In our last study of Acts we saw that the apostles had been arrested by the Sanhedrin:
But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy; 18 and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail. (Acts 5:17-18 NASB)
Notice who is leading this charge: It is the high priest of Israel. What was the function of the high priest? What was it that he was supposed to be doing? Biblically, a priest is one who makes the sacrifices; performs the rituals and acts as mediator between man and God. This means that he is responsible for offering the divinely appointed sacrifices to God, for executing the different procedures and ceremonies relating to the worship of God, and for being a representative between God and man.
The distinguished rank of the high priest is apparent from the fact that on Yom Kippur he alone entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for his house and for the people (Lev. 16); He alone could offer the sacrifices for the sins of the priests, or of the people, or of himself (Lev. 4); and only he could officiate at the sacrifices following his own or another priest's consecration (Lev. 9).
The priests, and especially the high priest, were to be representatives between God and man. But they had become so corrupt that they were killing God's servants and His Son. Now, this is nothing new, in Lamentations 4:12-20 Jeremiah talks about the causes of the siege on Jerusalem and its fall in 586 B.C.:
The kings of the earth did not believe, Nor did any of the inhabitants of the world, That the adversary and the enemy Could enter the gates of Jerusalem. 13 Because of the sins of her prophets And the iniquities of her priests, Who have shed in her midst The blood of the righteous, (Lamentations 4:12-13 NASB)
The overthrow of Jerusalem had surprised the leaders and people of other nations. Jerusalem's overthrow in 586 B.C. had come because her religious leaders, represented by the priests and the false prophets, had perverted justice and forsaken the Lord's covenant. They had even put people to death who did not deserve it.
Now, here we are about 600 years later, and the same thing is happening. Notice what Jesus said to the leaders of Israel in Matthew 23:
"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 "Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. 37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 "Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matthew 23:34-38 NASB)
The priests and leadership of Israel were again corrupt, and because of their sin, God was going to destroy them. This destruction happened in their generation just as Jesus said it would. Their Scriptures warned them, Jesus warned them, and yet they blindly proceeded in their sinfulness.
So as we saw last week, they arrested the apostles and put them in prison. That night God sent an angel to free them and send them back to preaching in the temple. So the Sanhedrin arrests them again and puts them on trial. The charges are:
"We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us." (Acts 5:28 NASB)
To this Peter responds by preaching Christ, the very thing they commanded them not to do. This is Peter's fourth speech reported by Luke. Peter's words so infuriated the Sadducees that they were about to order the death of the apostles regardless of public reaction. Think about this, the body whose duty it is to uphold justice in Israel now begins to plot how they might murder God's true representatives:
But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and were intending to slay them. (Acts 5:33 NASB)
The Greek word translated "cut to the quick" is diaprio, a word that literally means: "to be sawn in half." The same expression is used only one other time, in chapter 7, to describe the reaction of those who heard the indictment of Stephen (Acts 7:54). It's kind of a graphic term. It means they were just absolutely in anguish over this.
Why were they so upset? It could have been because of Peter's statement about Christ sitting at God's right hand as Prince and Savior:
"He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:31 NASB)
These men on the Sanhedrin knew that in Isaiah God claimed to be the only Savior:
"I, even I, am the LORD; And there is no savior besides Me. (Isaiah 43:11 NASB)
"Declare and set forth your case; Indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. (Isaiah 45:21 NASB)
Here Yahweh claims to be the only Savior, but Peter calls Jesus "Savior." Their anger could have arisen from Peter attributing deity to Jesus. Let me say here that this is a fundamental of the Christian faith, you cannot be a Christian if you deny Christ's deity.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:1-3 NASB)
The "Word" here is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice His deity"the Word was God." The "beginning" is before all beginnings, prior to the beginning of Genesis 1:1. The phrase could be rendered "from all eternity." John, in this verse, establishes the preexistence of Christ in eternity past. He already "was" when the beginning took place.
The letter to the Hebrews (A.D. 67) states:
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high;(Hebrews 1:3 NASB)
The words "exact representation" are the Greek word charakter. It is used only here in the New Testament. It is used in classical Greek to indicate a die or a stamp, or the mark made by a seal. Used here, it means that Jesus Christ is the exact reproduction of God, in human form. The word "nature" is the Greek word hupostasis, which is from hupo, meaning: "under," and histemi, meaning: "to stand." Thus, its meaning is: "that which stands under." We could translate it "nature" or "essence."
Christianity has always taught and believed that Jesus Christ was God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father through whom all things were made. To deny this is to be under the wrath of God.
Alright, so the Sanhedrin could have been upset over Peter's claim to Christ's deity, but I doubt it. They weren't thinking Biblically here. Their fury probably arose from the seeming arrogance of the apostles in flaunting themselves in the temple, and then daring to come and challenge them. They were not used to being treated in this way. They were so emotionally charged by their wounded pride that they just wanted these men dead.
When the apostles were arrested, they had every reason to believe they might very well be put to death for their faith. They had watched what these same men had done to Jesus. You would think they had every reason to believe that they would experience the same horrible treatment and ultimate fate. Now Luke tells us that is exactly what these men had in mind for the apostles, until someone intervenes:
But a certain Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. (Acts 5:34 NASB)
The Pharisees were the minority party in the Sanhedrin. But they were far more influential with the masses than the Sadducees were. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, said that the Sadducees would often acquiesce to the demands of the Pharisees because of their popularity (Antiquities 18.1.4).
The Pharisees looked for a personal Messiah. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and the existence and activity of angels and demons. They tried to live a simple life in contrast to the Sadducees' luxurious living. The name "Pharisee" evidently comes from the Aramaic verb peras, meaning: "to separate." They considered themselves to be separated to holiness and dedicated entirely to God. Most of the scribes, the Bible expositors of that day, were Pharisees. Consequently the Sadducees listened to the Pharisees, and especially to Gamaliel.
Gamaliel was the leader of the more liberal school of Hillel, one of the two most influential parties within Pharisaism. He had been a protégé of Hillel, who was his grandfather, and Saul of Tarsus was one of his own promising young disciples (22:3). People called him Rabban Gamaliel. Rabban (lit. "our teacher") was a title of higher honor than rabbi (lit. "my teacher"). Gamaliel was the most respected Pharisee of his day. The Mishnah, a collection of commentaries on the oral laws of Israel published toward the end of the second century A.D., contains the following statement about him:
"Since Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law; and purity and abstinence died out at the same time."
Gamaliel first had the courtroom cleared. He did not want the apostles hearing what he had to say. We do not know the source of the report which Luke gives us here, but we do know the substance of it:
And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 "For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. And he was slain; and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. (Acts 5:36 NASB)
Though he was a teacher of the Law, his argument was not really theological, nor did he appeal to the Scriptures. He appealed to history instead. Theudas was a common name in Palestine, and there is no reason at all, apart from the coincidence of the name, to see him as the same Theudas of whom Josephus wrote, who lived at a later date. Gamaliel's Theudas may well indeed have been the grandfather of this one, for grandsons often received the names of their grandfathers. The Theudas mentioned by Gamaliel was also an insurrectionist, but is not recorded in surviving history. Gamaliel's point was when Theudas was killed, his following died out.
"After this man Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. (Acts 5:37 NASB)
Judas, the Galilean, was another insurrectionist (they were fairly common among the Jews around that time) who had rebelled against the Roman's first tax census in A.D.6 and was defeated by Quirinius, the legate of Syria.
Judas is credited as the founder of the Zealot movement, whose credo was reminiscent of Peter's words (5:29). Josephus wrote of them, "They have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master" (Josephus' Jewish Antiquities 18.23).
In both cases, Gamaliel pointed out, they had failed and their followers had been severely dealt with so that their influence had become ineffective. That was in fact only partly true, because Judas' rebellion spawned a group that later became known as the zealots. The zealots were an extremely nationalistic group of Israelites whose influence was still felt in Israel during Gamaliel's lifetime.
Jesus is not at all like Theudas and Judas the Galilean, for His aims and purposes are totally different. Rather than being against Rome, He has a message to be proclaimed in Rome:
"And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39 NASB)
This is the conclusion he's making from those illustrations: Whatever succeeds is of God; whatever fails is not. Is this true? Isn't this verse inspired? Yes, the Scripture records what Gamaliel said, but it doesn't mean that what he said is true. What Gamaliel said in verse 38 is not true. There have always been very successful movements that are against God and His Word. Gamaliel's words are bad counsel, for good plans may fail and evil movements may succeed. The pragmatic test can fail us. We can't base a movement or teaching on its results or following. Moses struck the rock and got water, he saw results, but God judged him for it because he had disobeyed. Success is not the ultimate measure of truth. Noah preached for 120 years and ended up with only eight people in the ark:
and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:5 NASB)
The only way to judge something accurately is by comparing it with Scripture. If Gamaliel were a true teacher of Israel, he should have recommended that the council study the Hebrew Scriptures to see if this new teaching was Biblical:
but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39 NASB)
Now this Gamaliel got right. God's plans cannot be overthrown:
"Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'; 11 Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it. (Isaiah 46:9-11 NASB)
God is absolutely sovereign, what He plans, He does.
Gamaliel is taking a neutral position, and basically saying, "Let's just wait and see how this thing plays out." I think, in that sense, his counsel was very unwise. The evidence at this point was overwhelming that Jesus was the Christ. The grave was empty. There was one sign and miracle after another right before their eyes. A master of Scripture would have known that Jesus fulfilled every Messianic prophecy. There is no possible way at this point to deny the fact that this was indeed the supernatural Messiah. So there was no reason to be neutral.
Saul of Tarsus, Gamaliel's student, took a different view of how the Jews should respond to the growing threat of Christianity. He executed many Christians, but that was after the number and influence of the Christians had increased dramatically ( 6-7).
And they took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them. (Acts 5:40 NASB)
"And they took his advice"could God have supernaturally changed the hearts of the Sanhedrin to make them favorably disposed to the apostles? Sure He could have, God can do anything. But God most often uses natural means to accomplish His ends. In this case He used Gamaliel. Persuaded by Gamaliel's appeal, the Sanhedrin backs away from having the apostles executed.
But in order to ensure good behavior, and because it was recognized that they were in breach of the order previously given, the apostles were beaten. This is the first instance of the apostles receiving a physical beating that Luke recorded in Acts.
Flogging was not a little thing. It was a horrible thing. These men would have been left stripped and bloodied, 39 lashes. The number of stripes was to be determined by what was seen just. But the number of stripes must not be more than forty under any circumstances (Deuteronomy 25:2-3). It was a horrible form of persecution.
When these apostles preached in the temple, they were well aware that they would at the very least be beaten and possibly killed for it. And yet they did it anyway. Why?
Most of us do everything humanly possible to escape pain, we take drugs to stop physical and emotional pain. But these apostles do the very thing that they know will bring them great pain. Why? They were more concerned about their mission than their comfort. How many of us can say that? Do you even know what your mission is?
The text tells us that after they were flogged, they left bitter at God for letting them down in their hour of need. No, that's not what it says:
So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. (Acts 5:41 NASB)
We would have most likely responded to the beating by saying, "God, I did what the angel said. I went; I stood; I proclaimed. I thought that You would protect me." The reality is that down through Church history, God has never promised that there won't be wounds and scars--and even the loss of life--for the cause of Christ. The history of the Church is paved with the blood of its martyrs who took a stand and were persecuted and died for the cause of Christ.
So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. (Acts 5:41 NASB)
They are severely beaten, and their response is to rejoice. What on earth is wrong with them? How do you describe people whose values are so counter-cultural that they rejoice over the privilege of being beaten in public? Are they sadomasochists? What else would cause this type of response? Why do they seem so different from us? I really think the key to their attitude is given us in:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NASB)
The word "devoting" is the Greek word proskartereo. It means: "adhere to, persist in, to continue to do something with intense effort," with the possible implication of: "despite difficulty." It points to constancy, purpose, or resolve.
They were devoted to the Word of God and prayer, and they spend all the time together that they could. In this they are different than most of us. They responded the way they did because they were disciples of Jesus. Notice what their Rabbi had taught them:
"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 "Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 NASB)
The word "persecution"appears three times in this section, which means that Jesus was putting great emphasis on it. The Greek word translated "persecuted" in these verses comes from dioko, which means: "to pursue" or "chase away." Over time it came to mean: "to harass" or "treat in an evil manner." In the New Testament, it is used of "inflicting suffering on people who hold beliefs that the establishment frowns on," and it is this kind of persecution of which Jesus speaks here.
The Greek text contains a perfect passive participle. Jesus' words could be translated, "Blessed are they who have been willing and continue to be willing to allow themselves to be persecuted." The perfect tense indicates an ongoing attitude; the passive voice speaks of being willing to accept whatever comes as a result of living out Christ's commands.
Well it is clear from our text in Acts that the apostles believed Jesus' words about rejoicing in persecution. But are Jesus' words about persecution even relevant today? Has our society become so tolerant that talk of persecution is outdated?
Because you live in the United States, you may think that the idea of persecution of Christians is not very relevant today. We are not experiencing any physical persecution here. But if we can look beyond the borders of the United States of America, we will see that things are different. Nina Shea's book, In the Lion's Den, gives evidence that more Christians around the world have been martyred for their faith in the past century alone than in the combined previous nineteen centuries of the Church's history. In many countries today it is a crime to be a Christian.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2.2 billion people lived in 79 countries under significant restrictions on their religious freedom in 1980. 60% of all Christians live in these countries. And 16% (224 million) of all Christians live in countries where there is severe state interference and harassment.
I want you to understand this morning that in some parts of the world, Christians have always been persecuted for their faith. As the mighty Roman Empire flourished and included a territory that ranged from Britain to the Euphrates and Germany to North Africa, the crucial question was how to keep it consolidated. At first the worship of the goddess, Roma, the spirit of Rome, was the unifying source. As time went on, the person who incarnated that spirit of Rome was the emperor. He became regarded as a god and divine honors were paid to him. This was a voluntary thing at first. Then in time this emperor-worship became compulsory. It was this compulsory emperor-worship that caused great persecutions of thousands of Christians. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, "Caesar is Lord." And that is precisely what the Christians refused to do. For them Jesus Christ was the Lord, and to no man would they give that title which belonged to Christ.
The early Christians refused to go along with it. They refused to conform and were confronted with a choice, "Caesar or Christ?" They chose Christ. They refused to compromise. The result was that no matter how outstanding a citizen the Christian was, he was automatically outlawed and branded a disloyal citizen. Their only "crime was Christ."
Professor William Barclay, who cannot be accused of orthodoxy, but is a good historian, writes:
Still further, the penalties which a Christian had to suffer were terrible beyond description. All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the tenderest parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to enlighten the agony.
These were the conditions for early Christians, and in many parts of the world, believers are suffering just as much. "Today in China millions of members of house churches are considered outlaws and criminals. Why? Because their churches are not registered with the atheistic government. It appears that anywhere from eleven million to one hundred million Chinese Christians belong to these underground churches. Many are arrested, imprisoned, and sent to hard labor camps" (Nina Shea, The Lion's Den , [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997], 58).
In the Moslem country of Sudan, Christians are given several options: They can either convert to Islam, flee, be killed, be raped, or be taken as slaves. As a result, there are many slaves in the country who were Christians. Even many children of Christians are taken and sold for fifteen dollars to serve in people's homes.
George Ninan, the Campus Crusade director in India, said in November 2005, "The churches [in India] are being attacked. The buildings are attacked. The people are attacked. I think every month, on an average, at least one of my men is attacked--not verbally, but physically beaten up. So it is a big issue. There are times when some of the church buildings we help construct are torched at night.
I remember three years back, I was right there. We were having a student conference, and that night about 50 young men, armed with swords and motorbike chains and sticks, came in. They messed up everything, beat up anyone whom they could. I was right there, so I know what it is. It can happen anytime."
I believe that the persecution is going to increase so much so that we will really know that He is the Rock. He is the only One from whom we get salvation and the protection. I think that unless as a Church we are driven to that point, we will not really depend on God.
I know that you are in a different situation. You may think that I am culturally misinterpreting everything. Maybe. But I tell you, "You and I will not really learn to look at Christ as the source of our protection until and unless we lose everything, and we have only Christ to look up to."
Just two weeks ago, on September 14, 12 homes belonging to Christians were burned in the village of Makabali. Extremists have even launched attacks on the police for intervening in the violence. Christians fear they will continue to be targeted, particularly since extremists have prepared a list of approximately 140 Christians who they allege were the Hindu leader's killers. The list is being distributed among Hindu supporters in order to identify who should be punished or killed in case the government fails to take action to their satisfaction.
So the persecution of Christians is not just ancient history, but, rather, very current history. The life of Christians in China, Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and Laos is extremely hard. In fact, in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, citizens of the United States who are living in Saudi Arabia cannot even worship Jesus Christ freely. It is against the law.
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42 NASB)
The two phrases, "every day" and "they kept right on," emphasize to us that the proclamation of the Gospel did not skip a beat in spite of their arrest and flogging.
This treatment did not discourage the apostles at all. Instead, they continued explaining (Gr. didasko) and evangelizing (euaggelizomai) daily, publicly in the temple and privately from house to house. Forbidden to speak, they spoke the louder. Beaten for the insistence of their message, they considered the beating a privilege. These were profoundly changed people.
The thrust of our text can best be seen from the vantage point of its context. It is, in the first place, a dramatic illustration of God's faithfulness in answering the prayers of the saints, as recorded in:
"And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence, (Acts 4:29 NASB)
God clearly granted this request, the early Church was bold in its witness. They continued to gather in the temple precincts, at the Portico of Solomon to preach the Word of God.
I believe that we, twenty first century Americans, are to be doing the same thing as these apostles. People are still lost, and they still need a Savior. Notice what Paul told Timothy:
I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; 15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.(1 Timothy 3:14-15 NASB)
Now notice what Paul calls the Church: "the pillar and support of the truth." In Ephesus, to those the letters were written, the word "pillar" would have a special significance. The greatest glory of Ephesus was the temple of Diana or Artemis. The temple of Diana was one of the seven wonders of the world. One of its features was its pillars. It had 127 pillars, every one of them the gift of a king. They were all made of marble, and some were studded with jewels and overlaid with gold.
It may be that the idea of the word "pillar" here is not so much supportthat's the idea of "ground"but of "display." The idea is that the Church's mission is to hold up the truth of God for all men to see. The Church is to support and display the truth of God. We are not the source of truth, the Bible is, but we are to support and display it. The Bible is God's Word, and the Church is to support and display that truth. Are you?
True disciples will always be hated and persecuted by the world. First, because they preach and declare that the Bible is the truth, the only truth, and nothing but the truth. If you preach that, I guarantee that you will be persecuted. No one will persecute you if you preach multi-culturalism or multi-religious ideas. But the moment you preach the absolute infallibility of God's word, the Bible, you will be persecuted.
Second, when you preach the Biblical doctrine that all people are sinners and God's wrath abides upon them, you will be persecuted. If you also preach that Jesus Christ is the only Saviorvery God and very manyou will be persecuted. Now, you will not experience persecution if you preach that Jesus is a savior along with many other saviors. You will not be persecuted if you say that Jesus is a god or a prophet among other gods and prophets. There won't be any problem at all if you say these things. In fact, people will say you are a very nice, magnanimous person. But when you preach that Jesus alone is God and the only Savior and the only Prophet, Priest, and King, you will experience trouble. And especially if you preach this in certain countries in the world today, you will be persecuted.
May our prayer be that of the apostles, not for wealth, or for health, or for success, but for boldness to proclaim the message of Christ.
|Continue the Series|