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Heroic Courage

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Joy in the face of death

Well, we're making some progress through the book of Acts - we've reached chapter 5 - and we're continuing to see the progress that Luke wants us to notice in his narrative - the expansion of this Spirit-fuelled gospel movement from Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and finally to Rome (the gateway to the ends of the earth).
Let's read our passage:
Luke's theme of joy is just as evident here as in chapter 2, because this church is a victorious church. In chapter 2, 3,000 souls are added. In chapter 4, the number has grown to 5,000 men, beside women and children. And in chapter 5 (v14) we read that more and more men and women believed and were added. The kingdom of God is advancing, in the fear of the Lord, and that victorious forward movement produces joy.
Luke has already told us about opposition to this progress; but in chapter 5, opposition turns to full blown persecution. Peter and John have already been in prison once; but now, it seems, all of the apostles are rounded up and thrown into the public jail. Their lives are in danger - the Sanhedrin wants them dead. But God uses a Pharisee, Gamaliel, to spare their lives on this occasion.
Nonetheless, they are flogged - a punishment which itself caused death on occasions. Yet they leave the Sanhedrin, after this brutal beating, rejoicing! And they quickly resume the activity that had got them into such hot water - that is, proclaiming the Name, which the Sanhedrin refused to utter - the name of Jesus.
Yet they leave the Sanhedrin rejoicing! And immediately they resume the activity that had got them into such hot water - namely proclaiming the name, which the Sanhedrin refused to utter - the name of Jesus.
So the journey of joy continues - the apostles leave the Sanhedrin rejoicing - not just in spite of their suffering but because of it - rejoicing because they have been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
You see, the apostles understood that, in the purposes of God, even suffering is a means to victory - in fact, we might go as far as saying that this is God's favoured path to victory. These men were witnesses of the suffering of Christ - killed by hanging on a tree; and they had also witnessed his mighty victory - vindicated by the Father and exalted to his own right hand.
The story of Acts is a story of victory. It’s one of Spirit-given power, compelling daily witness to the Name and proclamation of the wonders of God, resulting in new life and rapid church growth. It's a story of victory and joy.
I guess most of us will have seen the computer animations showing us how the coronavirus spreads. This is a virus which, in a matter of weeks, has infected over a million people and has reached every nation, to the ends of the earth. To the Jews, the Christian message was like this virus - spreading more quickly than they could react; seemingly unstoppable; and even their best efforts to halt it only served to quicken its spread.
In just a matter of weeks, Jerusalem had already fallen to the virus of Christianity. The high priest says, "you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching." Jerusalem is full. Imagine that. Imagine if the same could be said of Birmingham - that Birmingham has been filled with the teaching of the Lord; that men and women throughout this city have heard the Name proclaimed.
I think Luke is hinting, in verse 28, that the work in Jerusalem is nearly complete. Stage 1 of the mission recorded in is almost done. It's time for the witness to stretch out beyond the city wall into all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And that movement away from Jerusalem, which Luke wants us to see, is hastened by the city's rejection of its Messiah. Peter declares (in verse 31) that it's for Israel's repentance and forgiveness that the Lord has been exalted to God's right hand. The gospel is still being proclaimed exclusively to Israel at this stage. But the furious response of the Sanhedrin only compounds their rejection of the Lord himself and serves to open the door for this glorious gospel to reach a wider audience.
Over the first 300 years after Christ, Christians would be systematically imprisoned, plundered, tortured and killed. But Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, is well known as saying "semen est sanguis christianorum" - the blood of Christians is seed. The more you kill us, the more we grow.
Why do you think that was? What was it about the way Christians faced suffering and death that served only to advance the cause of the gospel?
I think we get something of an answer in this passage - I believe the gospel was advanced when Christians faced death with joy. They were brave, they were heroic!

The disciples are heroes

The apostles were heroic in this passage. I want us to see that. But first we need to define what we mean by a hero. What is a hero?
Prior to events of the last few weeks, I might have needed to say more about this, because we live in a day in which people celebrate stars rather than heroes.
But in recent days, we have celebrated true heroes - the frontline NHS doctors and nurses, the social workers and carers, those coming out of retirement, those being redeployed, the volunteers and many, many other key workers who are putting themselves in the face of danger for the sake of our nation.
Two ways in which the disciples display classic heroism in this passage:
1. They are principled in the face of danger and opposition.
They know they could die. They stare into the faces of men who are just itching for a reason to put them to death and they say "we must obey God, not you!"
They know they could die. They stare into the faces of men who are just itching for a reason to put them to death and they say "we must obey God, not you!"
They know they could die. They stare into the faces of men who are just itching for a reason to put them to death and they say "we must obey God, not you!"
2. They serve a purpose bigger than themselves, not because they have to, but because they choose to.
Heroes are people who stand in the breach. They're substitutes. They're people who say "don't take his life, take mine instead".
And the disciples are heroic in this sense too. They speak for the sake of the people. They continue to testify, even before the Sanhedrin, in order that Israel might be brought to repentance and receive forgiveness of sins.
The angel uses an unusual expression to describe the gospel in verse 20 - it's the "message of this Life". Perhaps "this Life" corresponds to "this Name" and "this man" - phrases we've encountered frequently in Luke's narrative - and refers to the one in whom there was life. The same one who is described as having the words of eternal life (). No wonder his gospel was a message of life. The apostles were men who had, of course, already received this life and were living it out. Their proclamation of it was not self-serving, then, but to the benefit of those who were spiritually dead - dead in their trespasses and sins.
In the jail, they would have lived that life - as later jail scenes in Acts testify in more detail. But delivered from the jail, they are empowered to declare that life; they are the means through which that life is given to others - even if it means further imprisonment, torture or death.
The apostles are heroes.
So, what was the source of their heroism?

Jesus is our hero

In verse 31, Peter refers to Jesus as Prince and Saviour. The word which is translated “Prince” here in the NIV is the Greek word ἀρχηγός (archegos). It’s an unusual word, used only 4 times in the New Testament and each time with a slightly different nuance. In , it’s translated “author”. Peter says “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead”.
Then, twice in Hebrews, it’s translated “pioneer” or “founder”. The “pioneer of their salvation” () and the “pioneer of faith” (). You see this is such a rich word, it’s actually quite difficult to translate it accurately in a single English word.
But it’s a word which was commonly used in classical Greek literature in connection with heroes - the ancient heroes of Greek mythology. And if you read a lot of Greek literature - as, by the way, the people of Peter’s day would have done - you would be familiar with people like Heracles (or Hercules to give him his Roman name). This word is frequently used of him, as is the other word Peter uses - σωτήρ (soter) meaning Saviour.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a lesson in classical mythology. You don’t need to know the tales of Hercules. You simply need to see that in referring to the exalted Lord as Prince and Saviour, Peter is doing good cultural engagement. He’s saying: you know all about the heroes of Greek legend; but Jesus is our hero, our champion.
Did Jesus remain principled in the face of grave danger? Absolutely! Luke himself records:

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Did he face death bravely? Oh yes. Was it voluntary? He says:
John 10:17–18 NIV
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

I lay down my life for the sheep

Was is substitutionary? He says:
I lay down my life for the sheep ().
I lay down my life for the sheep ().
Jesus’ death was principled, it was volutary and it was substitutionary. He’s the hero of heroes. And let us in on the secret of his heroism - it was motivated by the joy that was set before him.
Hebrews 12:2 NIV
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Where did the apostles get their courage? How could they stare death in the face and remain so resolute? Because their eyes were fixed firmly on the pioneer and perfecter of faith - the archegos, the hero. They weren’t looking at themselves - they were looking at him being brave for them and to the joy of being united with him, which his act of true bravery has secured.
Where did the apostles get their courage? How could they stare death in the face and remain so resolute? Because their eyes were fixed firmly on the pioneer and perfecter of faith - the archegos, the hero. They weren’t looking at themselves - they were looking at him being brave for them and to the joy of being united with him, which his act of true bravery has secured.
Do we have that sort of courage?
And following his example, they set the
I wonder, when we talk about herosim as voluntary self-sacrifice, whether it seems a bit remote. To our frontline doctors and nurses at the moment, this is not remote - it’s real. People are dying of this virus and they are risking their lives to save others.
But every day, people around us are dying in their sins. Their lives are in grave danger, yet we don’t have the courage to face their disapproval or their anger. Brothers and sisters, our movement has been more restricted now than we’ve ever know in our lifetimes, but as long as we’re not behind prison bars won’t we take the opportunity to tell people all about this Life, this Name, this Man. May the Lord give us courage as we fix our eyes on him.
The New International Version. (2011). (). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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