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Handling Hostility

Acts 1-5  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Opposition will arise to the teaching of Jesus, but we should be bold because there is power in the name of Jesus

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Self-preservation

There is a phenomenon that exists in almost every living being called… self preservation.
Essentially, it is our response mechanism to a real or perceived danger. Once we realise this danger, whether real or perceived, we will modify our behaviour accordingly.
I remember as a kid having a campfire, and I was pushing sticks back onto the fire. One stick was nearby, but not red, so I thought I’d pick this one up with my bare hands - well as you could imagine, I quickly learnt not to touch anything close to a campfire, whether red hot or not.
If you think about it, a number of our laws are also from this notion of self-preservation, such as seat-belt laws, laws about wearing helmets, and more recently, various laws relating to terrorism.
It also affects our social interactions. I’m sure for all of you, there are certain people in your life who when particular topics are raised they will get worked up, and so you quickly learn that things will work out the best for everyone if you just avoid that particular topic when in their presence.

The problem

Now, I would argue that self-preservation is generally a good thing. We do want to avoid dangers and keep safe.
There can be a problem however. At times self-preservation can go into overdrive. We sometimes joke about wrapping kids in cotton wool so they can stop hurting themselves.
had has flash dash slash
Sayings such as, “I’d prefer to be safe than sorry” can drive this tendency, and while I acknowledge wisdom in that statement the problem can occur when our over developed sense of danger avoidance means that we fail to make the most of our opportunities.
For example you could stop a kid from playing sport because there are inherent dangers with that - but then you are losing the opportunity for good exercise.
Take for a kid walking to school. There are obviously a number of dangers. There are dangers walking near busy roads. Then there’s stranger danger. And who knows what other trouble that get in on their way to and from school.

Avoid talking of Christianity

Now by no means should you ignore those dangers,
But the one that I want to focus on most this morning is essentially a social reaction. It’s the reaction we get when we Christianity is mentioned.
We’ve probably all had a few awkward conversations where the other person has particular issues with Christianity. Those awkward conversations aren’t pleasant, and so those instinctive self-preservation skills kick in, and we end up avoiding the topic altogether.
The reality from my own experience, however, is that usually it’s not nearly as awkward as you might imagine, but even just the perceived threat of something so uncomfortable can turn us off.

Persecution in Australia

This morning we are going to explore quite a relatively extreme reaction against the teaching of Jesus Christ. The reality is, that here in Australia it is going to look different.
In the passage that we’ll look at, there is a definite form of persecution against the Christians. We could argue over whether the opposition we face today in Australia amounts to persecution or not, but certainly we would have to agree that it is of a different degree entirely.
That being said, there are places around the world today that do face persecution of the sort we will see in today’s passage - where you can be thrown in prison just for teaching about the love of Jesus.
But while our experience may be of a different nature today, I want to use the passage before I to give us confidence to overcome the natural self-preservation reaction so that we can be more bold in our declaration of Christ.

Example of Peter

And so we are going to look at the example of how Peter handles the situation.
Now before we get into the account, it is worthwhile noting that when we consider Peter in this account, it is the same man who less than a year prior to this time, had stood around a fire on the night Jesus was arrested, and when questioned by none other than a servant girl, denied that he ever knew Jesus.
Well, this time it is far more than just a servant girl questioning him, but as we’ll see, he handles himself quite differently this time.

The account

So let’s dive into the passage

Context

The context for today’s passage is actually the passage that we looked at last week, so if you were here then, you’ll be familiar with what we are on about.
For those who weren’t here, (or even for those who were but have just forgotten), we looked at the time Peter and John were going to the temple, and when they came across a man who was lame from birth who was begging, instead of giving him money, which they didn’t have anyway, they gave him Jesus Christ, and in His name, they healed the man.
In the second half of chapter 3 which we looked at last week, Peter then stands before the crowd that had since gathered and explained to them how it was the power of the risen Lord Jesus that had allowed this man to get strength in his legs and ankles.

The official’s displeasure

Well that little episode may have worked wonders with the crowd, but the temple officials viewed the incident from a different perspective.
Essentially, they saw teaching about Jesus as a threat to them. Previously, it was the high priest who held the spiritual power. He was the one who was the connection point between the people and God. He was the one that was able to enter the most holy place, and so if there was going to be any direction revelation, well it should come through him.
But this new teaching had by-passed him. This new teaching said that people could come to God by calling on the name of Jesus - in other words, they no longer needed the high priest, or any priest for that matter!
For these officials, this changed everything. If they were just to accept it, all their power and influence would be gone. You can see how the teaching of Jesus would have been a big threat to them.

Peter and John in prison

Well from the start of chapter 3, we know the original incident occurred at about 3pm, but some time has obviously elapsed now, because in verse 3 were told it is now evening, so the officials made the call to put them in prison over night before they have a chance to speak to them properly in the morning.
Following this information about them going to prison, Luke then adds another bit of information in the next verse which is actually a phenomenon not only observed in the book of Acts, but right through the history of the persecuted church.
The phenomenon is that when persecution occurs, far from the church dissipating like you might logically expect, it actually grows - and so in verse 4 we’re told that the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

Confronting the rulers

But then comes the confrontation with the rulers of the temple.
Now, I mentioned before about how Paul stumbled in front of a servant girl on the night Jesus was arrested. Well this time he is placed in front of a who’s who of the temple elite.
We have Annas the high priest, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family.
Well, this fine line of distinguished men would be very confronting.
And when they open their questioning with “By what power or what name did you do this?”, they weren’t merely wondering, rather they know they are linking Peter and John with man who was tried and sentenced to death on a cross because of his blasphemies.
Not only were they linking him to the man who had been sentenced as such, but also it was the man in whose teaching was essentially rendering the power of the priests useless.
You can tell the force behind the question by the way Peter responds. In fact, Luke, the author of this book, tells us that Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit as he gives his response.
He starts by telling them the fact of what actually happened - in an act of kindness, a man who had not been able to walk since birth has been healed, and then he tells them very clearly, that indeed it was all done in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Now remember it is the name of Jesus that has changed everything so dramatically for these men - it has altered the way that God communicates with his people. It would have been hard for them to take that this man who they essentially sentenced to death was now the one causing them such a headache.
Well, Peter would have known how tricky Jesus had made it for these official, and so he spells it out to them.
Jesus was the one you crucified, and he was also the one God raised from the dead.
And as if they wasn’t enough, he is also the one that caused this lame beggar to be healed.
And to really drive the point home, he points out the fact that really makes the priest now so obsolete - (in verse 12) “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
In other words, his telling these priests that people no longer have to come through your office to get to God, they get it by turning to Jesus and him alone.

How the officials reacted

Well, this put these temple officials in a bit of a difficult position. Because of course what they have just said would have completely inflamed them. After all, as I just mentioned, what they just said essentially means the power structure that they benefit from has changed.
The difficulty is that they really don’t like it, but the fact of the matter is that an undeniable miracle has just occurred.
As much as they would love to hide the fact, it’s impossible to deny that the man that had been in the one spot for who knows how long, is now walking amongst them - and there are plenty of witnesses to know that the miracle was done in the name of Jesus.
Now part of their irritation seems to stem from the fact that Peter and John were just unschooled, ordinary men. To be stumped is one thing, but to be stumped by these men - it was almost too much for them.
So what do you do when the message from these ordinary unschooled men doesn’t suit you but you can’t deny the facts that support it? Well, you try to hush them.
They knew that support had shifted in favour of Peter and John, and so a harsher punishment had the potential to backfire.
So after giving them further threats they let them go.

The believers pray

Once they are let free, the response from the believers is beautiful. You see, they knew straight away what had happened. They knew that this was not the brilliance of these two men, but that all of the credit goes to God alone.
And so they pray - a prayer that starts with giving God glory, but then acknowledges the inevitability of opposition. It’s inevitable because we are in a spiritual battle where the name of Jesus threatens the evil forces.
In their prayer, that quote David reflecting on the physical opposition that Israel faced. Their prayer also acknowledges the opposition they faced when Jesus was on trial.
But the request they make in their prayer, starting at verse 29, is going to form the basis for the message I want to take from this whole passage today.
So let me read from verse 29:
Acts 4:29–30 NIV (Anglicised, 2011)
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’
Their prayer is to firstly consider the threats, and then to speak boldly.
This should actually be the natural response when you understand what God has already done for us, but sadly our response tends to be more be scared of potential threats and hide from cover.
Now, I want to come back and explore that further to look at what that means in practical terms, but for I just want to keep exploring the passage a little further first,

The Holy Spirit

You see, in verse 31, in response to the believers prayer, we get what essentially seems another mini Pentecost experience. In other words, we see the Holy Spirit making himself known in a mighty and powerful way - as if to remind them that yes, indeed, God does hear and he will fill you with power.
Now we may wonder why we never see anything like this when we pray. Quite possibly we can point to the fact that perhaps our prayers aren’t as fervent. That’s probably true, but I think the Holy Spirit is making a point here - this is such a critical point in the making of the church, and he needs His church to work with great power.

Chapter 5

Now, before I dig a bit deeper into what this all means for us, and in particular, how we handle real and perceived threats, I won’t to quickly show you what happens in chapter 5. We won’t go into much detail, but rather consider the trajectory in which it takes us.
Well, I’m going to jump over the last bit of chapter 4 from verse 32 and into the start of chapter 5 because we’ll look at that little bit next week, but instead take you to verse 12.
Essentially what I want to show you is that what started in chapter 3 with Peter and John using the name of Jesus to heal a lame man, well, things really jump a gear now.
From verse 12 in chapter 5, we see all the apostles now performing many signs and wonders, with many people bringing the ill to them so that could be healed.
But not only do these healings ramp up, so does the opposition.
We’ve just looked at the ban the high priest placed on them earlier, so it’s no surprise that he is not too happy, so he has them thrown into prison, but we see the first of a few miraculous jail breaks.
Well, despite their miraculous exit from the jail, it didn’t prove hard to find them, because they were right back to where they were previously - preaching and teaching in the temple courts.
It took a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel who probably unknowingly speaks the word of God, before convincing them to finally be released but not before being flogged.
We could of course explore this further, but I just want to show you the trajectory where far from the opposition slowing things down, everything is ramped up. It’s one of the characteristic of Christianity for the last 2 millenia. Whenever you persecute Christian, God’s power will rise. The correlation seem to be the more the persecution, the more powerful God shows himself to be.

What this means for us

Well, I want to come back now and think about what this means for us today.
As I mentioned before, here in Australia we don’t face persecution of the same type that we see in this passage, nor of the same type that occurs in other places around the world today.
That being said, this passage is a good reminder for us to pray for those in countries like Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Christians living in those countries desperately need our prayers. And while they are going through untold hardships, we can take some comfort in knowing that our God is more powerful then the persecutors.
But what about us here and now?
Well, sometimes I wonder what our Christian brothers and sisters in these persecuted countries must think when they realise that we shy away from boldly declaring the truth just because people might think we’re a bit strange.
You see, unless you are being overly provocative, which generally speaking I would caution against, that’s the worst that can happen. People might laugh and say you believe in some magical man in the skies, or perhaps lobby against the things you think are important.
Now, before you pull me up at the end, I know there are cases of greater persecution in Australia. I know that someone tried to bomb the Australian Christian Lobby head quarters. There are other cases as well, but generally the dangers are not as great as we sometimes fear.
So the question is, if we know that God wants us to be bold when faced with these hard situations, why aren’t we being bold in friendly situations?
Now, there is a common line of thinking which says that I’ll just like my actions do the talking.
There is some wisdom to that, after all, if you don’t live a godly life then your words are going to sound hollow and empty.
As Paul says in
Romans 10:14 NIV (Anglicised, 2011)
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
You see living a godly life is necessary, but it can’t be all. People need to hear the name of Jesus, the name that has power to heal, and the only name in which people can be saved.
We need to start becoming more deliberate about the way we share with people. Certainly the Holy Spirit is always there to help us, but this doesn’t mean we turn off our brains and don’t think about things - because quite often, the Holy Spirit works through our preparation.
Think about how you can share your story. Think about how you are going to answer certain questions.
As Peter tells us in - “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”.
1 Peter
That verse actually ends with - “but do this with gentleness and respect”.
I think it is worthwhile adding that while this morning I want to urge you to be bold in the way you talk about Jesus, this is not the same as being arrogant and rude. We can be bold while at the same time being gentle and respectful.
There are lots of ways we can do this - but I might use this opportunity to plug what we’ve been talking about, which is, that you have an opportunity to invite you not-yet-Christian neighbour or friend to the Jesus the Game Changer campaign which starts in the following week.

Conclusion

I could go on, but I just want to show that this passage before us demonstrates how we need to be bold in our declaration of Christ.
We don’t need to be afraid of any repercussions. We do need to be gentle and respectful in how we do it, but God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we can have the boldness to speak up, no matter what the consequences are that follows.
Let’s pray...
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