Monday, June 2, 2008

This week's sermon: Catch and Release

Acts 5:12-42

The New Church, the new group of believers was attracting attention. People saw them meeting in the temple courts and they took notice. Those who did not believe didn’t dare to join with them in their temple meetings, but continued to hold them in high regard. The number of people who were coming to faith in Christ continued to grow in spite of the fear of persecution from the temple leadership. And people continued to bring those in need of healing before the apostles. These were the circumstances in which these new believers found themselves. They were feared, respected, celebrated by those who were healed, joined by those with faith and highly regarded by all. This was good for the believers, but not so good for the temple leadership who—if you remember from weeks past—were interested in keeping their position and power.

The Apostles were teaching that Jesus had risen from the dead, which was completely outside the Sadducee way of thinking. And on top of that teaching which contradicted their theology, these men were gaining status. They didn’t just dissipate and die out like other sects had done. In fact they were gaining members, and even those who did not join them held them in high esteem. So this time they gather all the apostles and throw them in the public jail. This is different from the instance before when they held Peter and John overnight, probably in the temple under guard. This time they threw them into the public jail, quite possibly under Roman guard. This was serious business. The power and position of the temple elite were in jeopardy and they did not want it to go any further. But here we see that God is bigger than the political machine. The apostles were thrown in jail, but God sent an angel to release them and tell them to go to the temple and teach the full gospel to anyone who would listen. The angel called the gospel the message of this new life. They weren’t standing in the temple courts giving nice little moral lessons; they were opening the door to a new life for anyone who would believe.

So when the Sanhedrin gathered at the temple, and sent for the apostles to stand before them, they were nowhere to be found. The guards had no idea what had happened. There was a guard all night, and everything seemed secure. There were no broken locks or chiseled bars. The apostles were simply not where they should have been. This really left the chief priests scratching their heads. Then someone tells them to look out into the courts, because there are the apostles. And they are teaching the same message of life and hope that they were teaching the day before.

The guards go and gather the apostles once again and bring them to stand before the Sanhedrin. Luke tells us that they did not use force because they were afraid of the people who had gathered to hear the message of the gospel. But obviously the apostles did not resist them either. There was no need to use force because the apostles went with them willingly.

The high priest and the rest of this ruling body wanted to know why they were continuing to teach in the name of Jesus. They had warned them on previous occasions. They had just arrested them the day before. Yet here they were again doing the same thing that had gotten them thrown in prison the day before. It makes no sense in the worldly point of view. Why in the world would someone continue to put themselves in a position to be arrested like that? And there was one particular part of the story that the Sanhedrin really didn’t like. They really were concerned with the apostles telling people about the role the Sanhedrin played in putting Jesus to death. They didn’t want people to think about that. It is not like it was news to anyone who was part of Jerusalem’s Jewish society. They already knew all about it. But the Sanhedrin had justified their actions to themselves so many times that they didn’t want to hear that they were responsible in any way for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Peter and the other apostles, though, are not easily intimidated. They know all about the events of the crucifixion because they were there. They were with Jesus. And Peter had even followed him after he was arrested and made to stand before the Sanhedrin. They were witnesses to these things with their own eyes. And they were under a divine mandate to continue teaching the gospel message. Again they ask if they ought to obey God or this council of men. They assert the basics of the gospel, that God raised Jesus to life after these men had given him over to be crucified, and that God had exalted Jesus and made him Prince and Savior so that there might be repentance and forgiveness of sins. These statements are the same ones we use today to share the gospel. Jesus was put to death, rose from the grave, and God through him has granted forgiveness of sins. That is the basic gospel message. And it has not changed in almost 2,000 years of telling. The apostles witnessed these things, and are bearing witness along with the Holy Spirit before these men.

Sometimes the truth infuriates people. It did in this case. The apostles told it like it was and the members of the Sanhedrin were ready to stone them for it. Remember before that they did not take action against Peter and John for healing in the name of Jesus because they were afraid of the crowds? Here they are angry enough that they don’t care. My thought is that some of them were under conviction. They knew that what they did was wrong. They knew that they had participated in Jesus execution, and they didn’t want to hear it. They could not stand to have their own wickedness brought before them. So they were ready to take them out and stone them.

But God was at work that day to bring about good in at least one man. Gamaliel, who was actually the teacher of Saul (who later became Paul). He was the foremost Pharisee at that time, and as a Pharisee had less of an argument with the resurrection theology of the apostles. He was a greatly respected man and was seen to be a man of integrity both in the council and among the common people. So when he stood in the assembly, he was probably the only one who could have commanded the attention of the men who were so close to running out in a murderous rage. He has the apostles put out of the room for a moment and gives a word of wisdom to those who would stone the apostles. He tells them something that I believe is very relevant in all times.

Through the years there are many who rise up and claim to be in possession of a great revelation. All of them with time come to an end. But what remains, what perseveres is the truth of God. In the face of persecution, the truth remains. In spite of all the efforts to stomp it out, the truth perseveres. God will keep his truth alive. All imposters will eventually be thrown down. Not by us, but by God. If their purpose is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is from God you will not be able to stop them because you will be fighting against God. A room full of scholars and rabbis and religious professionals, and only one is wise enough to see that God is the one who is holding all the power. Only one who understands that God really can’t be threatened by false teachers, because he is God.

Gamaliel was able with his words to keep the apostles from being stoned that day. They were flogged instead. And they were told once again not to speak in the name of Jesus. So the apostles turned and sadly went home because they were told not to preach Jesus anymore. NO! They rejoiced. They rejoiced that they had been considered worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name of Jesus. They kept on teaching. They kept on preaching. They continued to walk in the Truth of God. And God continued to hold them up, to strengthen them, and to keep them in a place to continue in his service.

So what does this mean for us? What do we take from this account in Acts? It is easy to hear a story and feel good about the ending. But we need to take a piece of it and let it affect how we live our lives. The most obvious application from this story is perseverance in the face of persecution. The apostles are a great example of that here. But how can we persevere? It is easy to say it; it is hard to do it. What was at the root of their perseverance? Were they just really brave? No, these are the same guys who ran and hid and locked the doors after the crucifixion. They were not naturally brave men, so what was it? It was the Holy Spirit working in them. It was the Holy Spirit testifying through them to the truth of the gospel message. And it was the knowledge that if God could release them from prison, he could protect them from the Sanhedrin. And it was the security in knowing that even if the Sanhedrin stoned them, God was big enough to take care of them.

Ultimately, Gamaliel and the Apostles both demonstrate this same confidence in God’s sovereignty: Gamaliel in saying, “If it is human it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, you can’t stop it;” and the Apostles in speaking the Truth of the Gospel message with a boldness that only comes from a confidence in the God who is greater than death itself.

We gain all kinds of strength and courage in the simple act of seeing God for who he is. He created the universe. He raised Christ from the dead. He rescued each of us from our sins, and is changing our lives. If he can do all of that, what is it that we think he cannot handle? Allow his Holy Spirit to continue to reveal to you the greatness of our God so that you will gain the confidence to step out in obedience trusting him to handle the consequences.

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