Rejoicing in Persecution
by Jack Wald | August 9th, 2020

Acts 5:12-42

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Luke writes his first summary of the church in Acts 2:42-47. It begins with:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
And ends with,
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

After this we read about the first miracle Luke records after Pentecost, the healing of a man born lame. This is followed by Peter’s second sermon, persecution, and a second summary of the church in Acts 4:32-37 which begins with,
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.

This leads to the account of Ananias and Sapphira who tried to deceive the church by selling a piece of property and saying that the money they gave to the church was all they had received, but kept part of the money for themselves.

This brings us to a third summary in Luke’s account of the early church.
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

The church burst out of the gates after Pentecost and experienced rapid growth. From less than 500 followers of Jesus at the beginning, 3,000 were added to the church after Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. Peter healed a man born lame, a dramatic miracle. This drew a crowd at the Temple. Peter preached a second sermon and the number of men grew to about 5,000 – not including women and children.

The devil fought back with persecution and by trying to weaken the church through moral compromise but despite these attacks the church kept growing.

In all three of these summaries, Luke mentions that the apostles performed many signs and wonders. Miracles abounded, the church community bubbled over with life and growth.

Despite the threats and warning from the Sanhedrin not to speak anymore about Jesus, the apostles continue to teach and preach in the Temple, in Solomon’s Colonnade – located on the eastern side of the Temple’s Outer Court, where women were permitted to meet.

So every day the growing number of followers of Jesus gathered to hear the teaching and preaching of the apostles. Luke writes,
No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.

The followers of Jesus were highly regarded and yet people were afraid to join them. Why were they afraid to join them?

Remember when Jesus healed a man born blind and the Pharisees investigated this healing because it had happened on a Sabbath? The Pharisees questioned the man’s parents who said,
(John 9:20–23)
“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

To join the followers of Jesus in the Temple threatened the social lives of the people who had high regard for the community of followers of Jesus. If they joined the followers of Jesus, they risked being put out of the synagogue they attended. I have seen this same thing here in Morocco. I have talked with people who were drawn to Jesus, admired the Christian community, believed the truth about Jesus, but did not want to risk losing their social network.

Nevertheless, Luke writes, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” What men and women were these? Perhaps the people who were being healed.

Luke writes,
As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

The wonders and signs, the miracles that abounded in the early church, were like billboards saying, “This way to salvation in Jesus.”

This summary is followed by renewed persecution from the Sanhedrin. The church is teeming with life, people are being healed, more and more people are becoming followers of Jesus, and the devil is not happy with this. So there was renewed persecution.

Before I get to that, let me point out that Peter had a powerful healing ministry. So many people came to be healed that Peter could not meet with each person individually. So the streets where Peter passed were filled with people lying on beds and mats, hoping that at least his shadow would fall on them and they would be healed. They did this because of his reputation as a powerful healer.

The woman who suffered from bleeding was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. In Acts 19:11–12 Luke writes about Paul’s time in Ephesus.
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Jesus and Paul had powerful healing ministries and so did Peter.

I have prayed for twenty years to have someone with a powerful healing ministry rise up in Morocco. The church needs wonders and signs that point to Jesus saying, “This way to salvation.” And I have prayed that the person or persons who have this ministry will be able to maintain humility as they use the gifts God has given them, diverting glory to Jesus who heals, not allowing themselves to be glorified.

I encourage you to pray with me for this.

Let’s move on to the renewed persecution of the apostles.

The Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish leaders, both Sadducees and Pharisees, had a problem and the more they tried to fix it, the more of a problem it became.

Jesus of Nazareth attracted a lot of attention and challenged the authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees, so they dealt with him. They pressured Pontius Pilate to crucify him. He was buried in a tomb and they waited for his followers to disappear into the towns they came from.

But to their dismay, rather than the disciples fading away, they seemed to be energized and began doing the things Jesus had done. Jesus had healed people which drew a lot of followers to him. Now the disciples of Jesus were healing people and even more people began to be followers of Jesus.

So they called them in for questioning, threatened them, warned them not to speak anymore about Jesus, and went home to get a good night’s sleep.

But then, each morning, there the apostles were in the Outer Court of the Temple, teaching and preaching about Jesus. News of the healings spread and people from the villages around Jerusalem came to be healed by Peter and the other apostles. The number of people listening to the preaching and teaching of the apostles grew. The number of followers of Jesus grew. This new sect was not disappearing.

So it was time for the Sanhedrin to act once again. They sent the temple guard to arrest the apostles. They were put in jail overnight so they could be brought to the Sanhedrin in the morning for questioning.

Luke writes,
But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.

This is the first of three prison escapes in the book of Acts. In Acts 12 after James was killed by Herod, Peter was put in prison, waiting for his execution, when an angel came to him and escorted him out of prison. In Acts 16 Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi when there was an earthquake and they were freed from their chains.

The angel did not tell the apostles, “Go home, lay low, wait until the heat cools down.” The angel told them to go in the morning to the temple and “tell the people all about this new life.”

The disciples were no longer hiding behind closed doors as they did after the crucifixion of Jesus. Now, empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, they were out in public, in the Temple, right in the face of the Pharisees and Sadducees, preaching and teaching about Jesus.

When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 
25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 

The Sanhedrin gathered, ready to deal with these upstart followers of Jesus who refused to do what they were told to do. But then, to their great embarrassment, they discovered they could not even keep the apostles in jail overnight. What had happened?

I don’t think the thought that an angel had come and set them free ever entered their minds. It is more likely that they searched for some human explanation for the apostles having escaped. They probably suspected that the apostles had even more support than they imagined. They began to think about who among the temple guard and even who among the Sanhedrin were secretly aiding them.

And then to add insult to injury, the report came back that the apostles were back in the Temple preaching and teaching about Jesus. They had been arrested, spent the night in jail, and they were not at all intimidated.

The Sanhedrin were not in a good mood. The Sanhedrin were angry because of the failure of their first assault on the apostles. They were used to people being intimidated by them. They were used to people doing what they told them to do. But these apostles were not intimidated by them and the authority they had. They were dismayed to see that the apostles had ignored the court’s prohibition and threats. And, Luke writes,
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.

The ruling Jewish leaders were seeing a threat to their security, a disruption to the status quo that kept them comfortably in charge. The Sanhedrin were challenged by the apostles who refused to obey them. In addition, with all the people joining this new sect, the Sanhedrin were losing power and authority over the people who were leaving the synagogues and joining this new sect.

This is the same dynamic that took place with Paul when he planted churches in the Gentile world. It was the synagogue leaders who led the opposition against Paul because their members left the synagogue and began to meet with Paul. It was not just the numbers of people who left, although that mattered, it was the money that changed direction that was a big threat. The new converts took their money with them, no longer supported the synagogue, and gave their money to the new church that was established. The synagogues lost money and power as people left and that creates jealousy.

This is the same dynamic that takes place in any country of the world where there is a dominant religious institution and a new religious group begins to emerge.

Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. 

The Sanhedrin that morning was shaken. Their confidence and assurance that they were in control was weakened. The tension in the room was high. They had failed to stop the growth of this new sect when they killed the leader. They had failed to stop the growth of this new sect when they arrested Peter and John warning them and threatening them to stop speaking about Jesus.

It was like a science fiction movie where every time one of the aliens is killed, two or three more pop up. It had just been Jesus who healed people and now there were many who were healing people. There had been one teacher and now there were many teachers. This problem was getting out of hand.

The temple guard did not arrest the apostles as they had done before. They too were shaken and unable to understand how these men had escaped from the prison without doors being unlocked and opened. They feared the crowd who were listening to the apostles. But the apostles agreed to come with them without being forced.

The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” 

With all the authority and power the high priest could muster he reprimanded the apostles. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” And then he slipped into a defensive posture. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

If the high priest was truly confident, he would not have been concerned about what the apostles said about him. But I think his conscience was pricked. He had forgotten, but not really forgotten, what he and the other Jewish leaders had shouted in the courtyard of Pilate when Pilate said to them, (Matthew 27:24) “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!” They shouted, (Matthew 27:25) “His blood is on us and on our children!”

Now that they were beginning to see that there was more to Jesus than they had thought, they were not comfortable being blamed for his death.

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 

In an act of civil disobedience, the apostles declared that they answered to a higher authority than the Sanhedrin. They refused to be intimidated. They refused to negotiate. They refused to compromise. They refused to accommodate.

They answered the high priest’s reprimand “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” with a direct reminder of what the high priest had done. “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.”

This bold testimony and accusation was not how the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin were used to being treated.

The smoldering tension and emotions in the room boiled over.
When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

But then Gamaliel, a Pharisee, an esteemed teacher of the law under whom Saul, later called Paul, studied, spoke up with great wisdom.

He presented two examples of men who had started a movement in the past and after they were killed, “the followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.” So he advised,
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

His voice of reason carried the day. The emotions and high tension in the room settled down. They ordered the disciples to be flogged (it is debated whether this was the forty lashes minus one that Jesus received and Paul received several times or a lesser flogging). They ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go.

But their punishment and warning was not any more effective this time than before.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 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 Messiah.

At the end, let me share some thoughts about this passage.

First, why did the Sanhedrin resist something so magnificent? A man they all knew who was a fixture at the gate called Beautiful was now walking. Some of the more sympathetic members of the Sanhedrin must have talked with him, given him some money, wished that he could walk instead of having to sit there day by day. Now he was walking. Why were they so angry at the people who had healed him?

In Mark 3 there is an account of Jesus going into a synagogue and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Jesus had the man stand up and asked the Pharisees,
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Their silence pained Jesus. Mark writes:
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

Jesus was angry. Jesus was deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts. How did the Pharisees react to this incredible miracle? How did the Pharisees react to this great blessing to the man whose arm had been restored and who was probably waving his new arm in the air and shaking people’s hands with joy and delight?
Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

It amazes us that they were so blind, so numb to the beauty of the miracles that took place. But let me ask you this: Think about a religion that you view to be a false religion, a religion that denies the truth about what you believe as a follower of Jesus. How would you react if members of that religion began healing people? Dramatic, life-giving miracles. The lame walking. The blind seeing.

You would be confused, troubled. What does this mean? You might say, “This is obviously the work of the devil who can imitate the miracles of Jesus.” And that is exactly what the Pharisees said about Jesus. (Matthew 12:22–24)
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

This helps me be more sympathetic to the reaction of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

As time went on, Luke tells us that (Acts 6:7) “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” So at least some of those who strongly opposed Jesus and the apostles, became followers of Jesus themselves.

It is not easy for someone who is passionate about their faith to make a change. It took a divine revelation of Jesus to Saul to turn him around. When someone we talk with is passionate about their faith, all we can do is tell the truth of our own experience and how we understand that experience. It takes people who are passionate about their faith some time to make a significant change.

Second, it stands out to me how confrontational Peter was in standing before the Sanhedrin.

The first time he stood in front of them he said,
It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.

In the second time they stood before the Sanhedrin, Peter said,
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.

If diplomats from our congregation had been there advising Peter about what to say, they might have suggested he be a bit less confrontational. “Can you find a way to say that without being so direct?”

Peter Wagner writes in his commentary, “I know of Christian leaders today who are very critical of government officials, until they get invited to meet them personally. Then they change their tune.”

That was not Peter, but Peter did not create confrontational dialogue. Jesus often provoked those he talked with. It seems to me as I read the gospel accounts that Jesus wanted to pick a fight with them.

When Jesus announced the beginning of his public ministry in his home town of Nazareth, he stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61. He sat down and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke writes that everyone “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” Isn’t that wonderful? Afterwards they could have shared a meal and everyone would have gone home happy.

But then Jesus said, (Luke 4)
Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

This made the people of his hometown furious with him. They no longer spoke well of him and tried to kill him by throwing him off the cliff. Why did he say things that made them feel rejected?

In Luke 11 a Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him. A meal is a pleasant time, a time for fellowship, an enjoyable time. The Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not wash before the meal and this set Jesus off. Jesus began a series of judgments against the Pharisees. “Woe to you Pharisees. Woe to you Pharisees. Woe to you.”

One of the experts in the law said to Jesus, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” And so Jesus began another string of “Woe to you. Woe to you. Woe to you,” directed against them.

The account ends with this verse,
When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Well, no wonder. But Jesus did not provoke just to pick a fight because he enjoyed fighting. Jesus saw into the hearts of men and women and he saw that these hearts were hardened. Jesus provoked in order to encourage a reaction that would open their hearts to the truth.

I think what I learn from this is that it is important for us to speak the truth, even when it is not comfortable to do that. When hearts are hardened, the spoken truth can open up cracks in the hearts of those who hear the truth.

Third, what does it mean to rejoice in sharing the suffering of Christ?

During communion today we will sing the Graham Kendrik song, Knowing You. There was a man in RIC who told me he was uncomfortable every time we sang that song because of the third verse.
O to know the power of your risen life,
And to know you in your sufferings.
To become like you in your death, my Lord,
So with you to live and never die!

He said it was too difficult to sing a verse that says we want to share in the sufferings of Christ. It was not that he disagreed with the theology of this verse, not that this sentiment was not found in scripture, but that it was difficult for him to sing this and mean it.

We do not look forward to suffering. It is a sign of a mentally disturbed person who wants to suffer. But in the early church we read accounts of people who rejoiced in suffering with Christ. The apostles returned to their community after being flogged,
rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 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 Messiah.

In 258 AD, under the Roman emperor Valerian, a wave of persecution hit the church. In Robin Daniel’s book, This Holy Seed, an account is given of three men, Marianus, Jacobus and an unnamed man who wrote the account. They were traveling in the mountains of Numidia, a kingdom composed of modern day Algeria and parts of Libya and Tunisia. They were captured by Roman soldiers and carted off with other Christians from the area to be put on trial and killed if they did not renounce their faith.

As the convoy was about to start, one onlooker was so moved with joy at the thought of the martyrdom which awaited the travelers that his faith could not be hidden: he joined the procession.

These accounts amaze me. Are these accounts exaggerated stories of what really happened? I don’t think so. Modern accounts testify to the same peace and joy in the midst of persecution. Remember the peace that the Egyptian Christians had as they knelt by the sea with their ISIS executioners standing behind them.

I talked with a woman some years ago who had been held captive by the Taliban and she told me that during those months when she was a captive she had the sweetest experience of Jesus she has ever had.

C.S. Lewis said the promise of a rose is greater than the rose itself. The opposite side of this truth is that fear of something is greater than the actual experience itself.

A few weeks ago when I preached from the account of the first appearance of the apostles before the Sanhedrin, I said that the response of the church in Morocco in 2010 during the deportations was not boldness but timidity. There were a few exceptions, but the boldness I read about in Acts and prayed for, did not happen.

I talked with a man who was familiar with the church in Iran and he told me that the followers of Jesus in Iran used to be like the followers of Jesus in Morocco. But after they experienced persecution, they became less intimidated by it, they became bolder in their faith.

We will have to go through the fire before we become bolder in the midst of the fire. Boldness evolves, it is not instantaneous.

We need to learn from those who have come before us. We need to learn from the saints of the past who endured such suffering. We need to learn and be encouraged by the example of the apostles.

I hope we never have to experience such suffering, but if we do, we need to be ready to hold on to Jesus. Peter tried to prepare himself to stand with Jesus and failed. We may fail ourselves, but then, like Peter, we need to come to Jesus with our shame and receive his forgiveness, receive a second chance.

When Paul wrote about his struggle with “a thorn in his flesh” and asked the Lord three times to have it removed, the Lord told him, (2 Corinthians 12:9–10 )
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So Paul wrote, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

It is when we are weak that we are strong. We face the future with confidence that we are deeply loved by God. We face the future with confidence that no matter what happens to us, God will be present with us. We face the future with confidence that no matter what happens, Jesus will take us to be with him in his eternal kingdom.

We face the future and pray that whatever comes, we will experience the grace of Jesus for when we are weak, then we are strong.