Text: Acts 5:17-end
Imagine what it must have been like to have been a Christian in the days of the apostles!
It would have been a great, wouldn’t it? To experience the Holy Spirit coming with Pentecostal power. To hear the apostles preach and to witness their miracles. To see 3,000 people turn to Christ in a single day. They were heady days indeed, as the Christian message spread like wildfire, beginning in Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and onwards to the ends of the earth.
But before we look back with too much nostalgia, we mustn’t forget that those were also highly dangerous times in which to be a Christian.
The Book of Acts records that as the apostles advanced with the Gospel, success went hand-in-hand with hardship. There were not only great achievements, but also damaging setbacks; not only wonderful encouragements but also bitter disappointments. The early Christians suffered shipwreck, disease, imprisonment, flogging, beating, deception from within their own ranks and downright hostility from their many enemies. Some, such as Stephen and James the brother of John, would soon be martyred. Of the original disciples, as far as we know only one died peacefully in his own bed.
It has always been risky to be a Christian – a real Christian, I mean. To this day, to be a follower of Jesus in a Marxist, Islamic, or Hindu society is often fraught with danger. And, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s becoming distinctly uncomfortable to be a Christian in our own country.
You may remember the case of Jennie Cain, suspended as a primary school receptionist after asking friends to pray for her when her five-year-old daughter was upbraided for “talking about Jesus” in school. Then there was Caroline Petrie, a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient. There was a foster mother who was struck off because one of her charges converted from Islam to Christianity. And in recent weeks we have heard about Dr Richard Scott, who has been accused before the GMC of ‘crossing the line’ in discussing his own Christian faith with one of his patients.
Whatever you make of these particular cases, one thing is clear: the atmosphere has changed. There is more hostility towards Christians, there is a greater risk attached; there is a higher price to pay. And we need to ask: “Is it worth it? Is it worth going all-out for Christ and the gospel in the light of the risks and dangers involved?” Acts 5:17-end will prompt us not only to face up to this urgent question, but also to give a decisive answer to it.
Let’s quickly summarise the story. The High Priest and his associates – members of a Jewish council called the Sanhedrin are furious at the apostles. They are jealous of their success and popularity with the crowds, and they are afraid that they themselves might end up being blamed for the death of Jesus. So they decide to thrown the apostles into prison. Early the next morning, the Sanhedrin re-convenes, and they call for the apostles to be brought from prison. But they aren’t there. They’re standing out outside, doing precisely what they had been forbidden to do: speaking Jesus.
The apostles are brought back in front of the High Priest. ‘We expressly forbad you to preach in the name of Jesus.’ Peter steps forward and gives his famous reply: ‘We must obey God rather than men’. And then he goes on to do exactly what he has been ordered not to do. He preaches in the name of Jesus. He just can’t help it.
They are so incensed that they want to kill Peter and the others there and then. But one of their number – a respected rabbi named Gamaliel – speaks up: ‘If what these men are doing is of human origin, then it will to fail. But if it is of God, then it will succeed, and it would be folly to resist it.’ Gamaliel’s reasoning wins the day. The apostles are called back in, flogged, ordered once again not to speak in the name of Jesus, and released.
And so, chastened and humiliated, the apostles left the Sanhedrin, and slunk back to their homes, determined never again to speak the name of Jesus in public.
Is that what they did? No! Verses 41f – ‘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.’
The apostles, then, seemed perfectly willing to accept the risks involved in believing and behaving as followers of Jesus Christ.
Believing in Jesus is a risky business. The Sanhedrin, remember, was dominated by a group called the Sadducees. These men were the theological liberals of their day. They didn’t believe in the existence of the invisible world, they denied the resurrection of the dead, they held out not hope in a the future life. They didn’t believe any of that stuff (that’s why they were sad, you see).
What is more, their minds were closed to the all the evidence and arguments to the contrary. Their interrogation of the apostles, as recorded by Luke (v27ff), contains no questions, no attempt to enquire into the apostles’ motives and behaviour. There is a hardness of mind and heart here (“I’ve already made up my mind – please don’t confuse me with the facts”). Further evidence for this is found in their refusal to even speak the name of Jesus. Some people have sincere and genuine objections to the Christian faith, and we must try to answer these with patience and sensitivity.
But one common reason people don’t believe is that they don’t want to believe. It may indeed be that they can see perfectly clearly that believing in Jesus as Saviour entails obeying him as Lord. Ah, yes. It’s so difficult to believe, because it’s so difficult to obey.
Obeying Jesus is a risky business. The apostles were hounded not only because of their beliefs, but also because of their behaviour. They were determined obey God’s authority even if it meant being disobedient to human authority. ‘We must obey God rather than men.’
This is worth pondering for a moment.
To be sure, Christians are called to be good citizens and to be generally obedient to human authorities:-
1 Pet 2:13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.
But Peter well knew that discipleship sometimes entails disobedience. When human commands come into direct conflict with God’s commands, then it is our duty to disobey those human commands and to obey God’s.
Of course, the application of this principle may involve us in much heart-searching. That’s part of the risk.
Christian belief and behaviour, then, is a risky business. But is risk is worth it? Yes it is, and here are three reasons why.
We have truth on our side. An outrageous claim. Many people today are sympathetic to vague notions such as ‘faith’ and ‘spirituality’. But there can be great hostility towards ‘doctrine’, to exclusive truth-claims, to any fixed set of beliefs. But that’s precisely what these apostles had: they had a clear message about Jesus. They proclaimed a definite message about Jesus, and the ‘life’ that he gives. In verses 30-32, we have a summary of their message:-
“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, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
It’s all about Jesus. We might ask whether our own thinking and speaking reflects this. Friends, we have been entrusted not with an opinion, but an announcement. Not a suggestion, but a command. Not an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, but an opportunity to begin a new life. The apostles were entrusted with speaking ‘the full message of this new life’, v20, and so are we.
The risks involved in Christian discipleship are worth taking, firstly, then, because we have truth on our side. But now, secondly, they are worth taking because
Supernatural help is available. You will recall that on this occasion an angel of the Lord directly intervened and released the apostles from prison. To be sure, there is mystery here. God’s delivers them from prison, only for them be sent straight to a place where they are bound to be arrested again. And after that they are given a severe beating, v40, and no angel appeared to protect them from that. But it was enough to remind them that even if miracles are occasional and unpredictable, yet God’s presence with his people is continual.
We can have the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when they to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your idols, but the one true and living God, and him alone.” Dan 3:16ff
The risks involved in Christian discipleship are worth taking, because we have truth on our side, because supernatural help is available, and thirdly, because
Final victory is assured. Even Gamaliel was getting warm on this. He realised that if this Jesus thing was of God, it was bound to be successful. But what he failed to mention, or perhaps to even realise, that this only works when we take the long view. We must first go through ‘many dangers, toils and snares’, but it is always true that ‘grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home’.
Let me remind you of the words of our Lord in Mt 28:18ff.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Final victory is assured, because the One who commissions us is the One to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given.
And final victory is assured, because as we go and make disciple of all nations, he is with us always, to the very end of the age.
I ask you to consider the cost of discipleship. “Is it worth it? Is it worth standing up for our belief in Jesus and being obedient to his commands, even if this brings us into conflict? Yes! – because we have truth on our side. Yes! because supernatural help is available. Yes! because final victory is assured.