Sunday 24 March 2013

Stand by me (Acts 4:1-31)

In much trembling

There is a Chinese wedding tradition called Chip San Leong, which means “fetching the bride,” where the groom arrives at the home of the bride only to be stopped at the entrance with a series of tests to prove his love for his future wife. Typically, he is made to eat wasabi or do a hundred push-ups, something silly like that. It’s a game, of course, designed by the Ah Yees, the bridesmaids, as a bit of fun to test the groom’s patience and resolve.

I mention that because I was reminded of the tradition this week in the installation of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Justin Welby, became the 105th leader of the Anglican Church in a ceremony attended by the Queen, the Prince of Wales, even the Prime Minister, in an event broadcast live on the BBC.

According to tradition, the ceremony began with the new Archbishop standing outside the cathedral with the doors closed, knocking on it three times with a shepherd’s staff. As the doors open, a young girl confronts him with a series of questions, “Who are you? Why have you come here?” She doesn’t make him do push-ups or anything like that yet these questions are there to test his confidence and his resolve.

“How do you come among us?” she asks, “And with what confidence?”

The Archbishop replies with these words, “‘I come knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in weakness and fear and in much trembling,” (echoing the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians Chapter 2).

Confidence. That is the theme of today’s passage under three points:

1. The confidence to speak
2. The confidence to lead
3. The confidence to pray

The confidence to speak

First, the confidence to speak. Look with me to verse 1.

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.
Acts 4:1

If you are new, today’s message is a continuation from last week study when we met Peter and John going into the temple. They are on their way to pray at the temple when they are stopped by a beggar. This man has been begging at the temple all his life. He is crippled, he is poor and he asks them for money. Peter says to the man, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Immediately and miraculously, the man is healed. He jumps to his feet and follows Peter and John into the temple, praising God and drawing the attention of everyone at the temple that day.

And here in Chapter 4 we see that this gets Peter and John into trouble with the temple police - the priests, the captain of the guard and the Sadducees. These officials cut through the crowd - weaving through thousands of people gathering in the temple - in order to arrest the apostles and to put them in prison. But not because of the miracle. Notice that. It is not because they healed the man but because Peter and John were talking about Jesus.

Look at verse 2:

They were greatly disturbed (or as the ESV puts it, they were “greatly annoyed”) because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus, the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Acts 4:2-4

Our first point is the apostles’ confidence in speaking. That is, first and foremost, this is a confidence - a boldness - that is tied to the gospel, that comes from the gospel. This is a courage that goes hand in hand with the gospel message. That is what gets Peter and John into trouble with the authorities - their boldness in speaking about Jesus; their boldness in speaking to the crowd.

The reason why they are put in prison is not the miracle. Verse 2: “They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people.” In order to put a stop to their teaching, the manager of the temple locked them up in the storeroom cupboard for the night. They didn’t have a problem with the miracle. I mean, they thought it was annoying that Peter and John had done this miracle but we soon see that the focus of the religious leaders’ frustration was not what they did but what they said. Peter and John was talking about the resurrection from the dead.

The next day, the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so was Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them, “By what power or what name did you do this?”
Acts 4:5-7

We have a long list of people here - the rulers, elders and teachers of the law. It’s like saying the masters of all the colleges and the heads of every department including the theology professors from the Divinity School decided to meet in one location to debate over one important issue. Every decision-makers and every VIP turns up for this one big meeting.

But also, in verse 6, we have the most important of VIPs: the high priest. And not just the high priest, mind you, but three generations of high priests - Annas, Caiaphas and John - presiding over the meeting. So this was a big deal.

The name of this council, we are told later in verse 15, is the Sanhedrin, which according to tradition, was made up of seventy individuals. Think of the Sanhedrin as the board of directors.

So picture this: Seventy guys. All of them important, every one of them respected in the community, walking into the room and taking their seats at the conference table. And standing there to face this council, two lone fisherman. Two young troublemakers who had just spent the night in the temple lock-up. Peter and John.

            “By what power or what name did you do this?”

What they meant, of course, was, “Who do you think you are? What gives you the right?” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a form of intimidation. “You are in serious trouble - we just need to decide how much!”

No, the religious leaders weren’t looking for an answer. What they wanted an apology. What they got instead was the gospel.

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: 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 healed.
Acts 4:8-10

The expression I used last week to describe what was going on was “preaching to the choir.” The preacher is supposed to preach to the congregation. But someone who is preaching to choir is preaching to the converted, saying, “Don’t think that just because you are serving on the music team, you don’t need to hear about Jesus.”

The religious leaders, elders and high priest - they were sitting there in judgement over Peter and John, to decide what punishment they would face. Peter stands up and tells them, “Guys, you stand before God as Judge for what you did to Jesus.” Notice how Peter keeps saying, “You did this.” Verse 10: Know this, you and all the people of Israel... you crucified him but God raised him from the dead.

He does it again in verse 11 - “Jesus is the stone you rejected.”

He is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’
Acts 4:11

What kind of preaching is this? Courageous preaching. Bold preaching. Actually, what it is, I think, is consistent preaching. Look back to Chapter 3, verse 14 onwards, where Peter says, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.”

Meaning, it was the same message Peter spoke in front of the crowds. “It’s you who needs to repent. Not your friend. Not the guy you’ve been trying to invite to church. You.” He said this to the crowds. He said the exact same thing to the high priest.

Meaning, courageous preaching is faithful preaching. It is sticking to the same simple message about Jesus whether you are talking to a friend or a family member. Whether its to a stranger at the bus-stop or your boss at coffee time. It is the courage to be clear about God, about sin and about Jesus when someone asks you, “So what is it that you Christians believe about salvation, heaven and eternal life?”

It is to respond with the words of verse 12:

Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Acts 4:12

I would imagine at this point Peter probably raised his voice in order make his point, “Salvation is found in no-one else! Listen up!”

Yet friends, you can try saying these words as quietly and gently as possible and still be thought of as arrogant and intolerant. Courage is nothing to do with the tone of our voice, it has everything to do with the truth of the gospel.

The question at the end of the day is: Do you really believe the gospel? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way, the only name, the only Saviour?

If you do, then you need this courage in order to speak this truth. I am not talking about overcoming your fear of public speaking. I am talking about the courage to speak plainly about Jesus even here among friends in the Chinese Church. Your knees could be knocking, your voice might be trembling, there could be beads of sweat on trickling down your brow, but if you telling people the truth about Jesus, that’s a courageous to do. That’s faithful preaching of the gospel.

Conversely, you might have the gift of the gab, you feel at ease speaking to crowds of hundreds and thousands but if you never actually get to the cross and tell people about Jesus’ death for their sin; if you never actually call for your hearers to repent of their sin and trust in God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross - you haven’t yet preached the gospel.

Maybe you don’t know the gospel, that’s why. Or maybe - just maybe - you are ashamed of the gospel. Either way, courage to speak about Jesus is not a personality trait, it is itself a gift of the gospel.

Look at verse 8, where Peter is described as being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” His courage was not natural, it was supernatural. In last week’s passage, Peter says to the crowd, “Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” (Acts 3:12) “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.” What is Peter doing? He is being courageous in admitting his weakness and in pointing to God’s grace. That’s courage. It is speaking the gospel fully aware of your shortcomings, your inadequacies, your fears - being fully aware of your sinfulness - yet speaking the gospel fully confident in Jesus’ power to save, to forgive and to call people to repentance through the message of the gospel.

Put it another way: It is confidence in the message you’re speaking not your ability to speak the message. So, that’s the first thing we see: Confidence to speak this message of truth about Jesus.

The confidence to lead

The second thing we see is the confidence to lead.

What this is, is the confidence to inspire that same boldness in the people around you. That same confidence in Jesus.

Picking up from verse 13:

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.
Acts 4:13

In an Asian context, we are meant to respect our leaders. Leaders are often our elders and our superiors.At least, that’s how businesses are run back home. The CEO is the guy who with the white hair wearing the suit. He sits at the head of the table as the other executives arrange themselves around the conference table according to their rank, their age, their experience.

So if you are the young hireling, the new kid on the block, you sit at the end of the table. The CEO speaks, the VP is next, and everyone waits their turn to voice their ideas. Until it gets to you, the new guy. All they expect from you to say is, “Yes, boss! That’s a great idea!”

Like I said, businesses back home are run that way. Some churches back home are run that way. The pastor sets the agenda. He “casts the vision,” so to speak. The elders and deacons jobs are to get it done. My dad who was in the army once defined leadership by example as “Doing what I tell you do, not what I do.” In the army, you never questioned an order. You obeyed it.

Here in Acts 4, Peter and John were up against what was essentially the political and spiritual leadership of the nation - the Sanhedrin were leaders of God’s people, Israel - and it is important to understand that what Peter and John were doing was not simply rebelling against leadership, rebelling against authority. No, they were establishing what true leadership ought to look like. They were speaking with an authority derived from God’s word.

You see, the religious leaders had forgotten that. Such that when they saw the real thing - when they encountered authentic, apostolic authority - it really surprised them.

I mean, we look at Peter and John and we see a couple of rebels. We think they are going up against “the man.” In reality, the Sanhedrin looked at these two young, uneducated fisherman and saw what true leaders of God’s people are meant to be and to do. They are meant to speak the gospel. They are meant to call God’s people to obedience to God’s word.

That’s what surprised them. Verse 13 says they looked at Peter and John and “realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men.” These guys didn’t go to Cambridge. They didn’t train in some well-known church under some well-known rabbi. These were nobodies. And yet, what does the end of verse 13 say? “They took note that these men had been with Jesus.” These nobodies had been hanging out with somebody. They were had been with Jesus!

Isn’t that crazy? I mean, in an awesome way? For someone to look at you and have no possible explanation for who you are, for what you are able to do except to say that you’ve probably been spending a lot of time with Jesus. It’s not because of your degree. It’s not because of your gifts. They can’t figure you out! All they can say is, “This guy sounds a lot like Jesus. That’s the only possible explanation for his behaviour: He really knows Jesus.”

What did the religious leaders see? The real thing. Apostolic authority. Boldness. What they saw was Jesus. And how did they react to this? With fear and intimidation.

But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing 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 living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name.
Acts 4:14-17

They said to Peter and John, “Get out, we need to talk about something important.” And what did these seventy old men talk about? How to cover their backsides.

“Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.” Meaning what? The issue was not whether the miracle was real but how many people knew that the miracle was real. If only a few people knew, why, they could deny it and cover it up. But haiiya! People already know!

So what was left for them to do? They abused their power. They tried intimidating Peter and John with threats and warnings.

I want us to pause and think about this for a moment: Why would this have worked? It didn’t, of course, and you should have guessed that from Peter’s response earlier. But why did the religious teachers think that by threatening Peter and John and warning them that this ought to have worked?

Because this is the way the world works. The big guy puts pressure on the little guy. Jesus once said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (Matthew 20:25) It’s pecking order. It’s how you get things done in the business world, in the political world. It might even be the way to get things done in the religious world.

But you see, people who think this way, forget that there is a greater authority above every authority. The biggest Tai Lo has an even bigger Tai Lo to answer to: God. And tragically, what we see here is a roomful of religious men who have forgotten that there is a God they are answerable to.

Then they called them again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John 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.”
Acts 4:18-20

What we see here are two forms of leadership - one from man, one from God. We see two kinds of leaders - one that that’s fearful of man and one that is fearful of God.

The tragic thing is: these religious leaders were afraid. That’s why they resorted to bullying tactics. They were afraid of the people, of what they would think. They were even afraid of Peter and John, and had to put them out of the room while they discussed what to do with them. Inspite of all this, there was one person they forgot to be afraid of and that was God.

That’s tragic isn’t it? But when it happens - and it does - it’s because we think that leadership is something we earn and deserve and achieve, rather than something that God has given us to steward, to receive with humility, to exercise with love.

After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.
Acts 4:21-22

Confidence to lead. That’s the second thing we see in this passage, but it’s not the confidence of the religious leaders. Those guys were cowards. Those guys were bullies. No, we see this confidence in Peter and John who had led 2000 people to believe in Jesus (in verse 4) by being bold enough to tell them the gospel. It is a confidence and mandate that comes from the gospel itself, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (verse 20).

In the New Testament, the leaders of the church are the teachers of the church. That’s why faithfulness to God’s word is such an important quality in choosing our bible study leaders, our Sunday School teachers and our pastors. Gifts are important, but if we put gifts over the gospel, we end up with religious teachers.

If we want true authentic, God-ordained leadership, we want men who know Jesus, who love Jesus, who keep talking non-stop about Jesus. The world might look at them and go, “Those guys didn’t go to the right school. They don’t have the right credentials. But you know what? They act and sound a whole lot like Jesus.” We want those guys to be leading men and women in Jesus.

Confidence to pray

So far, we’ve seen the confidence to speak and the confidence to lead. Finally we see the confidence to pray, and that’s verse 23. And as I read this passage - this prayer - I want you ask the question, “What did they ask God for?”

Verse 23:

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father, David:

“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the Lord
and against his Anointed One.’

Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Acts 4:23-30

The church met together for a prayer meeting. Peter and John spent the night in prison. They were threatened by the high priest and religious police - “Don’t speak to anyone any longer about Jesus.”

What did they ask God to do? They asked God for boldness. Verse 29, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” It is the same word as in verse 13 - courage, boldness, confidence. It’s what they ask God to fill them with - boldness to speak his word.

They didn’t pray, “Lord, stop those evil men,” did they?

They knew that God was in charge - he is the Sovereign Lord who made heaven, earth and sea (verse 24). And yet they also knew, from the bible - specifically, from the Old Testament scriptures - that God had already decided to allow his enemies to gang up against him. Opening up the Psalms, written 1000 years ago by King David, they took what the Holy Spirit said through the mouth of David, and applied it directly to Jesus.

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand.” It is a picture of a great big battle - armies assembling for war, gathering to make their last stand - against the Lord and his Anointed One.

You read this and think Armageddon. Or you think. the final scene from the Avengers (“Hulk smash!”). It’s end of the world stuff, destruction on an epic, global scale. But according to this prayer, this war happened two thousand years ago in the city of Jerusalem. On the cross of Jesus Christ.

Verse 27, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” The greatest rebellion against God happened at the cross. The greatest insult against God happened at the cross. What is this prayer saying? God planned for all this to happen!

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Friends, this prayer means Peter and John and their friends, they were actually afraid. They knew that the danger they faced from the Sanhedrin was real. It wasn’t all empty threats. And what they needed, more than anything else, was the courage to be faithful to God’s word in the face of this danger.

God help me to be bold in speaking your word.

Some of you, I know, feel terribly inadequate when it comes to opening your mouth and speaking the gospel. That’s actually a good thing. You should feel inadequate because none of us are up to the task. All of us are sinful. All of us would rather not have to take up our cross and die.

And yet, an amazing thing happens when we trust in Jesus and look to the cross. He fills us with his Spirit. He makes us stand and he helps us to withstand - opposition, temptation, persecution - He helps us to stand by his grace. It is a supernatural thing for someone to be a Christian and to remain a Christian.

By the way, that’s what the last line about miracles is all about. They pray, “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs...” It is an acknowledgement that God is able to so much more than we could ever imagine - he can raise the dead, he can perform miracles and show the world, Jesus is the Christ.

And yet what God chooses to do to make Jesus known is to use us as his witnesses. He makes us disciples. He makes us fishers of men.

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Acts 4:31

If this whole room were to shake, right now, some of us would probably freak out. If God were to heal some of us the way he healed the man crippled from birth, we would say, “Whoa! That’s incredible!”

Do you know what verse 31 is saying? For you to say to turn to the person next to you right now and tell them the gospel, to look them in the eye and say with every ounce of conviction, “Jesus Christ died for my sin. He rose from the dead. He will come again to judge and restore all of creation and I will see my Saviour face to face one day, and worship him in the presence of God and his angels.” That’s a miracle on the same level as that healing, that earthquake that would make you go, “Whoa! God did this!”

In verse 31, we see God answering their prayer. The place was shaken. The gospel was proclaimed. Both are miracles of God, the shaking as well as the speaking. Can God shake the foundations of the Chinese Church today? Of course he can, and one day he will. On that day, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

But what does God do today. But what is the kind of prayer does God love to answer today?

“God glorify your son Jesus
and enable me, your servant,
to speak your gospel with boldness.”

This week at Rock, we were looking at the importance of being obstreperous. It’s a word that means “noisy,” and what it means is: Christians need to speak out about the cross of Jesus Christ. We can’t be quiet about it.

And at the end of the study I prayed this prayer, “Lord, you have a great sense of humour. These guys are the most gentle, quiet, peace-loving people I know and yet you gather us here today to remind us the importance of speaking out for Jesus. I know that that’s a scary thing for some of us here today.

Thank you that boldness isn’t something that’s natural to my brothers and sisters here today. It’s supernatural. We are not supposed to be confident in ourselves. We are supposed to trust in Jesus as the only way, the only name under heaven given to men by which we might be saved. Make us bold, I pray. By your Spirit. Through your gospel. Help us to proclaim Jesus with boldness as we should.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
No merit of my own I claim
But wholly lean on Jesus name
On Christ the Solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

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