ruled God out and hurt others so that you might need to be forgiven?’ By this time he’s standing up and waving his finger at me. The whole carriage has gone quiet, ‘No. I WANT TO LIVE MY LIFE MY WAY. AND I HAVE DONE NOTHING SO THAT I NEED TO BE FORGIVEN BY GOD.’ At this point, I decide to end the conversation, but unfortunately he decides to carry it on, shouting abuse at me for the rest of the journey home. I breathe a massive sigh of relief when the train finally arrives in Lancaster! Now what’s gone on here? Did I say something wrong? No. Was I particularly disrespectful or not gentle? No, I don’t think so. What went on? Well, the man saw something of Jesus and his claims, and reacted to them. He wanted to live his life, and he didn’t like being told that he needed to be forgiven by God. He hated that message and he rejected it.

This is a reaction we may well see next week as we tell others about Jesus, about their sin and their need to be forgiven. And when this happens, we need to know that it’s not necessarily because we’re doing something wrong. We often assume that it must be us that’s doing something wrong. It’s true that sometimes we don’t help ourselves, if when we proclaim the gospel we speak ungraciously. I hope that as a CU we commend the gospel by our manner and with our words. But in the final analysis, gospel rejection boils down to the fact that people would rather keep living their way, than bow the knee to Jesus. It's a very humbling experience to come face to face with Jesus and have him challenge everything we stand for and live for. It’s challenging to be told that we need to be forgiven by God. It’s challenging to be told that God is angry with us because of our rebellion. And some react angrily in response.

This isn’t a very happy truth but the fact that the gospel will be rejected by some is something that we’ll need to keep in the back of our minds. We need to remember that we live in a spiritual battle, and the main need that people have is not information, but a complete change of heart. We’ll need to remember this to keep going. If I think evangelism is just a matter of imparting information, then I’m going to lose heart. I’m going to have unpleasant experiences like on that train and think one of two things. Either, number one – the gospel message is ridiculous, or, more likely, number two – I can’t tell the gospel. If I make people angry when I tell them the gospel, maybe I shouldn’t bother. That’s what I thought immediately after my train conversation. But we’re in a spiritual battle. Peter and John faced exactly the same reaction. Even Jesus, the most gentle and respectful person ever, often got an angry response. Sometimes so will we. But it’s because people need a spiritual miracle, and not because we’re doing something wrong.

So the first thing we will see as we proclaim the gospel is rejection by some. The second thing is a need to stick by our convictions.

Let’s go back to the moment that Peter and John are arrested. The following morning, they are hauled before the court. Now what would you have done if you were Peter, standing before that court? Perhaps we’d be tempted to say something like this, ‘Well, your honours, I think there has been a terrible mistake. Actually I don’t really believe in the resurrection of the dead – there’s not really going to be a future judgement! And Jesus? Well, nice teacher – but not the Messiah. Now, why don’t we just forget this ever happened and I’ll get back to minding my own business?’

Is that what Peter does? Not at all! He’s made the mistake of betraying Jesus once already, and when he’s up against it a second time, he doesn’t flinch. Look at verses 10-12: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead that this man stands before you completely healed. He is the stone the builders rejected, which has become the capstone. Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

What was it that gave Peter courage to speak in the face of such adversity? It was his convictions about Jesus. To the authorities, Jesus was a menace from a backend town in Galilee, crucified as a common criminal. But Peter knew they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Because Jesus was alive, raised from the dead by God the Father. And all that goes to show that he really is the King of the Universe. He really is the Messiah, King of kings, Lord of lords and given authority from God the Father to judge. So verse 12 Peter concludes, “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Do you see Peter’s thought here? Since God raised Jesus from the dead and has made him head over everything, then he is the only way to heaven. Trusting in him is the only hope of being saved from sin and judgement.

Peter was absolutely convinced that Jesus was the only Saviour. That’s why he said what he said. He was convinced that if you reject Jesus you reject God. And notice that this isn’t a matter of personal opinion. Peter says Jesus is the only Saviour who can save us. It’s as stark as that. He doesn’t pander to the atmosphere of the day, but says what he knows to be true. And that’s what we’ll need to do too. It’s not always easy speaking for Jesus. But if we believe the gospel to be truth for all, we will speak.

Well, the trial continues. Verses 13-17: ‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing that they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everybody in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”’ There was nothing the authorities could say. Peter’s speech was breath-taking and the evidence of the healed man was quite literally staring them in the face. So they ask for a little time, finally coming to this conclusion. ‘Erm – would you mind not speaking any more about Jesus?’ That’s all they can do. But when Peter hears the verdict, he gives a blunt reply. Verse 19: “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.”

What a reply! He’s effectively saying that the authorities are standing in the way of God. It’s God or them, and there’s no choice. He’s obeying God. And what is God’s command? Well, it is for them to testify about what they have seen and heard: to spread the gospel. Peter was a driven man, sold out on obeying God and telling people about Jesus. Like us, he had a divine commission to do so.

Peter’s compulsion forced him to take a stand against the authorities. The same has been for many Christians true down the ages. An example is Andrew Melville. Melville stood up to King James VI of Scotland who was meddling in the spreading of the gospel at the time. This is what he said to the King: “We must discharge our duty, or else be traitors both to Christ and to you, for there are two kings in Scotland. There is King James, the Head of the Commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James VI is, of whose kingdom he is not a lord, nor a king but a member. We will yield to you your place, and give you all due obedience, but you are not the head of the church, you cannot give eternal life, nor can you deprive us of it. We charge you therefore to permit us freely to meet and to preach in Christ’s name.”

Andrew Melville knew where he stood before God and so he knew his priorities and refused the King of Scotland for the King of the Universe. Now we need to be careful how we apply this. It’s not as if we all go crazy, just annoying everyone on campus. We need to be gracious and wise. Nor does it mean we are freed from our earthly rulers so that none of us need turn up to lectures on Monday. But as we live in this world and are subjects of sort – to the Government, to lecturers, to the SU – we need to remember that at the same time we’re servants to King Jesus, whose word comes first. And salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.

Peter’s priorities were shaped by the fact that Jesus was his true King and only Saviour. He had no choice but to tell people about Christ. I wonder how much of our fear and shyness would be dispelled if we remembered who it was we serve and that he is the only Saviour. I remember hearing a talk a few years ago on Acts 4. I wrote out Acts 4:12 on a notebook that I took each day to university. It was a great stimulus to speaking for Jesus. Peter was compelled to tell the gospel because he knew the gospel was true. For us, even when under pressure, even when our message is unpopular, we have to say: ‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’

So we’ve seen two characteristics of gospel ministry. Firstly – our message will be rejected by some, but secondly – even when things are tough we stick by our convictions and speak for Jesus. And the third and final characteristic is this: even when opposed, the word of God goes out unhindered. Look at verse 4: ‘But many who heard the message believed and the number of men grew to about five thousand.’

The word of the Lord does not return to him empty, even when there’s opposition. Many who heard Peter’s message believed and the number of men grew to several thousand. In fact, there’s a growth spurt. The Sadducees could arrest the apostles, but they couldn’t arrest the gospel. And that’s the pattern throughout Acts. The gospel message is opposed – yet it continues to grow and change people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. People may try to oppose the gospel – but it’s God’s work to save and he’s committed to it. And so we see through Acts that persecution does not hinder the spread of the gospel. In fact, often it increases its spread.

That's what’s been happening in China for the last 70 years. In the 1930’s all missionaries had to leave and persecution followed under Communism. But in spite of all that the church grew from half a million in 1930 to around 100 million today. Many Chinese church leaders have become bolder in spreading the gospel after experiencing persecution. It’s Chinese church leaders that are now making plans to reach the Middle East with the gospel, not worried about persecution they might face.

Let’s draw our thoughts to a close. I don’t know how the gospel message will be received in Preston, during mission week and afterwards. We’re in a spiritual battle. The pattern here suggests that some will be apathetic and at least some will oppose the message. But let’s not lose our nerve. Let’s remain bold in our witness. Because our message is true – there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And we can have a quiet confidence that despite the opposition we may face – maybe even through the opposition we may face – God’s gospel message will continue to draw people to him by the power of his Holy Spirit.


gazleaney said...

Hey Peter. Good talk, and a great one pre-mission. I did slightly wonder if you could beef up the last point, about the gospel going out unhindered? The first point is a bit scary, and they might appreciate you going on a bit more about the gospel being brilliant and effective etc? Or not. Just a suggestion, but it's good as it is anyway.


peterdray said...

Yes - I'd thought the same. I've got a few minutes tomorrow to boost it!

Cheers for the help :)