Sunday 21 April 2013

Great joy (Acts 5:17-42)

What is the most amazing thing that has ever happened in your life? Do you have a story you’ve told strangers on the bus or little kids at family reunions - about that time when an unbelievably awesome event happened in your life?

Maybe it was a life-threatening situation? Or the day you met the love of your life?

All of us have that life-changing, life-altering moment we will never forget. What is yours?

But my next question is: Do you ever think about why it happened? Was there a reason it happened to you and not someone else?

Today’s passage is about about an amazing miracle that took place in the apostles’ lives. They would have told their kids and their grandkids about the time an angel broke them out of prison in the middle of the night. But when they did, they would have been sure to tell them why God did that miracle in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, by reading this account in the bible you might learn something about how God is working in your own life. Because more important than the miracle itself is the God behind the miracle, the God to whom the miracle is pointing to.

We will see this under three headings: A great escape, a great defence and a great joy.

A great escape

The first thing we see is a great escape.

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
Acts 5:17-21

This is not the first time the apostles have gotten into trouble and this is not the first time they have ticked off the high priest and his friends. Back in Chapter 4, Peter and John were thrown in the lock-up for the night after healing the crippled man in the temple.

This time, though, it wasn’t just Peter and John who got into trouble but all of the apostles. In case we missed it, verse 17 tells us that the reason for this was jealousy. Jealousy. Verse 17: “The high priest and all his associates... were filled with jealousy.”

Why were they jealous? Back in verse 15, we learn that the church was getting a lot of attention all around the country. People were coming and bringing their sick relatives and verse 16 ends with these words, “all of them were healed.”

The high priest saw this growth, this attention and he got jealous. Not just angry, but jealous. Of their popularity. Of their attention. Of their success.

Just to show them who is boss, the high priest had the apostles arrested and put in the public jail. Verse 18, could also be translated, “they put them in jail publicly,” that is, they wanted to make a public show of their arrest. The high priest wanted to remind everyone: He was still in charge. Without just cause or prior notice, he could have the leaders of the church locked up in prison. Let me say that this still happens in some parts of the world today and one reason it still happens today - aside from abuse of power, aside from hatred - one reason this still happens today is jealousy. When a movement becomes too successful, people might take one look at that success and get jealous. They might get vindictive and they take it out on the movement’s leaders.

As I say that, I wonder if we, too, ought to take this warning to heart. That when we see someone else doing very well - another church, another bible study group - that we be careful not to let jealousy get the better of us. The high priest and his friends were religious leaders and sometimes even as leaders, we can look at another leader and say, “Why are so many people going to his church and not mine?”

But during the night an angel of the Lord opens the jail doors and he helps the apostles to escape, which is amazing and miraculous and totally unexpected. And yet the truly amazing thing about this miracle is, the story doesn’t end here!

Notice that: It’s the beginning of the story. God sends an angel to break the apostles out of our prison. He helps them to escape but then, what does he tell them to do? Go back to the scene of the crime! Verse 20: “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

Go back to the scene of the crime! Why would God tell them to do that? Because, friends, that’s the reason why God let them out of prison in the first place. It wasn’t so that they would run away and be safe from the religious leaders. In fact, in just a few moments, the apostles are re-arrested and are beaten up.

The reason why God did this miracle to free them from jail was to show that the gospel cannot be locked up. He freed them so that they would continue to talk about Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. That’s why he get them out of trouble.

Some of us pray for miracles to get ourselves out of trouble. We say to God, “If you get me out of this mess, if you heal me, if you give me this blessing, I will praise you and give my life to you.” In effect, we put conditions on God. If you do this, then I’ll do that. Even when God has been faithful to his word, and he blesses us, we often forget that promise. He heals us and we keep silent. He blesses us and we try to claim the credit. Has that ever happened to you, I wonder?

Here in Acts we see a miracle (In fact, we see all kinds of miracles; just last week we saw how Peter’s shadow would fall on someone and that guy would be healed. Now that’s a miracle!) But here in the miracle of the great escape, we see the reason behind the miracle. It’s so that people will know about Jesus.

Jesus called the miracles that he did signs. Signs are things that point somewhere. There’s a big arrow that says, “Look over here!” If we miss that sign, we’ve missed the point of the miracle. God is pointing us to Jesus.

That’s what he does here in the Great Escape. He tells the apostles, “Go to the temple. Point to Jesus.”

Some of you guys have told me amazing things that have happened in your life. And you might have heard me respond with these words, “So what do you think God is saying to you about that incident?” He’s pointing you to Jesus, do you see that? In verse 20, the angel says, “tell the people the full message of this new life.” I like how the ESV has the word Life with a capital, “L”. We’re not talking about an incident in every day life or random chance or luck. Following Jesus is Life with a capital “L” and it’s a life that makes sense. It’s a life that comes from God. It’s a life that comes through Jesus’ death for our sins.

If you are a Christian, you need to understand that when God does something amazing in your Life, it’s not just for your benefit. It’s so that you will tell others about the Author of Life. It’s so that you will go, stand in the temple (or your workplace, or your school) and tell people about Jesus. Meaning, the real question for us today is not: “Will I experience such a miracle?” or “Will God get me out of trouble every time I preach the gospel?“ but rather, “Do I actually know the gospel?” and “Will I keep on preaching the gospel?”

Because that’s what the apostles did after their Great Escape. And that’s what the apostles did in their Great Defence, our second point.

A great defence

Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Acts 5:25-26

Almost immediately, we find the apostles back under arrest, facing the whole Sanhedrin (which was a courtroom of seventy elders and religious leaders) with a very angry and annoyed high priest charging them with disobedience and misconduct. “We gave you strict orders!” “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching!”

The amazing thing is, in response to this charge, we have not one but two levels of defence. One is from Peter but the other is from Gamaliel, a respected member of the Sanhedrin. We get two Great Defences to gospel - one from a Christian and another from a non-Christian perspective.

First, let’s look at Peter. Notice how Peter brings God into the picture in his Great Defence. What is he doing? Peter is saying that they are setting themselves up to God’s actions, not theirs.

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead - whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, as so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Acts 5:29-32

Let me just say that if you ever find yourself in a courtroom scenario, standing up and saying, “God made me do it,” rarely goes down well with the judge. In fact, if you look down to the next verse, we see the result in verse 31, “When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

What is Peter doing? You’ve heard me use this expression again and again in Acts: He is preaching to the choir. He is telling the gospel to people who think they know the gospel, to people who think they are experts in the gospel, but who, in reality, have ignored the gospel again and again.

Our temptation is to ignore the choir, to ignore the Sunday School teachers, to ignore the leaders and to focus our evangelism on the non-Christians. The truth is, the bible is saying to us that you can have a room full of religious, pious, influential leaders, who have PhD’s in theology and have memorised the bible in Hebrew and Greek but who don’t know the gospel and have never repented of their sins through message of the gospel.

And the bible is telling us: You can tell who they are because these are the people who get angry when you tell them the gospel. Why? Because the gospel reminds them that they are sinners, that’s why. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” the high priest says in verse 28.

If you are here today as a non-Christian, I hope you see that the gospel message is not some kind of marketing tool to draw people in from outside the church. If you’ve been with us for any length of time, I hope you see that we apply the gospel right here in the Chinese Church every time we open up the bible. All of us, whether Christian or not, whether you’re a new believer or you’ve been a Christian for decades, all of us need to be confronted with the reality of our sin and our need for a Saviour. Sometimes, it’s those of us who think we don’t need to hear the gospel anymore, who get tired of hearing the same message about Jesus over and over again, who actually need to hear the gospel much more than others.

If you are not a Christian, you need to see that you don’t become a Christian by being good but firstly by confessing how bad you really are. When Peter says, “You killed him by hanging him on a tree,” (verse 30) he wasn’t simply saying that the religious leaders were directly responsible for Jesus’ death sentence, though they were. He was quoting an Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy which read, “Cursed is every man who is hung on a tree,” (hence, the curious description of the cross as a “tree”) and saying that Jesus’ death was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy of the curse that God lays on our sin. Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, no, he died for ours. And his death on the cross was God’s means of pouring down his judgement - pouring down his curse - on someone else instead of us.

If we trust in Jesus, we are saying that Jesus has taken our curse of death for our sin on our behalf. His resurrection was a confirmation that our sin really has been dealt with, a result of which is verse 30, “that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” He gives us our repentance. Even our faith and trust in Jesus is something he gives to us. Our repentance is something the resurrection has enabled us to do by the Holy Spirit.

That is Peter’s Great Defence. It’s the gospel. It’s not a defence of Peter’s actions or the apostle’s actions. It is a defence of God’s actions in raising Jesus from the dead as proof of our sin and proof of the effectiveness of his solution to our sin in Jesus Christ.

But next we see a second defence, this time from Gamaliel.

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.

Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
Acts 5:33-37

Gamaliel brings in two test cases for the council to consider and what he says sounds perfectly reasonable. “Two guys tried to do the same thing in the past. One was Theudas, the other, Judas the Galilean. Both these guys thought they were somebody. They got the people all stirred up. But in the end, both of them got killed and nobody is talking about them anymore.”

So, what’s Gamaliel trying to say? Verse 38, “Therefore in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go!” Now listen carefully to his reason. “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

And we have see that his defence goes down pretty well. Verse 40, “His speech persuaded them.” Of the two defences - Peter’s defence of the gospel and Gamaliel’s defence through reason - it looks like Gamaliel’s was the greater defence. I mean, the Sanhedrin were about to kill the apostles but thanks to the advice of Uncle Gamaliel, cooler heads prevailed.

I’m not so sure, it did. I appreciate how reasonable Gamaliel’s arguments are, don’t get me wrong. I think we need more Gamaliels in our parliaments and governments as a counter-balance to big personalities and hot-heads like the High Priest.

But we need to be careful of using Gamaliel’s reasoning here in the church when dealing with a dispute, for example, or when making a decision about the church’s mission, because we need to remember that Gamaliel is arguing from a perspective of a non-believer. When he talks about the two rebels, Theudas and Judas, who rise up to cause trouble, I don’t think he is drawing a comparison with the apostles. He’s actually comparing these rebels to Jesus. And what Gamaliel is implying is that, in the same way that these two rebel leaders died and their causes died with them, the same would eventually happen with Jesus and his following. That’s why he says, “Leave these men alone.” He’s saying, “Jesus is already dead. It’s just a matter of time before this new movement fizzles out all on its own.”

Of course, Gamaliel adds that last bit about God in the end, doesn’t he? “But if it from God,” he says. That, too, is a very dangerous statement. What’s he saying? He’s saying, if God is behind this, then God will prove it by making their movement successful. You won’t be able to fight it because God will always help them win. Friends, this is a deceptively dangerous way of measuring God’s will because it is, in effect, a veiled form of the prosperity gospel. It’s saying that the way you know that something is of God is if it always prospers, it always grows, it always wins. If it doesn’t, it’s not from God.

No, the way of determining God’s approval or will on something is always through God’s word. Is this something God has said he will do? That’s what Peter did in his defence. He pointed to Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises in the bible. He pointed to the truth as an eyewitness of the truth.

And it’s vitally important that when we argue for God’s approval or will in a matter to be decided here in the church, we be able to tell the difference between a gospel defence and a Gamaliel form of defence. Gamaliel’s reasoning is commendable if you don’t actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The gospel’s reasoning is based on God’s revelation in the Scriptures concerning Jesus. And if Act’s is saying anything, it’s saying that the gospel form of reasoning won’t necessarily win you votes. It may cause more disagreement. People may want to kill you for using the gospel as a means for defending your cause.

But the gospel is our greatest defence because it’s God’s defence of his own actions, not ours. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ. He has given us repentance and forgiveness of sin. He calls us to proclaim the full message of this new life.

By putting the gospel at the centre of our witness, what we are saying to the world is, God is the ultimate judge over our lives. At the end of the day, it’s his verdict over our lives that really matters. and it is his judgement that we need to be aware of.

A great joy

Finally, what we see in the last couple of verses is great joy.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
Acts 5:41-42

Why is this great joy? Because it is joy that comes from suffering for Jesus.

Look back to verse 40. It does not say there in verse 40, “They let them go and the apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that God had let them out of prison and out of trouble.” It doesn’t.

It says that they were beaten up. And then they were warned about why they were beaten up: for speaking about Jesus. That’s why they rejoiced, in verse 41. And that’s why they continued speaking about Jesus, verse 42, “in the temple courts and from house to house.”

Philippians 1:29 - “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

Acts 14:22 - “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

James 1:2-3 - “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverence.”

1 Peter 2:19-21 - “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Romans 8:17 - “Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory.”

Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Suffering is part of the Christian life. Following Jesus means taking up your cross. Following Jesus means suffering for Jesus. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

It’s not that Christians have a warped sense of suffering, as if we like to suffer. Suffering is awful. If you like pain, there is something psychologically and profoundly wrong with you. But Jesus was absolutely clear about what it meant to follow him. It meant dying to ourselves. It meant dying to our sin. It means suffering.

So much so, that if you are not suffering for Jesus, you may not actually be a Christian. That’s a pretty strong statement, I know. But Romans 8:17 says, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory.” I think that’s what’s going on here in Acts.

You see, the apostles had lots of reasons to rejoice. They had planted the first ever megachurch. They had power beyond imagination - the ability to heal sickness and disease and cast out evil spirits. Man, even the high priest and the Sanhedrin didn’t know what to do with these guys. They tried locking them up but God let them out!

But it was only as they left the Sanhedrin, after being beaten up, after being threatened with their lives, it is only here for the first time in Acts that we see these twelve followers of Jesus rejoicing. Why? I think they were relieved. I think they left knowing for sure, they were the real thing.

Have you ever wondered that about yourself? “Am I really a Christian?” Now, let me be clear, we trust in Jesus alone. Our faith rests on what he did, not what we could ever do.

And yet, we need to remember, that Jesus did a whole lot of stuff through these twelve men. The Holy Spirit was poured out on them. Thousands were being saved through their ministry. Everything they did turned to success. My question is: How did it not go to their heads? What kept them from being proud and arrogant?

It was this: Jesus’ words to them that they would suffer for his sake. This scenario of appearing before the Sanhedrin and the council to face false accusations by men was all foretold by Jesus back in Matthew Chapter 10. “They will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:17) Wasn’t that what just happened?

And when it did, I think the apostles left with a sigh of relief. I know it’s strange to think that way, but I suspect the reason they rejoiced was because they finally knew that they were the real thing. God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name. Everything that had happened so far - the growth of their ministry, the courage of their witness, the salvation of men and women in the church - was not their doing. It was God’s.

What does this mean for us? Last week, I mentioned that Chapter 5 of Acts is actually about revival. It’s actually a passage about how God brings life back into the church, turns things around and grows his church in such a way that it’s totally unexpected, totally spectacular and totally supernatural. He does this through the gospel and he does this by his Spirit.

And some of us might find ourselves praying for revival in some form or other here in the Chinese Church. “God, please send us a pastor who will make our church flourish in the city.” “God, would you bless Rock Fellowship and our upcoming retreat and bring many, many people to our gatherings.”

But friends, how do you that it’s God who has done this thing? How can you tell if this blessing is really from God? I think it’s this: It’s when God grants you blessing and growth, and you rejoice; and when God grants you suffering and loss, and you still rejoice in him. Blessing makes sense because God is a good and gracious God. But suffering makes sense, too, because this world is not our home. Because we follow a God who suffered on the cross. And because when he allows us to suffer, it teaches us perseverance, humility and faith, and when we then talk about Jesus, and people see us rejoicing in him in the midst of our suffering, they listen. And God gets the glory.

The bible says, Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2)  Jesus is the only God who makes sense of our suffering. Of course, Jesus makes sense of our joy and blessing, too. But Jesus is the only God who makes sense of all the suffering, pain, even the death you will experience in life. Because he is the only God to have ever suffered for our sins and died in our place. Moreover, he is the only God who enables us to rejoice - yes, to rejoice - in our suffering, if it’s for him.

We’ve seen three things today. A great escape: which was not an escape from prison in order to run away from pain, but a command to preach the gospel and to bear witness to Jesus even at the risk of more pain. A great defence: which was a defence of God’s actions, not ours. God has raised Jesus from the dead and God has given us repentance and forgiveness through his resurrection. Finally, we saw great joy: in the midst of persecution, in the midst of rejection, the apostles rejoiced because they knew in God’s eyes, his acceptance and approval. They were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name.

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