God’s Rhythm of Growth and Opposition
One of our tasks as Christians is to learn to read the story that we’re in. As individuals, we have a past and a future. As families, communities, and as a nation, we have pasts and futures. And we tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of where we’ve come from and where we’re going and what our role in the story is. As Christians, we want to read our individual stories in light of the biblical story: both the Big Story of God’s mission to rescue the world from sin and death through Jesus, and the smaller narratives within the big story that shed light on our circumstances. For example, I hope that last week’s message on Ananias and Sapphira was heard as a possible story, showing us a possible path that we might take, and filling us with fear lest we journey down it any farther. We see their story, and then we examine our lives to see if there are traces of it anywhere, and by the grace of God, turn from hiding sin, lying to God, competing for praise from the community. Or, more positively, we look at Barnabas and the larger Christian community in Acts 4 and we see a story worth living—a story rooted in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and flowing forth in grace and generosity and care for each other. In seeing that gospel story faithfully lived, we consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
The book of Acts is a story. Stories have characters. Stories have rhythm, plot movement, progression. In today’s sermon, I want us to take a step back and look at the larger movements of the book and how they can shape our own understanding of who we are, as individuals, as a church, and as a city and nation. Let’s start with characters. At this point, there are four main groups that have appeared in the book of Acts: 1) the apostles; 2) the believers; 3) the Jewish people / crowds; 4) the Sanhedrin / Jewish leaders. Try and keep these groups straight as we explore some of the rhythms of the book. Here’s the basic rhythm: Luke moves back and forth, focusing on the internal community of the church, and then focusing on the church’s witness before the outside world.
After the ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, Luke focuses in on the internal workings of the new community of disciples as they select new leadership (1:12 –26). When the Spirit falls on them at Pentecost, Luke shows the leaders of the new community (the apostles) preaching to the wider, Jewish world (the crowds) in Jerusalem. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost leads to a great repentance, as 3000 souls received the word and were baptized (thus becoming part of the church; 2:41). Following this, Luke focuses again on the internal workings of the newly enlarged community, as they listened to the apostolic teaching, shared their goods, received their food with glad and generous hearts, and had fellowship together (2:42 –47). Then in Acts 3, Peter publicly heals a man (outsider) in the name of Jesus (3:1 –10), and then preaches again to the Jewish crowds (3:11 –26). Following this sermon, the disciples have their first run in with the Sanhedrin, and Peter preaches a clear and bold message about the centrality of Jesus (4:1 –22). After they are released, Luke zooms in again and shows us the internal workings of the community as they pray for boldness and are filled with the Spirit (4:23 –31). He continues this focus on the internal community, as we saw last week, showing us both the grace and power of the gospel in meeting the needs of fellow believers, and in the counterfeit generosity of Ananias and Sapphira. In today’s passage, we again see the apostolic leadership preaching and healing among the crowds of Jerusalem, and then standing again before the Sanhedrin to give an account.
So I think Luke wants us to see a rhythm here of focusing on the work of the Jesus by the Holy Spirit inside the Christian community and then shifting focus to the witness of the early Christians to the gospel before the outside world. But this isn’t just a pendulum swing back and forth; each movement of the rhythm represents an enlargement: from 120 in chapter 1 to over 3000 in chapter 2 to over 5000 in chapter 4. So there’s a growth element in this rhythm as the gospel advances and expands through the work of the Holy Spirit: faithful preaching of the resurrection of Jesus, healings and miracles through the apostles, and the amazing love, communion, fellowship, and care of the believers for each other.
But this isn’t the only rhythm that we see in the book. Acts 5 shows us that the opposition to the church in Acts 4 was not a fluke. What’s more, there’s also an escalation in opposition to the gospel. Think of this in terms of the motive for arresting the apostles, and the response to the apostles at each council, and then resolution of the situation. In Acts 4, Luke tells us that the Sadducees (the ruling party in the Sanhedrin) were annoyed by the apostolic teaching about Jesus and the resurrection (4:2). That’s why they arrest them. While this is partly about Jesus, it’s also about the general idea of resurrection. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, denied the resurrection from the dead. They didn’t think it would happen at all (because they only accepted the Pentateuch). So their initial annoyance probably had a lot to do with the centrality of the resurrection for the apostles. “Oh great, here’s another group of Jews who believe in the resurrection. And they’re even crazier because they think it’s already begun in this false Messiah Jesus that was just crucified.” How then did they respond to Peter’s message in Acts 4? The Jewish leaders are astonished at the clear, biblical understanding of the apostles (4:13). So they’re annoyed and then astonished in the initial arrest of Peter and John, and because they don’t have anything to charge them with, they simply threaten them and let them go, and the situation is resolved.
Acts 5 presents an escalation, showing different motives for the arrest, this time, of all of the apostles. The Sadducees were “filled with jealousy” (5:17 –18). What’s more, they respond to the apostolic testimony with rage. “When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (5:33). But this rage is still capable of being controlled. Gamaliel (a famous Pharisee, not a Sadducee) is able to talk them back down from their rage (in v. 39, they take his advice, to wait and see how this new movement plays out). This time, though, they don’t just let them go with a warning; they beat them (most likely with the 39 lashes), repeated the charge to keep quite about Jesus, and then let them go.
So notice this escalation. In terms of motive for arrest and opposition, we move from theological annoyance to jealous rivalry. And in terms of response to the apostles’ testimony, we move from astonishment at their boldness to rage at their testimony. And in terms of resolution, we move from a verbal warning to a violent warning. Now we need to ask why. Why do we see these escalations in the opposition?
Let’s start with the move from theological nuisance to jealousy. What has changed between Acts 4 and 5? Answer: the growth of the church. At the first arrest, the number was up to around 5000 men (Acts 4:4). In Acts 5:14, we’re told “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” The church’s growth threatens the rule of the Sanhedrin. People are flocking to these uneducated, but bold followers of Jesus. Why? Three reasons.
With great power, the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (4:33). Clear, bold, Spirit –filled preaching about Jesus and the resurrection from the word of God was drawing people to the Lord.
Great grace was upon them all (4:33). This is the grace of generosity and love that meets the needs of fellow believers. There are no needy people among this Jesus community. Physical needs are met. Relational needs are met. Spiritual needs are met. These people are united together by the love of God, by the grace of God, by the joy of God, in a word, by the Holy Spirit, and God’s Spirit is working great acts of sacrificial love within the community. This is very attractive to those outside the church.
The apostolic community is seeking the good of those outside the church. Signs and wonders were done by the hands of the apostles among the people (5:12). The sick and the demon –afflicted are brought and restored by the apostles. They aren’t restrictive in their love and care for people. It spills the banks of the Jesus community, and fills Jerusalem. They healed the man who was lame from birth (Acts 3). They don’t tolerate hypocrisy in their own ranks (Acts 5:1 –11). And because of this, “the people (the Jewish crowds) hold them in high esteem” (5:13). That’s why the high priest and the Sanhedrin are filled with jealousy.
Why, then, the escalation from astonishment to barely –controlled rage? Again, let’s think in terms of three reasons, all of which show up in Acts 5:28 –32:
“We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to 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.”
Let’s flesh these out one at a time:
“We told you to stop teaching in the name of Jesus” (see 4:17 –18). “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). In other words, you are not our ultimate authority, nor are you God’s faithful representatives. God has told us to preach the good news about Jesus; in fact, God just rescued us from your prison and ordered us to speak the words of Life to the people (5:20). So the first reason for the escalation from astonishment to anger is that the apostles are not submitting to the authority of the Sanhedrin because the Sanhedrin, they claim, are opposing God.
“You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” What teaching? The teaching about the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles are preaching the Lordship of the Risen Jesus. “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” That’s what every sermon in Acts has been about. God raised Jesus. God exalted Jesus. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Savior. Jesus forgives sins. There is no other name by which we can be saved. And, in defiance of your threats, we will boldly fill this city with the good news about who Jesus is and what God has done and is doing through him.
But it’s not simply that they boldly preach about who Jesus is and what he’s done. They also preach clearly and courageously about sin, and in particular the sin of betraying, rejecting, denying, and murdering Jesus. “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. You’re trying to blame us for killing him” (5:28). “That’s exactly right. You killed him by hanging him on a tree” (5:30). It’s remarkable how often they strike this note, in Jerusalem, only a few months removed from crucifixion itself. This is very fresh, and yet the apostles make it a repeated and central note in their preaching. Listen to a number of passages:
Acts 2:23 (To the crowds) “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Acts 2:36 Later in the sermon: “God made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Acts 3:14 (Again to the crowds) “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
Acts 4:10 –11 When they’re hauled before the Sanhedrin, they don’t back down: “By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead…This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders.”
Acts 5:30 In the present passage, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.”
And this clarity and courage about the particular sin of killing Jesus is one part of the larger apostolic clarity about all sin and the need to repent.
Acts 2:38 –40 “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
Acts 3:19 “Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…”
Acts 3:26 “God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”
This gives us a deeper understanding of what boldness means. Pastor Jonathan has helpfully showed us that boldness is not about being loud or brash or angry. Peter’s not angry here; the high priest is angry. But the apostles are not. Boldness is about clarity and about courage. And it’s about who Jesus is and what he’s done, and it’s about the reality of sin and the need for repentance, from the broad perspective (“Repent of your sins in general”) to the narrow (“you killed Jesus”). Which means in our gospel teaching and preaching, we must not muddle the message; that’s confusion, not clarity. And we must not muzzle the message; that’s cowardice, not courage.
So the escalated opposition (anger) to the church is owing to the apostles’ willful disobedience of the Sanhedrin, the bold and constant teaching about God’s exaltation of Jesus as Savior and Lord, and clarity and courage about the reality of sin and the need for repentance. That’s why the Sanhedrin is enraged. And, as a preview of what’s to come, this escalation will continue. In Acts 6 –7, the motive will move from theological annoyance to jealous rivalry to false and malicious accusations. And the response to the church’s defense will move from astonishment to barely controlled rage to uncontrollable rage. And the resolution will move from verbal warning to violent warning to murder by mob.
What then can we take from this for our own day? I’ve got one application in five simple parts. It’s helpful to think about witnessing to the gospel in holistic terms, in terms of the whole package. The fullness of biblical, faithful, gospel witness happens when all of the following are true:
Followers of Jesus repent and believe the gospel personally and sincerely. We must gladly embrace and submit to the authority of the risen Jesus. Obedience starts with us. That’s one point of the Ananias and Sapphira incident. We must confess our sins to God first. It does no good to talk about the sins out there in the culture if we’re letting them fester in here. All confronting of sin outside the church must be rooted in repentance from sin and obedience inside the church. “We must obey God rather than men.” God only gives his Holy Spirit to those who obey him.
We must gladly meet the needs of our own community. We serve one another. We must develop a reputation as “the people who take care of their own.” We want to be an attractive, need –meeting, generous, and joyful community who sincerely love and sacrifice for one another. That’s why last week’s sermon is so important in relation to this week’s sermon.
We must eagerly act to seek the good of those outside of our community. We want to seek the good of the cities by meeting physical needs in our neighborhoods, relational needs in our workplaces, in hopes that God might use us to meet the spiritual needs that surround us, which are the greatest needs.
In that context, we want to preach and teach the Lordship and authority of Jesus over all things. Jesus can demand everything of me. There is no part of my life—from my use of money to my sexuality to my marriage to my vocation to my hobbies to my moral and political views—there is no part of my life that is not under the authority of the Risen Lord Jesus. We embrace that, and then we seek to teach and preach that to others, in order to create the categories necessary for repentance and faith.
As people are drawn to our obedient, attractive, sacrificial, need –meeting community that lives and preaches the Lordship of Jesus over everything, we don’t shrink back from calling for particular repentance from particular sins. And when social pressure is brought from religious or cultural leaders to stop drawing attention to particular sins, we don’t back down. We can’t back down. We must obey God rather than men.
In our day, there is tremendous pressure to mute, muddle, and muzzle the biblical teaching about certain sins, especially related to our sexuality. No one objects if Christians are motivated by Jesus to seek to end human trafficking. But if you say, as the Bible says and therefore we must, that men are men (and not women), and that women are women (and not men), and that marriage is (and only is) a covenantal union between one man and one woman, if you say that, then you will annoy some, and enrage others. The biblical teaching about sexuality is at best, a nuisance, a strange and outdated opinion held by weirdos, and at worst, a bigoted act of hate that calls for coercion and violence. But we do not have the option of merely preaching general repentance.
Now, let me make two clarifications and then a very practical application for you. First, at the beginning of the sermon, I told you to remember the four different groups in this narrative: apostles / leaders, church, crowds, and Sanhedrin. The first and fundamental burden for courage and clarity about biblical sexuality falls on the leadership of this church. When it’s time to be clear, when it’s time to be bold, it is our responsibility as pastors to be the first into the breach. If anyone should get hauled before the authorities, it should be us. Now that isn’t always the case; Stephen isn’t an apostle and he’s brought up on charges, and in chapter 8 a more general persecution against the church breaks out. But, in general, it should be the leadership of the church that seeks to be bold, clear, and winsome about Jesus and about sin, and we as pastors feel this burden.
Second, and flowing from this first distinction, there is a difference between preaching and conversation. There are lots of conversations among neighbors happening here in Jerusalem. Normal Christians testifying to what Jesus has done for them, and how he delivered them from anger, and forgave their bitterness, and healed their marriages, and restored their brokenness. Lots of conversations about how this new community sacrifices to meet needs and is eager and ready to serve each other and seek the good of those outside as well. And none of them are recorded. Instead, we get apostolic sermons before crowds and apostolic testimony before authorities. Which means that in your daily life, as a faithful Christian on your block or at your work, you should trust the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom about how to speak and when to speak and what to say and what not to say. It probably won’t look the same as Peter’s sermons, and that’s okay.
And so here’s the practical application: I think your goal, as you have conversations with friends and family and neighbors, ought to be to establish 1) the Lordship of Jesus over all things, 2) your own glad obedience to his Lordship, and 3) your eagerness to love and serve them whether or not they follow Jesus. At some point, if they are drawn to Jesus, or if they ask and make it an issue, you will need to be clear and courageous about sin and about the biblical teaching about men and women and sex.
To summarize, holistic witness to the gospel means: 1) we worship Jesus. We obey Jesus. We confess our sins to Jesus and are forgiven by Jesus. 2) We serve one another. We meet the needs of our community. 3) We seek the physical, emotional, and spiritual good of those outside of our community. 4) We preach the Lordship of Jesus over all things, and over all people. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. 5) We preach repentance from all wickedness, both general and specific, including in those areas where the culture tells us to keep quiet.
This brings us to the Table. Giving a full and holistic witness to the gospel does not mean that everyone will like us. Some will. God will draw some. If he pleases, many will be added to the Lord. But some will resist the Holy Spirit. And they will grow increasingly angry if we refuse to back down. And so in the face of that opposition, we need to remember what this table represents. When we call people to turn from their wickedness—their own particular sin—we are calling them to life. God sent Jesus to “bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” God wants to bless you by pulling you out of sin and guilt and brokenness and rebellion. “Repent and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (3:19 –20). Don’t you want to be refreshed? Aren’t you tired of running yourself into the ground, of trying to do things your own way? God is ready to receive and forgive and give you the glad approval of a happy Father because of what Jesus has done in dying in your place. That’s what this table is all about. It’s a table of blessing. It’s a table of refreshment and restoration. Let me invite the pastors to come up.
This Table is fundamentally for the covenant members of this church. It’s one of the ways that we bind ourselves together on a weekly basis. But, if you’re a follower of Jesus, if you’ve turned from your sin, we invite you to be a guest at our family meal. If you’re not a follower of Jesus, we’re glad you’re here, but we ask that you let the bread and the wine pass by. That’s a way of having integrity for yourself and honoring the meaning of this meal.