“A people worthy to suffer”
Anyone could guess that it was going to come to this. Back in chapter four Peter and John are ordered by the Temple authorities not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18). Like any faithful Christian should, Peter and John make this a matter of prayer; they ask God to help them so that next time they are in the Temple, they say only what is designed to soothe and comfort the keepers of the traditions—that doesn’t sound right, does it? No. They prayed to be able speak the word with all boldness (Acts 4:29).
Let’s hear what happens. Our text today is Acts 5:17–42. You can find it on page 123 of the New Testament of the Bibles in the pews, and, of course, it will be on the screen behind me. As you are able, please stand for the reading of God’s Word.
Let us pray. (first stanza of Speak, O Lord)
It likely will not surprise any of you to hear that there are some sermons that almost seem to write themselves. I sit in front of my laptop and the ideas simply seem to flow. There are other weeks when it is more of a struggle to figure out exactly what it is I believe God is leading me to say about the text and about how it relates to us. This sermon was like that, mostly because I got caught up thinking about the place this story about Peter and John would have had in the church when Dr. Luke came to put pen to scroll. So today I am going to try out some ideas on you. Selected verses of the text will appear on the screen, but I think it would be particularly helpful if you had your Bible open to Acts 5.
Have a look at the sequence of events. We are told in 5:14 more and more believers were being added to the church. According to 5:16 Peter and the other apostles are gaining such notoriety that they are the focus of pilgrimages as those seeking healing and the blessing of God come in from the towns surrounding Jerusalem in order to see and hear these men who proclaim Jesus as Messiah.
This is not going to sit well with the Temple officials. Our text begins: Then the high priest took action. They round up the whole group of apostles and put them in prison for the night. Here they are following the law to the letter, for trials had to be conducted in the light of day. In a way that is not explained, except to say that an angel was involved, the prison doors are opened and the apostles are told to get on with their preaching. When dawn breaks this is what they do.
So here is the scene. To my twisted little brain it has almost the feel of a 3 Stooges movie. The high priest, along with the council and the elders of Israel arrive in the morning and get set up for the trial. The police are dispatched and told to bring back the prisoners. They come back to report that everything seemed to be as it should be at the prison, except for one important thing: the prisoners were missing. The text gives us a picture of the leaders of the Temple sitting there scratching their heads wondering what has happened when someone else runs in and breathlessly reports, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”
The question I kept asking myself was this: why is the story told in this particular way. It is comical—those whom everyone thought held all the power when it came to the religious life of the Jews think they are getting rid of a group who are becoming more of a nuisance each day. They lock them up and think that the problem is taken care of at least until the next day. Instead, before they can proceed with the interrogation and trial, these upstart preachers are back in the Temple spreading this incredible story about Jesus, God’s Messiah, being raised from the dead.
Do you see the contrast that I think Luke wants us to see? The Temple leaders, the scribes and elders think that what they are doing is vitally important because they have co-operated with Rome in order to ensure that Temple worship is maintained. The sacrifices that God had prescribed in the Old Testament were going on precisely because these leaders had negotiated a truce of sorts. They asked for their worship to be maintained; in return the Romans asked them to help keep a lid on any sort of protest or rebellion.
These “Jesus people” could not be counted on to stay out of trouble. Jesus, in fact, had said something about giving to Caesar what belonged to Caesar all the while making sure that God was given what belonged to him. There was no predicting what sort of trouble that kind of teaching might eventually bring. After all, if you have people thinking God speaks to them directly, there’s no telling what sort of trouble they will cause.
Here then is the contrast: on the one hand you have those whose whole lives are supposedly tied up in preserving the place where God lives. On the other hand you have a bunch teaching in that very place that God is no longer concerned as much about sacred places as he is about making his home in the world through Jesus, the Messiah, the anointed one, the Lord.
I think this is the comedy here. The Temple leaders live in fear that what they think of as the home of God will be threatened by the Romans unless a firm lid is kept on people like Peter and John. The truth is this: God has already left the Temple and is now going to make his dwelling in the world through people that fall in love with and follow Jesus. The Temple leaders know there’s trouble, but they have no idea what the real trouble is. Dr. Luke shows us this—they can’t figure out why the apostles are missing from prison. It never occurs to them that it might be God who wants them telling the story of Jesus.
Of the many things we could look at in this story, there are two that struck me. The first is the attitude of the disciples regarding the threats and the abuse they receive at the hands of the chief priest and the Temple police. Look at verse 41 of our text. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name.
This is something for us to look at quite carefully. It is important to see, for example, that the first followers of Jesus did not seek persecution. It was a simple matter to them. On the occasion of the first arrest that is reported in Acts, Peter tells the Temple leaders that it boils down to this: to whom are we going to listen? The only choice possible for them is to listen to God.
What does this mean for us? For Christians in many parts of our world, the choices are as clear as they were for Peter and John and the other apostles. For example, just a little more than two months ago a number of Blythwood’s women gathered for the Advent Candlelight Tea. On that same day in Boukham village in Laos’ Savannakhet Province, about 200 church members had gathered for a Christmas celebration.
Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that the leaders had secured permission for Friday’s event from Boukham’s village chief and invited him to attend. He stayed for the Christmas meal but left before the sermon began. After the sermon, at about 9 p.m., village security forces entered the building, isolated the leaders and marched them to the Boukham government headquarters, where they were detained without charge.
“While they were held without formal charges, it is quite clear that they were arrested for gathering people for worship,” an HRWLRF spokesman said.
On Dec. 18 the village chief told the detainees that they had violated “hiit,” or the traditional spirit cult of the village, by gathering for a Christian worship service. He then ordered them not to practice Christianity in Boukham for fear that the spirits would be offended, HRWLRF reported.
Boukham’s chief asked the detainees to admit their guilt and agree not to worship Christ in the village, but all refused, according to HRWLRF.
To state the obvious, no one here at Blythwood would give a second thought to having a Christmas celebration in December. The only thing that might be a concern is making sure the Friendship Room wasn’t double-booked.
There are likely a number of ways in which we could examine this issue. Here’s where the rubber hits the road for me. In our world most everyone is content to let Christians do our thing as long as we keep it a private matter and don’t meddle where we don’t belong—in other words, anywhere other than tucked away at church.
But this cannot be. Our Lord Jesus is still the one who insists on making sure God gets from us what belongs to him. This includes politics, economics, labour relations, the environment. It is still true—The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. I must be prepared to suffer dishonour in order to speak the name of Jesus in every last one of those conversations.
The second thing I thought worthy of our notice was the mention of the rabbi, Gamaliel. This rabbi is well-known from Jewish sources of this period. He was designated a “rabban,” a man of exemplary devotion and piety. He knew the law inside and out and was willing to teach it to all who would sit at his feet.
Gamaliel was a follower of the school of the rabbi named Hillel. He believed that what God wants is for Israel to keep the law, but since this was a matter of the heart, we don’t need to fight people to establish it. On this occasion, he spells out the principle clearly: if this new movement is a human invention, it will fail; if it’s from God you may eventually discover that you are ones standing in the way of God’s purposes.
N. T. Wright says, “The church can never anticipate who will suddenly speak up for our right to exist, and to preach and teach about Jesus” (Acts for Everyone, Part 1, p.95). Friends, God’s ways are not our ways. There are times when we wonder why God did not raise up a supportive voice. We might ask why a voice was not raised when the Council condemned Stephen (7:54–58). However we also recognize that Gamaliel did speak up on this particular day. The allies of God are not limited to the church. The Holy Spirit works both inside and outside the borders of Christianity.
We remain faithful not because the kingdom depends on us but precisely because the kingdom depends on God. I may have some success; I may experience a particularly bitter defeat. Within the ups and downs and in-betweens, God is always there. The world is being turned right-side-up and that’s the side I want to be on.