Persecution May 8th, 2022
O God, we pray that your love will reach all mothers today and that your Word will be a source of hope and truth for all in a world filled with deception. Fill us with your Spirit as we listen to your Word read and interpreted, so that it satisfies our thirst for wisdom and truth. Amen.
As talked about last week, we saw the apostles were in the midst of growing the church in Jerusalem, many people were coming to accept Jesus as their Saviour and the number of believers were increasing daily. And, as the numbers grew, so did the fellowship between the members. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, tells us, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
One of these was a man named Barnabas who sold a piece of land and gave all the proceeds to the church. And there also was a couple, by the names of Ananias and Sapphira who did the same thing. The problem was that they kept a portion of the proceeds of the sale but pretended that they have given the church the entire amount. This was the first sign of hypocrisy amongst the believers and so God made an example of them, striking them dead on the spot for their deception. As a result, we’re told, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”
But despite their fear the apostles continued on with their mission of spreading the Gospel to the citizens of Jerusalem. Luke says, “Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.” Just like today, not everyone who heard the Good News came to believe, but even those non-believers had respect for what the members of the church were doing, they saw that they weren’t just looking out for themselves, but also taking care of those around them. That was important part of what the church did then and what we still do today.
And, as the church continued to grow, so did the envy of the leaders of the Temple, Luke writes, “Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.” They weren’t so concerned about the message the apostles were preaching, that this Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah for Israel, but rather, they were jealous. They were more interested in their own positions of authority and all the trappings that went with them. They didn’t want these uneducated, common men undermining their authority.
The Sadducees were the ruling party in Israel, and they wanted to keep it that way. They thought they had stamped out this Jesus movement when they executed him, but that only seemed to speed it up. And now thousands upon thousands of people were naming the name of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Miracles were happening under their noses all over the city of Jerusalem. And there was no way to deny it when so many people were being cured of their ailments.
The Sadducees were filled with jealousy as they observed the growing popularity and success of the apostles. As they watched, the crowds coming to hear the apostles preach and see them working miracles grew larger. They witnessed how the people held the apostles in high honour, and at the same time felt their own influence shrinking. Something had to be done!
So, what did they do? They had the apostles arrested and thrown in jail. But that wasn’t going to do any good, for, “… during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.” Not even spending part of a night in jail could slow the apostles down in their missionary work. And the ironic thing is that it was an angel who released the men from prison and the ones who had put them there, being the high priest and his council, were those same Sadducees, and they didn’t even believe in the existence of angels!
But the apostles did, and they obeyed the angel. At daybreak they went to the temple to continue to teach the people about Jesus. This is what happened next, “When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so, they returned and reported, ‘We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on.”
Of course, they were perplexed. This wasn’t any normal jail break. The guards hadn’t been overpowered, nor had the gates been forced open. Everything appeared normal. The guards were stationed at their post by the prison doors. As we often say, God works in mysterious ways. The doors were securely locked. But when they were opened, the cell was empty.
So, when the commander of the temple guard and the chief priest heard this report, they were dumbfounded. They wondered where all this was leading. What was next? First, it was the empty tomb of Jesus; now, its the empty cell. What is going on here? This doesn’t bode well, at least not for those who oppose Jesus and his apostles.
While the high priest and his council were standing there wondering what had happened, Luke says, “Then someone arrived and announced, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.”
So, Peter and the other apostles are brought before the high priest who says to them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” And this was Peter’s reply, “‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’”
In these words, Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Saviour. And part of the problem for these Jewish leaders was that they didn’t think that they needed a Saviour. They saw themselves as good men. They kept the laws of Moses and prayed in the temple everyday. They prided themselves as being “good people”. But the Bible is clear that all have sinned and thus all need Jesus as their Saviour if they want to escape God’s righteous judgment. As we just witnessed at Easter, Christ died for all, but only those who come to God humbly in faith will be saved.
These religious leaders had an exaggerated idea of their own importance and power and the apostles weren’t impressed. Peter said to them, “‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” The apostles were committed to obeying God, when they had to make a choice between obeying man or serving God, they would serve God. They would serve Jesus Christ, whom the high priest and his council had condemned and put to death. It was this Jesus alone who could grant repentance and the forgiveness of sins to mankind. The apostles were witnesses of these things, and the Holy Spirit bore witness with them by his acts of power through their hands.
At this point the high priest and his council were unsure what to do next. They wanted to eliminate the problem of Peter and the apostles but were afraid of the reaction of the people if they did so. They were in a quandary. Finally, one of them spoke up and said, “‘So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’”
The others were in agreement with this plan of action, Luke says, “They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.”
The high priest and his council had hoped to send the apostles away terrified, subdued, and silent. But it didn’t turn out that way at all. The apostles rejoiced because God had considered them worthy, they continued their work in the name of Jesus, the name in which they gathered, in which they performed miracles, and in which they preached. What a remarkable transformation this is from that frightened little band of followers who fled when Jesus was arrested and who hid after in that upper room after his death for fear of the authorities. Now, for them, suffering for being identified with Jesus is not dreaded, but received with joy.
And this is important for us to remember today. The apostles had some hard times, but those rough experiences did not create doubts and fears in their hearts. It was the exact opposite, because they were strengthened and brought to a closer relationship with God. They found their joy in worshipping God, serving Christ, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. God blessed them and provided for them. They lived by divine providence, and it was an affirming experience that we can learn from. It strengthened their faith and their love of God and others.
And God has not changed. He still loves us and provides for us. We, too, join these apostolic witnesses in the sure and certain truth that God has raised Jesus from the dead, that God has exalted him to be our leader and Saviour, and has done so in order that we may receive God’s gift of repentance and forgiveness that is ours in the present and living power of the Spirit. And so, on this special day for mothers, and as we continue in this Easter Season, let us remember; Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!
We pray Lord, that we can be like those early believers, counted faithful enough to endure for the sake of the Gospel. May we be faithful to give testimony to the Word of God. Amen.