Bold for the Cities
So this morning, based upon this passage, what I would like to do is give you, not just a sermon, but really a vision for the Christian life. That is my goal.
Acts 4 is one of the most important parts in the story of Acts because it shows us the true character of Christians in the face of opposition — not when things are easy, but instead when they are difficult. Last week, Pastor David introduced us to the beginning of this opposition or conflict narrative. It starts in Acts 4 when the apostles are arrested and put on trial, and now the question becomes: how will the church respond?
We see that response here in the last part of Acts 4, and what we find is not an isolated event, but starting here, it becomes a theme and is repeated throughout the rest of the book. And that theme is a vision for how the church lives in this world.
We are going to get there in three steps, by looking at three questions: 1) What are Peter and John doing?; 2) What did it mean for the church then?; 3) What does it mean for you and me today? (this last part will include three quick points of application)
What Are Peter and John Doing?
What are Peter and John doing? We see what Peter says in Acts 4:8–12. But we don’t really understand its significance until verse 13.
Verse 13 shows us how the Jewish leaders react to the testimony of Peter and John. We’re going to spend some time here, but let’s get on the ground with them. Imagine you are there. Remember that Peter and John have been put on trial. They are standing before this impressive group of Jewish top-dogs who are asking them (going back to chapter 3): How did you heal the lame man at the temple?
So, Peter and John are asked this, and then, without flinching, Peter speaks up and says that it is in the name of Jesus that the lame man is now walking. He tells them . . .
- that Jesus is the stone that they, the builders, have rejected,
- that Jesus has now become the cornerstone,
- that Jesus is the only way that Israel or anyone can find salvation.
Now, we can read that, we see that. But we have to really pay attention here. After we see what Peter says, we now turn to the Jewish leaders. What are they going to do? Well, the Jewish leaders see a subtext in what Peter says that I want us to see. And if we can see it, I think all of this is going to make more sense to us.
It’s in Acts 4:13 — here’s how they react . . .
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.
Mainly two things are happening in verse 13. First there is confusion, and then there is understanding.
First, let’s look at the confusion . . .
There is actually a simple equation to why these leaders are confused. The first part is Peter and John’s boldness. Luke tells us, “[The Jewish leaders] saw the boldness of Peter and John.”
So you have boldness here [right hand].
But then add to the boldness what else Luke tells us: “[the Jewish leaders] perceived that [Peter and John] were uneducated, common men.” That means that Peter and John had not been trained in the rabbinical schools that taught Bible interpretation and so forth. The word for “uneducated” means illiterate. They are common men, they’re just fisherman.
So you have the fact of Peter and John being bold here [right hand], and then you have the fact of Peter and John being uneducated here [left hand].
And these two facts put together astonish the Jewish leaders. See that that in the text, verse 13. When the Jewish leaders saw Peter and John’s boldness, and the fact that they were uneducated, common people, the text says, “they were astonished.” They’re confused. They cannot reconcile these two things. How in the world can such common, untrained people like these two fisherman be bold like they are?
That is the question, and the answer depends on what boldness means.
What is boldness?
What do you think when you hear the word “boldness”? What does it mean to be bold? Imagine that right now in your minds. Imagine how boldness looks. [. . .]
Our English connections immediately make us think bravery or courage — we think it is the opposite of being timid or frail. Boldness is strong and loud and robust and so forth.
But that concept of boldness — our concept of boldness — doesn’t actually work here.
If boldness just meant bravery, why would it be strange that common, uneducated fisherman are brave? Anyone can be brave. You can be brave whether you’re trained in the rabbinical schools or not. So how does the fact of Peter and John’s boldness, together with the fact that they are uneducated — how does that confuse the Jewish leaders?
Here’s the answer: Peter and John’s boldness wasn’t so much in their emotion or bravery, but in the content of what they said. It was not so much how they were talking, but in what they were saying about Jesus in the Bible. This is important, because if our concept of boldness defaults to strength, to be brazen and zealous, you can do those things and it not matter what you say, or if you’re saying anything.
But in the context, in Acts, boldness isn’t strength, it’s speech. It’s not so much how things are said, but what is said.
What Peter said about Jesus
Look back up at what Peter said in verse 11. Remember what Peter said about Jesus being the stone that was rejected but then became the cornerstone. Many of you caught that this is a quotation from the Old Testament. Peter is quoting Psalm 118:22, and what is mind-blowing about him quoting this is that he interprets it by saying that Jesus is the cornerstone mentioned in that passage.
So imagine the scene again. This common man, this fisherman, Peter, who was never taught by the rabbinical schools how to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures is now standing in front of the most important interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures in the world. And what’s he doing?
He is interpreting for them Psalm 118, telling them that it’s about Jesus. This uneducated man tells these Jewish experts what Psalm 118 means. In fact, he tells them that they are the builders mentioned in Psalm 118 who have rejected the stone. And this stone that they have rejected, Jesus the Messiah, has become the cornerstone, and therefore, which we see in the context of Psalm 118, Jesus has ushered in the great day of the Lord, the day of salvation. Which is why Peter says verse 12: Jesus is the one, he is the only way.
And the Jewish leaders see their boldness. They see what Peter and John are doing.
Actually, the word “boldness” is not my favorite translation for the original word here in Acts. . . .
It is commonly translated “boldness,” but in every instance in Acts the word translated “boldness” is associated to speaking, and carries the idea of “frankness” or “outspokenness.” The emphasis is not so much the manner of how things are said, or the strength in which things are said, but the focus is really on the content of what is said. It is their outspokenness about Jesus, their clarity about him. Boldness is Peter interpreting Psalm 118 to be about Jesus. That is what absolutely baffled the Jewish leaders. They hear Peter interpret the Old Testament this way and they can’t put it together. They’re astonished.
They wondered: How can this man who was never trained to interpret the Hebrews Scriptures be so outspoken and clear about who Jesus is in the Scriptures?
That’s their confusion.
But then there is understanding
The confusion gives way.
See the very last sentence in verse 13. “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
So this is the recognition that resolves the problem. They were astonished. How can these uneducated men interpret the Bible this way?
And then the light comes on: Oh, they have been with Jesus.
Which doesn’t mean here necessarily that Peter and John have good quiet times, or that they are spiritually refined. I think we tend to romanticize this part a little. But in light of the context, what do you think it means that they “had been with Jesus”? How does the Jewish leaders realizing they had been with Jesus resolve their confusion?
They understand that Jesus had taught them how to read the Bible.
How in the world can these educated, common mean interpret Psalm 118 to be about Jesus?
Because Jesus had shown them. They had been with Jesus, and he had explained to them how to interpret the Bible. In fact, as Luke puts it the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself . . . and he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (vv. 27, 45).
Peter and John’s boldness then, their outspokenness, was their ability to speak clearly about the identity and significance of Jesus. That is what boldness means.
Boldness doesn’t mean your face gets red and your voice gets loud. It means you are clear about who Jesus is — and we see this throughout the rest of Acts. To be bold means to speak clearly about who Jesus is.
And at this point, this probably sounds nothing like a vision for life. But let’s look and see: What did this boldness mean for the church then?
What Did It Mean for the Church Then?
The Jewish leaders’ get what is happening here. These apostles who were taught by Jesus are actually rascal interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures, and they’re going around to everyone they meet, and they’re telling people clearly who Jesus is.
And according to the Jewish leadership, that has to stop. So they let Peter and John go but tell them, you can’t talk about Jesus anymore — to which Peter and John say, basically, that’s not actually how this is going to work. And they walk out.
And in verse 23, Peter and John come to a group of friends, and they tell them about all that has happened, and how the chief priests and elders threatened them. And then what happens next?
They start writing letters to their congressman — no, I’m just kidding.
They develop a new tract and mail it out to all the homes in their neighborhood.
No, actually, they all get together and make signs to hold up at the temple in protest.
Look at verse 24. What do they do in response to the opposition? They prayed.
“And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God . . .”
And in their praying, with the words of Scripture in their minds, they asked God to make them continue to speak his word with all boldness — that’s verse 29.
And God answered their prayer, in verse 31, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
This is everyone. This is not just the apostles, now, but the entire church is propelled out into the world to speak clearly about who Jesus is. Boldness, then — speaking clearly about who Jesus is — is not just a tactic for apostolic proclamation, but it becomes paradigm for the Christian life.
In fact, this word for boldness or outspokenness shows up several more times in Acts, and actually, in the very last verse of the Book of Acts, this is what Luke leaves us with, speaking of Paul, Acts 28:30–31, the very last verse . . .
“He [Paul] lived there [in Rome] two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
How does the church live in this world? What are we doing here?
We live bold, which means, we know Jesus and we are clear about who he is. Luke makes this a theme in Acts, that even when there’s a cost, the people of Jesus know Jesus, and speak clearly about his identity and significance.
That is what it meant for the church then, and that is what it means for the church today. And this is how Acts 4 becomes a vision for the Christian life.
To live as Christians in our confusing world means to live bold. It means, as we saw in Peter and John, and in the early church, that we are clear about who Jesus is.
What Does It Mean for You and Me Today?
So now is the part of the sermon where we step down a level and consider how this vision for life — this type of boldness — really makes an impact in how we live. If you have heard a lot of sermons before, this is what you might call good, old-fashioned application (I don’t always do it like this, but today . . .). Three things to take home:
- Boldness simplifies the message;
- Boldness humbles the messenger;
- Boldness encourages the mission.
I’m just going to run through these. . . .
Boldness Simplifies the Message
This vision for life — that the church is called to live bold, to be clear about who Jesus is — declutters the complexities that surround us.
Let me just remind you that we live in a complicated world. Religiously, philosophically, we are in a whirlwind of competing ideas that each try to universalize themselves. In other words, every idea out there offers its own story about the meaning of life as a whole — and wants you to embrace it. And some of these ideas, such as with ISIS, will force your submission through violence, while others, such as secular relativism, will force your submission through legislation.
It’s a bit of a mess. The world is complicated and is only getting more complicated, and that’s going to push us to keep asking ourselves, What are we doing? What are we about?
And of all the good things we could do, and will do, of all the ways that we can speak into current events and important issues, the most important thing that we could ever say is who Jesus is.
That is what we bring to this complicated word — in the middle of all the confusion, we have a clear word. We have good news about a good God who is mighty to save. Scholar Richard Bauckham explains, the Christian gospel is the only story that encompasses all the others and makes sense of them.
We have good news that we want others to embrace, but rather than shove it down people’s throats through propaganda, or force it on people’s lives through violence, or constrain people’s conscience through legislation, we have conversations. We listen.
We hear people’s stories, and we tell them about the grace and truth of Jesus — that he stepped into our world as a human like us to die in our place, that he suffered for the our sins, he took the wrath we deserved, and then he conquered death by his resurrection — all to reconcile us to God, to bring us into a relationship with him. We tell others that Jesus is the only one who can truly satisfy the longings of the human soul.
This simplifies our message, because of all the good things we could ever say, this is the most important. Of all the good things you can do in your community, the most significant contribution you could make is to know Jesus and be clear about who he is.
Humbles the Messenger
So second, boldness — being clear about who Jesus is — humbles the messenger.
This is what I mean: it’s not you that you are trying to get other people to love.
Now, we have to be careful here. This doesn’t mean that we are disconnected from our message. Like Peter and John, we are speaking about what we ourselves have seen and heard (Acts 4:20); and like the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:8, we don’t only share the gospel with people, but also our own selves.
So all that is true. But at the same time, we don’t share our own selves with others so that they will be impressed with us. The goal is not that they think we are great, but that Jesus is. We are clear about who Jesus.
This humbles the messenger, and it also invigorates us. Being clear about Jesus is humbling because it’s not us we are trying to get others to follow, and being clear about Jesus is invigorating because it’s not us we are trying to get others to follow. Did you catch that?
If we know ourselves truly — humbly — we know that we’re just not that good, and the best thing about us to give others isn’t us, but the good news of Jesus that has transformed our lives.
Encourages the Mission
Third and last point: boldness, or being clear about who Jesus is, encourages the mission.
The astounding fact of our work is that not only is God our content, but he is our source, our content, and our power.
In other words, our mission is rooted in the mind of God the Father, proclaims the grace of God the Son, and is fueled by the power of God the Spirit.
We see this in Acts: the apostles and the early church are clear about who Jesus is in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, meaning that God has planned this thing all along. The story of Jesus is part of the story of Israel, and the events that unfolded in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified and resurrected were part of a larger plan (as we’ve seen). So this is not just stuff we had to make up, which is encouraging. God is the source.
And then also, being clear about Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit. We actually see that a couple times in this passage. First, in verse 8, before Peter gives his testimony, Luke tells us, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit.” Next, in verse 31, when the church is propelled out into the world, Luke tells us, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
This is encouraging because our calling to be bold — to be clear about Jesus — is not left up to us and our do-goodness. Luke doesn’t want us, and I don’t want us, to leave here and think: “Be better, try harder.” That’s not the point.
The whole reality that we could ever know Jesus and be clear about him is on God. God is the one who does this in us. Filled with his Spirit, we share the grace and truth of Jesus as those who have experienced the grace and truth of Jesus. You remember, don’t you? * You were guilty, but Jesus made you righteous. * You were defiled, but Jesus made you holy. * You were a hater of God, but Jesus made you his son or his daughter. See, God has done this. His Spirit came and breathed life into our cold hearts, gave us eyes to see, and now fuels us forward in mission. God has done this, and is doing this, so be encouraged.
He has called us and empowers us to live bold — to know and be clear about who Jesus is.
That is what we mean by naming this study through Acts, “Bold for the Cities.”
You have seen that title before on the Bible studies. What we mean by the title is what we’ve talked about here. This really is a vision for life. For us to be bold for the Cities is for us to be clear about who Jesus is for the good of the Cities and several neighborhoods we call home. That is what we doing here. That is what it means to live bold.