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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Obedience in the face of opposition
Text:Acts 5:12-42 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 135:1,6

Psalm 3:1,2

Psalm 56:1,2,4

Hymn 41:1-4

Hymn 62:4

Read & Text.  Acts 5:12-42

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we read through the first chapters of the book of Acts, and meditate on all of the great and exciting things that were happening in those days, it would not be surprising if we feel a little twinge of jealousy. 

The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church in a spectacular manner: in the speaking of many languages, in the form of many miracles, in the shaking of the place where the church had gathered and in the bold proclamation of the gospel in the face of stiff opposition.  The church at Jerusalem also enjoyed a sense of peace and unity that not even the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, nor the opposition of the Sanhedrin could destroy. 

Those early days in Jerusalem was a good time for the church.  It would have been amazing to have been there. 

But the Bible does not romanticize those early days of the Christian church.  Rather, we learn that the church was established at the cost of blood, sweat and tears.  The church was built in a war zone, on the battle field.  The preaching of the Word was accompanied with great hardship and intense opposition.  The last words of Acts 5, that the apostles departed from the presence of the council with rejoicing does not take away from the intense struggle the apostles must have felt.  To preach the gospel, knowing that at any moment you might be arrested and abused is not an easy thing.  To be pulled in front of the authorities and beaten with the intention of inflicting great pain to the body and shame to the spirit is no small matter.  To be threatened with death was not to be laughed at.  These apostles and others who spoke the Word boldly did not have a death wish.  They all had hopes and dreams.  Many were married, and they all had families.  They could not see into the future and be assured that all would be well and that God would save them from every distress.  To the contrary, they had been warned that they would be reviled and hated and persecuted for the Name of Jesus.  For the apostles and those who joined the church, the stress was high, the danger was high and the stakes were high.

But the incredible thing about the early church in Jerusalem is that it was not categorized by fear and trembling, nor even by a stiff upper lip and sheer determination:  there was, starting with the apostles, great joy and gladness and a complete willingness to endure all things for the sake of the gospel.  And that was the result of the blessing of the Holy Spirit. 

And such joy and gladness, such willingness to endure all things for the sake of the gospel is promised not just to the apostles and that early church of Jerusalem, but is a promise that is offered to the church of all ages.  It is a promise that is offered to you.  Such joy and gladness is promised to those who in the strength of the Holy Spirit are obedient in the face of opposition.

I preach to you the Word of God from Acts 5 under the following theme:

The Spirit enables obedience in the face of opposition.

1.    The power for obedience.

2.    The price for obedience

3.    The prize for obedience.

1. The power for obedience.

In the book of Acts the apostles preached the gospel that is a message of joy, hope, and salvation.  They spoke of the promised Holy Spirit as the greatest gift to mankind. 

But those who received the Spirit would not be promised a life of security, comfort, pleasure, health and wealth.  Rather, those who received the Spirit could anticipate a life of suffering and hardship. 

That sounds like a contradiction, a paradox:  that the greatest blessing did not only give the apostles the greatest joy, but also the greatest hardship.  And yet it was true for the early church in Jerusalem.  The first chapters of Acts alternate between describing the church as a place of joy and unity, as a Paradise on earth, and as a battle field where Satan pulled out all stops in an attempt to destroy this work of God. 

And if we want to understand this seeming contradiction, then we need to understand why the Holy Spirit was poured out in the first place.  And Jesus Himself gave the answer to that question in Acts 1:8.

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

When this verse speaks of the coming Holy Spirit it says nothing about personal health and wealth, but it speaks of power and witnessing.  It speaks of a mandate to preach the Gospel, to tell the world about the name of Jesus. 

But not everybody would be excited when they heard preaching in the name of Jesus.  While many would repent and be baptized, others would reject both message and messengers and do all they could to stop them.

The first real opposition the apostles were faced with came in Acts 3.  After Peter took a lame man by the hand and healed him in the name of Jesus, and after Peter and John’s preaching in that name, the priests and other members of the Sanhedrin swung into action.  Arresting Peter and John and putting them in prison overnight, they brought them before the Jewish court and asked, “By what power or by what name have you done this?”  (Acts 4:7)  To which Peter replied that this man had been healed in the name of the one whom they had crucified, in the name of Jesus.  “And not only that”, said Peter, “but for you to be saved, you too must believe in Jesus, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

That worried the Sanhedrin.  They saw that the apostles had the power not just to heal, but also to witness and that their words were powerful.  They remembered that the apostles had been with Jesus and realized that something supernatural was happening.  But they also felt that the very possibility that the miracles and the preaching of the apostles was connected to the name of Jesus was too dangerous for them to contemplate.  This healing and the preaching in this name had to stop.

But the apostles did not stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus.  Rather than see the Christian church die out, after the death of Ananias and Sapphira the preaching, the miracles and the number of believers continued to increase.  Until the high priest and the Sadducees rose up, full of indignation and jealousy, laid their hands on the apostles, and threw them into prison.  And so began the first wave of intense persecution that would later lead to the death of Stephen, the death of James and more imprisonment and opposition until the church was scattered.   The early church of Jerusalem was engaged in a battle, a fight to the death. 

There were reasons why the chief priests, the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin opposed the Christian church so strongly.  They had underestimated this “Jesus of Nazareth”.  They had considered Him to be no more than an upstart Rabbi who had come from an obscure town.   They had seen him as another Theudas, as another Judas of Galilee – a false Messiah and a trouble maker.  Then, when His popularity increased and they saw Jesus as an increasing threat to their existence, they had Him killed –  they” hung Him on a tree”, as Peter reminded them.  The Jewish leaders knew that a hanged man was cursed by God.  Hanging on a tree was a sign to all that Jesus was rejected by both heaven and earth, and that suited the chief priests and the Sadducees very well.  “His blood be upon us and our children!” they boldly told Pilate.  But now Peter and the apostles were preaching that this same Jesus whom they had hung on a tree had been raised from the dead.

But it was not just because they felt guilty about shedding the blood of an innocent man that made the chief priests and the Sadducees so indignant, so jealous of the apostles.  They were also offended at what the apostles were preaching, at their doctrine.  The apostles preached that Jesus had risen from the dead and was exalted to God’s right hand as Prince and Saviour.  They preached that repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit of God was given to those who believed in Jesus’ name.  The Sadducees, however, taught that one could never rise from the dead.  They taught that there was no resurrection, nor were there even any angels.  And so the teaching of the apostles contradicted what they taught.  It could not be that both the Sadducees and the apostles were right.  The gospel placed the Sanhedrin under judgment and compelled them to either accept or reject the claim that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand for our salvation.  There could be no middle ground.

But the Sanhedrin rejected Him, arrested the apostles and threw them into jail.

But they apostles could not remain in Jail.  They had been commanded to preach in the name of Jesus, and that work was not yet completed. 

And so another miracle took place.  In the middle of the night, without the guards noticing a thing, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought the apostles out.  And the angel commanded the apostles saying, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.” 

And they did so.  Early the next morning the apostles got up and they went straight back to the place where they had been arrested the day before, preaching the same message, calling people to believe in the name of Jesus. 

Meanwhile however, unaware of what had happened, the Sanhedrin (which was meeting on the opposite side of the Temple) came together and sent word to the prison to have the apostles brought to them.  But, as we already know, the prison cell was empty, the apostles were gone and the prison guard had no explanation.  And then verse 24 says this,

“Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests  heard these things, they wondered what the outcome would be.”

Where would this all end?

And then the Sanhedrin receives another shock, when someone comes to them and says, “Look, the men you put in prison are standing back there in the temple and teaching the people!”  The Sanhedrin was doing all they could to stop the apostles from preaching in the name of Jesus, but nothing seemed to work.  Their opposition to the gospel was being frustrated by a power that was greater than them.

And we, who read of these events in Acts 5 are left asking, “Priests and Sadducees, Sanhedrin, when are you going to understand?  When are you going to break down and repent, receiving your salvation in the name of Jesus?  Are your minds so darkened?  The greatest work of salvation, the fulfilment of the Scriptures, has taken place right before your very eyes.  But you, who claim to be the religious leaders of Israel, devoted to the work of God, you will not listen.  You cover your ears rather than hear the words of life, rather than hear of salvation in the name of Jesus.”

But instead the Sanhedrin renewed their attack on the apostles.  They brought them in and asked, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name?  And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”   (Acts 5:28)

And then Peter stood up and he told them again just what was happening.  “Yes you did tell us to be quiet, but our speaking in this name is not simply our choice, it is a matter of obedience.  For we have no choice; we must obey God rather than man.”  And then Peter said in verse 32,

“And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

Peter now spells it out to the Sanhedrin.  They were not speaking from their own strength or even by their own choice.  They had no choice in the matter: their witness was simply a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit who was in them.  It was the Holy Spirit who gave them the power to be witnesses of the name of Jesus.

And that is an obedience that is expected of us also.  We too receive the Holy Spirit so that we might be obedient to the command of God.  And that obedience includes the confession that salvation can be found in no other name than the name of Jesus.  Like the apostles, we too must pray for boldness so that in obedience to the Holy Spirit and in the power of that same Spirit, we might declare the truth to the generation in which we live.  And when we pray for boldness in the Spirit, then we will not hold ourselves back in fear, but Jeremiah 20:9 will be true for us:  God’s word will be in our heart like a burning fire.  Instead of fear, we will grow tired of holding this word back, for we can not.  The power for obedience to be witnesses of Jesus’ name is the power of the Holy Spirit.  This power is of God, and nothing can stop it.  

2. The Price for Obedience.

That there might be a price for obedience, a price that we are expected to pay, is not a popular teaching.  More popular is the teaching that since Jesus is the answer, the promised Christian life is one of security, comfort, pleasure, health and wealth.  But that was not the message, nor was it the experience of the apostles.  The apostle Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Acts 14:22 NIV)  And Jesus Himself had warned His disciples that they would be delivered up to councils and beaten in the synagogues.  (Mark 13:9)  And that is what happened in Acts 5.

The Sanhedrin was not ready to listen to the apostles.  Verse 33 says that they were furious and made plans to kill them.  But the Lord did not permit them to kill the apostles at that time, for their work was not yet done, and so He caused the Pharisee Gamaliel to stand up, call for calm, and not to put the apostles to death.  He reminded the Sanhedrin that sects come and go, but that normally with the death of their leader, the movements quickly die away.  And to back up his argument, Gamaliel referred to two other men who presented themselves as saviours, but then died and saw their followers scattered.  And so on the basis of what had happened in the past, Gamaliel encouraged the Sanhedrin to leave the matter in God’s hands and wait and see how things turn out.  And even though Gamaliel’s advice was not perfect, his warning proved true:  “If it is of God, you cannot overthrow it – lest you even be found to fight against God.” 

The Sanhedrin agreed to follow this advice and so at this point of time the apostles were not killed for the sake of the gospel.  For some that would happen later, but for now the Lord still wanted them to speak further about salvation in the name of Jesus.  Nevertheless, they did suffer shame for the sake of Jesus’ name.  Not only had they been arrested and thrown into the common prison overnight, not only had they been severely rebuked by the Sanhedrin, but they were also beaten.  And that beating would have been severe.

According to the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 25, a man who was guilty of a crime who deserved a beating would be flogged with up to 40 blows before the judge.  And in the days of the apostles, this was done in the following manner: 

Floggings were administered with a whip made of calfskin on the bare upper body of the offender – one third of the lashes given on the breast and the other two thirds on the back.  The offender stood in a bowed position with the one administering the beating on a stone above him and as the offender was being flogged, another man would read from the Old Testament. (Encyclopaedia Judica)

So that is what happened to the apostles.  They were humiliated and beaten like common criminals before the Sanhedrin.  And as the lashes came down, God’s Word, the Old Testament law, was recited in order to say that this punishment had come from God.  The apostles had said, “We must obey God rather than man” but the Sanhedrin had responded by saying, “We will flog you on behalf of God that you may learn not to speak in the name of Jesus ever again.”

The apostles must have been so glad that the Lord had warned them that this would take place.  They had been told in advance that this would be the price for their obedience.  Luke 6:22,23,

“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!  For indeed your reward is great in heaven.  For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”

Hatred, exclusion, flogging and death is the lot that awaits God’s servants.  The fiery ordeal that the apostles found themselves in was nothing strange: it had happened to many before them, and would happen to many after them.  It is a regular occurrence throughout the history of Christ’s church.

At this point of time, by the grace of God, we do not normally endure persecution of that magnitude.  At this point of time we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.  At this point of time, for the main part we enjoy religious freedom, material comfort and financial security.  These are blessings from God and we ought not wish for persecution.  But we must always watch out that these blessings do not become a danger to our spiritual health.  We must be careful that we do not exchange our God-given calling in this world for the pleasures of this earth, for a paradise of wealth and pleasure, gold and golf.  With the apostles, we too must count all things as nothing for the sake of the Gospel.  Nothing may take the place of our obedience to God.  And when our hope is founded in the name of Jesus, then the fullness of our joy in Christ will not depend on our external circumstances, will not depend on the level of comfort we enjoy.  Rather, our joy in Christ will lie in the fact that we are His, that we have salvation in His name and that we live to the praise of His glory.  And in that we will be blessed.

3. The prize for obedience.

When we speak of a prize or a reward for obedience, (and we may do so, for the Bible speaks in these terms) we are not talking about something that is earned; we are talking about a gift of grace that God grants to those who are obedient to the Spirit’s calling.

There is such a prize mentioned in verse 41 of Acts 5, but it is a surprising one.

“So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.”

The apostles had been beaten; their bodies were stinging with pain.  But they rejoiced for being counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus.  That was their prize, their blessing for obedience.

So what’s the message in that for us?  That if we are obedient to the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, we can look forward to the possibility of suffering shame for His name?  Well actually, yes. 

The prospect of suffering for the sake of Jesus’ name forces us to have a re-think on what life is all about.  The prospect of suffering for Jesus’ name teaches us that life is not about wealth, pleasure, gold and golf.  The prospect of suffering keeps us from being distracted by these earthly pleasures so that the goal of our lives is something more, something greater.  And so while we do not normally wish to suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name, this suffering is something that we must be prepared to accept, and see not as a curse but an honour.  And in that sense it can be seen as a prize, a blessing, something to rejoice in.  Romans 5:3-5 says,

“And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

Being counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus Christ is an honour.  It is a sign of God’s favour, that He is well pleased with you, for you are following in the footsteps of Christ.  And through it you will be blessed.

And so suffering does not stop one from boldly speaking in the name of Jesus, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, the witnessing continues. The apostles were arrested, threatened and beaten.  But their response was to obey God rather than man.

“And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  (Acts 5:42)

As we read through the first chapters of Acts, it is not surprising if we feel a twinge of jealousy.  Those early days in Jerusalem were a good time for the church, and it would have been so good to be there. 

But in many ways, those days are still with us.  Christ’s command of Acts 1:8, to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth still stands.  And so does His promise to empower us with His Holy Spirit.  Jerusalem has been filled with His teaching (Acts 5:28), but His name must still be proclaimed.  And as we proclaim His Name, we will receive opposition.  Just as Satan tried many ways to prevent the spreading of the gospel in the book of Acts, so he does today.  But the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him!  Since our witness is of God, nothing will stop it.  The name of Jesus will continue to go forth with power until the whole world hears.  And in that we rejoice.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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