Acts 4:23-31

We are in the midst of the story of the first miracle of the first church, at least the first miracle that is recorded by Luke in his telling the story of the early church.

After the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they went out into the world teaching that the kingdom of God has come and demonstrating that it had come with wonders and signs. Luke tells the account of Peter and John who healed a man who was born lame. He begged by the Beautiful Gate, the main entrance into the Temple. This man was forty years old and sat by the gate every day, year after year, begging for money. Everyone knew him. He was a fixture. When people went to the Temple to pray they knew he would be sitting by the Beautiful Gate, asking for money.

But now, this man was walking and jumping and giving praise to God. He hung on to Peter and John, not wanting to let them out of his sight, and a crowd came to see for themselves what everyone was telling everybody had happened.

With this crowd, Peter preached the second sermon of the first church. As he was preaching, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to see for themselves the miracle they had been told about. They wanted to hear what was being said and when they listened to what Peter was saying, they were “greatly disturbed.”

The priests and the temple guard had put Jesus to death and laid him in a tomb. When they heard Peter telling the crowd that Jesus was alive and had healed the man born lame, this was upsetting to them.

The Saducees did not believe in an afterlife so telling people that Jesus had resurrected from the dead upset them. The Sanhedrin were also in charge of the Temple and did not like having anyone disrupt the order of the Temple.

So Peter and John were put in jail overnight and then brought before the Sanhedrin, made up of the rulers, elders, and teachers of the Law, in the morning.

Elliot preached last Sunday from this text. The Sanhedrin was in a difficult position. On the one hand they were upset that some new religious sect was forming. They wanted to maintain the status quo. A new sect with new beliefs was a threat to the power and control of the ruling Jewish leaders.

On the other hand, the man they knew themselves, because they passed him every day on the way to the Temple, was now standing in front of them. They could not deny a great miracle had taken place because he was walking. What could they do?

So they threatened Peter and John and warned them not to talk about Jesus anymore. But that was about as effective as telling the man born lame not to walk or jump. Peter responded to their warning and threats.
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Elliot preached last Sunday that when we have seen and heard Jesus we cannot keep quiet. The question that rose in my mind was, “What have we seen and heard?” John wrote in his letter, (1 John 1:1)
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

But I have never seen Jesus. I have never touched Jesus. I have never heard the voice of Jesus. What I have experienced is the presence of the Holy Spirit who came into my life when I surrendered to Jesus and gave me a thirst for the Bible. The Spirit gave me a thrill as I read and sang about Jesus. I experienced the peace of Christ in the midst of turmoil in my life.

Elliot talked about his experience of seeing people healed as he and others prayed for them. He talked about his experience of seeing people delivered from demonic oppression and set free.

Knowledge is good. Knowing about Jesus is good. Knowing what is in the Bible is good. But if all we have is knowledge, then we are like someone who goes to the Encyclopedia or to Wikipedia, writes a report, and hands it in to the teacher. We might get an A+ on the report, but we will not have the passion to share what we know unless we also have experienced what we know.

Because of the experiences John and Peter had with Jesus, they could not, as Elliot put it last week, shut up. It was impossible for them to be quiet about what they had experienced. This is what we read in the Gospels.

In Mark 1 Jesus healed a leper and then sent him away with a strong warning, (Mark 1:43–45)
“See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news.

Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5 and (Mark 5:43) “gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this.” Good luck.

In Mark 7 Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute. (Mark 7:36–37)
Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

I find it amusing that Jesus kept telling people not to tell anyone about what had happened to them when he must have known they would tell everyone they met as soon as they left him.

How do you experience Jesus in a powerful way without telling others about him? How can you keep it to yourself? If God is at work in you, if the Spirit is working in you, transforming you, how can you keep it to yourself? How can you be quiet?

So the question arises from Elliot’s sermon last week, “What is your experience with Jesus? You have knowledge about Jesus. You know what the Bible says, but what is your experience? How alive is your relationship with Jesus? People get married and then, unless they work at their marriage, over time the marriage relationship becomes distant and husband and wife become roommates rather than lovers. It takes fresh experience to have a loving relationship.

We need to be in a loving relationship with Jesus, with fresh experiences of his work in our lives. Paul carried the memory of lying in the dust on the road to Damascus when he met the risen Jesus for the rest of his life. We carry the memory of our coming to faith, being renewed in our faith. That is good, but there also needs to be fresh experiences of the love of Jesus in our lives.

I had a poster in my room for the first few decades of my life with Christ. It was a picture of some wild flowers and the message was, “Growth is the only evidence of life.”

How are you growing in your relationship with Christ? When you talk to someone about your faith in Jesus, what can you tell them? Talking about how we first met Jesus is an important part of our story. It is a story that deserves being told over and over again. But what experience do you have with Jesus that is more recent? What can you say about the work of the Spirit in you, transforming you into the person God created you to be?

The work of Jesus in our lives may be seen in wonders and signs, healings and deliverances. But it is also seen in a growing awareness of who we are. Awareness of self is an important part of spiritual growth because as we become more aware of who we are, we have more capacity to be aware of who God is.

John Calvin in 1530 wrote in the opening of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Our wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”

As we grow in our relationship to God because of greater awareness of ourselves, we grow in our awareness of how deeply loved we are by God. As we grow in our experience of God, we have more capacity to understand ourselves. That awareness moves from a head knowledge, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” to a heart knowledge that produces peace and security because we know, in our depths, that we are loved and we are loveable.

I will come back to this at the end of the sermon.

We move on this morning to how Peter and John and the rest of the followers of Jesus reacted to the threats and warnings of the Sanhedrin.

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.

Remember the context for this. The Sanhedrin had arrested Jesus, taken him to Pilate, and pressured him to crucify Jesus. Perhaps they could not have had other followers of Jesus crucified so easily, but there were other ways to kill people who threatened them. In just a few chapters we will read about Stephen being stoned to death.

So the threats and warnings of the Sanhedrin had actions to back up their threats. They were not empty threats.

How did the followers of Jesus who heard the report Peter and John presented to them respond?

When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: 
“ ‘Why do the nations rage 
and the peoples plot in vain? 
26 The kings of the earth rise up 
and the rulers band together 
against the Lord 
and against his anointed one.’ 
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 

What can we learn from this?

The first thing we can learn is that they had a group to go to. They had a group who supported them. It does not seem this was a large group. There were not thousands of people they reported to. This was a group of leaders in the early church.

Each one of us needs to be part of a group we can go to to report what is happening in our lives. We all need people who can support us, encourage us. We are not meant to go through our lives following Jesus all by ourselves. Jesus had fellowship with his Father and the Spirit. Jesus also had a group of 72 disciples with an inner group of 12 disciples and a smaller group of three of those disciples. Jesus needed support, even though they deserted him at the end when he was crucified. Jesus needed support. Peter and John needed support. We need support.

Second, the first thing they did when they heard the report was to pray. This makes me think of Hezekiah who received the report that the Assyrian army that was besieging Jerusalem had made threats. This was a huge army and they had been successful in their sieges of the other towns and cities in Palestine and in the other countries of the region. The field commander made a threat and it had teeth in it. It was a fierce threat.

The first thing Hezekiah did was to go to the Temple and pray. When we are assaulted with bad news, news that makes us tremble, makes us anxious, makes us fearful, the first thing for us to do is pray.

When Annie and I were first married Annie was finishing her last year of university. We were planning to have children in about five years, but in August, three months after we were married, Annie went to the doctor because she was feeling sick and came home to tell me she was pregnant. We had no money. I was working at odd jobs, doing carpentry, whatever I could find to get some income. Annie had her final year of university. We were completely overwhelmed and the first thing we did was to go upstairs to our apartment, get on our knees by our bed, and pray. Then, we began to think of names for the baby.

Prayer is the best first response to any crisis.

Third, they began their prayer with “Sovereign Lord.” (Despotes in Greek.) The Sanhedrin had power but they began their prayer reminding themselves that there was a higher power over the Sanhedrin. They prayed to the one who has all power and authority.

Fourth, it was not enough to pray, “Sovereign Lord,” they needed to remind themselves what that word meant.

On Wednesday night in the online Bible study we looked at the first seven verses of Romans 1. It is Paul’s greeting to the church in Rome and he packs a lot into that introduction. We took time to talk about what the words Paul used mean. Paul tells them he is a servant of Christ and called to be an apostle. What does it mean to be an apostle? What does it mean to be a servant? How can a position of great honor and power be combined with a position of great humility?

We looked at Paul saying, “we received grace and apostleship.” What does grace mean? How is this combined with apostleship? What experience is Paul talking about when he says “we received grace and apostleship.”

Taking time to flesh out what the words mean led us to deeper insights and opened up the power of those verses to encourage us.

So the supporters of Peter and John began their prayer with “Sovereign Lord” and then began to describe what that means.

They prayed “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” The Sovereign Lord is the creator of this world and everything in it. He is the God of all creation.

They prayed,
“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
“ ‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’

The Sovereign Lord is the God of revelation. He spoke through David about the persecution the disciples faced a thousand years before it happened.

They prayed,
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

The Sovereign Lord is the God of history. He caused Herod and Pilate, Jews and Gentiles, united in a conspiracy against Jesus, to do what his power and will had decided beforehand.

They prayed to the Sovereign Lord, the God of creation, the God of revelation, and the God of history. They knew who they were praying to and now they could bring their requests to him.

They had three main requests. First, “Now, Lord, consider their threats.”

This an amazing prayer. They are not asking God to prevent the Sanhedrin from carrying out their threats against the disciples. They are not brainstorming, trying to think what they would do if they were God. They simply prayed, “consider their threats,” “keep them in mind.”

One of my problems is that I am always trying to solve problems. When I pray I think about what I would do to solve the problem I am presenting to God. If it is finances, I think about how the financial need could be solved and pray to that end. If it is a matter of persecution, I think about what could happen to the persecutors to stop their persecution.

But the followers of Jesus who received Peter and John’s report addressed their prayer to the Sovereign Lord who has all power and left the matter of the Sanhedrin’s threats in his hands. Here it is Lord. We trust you to do what is best. You solve the problem.

The second main request is, “enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.”

The Sanhedrin had warned the disciples not to speak any more about Jesus. They had threatened them with consequences if they kept speaking about Jesus. (We will see the consequences for continuing to speak out about Jesus in Acts 5.)

The followers of Jesus put the threats in the hands of their Sovereign Lord and prayed that he would help them to speak his word with great boldness.

Once again, they did not pray for protection; they prayed for boldness. If there were consequences for speaking out about Jesus, they were ready to face them. They had an experience with Jesus and could not be quiet.

Their third main request was, “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Because of the healing of the man sitting by the gate called Beautiful, Peter had preached a sermon and the number of followers of Jesus grew to 5,000 men – not counting the women and children who were followers of Jesus.

Jesus died, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into heaven. But Jesus was still active in building his kingdom. Now he worked through the disciples, but it was still Jesus who was healing people. The number of followers of Jesus was exploding because of what Jesus was doing so they prayed for more people to be healed, more signs and wonders, so the church would continue to grow.

What is striking is that there are no prayers for acts of vengeance and destruction. They did not pray that the Sanhedrin would be struck with disease or affliction, as David prayed in Psalm 69 when he thought creatively about how to make the life of his enemy miserable.
May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution and a trap.
23 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.
24 Pour out your wrath on them;
let your fierce anger overtake them.
25 May their place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in their tents.
26 For they persecute those you wound
and talk about the pain of those you hurt.
27 Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.
28 May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.

I have prayed prayers like this, wanting God to strike out and make people suffer who have caused people I love to suffer. But the disciples in Acts 4 did not pray prayers of vengeance; they prayed prayers of mercy.

They put the threats in God’s hands, they prayed for boldness, and they prayed that Jesus would continue his work through the disciples by healing and delivering those who were afflicted.

The consequence of their prayer was,
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

If Pentecost was an earthquake, this was an aftershock. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

How do we respond to threats?

In December 2009 we began to be aware of government actions against groups of Christians who had gathered for training. This continued in the early months of 2010. We tried to understand what was happening. For the previous ten years there had been a growing openness in the government toward religious freedom and we anticipated that was going to continue.

But then on Saturday, March 6, I began to receive reports of people around the country being arrested and escorted out of Morocco. When I came to church Sunday morning, I discovered that the Korean pastor who led the service before ours was given permission to preach a final sermon and then was going to be escorted out of Morocco.

On Monday the police and military descended on the Village of Hope and gave the parents of the children they had raised from the first couple days of their lives, just seven hours to say goodbye to their children and were taken under police guard to the airport, kept overnight in a hotel with guards at the door of each room, and then taken under police guard to planes that flew them out of Morocco the next day.

There was a second round of deportations in April and then a third round of deportations in June.

During this time we prayed. We turned our Bibles to Acts 4 and prayed for boldness. But, unfortunately, that was not what we experienced.

In January 2011 I met with Moroccans and foreign residents of Morocco and talked about our collective response. I said that if I were to grade ourselves for how we responded to the deportations, I would give us a failing grade. Foreign followers of Jesus pulled back from the Moroccan followers of Jesus. Their thought process moved from “what is God calling me to do?” to “how do I need to restrict my activities so I don’t get deported?”

I pointed out that Paul never asked that question. He had a divine call to take the gospel to the Gentiles and he was not going to be intimidated by opposition in any city. He prayed and asked for guidance about where to go and then went. He may have had some anxiety about what would happen to him when he went into the city, but that did not prevent him from speaking out about Jesus.

There are foreign followers of Jesus who pulled away from me because they considered me to be too dangerous to be around. I gave interviews to the media about the injustice of the government’s actions against the children and parents at the Village of Hope which made some people nervous.

Moroccan followers of Jesus stopped meeting in their house churches. In the interrogation of the members of house churches, the police made them aware that they had insider information about the house churches so the cultural mistrust Moroccans have toward each other was amplified and pulled them away from each other.

There were some magnificent exceptions to this, people who continued to be bold in what they did and said, continued to meet together, but that was a small percentage of the followers of Jesus in Morocco – foreign and Moroccan.

I have thought a lot about this and have some understanding about the dynamics of what happened. Ask me and I can talk about this another time.

For the purpose of this sermon, what I want to say is that the boldness that was displayed in Acts 4 is not easy and not natural. It is not inevitable. And, I am certain that not all the believers were bold. Certainly, there were some who were intimidated and pulled back from speaking out about Jesus.

I think the boldness Luke describes evolved more slowly for most of the followers of Jesus. Not everyone was instantly bold.

It all comes back to our experience with Jesus. Peter and John had a rich experience with Jesus. They spent three years with him, watching him teach, heal, and deliver those who were oppressed. They went through the agony of deserting him, denying him, and watching him die and be buried in a tomb. They went through the indescribable exhilaration of his rising from the dead. They were taught by him in the forty days after his resurrection until he ascended to heaven. They had the explosive experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

So, I imagine that Peter and John were bold in their response to the threats of the Sanhedrin. Others in the group they reported to, the other disciples, others who had been with Jesus before his death and resurrection, were likewise bold in their response to the threats. But those who were new to the church did not have that depth of experience and I imagine it took time for them to become bold in the face of threats.

None of us were with Jesus in his earthly ministry. So what is our experience with Jesus? Did you drift into the church as you learned the stories of Jesus in Sunday School and youth group? Have you settled into the life of a follower of Jesus by going to church and reading your Bible and praying? This does not mean you are not a follower of Jesus. There are many ways of coming to Jesus and growing up in the church is one way to do that.

But what is your experience with Jesus? How deeply has he affected your life? How much has Jesus done for you? How much has your life been transformed by the work of God in your life?

When Jesus sat at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, and a sinful woman anointed his feet with oil, Simon thought to himself, (Luke 7:39)
“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered his unspoken thought and told him a story about two people who owed money to a moneylender. One owed a lot and the other just a little. Jesus asked Simon, “Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” And then Jesus pointed out to Simon that the woman honored him with what she did while Simon did not even give him water to wash his feet. Simon viewed himself as righteous and the woman as a sinner. So the woman loved Jesus a lot and Simon loved just a little.

The woman left that meal with an experience of Jesus that stayed with her the rest of her life. You can imagine that she told that story over and over and over again. What about Simon? We don’t know. Perhaps this became an experience with Jesus for himself and transformed his life. It is also possible that he brushed it off and didn’t think about it again.

The leper healed by Jesus could not stop talking about Jesus. Jairus and his wife, and his daughter, could not stop talking about what Jesus had done. The man who was deaf and mute could not stop talking about Jesus now that he had his hearing and his voice back. The woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in the home of Simon could not stop talking about what Jesus had said to her.

But there are many people in Palestine who did not talk about Jesus. I am certain that among the 5,000 men and their wives and children, there were those who were afraid of the persecution and did not talk about Jesus.

In Morocco there were people who were more worried about being deported than being faithful to what God called them to do. There were people who were more worried about being persecuted than continuing to meet together and face persecution.

When it comes to a test, when being a follower of Jesus and speaking out about your faith in him is going to cost you, will you be quiet or will you continue to speak out? It all depends on how much you have experienced Jesus in your life.