October 10, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Withstand Opposition
Acts 4:1-22

Among the more wonderful experiences in life is leading another person to faith in Christ. It could be through personal testimony. Just a few weeks ago, Pastor Allison excitedly knocked on my office door. She wanted me to know that a baby had just been born in her office—a woman new to our church committed her life to Jesus. Or it could be through teaching or preaching. You present the Gospel, and people open their hearts and join the family. What could be more exciting?!?

But it doesn’t always work out that way when we share our faith, does it? It may seem that way in the opening chapters of Acts. The Holy Spirit comes upon the church on Pentecost, the Christians are enthused and empowered, Peter preaches a moving sermon, and thousands believe. But is doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Not according to Acts 4:1-22.

Soon after the events on the day of Pentecost, Peter and John encountered a life-long invalid begging along the road as they made their way to the temple to pray (3:1-10). By the time this encounter ended, the invalid had received far more than the silver and gold that he sought—he could walk. The event, as you might well guess, caused quite a commotion, a commotion that led Peter to preach yet again. 5,000 more people, Luke informs us, believed in Jesus as a result.

But not everyone was rejoicing. In truth, when the Spirit of God is at work, so is someone else. Count on it—it is an inescapable reality in the spiritual life. When the Spirit of God is working, so is the opposition. Where there is a proliferation of light, darkness lurks around the corner. Here in Acts 4, we encounter the first real taste of conflict between the early Christians and the world around them.

As the excitement in the air multiplied following the healing of the invalid, the upper crust in Jerusalem—the religious authorities—reacted: they grew annoyed. People in authority often do that, don’t they, when the pot is stirred up. These leaders, Luke tells us, grew annoyed with Peter and John both because of what they did and what they said. They were annoyed because Peter and John were teaching the crowds. Their teaching grew increasingly popular, and the results were overwhelming. Three thousand believed in Jesus one day, and 5,000 the next. With each new convert, the authorities sensed their own power and influence dwindling. And they grew uneasy, as most leaders do, when their own authority was at risk.
These religious higher-ups, furthermore, grew annoyed at what Peter and John said. Again and again, the disciples spoke of Jesus and his resurrection, and neither were popular topics among these leaders. The content of Peter and John’s message, therefore, was offensive, offensive enough to get these people all riled up.

But it often is that way, isn’t it, when the followers of Jesus live out their calling. As we model and share the good news of Christ, some around us will join the 3,000 and the 5,000 and believe. Others, however, will not. Some will kneel down and confess. Others will grow increasingly annoyed. We may never even open our mouths. Just who we are as Christians and how we live is enough to set them off. Our refusal to compromise our faith by participating in ungodly activities makes them grow uncomfortable and to label us as “goody-goodies.” Our attitudes toward wealth and power leave them wondering about our sanity. If we follow Jesus seriously, our very lives can annoy people.

Still others may grow annoyed by what we say. As we announce the good news of Christ faithfully, many will find our message objectionable, just like the authorities did with Peter and John. It might be the idea that all people are born into sin and therefore stand in need of God’s grace and mercy that some find objectionable. It might be our belief that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the way to be saved. It might be our position on peace and the call that we believe Jesus has given to his followers to actively pursue non-violent resolution of conflict. You name it. The message of Jesus Christ is fundamentally good news, but it is also often objectionable. It will ruffle feathers. It will make people uncomfortable. It will stir up waves and threaten existing structures and paradigms. Many believed Peter and John as they taught, but others grew annoyed.

For Peter and John, the religious leaders were the ones here who raised their defenses. In reality, however, the list of opponents is far more varied. Spouses who fail to understand their husband or wife’s newfound faith in Christ. Parents who conclude that their child has rejected them in choosing to become a Christian. Employers. Local officials. And on and on. Like the religious leaders in Acts 4, they want to protect their position. They want to safeguard their power and authority. They don’t want anything threatening their deeply held beliefs. So they grow annoyed. They react.

Here in Acts 4, as these people in authority grow increasingly annoyed, they respond as such people often do. They first use their influence to confine Peter and John. They arrest them and throw them in prison. Then they question the source of their authority. “Who gave you the right to teach in public, stirring up such a commotion in the process? Show us your work permit entitling you to set up shop here at the temple!” It is not easy for people to share their authority and position. It is not easy when people feel threatened to recognize any legitimacy in others, particularly in those who at first glance are so less equipped than are they themselves. “What gives you the right to say that to me?” you’ve perhaps heard someone ask when you’ve shared your faith. And finally, out of desperation, these leaders simply told Peter and John not to speak again in the name of Jesus. They tried to silence them.

People throughout history have sought to silence the followers of Jesus. They burned our books. Outlawed our meetings. Or simply told us to be quiet. In various countries in the world today, it is illegal for Christians to even share their faith. In other countries, similar legislation is currently on the table. Most of us have it pretty good, actually, but even we know—if we are bold enough in living for Christ—what it is like to feel rejected. It happens at home, at work, and even at play. People sometimes grow annoyed and do whatever they can to silence the Christian witness.

The authorities react. They respond. But please notice the disciples resolve. You see it from the beginning of this episode to the end as Peter, John, and the unnamed invalid stand up to both the reaction as well as the response. What enables them to do that? They are compelled by Christ’s love, constantly referring to the name of Jesus in all of their interactions. “Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus healed the invalid. Jesus is the hope of the world.” they repeatedly announce. And they are empowered—do you see it in v. 8?—by the Holy Spirit.

It is helpful for us to note the disciples’ resolve here more carefully. Soon after their arrest, Peter and John find themselves standing before these same authorities who have grown annoyed at them. As the interrogation progresses, one is struck by Peter’s rather reasoned defense. This is, I think you’ll agree, a rather opportune time to either brush off the entire affair, as Peter has done before, or to lose control and cause an even greater scene. Peter no doubt had the make-up to do that as well. But he does neither. Instead, he speaks respectfully: “Rulers of the people and elders,” he begins.

But Peter also speaks honestly and courageously. Neither his respectful approach to those in authority nor the tension in the air prevent him from speaking the truth with razor-sharp precision:
Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified,…
The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to exercise self-control without compromising the truth. There is an overwhelming sense of restraint and composure—peace—complemented by boldness. That, quite frankly, is a formidable combination made possible only by the Holy Spirit.

Note further that, once the authorities huddled and instructed these unlearned disciples not to preach anymore, both Peter and John, with the invalid standing proudly right beside them, announce that they simply cannot remain silent. Like Jeremiah, who sensed a fire burning deep within his soul, Peter and John must keep sharing the gospel, even if these people in authority oppose them.

In reflecting on the experiences of these early disciples, one can hardly help but notice just how similar their journey is to that of Jesus. As Luke describes the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, we find an unmistakable progression or development much like what we see here in Acts. Jesus’ early years remain in virtual obscurity. We know little of the first 30 or so years of his life. After the Holy Spirit descends upon him at his baptism in Luke 3, Jesus begins his ministry of teaching and healing. Before long, a growing sense of antagonism develops and various people try to silence him—his brothers, neighbors in Nazareth, public officials. As you well know, those attempts to silence Jesus grow increasingly hostile and lead eventually to his death.

In the same way, the disciples appear in relative obscurity as the book of Acts unfolds. Gathered together in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, they have virtually nothing to say. Once the Holy Spirit comes upon them, however, they set off on this striking mission that leads to the conversion of many who hear. It doesn’t take long, however, for feathers to be ruffled. People grow annoyed. Threats are made. Efforts to silence them increase. If the model established by Jesus continues, one wonders if something worse lies somewhere down the road.

But it doesn’t seem to matter to these disciples that their journey parallels that of Jesus. It doesn’t seem to deter them when opposition arises. Why? Because Jesus Christ offers eternal hope to all who follow him. As Ann Svennegsun, the new president of the Fund for Theological Education, said at our recent meetings in Dallas, “If we don’t have to worry about the last hour of our lives, why do worry about the next moment?” Compelled by the love of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, these disciples keep right on going! Thanks be to God. So can we!