Gospel-motivated evangelism (Acts 4)

Sometimes evangelism feels a bit like a diet—most of us shift nervously because we know we haven’t been “sticking to it” as much as we should have been.  Throughout this series we’ve been focusing on the various “myths” that prevent us from making radical followers of Jesus, but for some this one is the biggest.  Understandably so, because sharing our faith can often result in friends and family rejecting the gospel message—making us feel rejected along with it.

This was essentially the experience of Jesus’ first evangelists, whose community leaders responded to the spread of Christianity not with enthusiasm but with open threats.  But did they respond with anger?  Frustration?  Did they circulate petitions?  Stage boycotts?  No; they had a worship service:

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,

and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

 

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness,30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:23-31)

Love is what separates boldness from the “clanging gong” Paul warns the church of Corinth against (1 Corinthians 13).  Too often it’s tempting to become the “clanging gong”—reacting to “the world” as though we could neatly divide it into “us” and “them.”  It’s equally tempting to respond to “them” with snarky remarks, anger over peripheral issues, or rallying behind fashionable causes that do more to galvanize the faithful than to reach the faithless.  Today’s rising generations are sick to death with forms of Christianity that “fights the wrong battles,” that is more inclined to rally behind a chicken sandwich than to love our neighbor.

In this setting, then, worship is the most culturally subversive thing there is.  Why?  Because it is in worship that we proclaim our allegiance not to the systems of this world—success, relationships, etc.—but to Jesus and His Kingdom.  This was the pattern of life for the early Church, and it may—nay, must—be reclaimed by the church of today if we are to find traction in the world we inhabit.

This also means that the gospel changes my entire motivation for evangelism.  We see this in several ways:

  • The gospel says I am accepted by grace, not performance. This means that when I approach others, my top priority is not a lifestyle issue or matters of politics.  Too often we think people need to “get their act together” before they can come to Jesus.  This emerges in subtle ways—such as the way we tend to think of some people as “closer” to Jesus than others, or we dismiss some as “never going to darken the door of a church.”  The gospel shatters our traditional categories of “hard cases,” and prompts us to see everyone as being within the reach of God’s grace.

 

  • Because of the gospel, I have the approval of my Heavenly Father. So who else’s approval do I need?  The gospel tells me that I don’t need to fear rejection by man if I have the acceptance of God.  The gospel therefore sets me free to offend my neighbor—that is, if that’s the consequence of sharing the truth in love.
  • If I am reluctant to share my faith, what do I really believe about the character of God? If God exists to fulfill my dreams, then why would I worry about my neighbors who seem to be getting on just fine without him?  But if my only hope is Christ, it impels me to share my faith boldly—and publicly.

In the eighteenth century, a prominent evangelist named Jonathan Edwards wrote a book called The Surprising Work of God.  Drawing from an image Jesus used in John 3, Edwards said that like the unpredictable blowing of the wind, we are surprised at the ways God draws men and women to Himself.  With all the wildness of the wind, the gospel takes the human heart by storm.  Our task is to be faithful, and to pray that God’s Spirit would continue to mightily work in the hearts of men and women He longs to call His own.

Advertisements

Myth 5: “Faith is something personal…” (Acts 4, part 1)

While it’s been a few years since we’ve talked about Tim Tebow, few can forget the example set by this NFL Quarterback—both on and off the field.  Known for his Christian faith and conservative moral stance, Tebow made waves for his frequent practice of visibly bowing in prayer.  Though inspiring to some, the act was irksome to others—some of whom mockingly imitated the practice, generating the trend of “Tebowing.”  What was to be made of Tebow’s shameless, public faith?  In 2011,former NFL star Kurt Warner had the following advice to share:

“You can’t help but cheer for a guy like that…But I’d tell him, ‘Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living.  Let your teammates do the talking for you.  Let them cheer on your testimony.”

While most of us will never grace a football field, we too face the challenge of how to live out our faith in the public square.  In our postmodern, post-Christian, post-everything world, religion has begun to be seen as the source of countless social problems—not the answer to them.  What, then, has become of religion?  According to social analyst Peter Berger, in the last few decades the role of religion has shifted.  Once religion represented a “common universe of meaning”—that is, a system that would unite and inform a society on matters of beauty, truth, and goodness.  But in recent years we’ve moved away from a “common universe of meaning” to seeing religious belief as an “innocuous ‘play area,’” one that that emphasizes private, psychological needs, but has no real bearing on the broader culture.

What happens when Christians begin to believe this?  You and I might find ourselves saying things like:

  • Religion and politics are off-limits in the workplace. Sharing my faith would violate an unspoken social boundary.
  • My faith means a great deal to me, but I can’t expect others to share such convictions. It would be wrong to impose my views on someone else.
  • My coworkers/neighbors/friends already believe in God—so what if they don’t describe their religion in the same ways that I do?
  • No one wants to be a religious “fanatic”—or worse: a hypocrite. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean verbalizing your faith.  It means sharing your faith by living morally and showing love to others.  I don’t need to actively seek ways to tell people about Jesus.

Put negatively, it seems that we’re often motivated more by the fear of man than the fear of God.  When we say, “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” what we’re really saying is “I’m not comfortable making others uncomfortable.”  The difference is subtle, but notice that it’s motivated by self-concern rather than gospel faithfulness.

This pressure existed since the days of the early church.  In Acts 4, we see Jesus’ followers proclaiming the gospel with runaway success, only to be taken into custody:

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:1-4)

Given the already threadbare social fabric, it’s partially understandable that the religious leaders would react this way.  Judaism, you might recall, was barely tolerated by Rome.  Jesus’ arrival disrupted the uneasy peace that existed. Now that Jesus had been publicly executed—and his followers scandalized—both Roman and Jewish leadership presumed their problems solved.  So when Jesus’ followers began preaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the Jewish leaders naturally feared that this message would generate conflict between the Jews and the Roman establishment.

On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem,  with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:5-12)

The Sanhedrin was a group of Jewish leaders who met in the temple courts to preside over matters of Jewish ceremony and custom.

We should note that these were the same men who tried Jesus and had him turned over to the Romans for execution.  So Peter may have had extra reason for caution in speaking before this governing body.  The Sanhedrin would surely have noticed the ripple effects of several thousand people choosing to follow the same man they had killed.  Earlier, when Jesus was on trial, Peter had denied any association with Jesus.  Now, he minces no words in claiming Christ as the exclusive means of salvation (v. 12).

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another,16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old. (Acts 4:13-22)

Notice that the Sanhedrin is impressed that such a movement could be started by “unlearned” men such as Peter and John.  Fishermen were by no means blue-collar workers in that day, but entrepreneurs.  Still, they would not have been regarded as having the same level of intellectual sophistication as the Sanhedrin.

So the Jewish authorities seem perplexed.  The message is challenging—but it came from an unlikely source. Still, they found themselves threatened by this movement—partly because it would shift power away from the localized center (i.e., the Temple) and also because it further rend the already threadbare social fabric.

On the one hand, the authorities could find no legal prohibition—nothing to explicitly punish them for.  Still, they threatened the apostles not to proclaim their message.  In a very real sense, this is the same thing we hear today: “Your message is good for you—just keep it to yourself.”

Religion will invariably lead to division.  Yet our culture assumes that when religion is privatized, this division disappears.  Not so.

Bounded setTraditionally, our culture has assumed that Christianity draws clear boundaries in which the “good” people are in and the “bad” are out—and that this boundary is primarily drawn on the basis of sexual ethics.

The postmodern world has rebelled against all such absolutes, but only to the point of moral collapse.  In recent years, Harvey Docx penned an essay in which he writes:

“by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.”

Do you understand what he means?  “Inert conservatism” means we haven’t changed the nature of the bounded system—only its categories.  Now the “open-minded” people are in, and the “closed-minded” people are out (!).  This, Docx is saying, is just replacing one form of religious fundamentalism for another.

Centered-SetThe gospel provides another way.  Jesus promised that when He is exalted, He “will draw all men to Himself.”  The task of Christianity is to exalt Christ—in our neighborhoods, in our workplace—and allow the gospel to draw men and women closer to Him.  This “centered set” replaces traditional forms of thinking, and in some ways is quite messier.  But it reminds us of our task in helping those who are far to be brought near through the blood of Christ.  Next week we’ll explore further as we examine the way the gospel motivates us in sharing our faith.

 

 

 

Church Life – the Good and the Bad – Acts 4:32—5:11

Today’s reading takes us from the mountaintop to the pit in just a short couple of minutes. We read of the incredible nature of church life amongst the earliest Christians, while also seeing the most sobering situation imaginable.

Jerusalem was an economically volatile place to live, and over time it would be the ongoing situation that among the churches of the early Christian world, the Jerusalem church was the poorest. And collections would be sent from other churches to the mother church for the sustenance of this congregation.

But today we read about the ways by which the first Christians cared for each other and met the needs of the entire gathered group (called here by the word “church” for the first time). The people were of one heart and mind. This is every pastor’s dream for his flock – to see the whole body live together in a covenantal community with one another (a theme for a sermon series in the fall). Their common experience of life empowered by the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of unity and oneness that drove them to give to one another whatever was needed. Generosity abounded. Those who had more were quick to do whatever it would take to help – illustrated by some who sold lands and gave all the proceeds to the Apostles for distribution.

Clearly understand that this was not required – at least not beyond a sense of duty driven by love. There were no rules that stipulated the wealthier were to necessarily live in this fashion of cashing resources. So it is incorrect, as some state of this passage, that this is an example of communism.

An exemplary person in this community was a fellow named Joseph (called Barnabas, meaning “Son of Consolation,” because of his gracious concern and encouragement of other people). He sold a piece of property, giving all the collected resources (as did the others) to the Apostles to wisely distribute where needs were evident.

As we turn to chapter five (remember that chapter and verse divisions are not inspired), we see the first word – “But”.  A husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira likewise sold a piece of land, apparently driven by a desire for the affirmation that came with this sort of generous deed, and not as a result of love and communal commitment. We again see that it was not necessary to have done this, but the way they did it was to conspire to collect the assets of the sale, presenting only a portion of it to the Apostles while giving the impression that it represented a 100% gift.

Both lied about the matter when confronted by Peter – who somehow knew, most likely by divine intervention of knowledge of some sort. And both died and were buried. I grant that it seems at first reading to be an extremely harsh judgment, but God was establishing a principle both within and without the community that sin is serious … that sin will be judged. The effect upon everyone is mentioned twice – that a sober fear fell upon the people.

There are lessons for us for today. There is nothing quite so wonderful as a community that lives together in oneness of heart and compassion and support for one another. It was not like today where in a town filled with varied churches one can flip back and forth to fulfill personal preferences. There was but one body, and they were mutually committed to one another – living in a sort of covenant community relationship that needs to be recovered in the 21st century church.  And secondly, sin is a big deal; and the church is not about any one of us, it is about God. The church is not about personal affirmation, but is rather about serving in a way to promote and build the kingdom of God.

The Believers Share Their Possessions – Acts 4:32—5:11

32 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. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Ananias and Sapphira

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Caught in the Middle between “Have To” and “Dare Not” (Acts 4:23-31)

Peter and John had handled themselves extremely well before the authorities – all in the power of the Holy Spirit as they were surely given the words to speak. At the same time, it must have been a frightening experience. You’ll be glad to know that I’ve never spent the night in jail, but I would have to imagine it is a scary thing to do.

Being released from the hands of the religious leadership, the dynamic duo returned “to their own people.”  Featured among the conversation with this “insider” group of the early believers of the church was the rehearsal for them of the severe threats given if they continued to preach in the name of Christ.

The stark nature of the dilemma was this:  They had to obey God’s command as his witnesses of the truth of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, yet to do so would put them in the crosshairs of angry people with the power to even kill them. These chief priest and elders were the same bad boys who maneuvered to get Jesus onto the cross less than two months earlier.

So, in a situation like this, what does one do? They turned to their first impulse – to pray. Here are the essential points of their prayers:

–          God, you made everything, so you are the top authority…

–          God, you taught us through the prophets that the rulers of this world would hate the Messiah and work against him in every way…

–          God, we did indeed witness how the people in this very city did conspire against Christ…

–          God, we know that this was only done and allowed by your grand plan…

–          But God, you’ve heard what they have threatened and how it is pretty clear that they don’t like us one little bit…

–          So God, we need boldness that only you can give, in order to accomplish deeds that can only be done through you working through us in powerful ways.

And we see that God blessed that prayer, and affirmed them with the shaking of the house.

The preaching of the Gospel will always be a fearful situation in the context of a world that (in the natural condition of condemnation of sin and alienation from God) hates Jesus Christ and often the people of his name. We are a minority by holding on to a biblical worldview – an oft despised minority as well. We need power and boldness beyond ourselves, and we gain that through the first impulse of prayer.

The Believers Pray – Acts 4:23-31

23 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. 24 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.”

31 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.

The Normal Nature of Opposition (Acts 4:1-22)

In most of life’s ventures, when whatever we are seeking to do does not go swimmingly well, it is our first tendency to speculate that perhaps what we are doing is wrong … or we are using the wrong methods. A lack of success surely equals a lack of blessing. The presence of opponents, skeptics, naysayers, and even aggressively angry adversaries indicates that there is something wrong with the message or messenger, right? That seems to make sense.

But when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel message of Christ, opposition is par for the course. Jesus said it would be like this – the people of the systems of this world persecuted him and they will persecute his followers as well.

Continuing on today with the story of the healing of the lame man (a fellow over age 40), Peter and John run into some serious opposition. Actually, the opposition ran into them, as the word used here describes a very sudden and unexpected action. The guys rushing upon them were the varied religious leaders of the day along with the virtual temple police force. The size and clamoring of the crowd had obviously attracted their attention. You can almost read between the lines and hear them saying, “Oh no, it’s this crazy Jesus/resurrection stuff going on again.

So Peter and John are thrown into prison in order to be dealt with the next day. But Luke makes it clear that this imprisonment did not squash the effects of the preaching, as the number of followers (counting the men only) had grown now to about 5,000.

The next day they appear before the semi-circle-seated Sanhedrin – a group of the top 71 religious leaders in Jerusalem, along with other experts gathered all around them. They demand to know the power behind this miracle – not that they wanted to rejoice in it, but rather that they may negate it in every way possible so as to hang onto their positions of authority. Ultimately, they cannot with political success really do much about it, since everyone has seen the obvious miracle that transpired. All they could effectively hope to do is threaten these men to no longer speak in this name of Jesus the Resurrection. This threat (and others not delineated) served as warnings and the legal basis for any subsequent actions.

Do you expect opposition to your Christian life, values, and witness? Or are you rather astounded that God allows it to happen to you? Frankly, we should expect it; we should not be surprised by opposition when serving God. On this matter of serving, a friend of mine gave me a book that he wrote about being faithful in the face of opposition. A passage that has oft run through my mind is where he said:  “This matter of calling is important to all believers. I, like Jeremiah, was a ‘reluctant prophet.’  God fingered me to serve him when I was planning to do other things. In return, I had no alternative but to consent to do his bidding. How peculiar this God who calls hesitant preachers and then complicates their work beyond belief! One would expect the vineyard owner to give his workers the easiest of paths since they are only trying to obey him.”

No, God puts us in difficult places that are beyond us and above us, in order that in our weakness his strength may be all the more clear. And it is through that opposition that God does his work of kingdom addition. We should expect it, and we should move ahead faithfully.

Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22)

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: 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. 11 Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’               

12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”

18 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.”

21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.