An Unstoppable Force: Experiencing Biblical Community
Have you ever been in a situation where doing the right thing was going to get you in trouble? Where you had a choice, and it was clear which option was right, and it was also clear that if you did that thing, there was going to be a high price to pay?
When I was a young adult, my mom decided to re-marry. Our pastor, a man I love and respect, felt after doing some counseling with them that he could not, in good conscience, perform the ceremony because he felt that my mom and her fiancé did not share the same faith in Christ. So he said no. You can imagine the cost of him taking that stand and doing what he felt was right. We got together as a family, and I got put on the spot: did I agree with our pastor, or would I support my mom? I felt strongly that our pastor had raised some significant questions, and found myself in the very unpleasant situation of having to choose to say what I felt or of putting my convictions aside to keep the peace.
The apostles in the early church were faced with the same dilemma, but on a much larger scale. Several weeks ago we read how Peter and John healed a lame man, were thrown in jail for a night and then dragged in front of the entire Jewish ruling council where they were forbidden to teach in Jesus’ name any longer. Let’s see if they obeyed… turn in your Bibles to Acts 5. Last week we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira; we will pick up the story of the early church in verse 12. We are going to finish chapter 5 today, even though it is quite a long reading. Read Acts 5:12-42.
The Story: Stage 1 – signs and wonders (vss. 12-16)
The story unfolds in several stages. The first is a summary section describing the activity of the early church, in verses 12-16. It seems that the presence of the Holy Spirit was very much in evidence, as these verses record for us God healing and delivering people in a super-natural fashion. Real people, with real brokenness in body and in spirit, were meeting God and being healed. And it had an impact! Not only in Jerusalem, but word got around to the surrounding towns, and even to the Jewish rulers.
What do we learn from this description of the early church? Many North American Christians would say, “Ya, but that was then…” with the assumption that God no longer works like that. I say, why not? Has God changed – is He no longer able to heal brokenness in people? Has God stopped healing people? Or are people no longer in need of healing? Maybe God is now only concerned with people’s hearts?
Unfortunately, “healing” has taken a lot of abuse in our society. It has been sensationalized on one hand and denied on the other. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, and is based on two truths: only God can heal – which means we cannot force it, we can’t assume it, we can’t control it – and He has commanded us to ask in faith for healing. And that is how we practice it here at Laurier – in obedience to James 5, which teaches that if anyone is sick they should call the elders to pray. Our elders are available during every service, in the back corner, we meet twice a month, and we will gladly gather at other times as well. Because we believe God can still heal, and still does. Sometimes it is physical, more often in my experience it is spiritual or emotional or relational – but that is up to God.
Stage 2 – opposition (vss. 17-42)
Obedience and Deliverance:
Immediately following the report of the incredible things God was doing comes the story of the opposition from the established leaders. They were jealous. Possibly of the popularity, more likely because of the power. So they try to put a stop to this teaching a second time, by arresting all the apostles (not just Peter and John this time) and throwing them in jail overnight. We read how an angel of the Lord came and miraculously delivered them from jail. And did you notice what the angel instructed them to do?
Now, if this was us, we would likely praise God for our incredible deliverance – thank Him for performing a true, incredible miracle – and then work hard to make sure we learned from our mistakes. “Maybe the temple isn’t the safest place to teach… Surely God doesn’t want us to be arrested, we can’t be His witnesses behind bars or if we are killed… It doesn’t look safe here in Jerusalem, the whole movement is doomed if we stay here… Let’s relocate to Galilee and start again there!”
The angel says, “Go, stand in the temple courts, and tell the people the full message of this new life.” (vs 20). God sends them right back into the danger He had just miraculously delivered them from! He tells them to hold nothing back, but to share the “full message of this new life.” And do you see what they did? They went right back.
Now I want to pause at this point in the story for a moment. I know that many of you came to church this morning feeling like you are facing opposition. You came carrying a burden, feeling frustrated, feeling weary, feeling beat up, maybe even feeling imprisoned. The opposition is strong, and you feel it in your spirit.
Here is the key question for you: are you, to the best of your ability and in the power of the Holy Spirit, living a life of obedience? Has God asked you to do something, and you’ve said yes, and you are trying? If the answer is “no”, you are not being obedient, then the opposition shouldn’t surprise you. We’ll see a little more about that in a moment. But if the answer is yes, you are seeking to be obedient, then once again the opposition should not surprise you. If you are obeying God and facing opposition, hear the word of God to you: “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life.” (vss. 19-20). I believe there is a promise in here for you this morning, and it is simply this: God knows the opposition, and He will save you. Now He just might send you right back into the dangerous place, but He will meet you. He will strengthen you. He will give you boldness and courage. He will empower you to obey Him in the pursuit of His Kingdom.
Some Comic Relief: (vss. 22-26)
The story continues in verse 22, and it is a pretty comical scene. Court is in session; all the “important” people have arrived and are seated, the chairman calls the meeting to order and probably moves quickly but in a dignified way through the preliminaries, and then calls for the prisoners. And then the report comes back, “ummm… they aren’t there…” I’m sure the reactionaries were angry and wanted heads to roll, the thinkers were puzzled and trying to solve the problem, maybe there were even a few independents on the edge who saw the humor and chuckled. And then the second report comes: “Hey! We found them, right back where they were yesterday, doing exactly the same thing!” So they re-arrest them, and the trial begins – a little later than anticipated…
Gamaliel’s Wisdom: (vss. 34-40)
I read the exchange earlier; it is no doubt abbreviated but basically the High Priest makes and accusation and Peter responds, and the rulers are infuriated and wanted to kill them all. Then Gamaliel steps in. He was one of the most respected teachers in all of Judaism at the time, a man of great influence. He makes a recommendation: “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (vss. 38-39).
A few moments ago I said I would come back to the situation of us having said “no” to God about some particular area of our lives. There is great truth in Gamaliel’s words: “you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Maybe you understand what I am saying – you understand what it means to fight against God because there is some area in your life where you are doing that right now. You don’t like what God says, so you are fighting it. Let me ask the obvious question: who is going to win that fight? You vs. God – is the outcome in much doubt? Oh, of course you can be stubborn and refuse, and not obey God – He has given you the freedom to choose. But would you win? That is the key question, for the struggle you are having with God right now. You might get your way, but that won’t be winning. “If [your] purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.”
In 1981, a Minnesota radio station reported a story about a stolen car in California. Police were staging an intense search for the vehicle and the driver, even to the point of placing announcements on local radio stations to contact the thief. On the front seat of the stolen car sat a box of crackers that, unknown to the thief, were laced with poison. The car owner had intended to use the crackers as rat bait. Now the police and the owner of the VW Bug were more interested in apprehending the thief to save his life than to recover the car. This is why Jesus must be Lord in our lives – He knows things that we do not know. He isn’t out to make our lives miserable by ripping control from us and then dancing us like a puppet on a string purely for His amusement. He knows that our choice to disobey is laced with poison, and it will destroy the most critical thing to us truly living life: a relationship with Him.
Gamaliel’s advice was logical enough that it even convinced the Sanhedrin, who proceeded to have the disciples flogged and then released. They left, they rejoiced, and they went on obeying God.
So what do we learn from this story that applies to our lives? I see several things. First, where God is moving and working, there will always be healing. That is exactly what happens when God moves: broken things get healed. And to be completely honest, the physical healing is not what excites me most – because I know that for all of us our bodies will eventually fail, we will all die, and then we who know Jesus as Lord will get a brand new body which will never get sick and will never perish. I am more excited about the healing of our broken relationship with God and with each other, because those things are eternal. That healing lasts forever.
Second, we should not be surprised when obeying God brings us into situations of conflict and opposition. Jesus was really clear about this – living in His Kingdom is not a matter of putting our feet up on a comfy couch and having sing-a-longs. John 16:33 says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Trouble was promised! Now, I know it is not one of the promises we claim and look forward to the fulfillment of, but it is a promise of God nonetheless. The companion promise, right in the same verse, is that we will have peace in the midst of that trouble. I see that in the apostles – they must have had peace to be able to return to the temple the very next day. They must have been full of boldness and courage which maybe even appeared to border on the foolish. Jesus promised peace; I believe that promise of God is for each of us facing opposition because of our obedience to God. Claim the peace, hold it close, seek it through prayer, and open your heart to God.
Finally, choose to be a part of the Unstoppable Force. Gamaliel pointed it out – if it is from God, humanity will not be able to stop it. I believe each of us has the opportunity to choose to be on God’s side or not. We can choose to be a part of God’s plans for our world, to join wholeheartedly His church, and to serve in His Kingdom. We can jump on board with where God is going, and enjoy all the battles and all the benefits of His Kingdom.
Will it be easy? Will it be comfortable?? Probably not. Nothing of value I have ever been a part of has been particularly easy, and it has often been uncomfortable. It was certainly uncomfortable as a young adult in the story I began with. But I did speak my mind, I did ask some very hard questions, and it was uncomfortable. And, as is often part of God’s Kingdom, I haven’t seen the end result, and I know there is still much that God needs to do in that situation ten years later.
This past Wednesday at our prayer meeting, I felt led to pray through Romans 8. I’d like to do that again as we lead into communion.