“Are you a Christian?” It has been reported that this was the question the killer was asking students at Umpqua Community College before shooting them in the head last Thursday. It is reminiscent of the tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999. Every mass shooting is horrific, but for believers, these particular instances heighten our awareness that persecution is not always across the ocean. And I imagine, for many of us, we start to wonder if we would have had the courage to stand and say “Yes, I am a Christian.”
In our study of Acts, we now come to the first recorded act of persecution the Christian community faced. Will they fold under the pressure? Will they flee like they did on the night of Jesus’ betrayal?
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
The theme of this chapter is “boldness”. In our passage this morning we have seen the boldness of Peter and John before the Jerusalem Council. Even the Sanhedrin recognized their boldness and were astonished by it because they had not received any formal training.
In the passage you will consider next week, Scott will focus on how the disciples pray for boldness and then go on to display boldness as they continue to preach the gospel.
We have already seen this theme as we considered how remarkable it is that Peter would go from denying his Lord on the night he was betrayed to proclaiming the name of Christ before a hostile Jewish audience.
If the apostles had to be filled with boldness and we find them continually praying for boldness in order to preach with boldness…it was because evangelism did not come naturally. They were called to preach Christ to everyone, but in so doing, they immediately faced opposition.
The lesson of this passage is simple: The Holy Spirit provides boldness to proclaim the gospel in the face of persecution. However, even after receiving the Holy Spirit, they still recognized a tendency to be silent for fear of man. Mark Twain has said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Peter and John model that principle.
First, we will look at Their Arrest (1-4). Second, we’ll see Their Trial (5-12). And third, we will consider Their Warning (13-22).
Their Arrest (1-4)
While Peter is still preaching to the crowd that has gathered at Solomon’s Porch, Jewish leaders come to question he and John. Among them were priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees. The captain of the temple was second only to the high priest in authority. The plan was to bring them before the Sanhedrin, but they were adjourning for the day, so the trial was set for the next morning, while the apostles are detained in prison overnight (v.3).
The 71 members of the Sanhedrin included the high priest and 70 elders, with a majority of Sadducees and a minority of Pharisees. The Sadducees rejected the doctrine of the resurrection, any idea of an afterlife, and they only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament. This was the same corrupt court that had falsely condemned Jesus.
Luke provides two reasons the Jewish leaders were “disturbed”. First, the apostles were teaching the people, which was a job reserved for those who were qualified to do so. Second, they were specifically “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (v.2). It wasn’t the healing itself, but the the explanation of it that disturbed the Sanhedrin.
At this point Luke provides another summary statement of the growth of the church (v.4). Why does he put that here? It’s interesting isn’t it? He could have placed it right before or after this passage. Those would seem to make likelier transition points.
Instead, he strategically inserts it between their arrest and trial. We don’t even know if the outcome. Their ministry could end the following day. It’s as if Luke is suggesting to his readers—regardless of what happens to the apostles, the Kingdom of God is expanding just as Jesus had promised.
This is precisely what Jesus warned the apostles would happen. He warned them that persecution would come. Listen to Matthew 10:17-20:
“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
The Oregon shooting brings the potential of life threatening persecution into our own backyard. When I was younger and heard of things like this happening around the world, I questioned my own faith. Would I be able to say “Yes, I am a Christian.” knowing it would result in my death?
It’s possible to get ourselves so worked up on this that we have trouble sleeping at night wrestling with doubt and insecurity. We need not become anxious about that, but we can have courage, because Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit will speak through us when that time comes.
And that is exactly what we see in the apostles’ response at…
Their Trial (5-12)
On trial, Peter and John were concerned to proclaim the gospel rather than to declare their innocence.
Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit in order to answer the Sanhedrin in the way that he does (v.8). This is an ongoing filling of the Holy Spirit distinct from the filling that took place at Pentecost or conversion. This is consistent with Paul’s exhortation to believers—already indwelt by the Spirit—to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). It is a filling to face a particular circumstance.
This was not strategic for Peter. He did not prepare. No doubt Peter had been in the habit of reading and praying, but that doesn’t explain his boldness here. The text specifically tells us that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit.
He begins by marveling that they were standing on trial for doing something good (v.9). It was utterly absurd for them to have been arrested.
Then he transitions to explain that Jesus Christ—whom you crucified, but God raised from the dead—healed this man (v.10). You rejected Jesus, but God has made him the cornerstone (v.11). This is a quote of Psalm 118:22 with one addition—he adds “you”, identifying his audience as the builders.
Then he concludes by saying that the only way to be saved is by faith in Jesus Christ (v.12). Even the Sanhedrin must call upon Christ to be saved.
In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller addresses the exclusive claims of Christianity. He begins by acknowledging that religion tends to erode peace. He points to three primary solutions society has proposed:
- Outlaw Religion: The problem with outlawing religion is the fact that atheists tend to erode peace as well. The 20th century witnessed some of the world’s greatest atrocities. And they were carried out by atheists, not religious extremists.
- Condemn Religion: This solution is dependent upon the truth of certain axioms such as: “All major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing.” Or “Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.” Or “Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be ‘truth.’” Or “It is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it.” Some form of these doctrines—and that is precisely what they are—must be accepted in order to condemn the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christianity. In other words, in order to condemn all religious exclusivism, you must adopt your own set of exclusive values.
- Radically Privatize Religion: This implies that it is possible for anyone to put aside their deeply held beliefs. Even atheists have a way of seeing the world that informs the way they live and think. It is impossible to set those beliefs aside before entering any debate, private or public.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not something we should be ashamed of. There will always be those who mock our faith. Christians will never be without opposition in this world. As much as we long for revival, others will long for Christianity’s demise. But the courageous preaching of the gospel is as threatening to the kingdom of darkness now as it was then.
We can also be sure that the gospel’s exclusive claims will offend people, but Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). To say anything else, is to proclaim a false gospel.
How would the Sanhedrin respond to Peter’s answer? By giving them…
Their Warning (13-22)
This section begins with the members of the Sanhedrin in private counsel (vv.13-17), followed by the formal warning given to the apostles (vv.18-22).
Did you notice that the very things that disturbed the Sanhedrin (i.e., teaching, resurrection) are what Peter proclaims to their face! He knew what these members of the Sanhedrin believed. Therefore, he knew that his statements could land him permanently imprisoned or dead.
They were amazed that these men were bold yet they had not received formal training (v.13). And they recognized that their teaching was influenced by Jesus—himself the recipient of amazement at his lack of formal training (John 7:15). We might view that positively, but for the Sanhedrin—who had just played a roll in having Jesus crucified—this was a very bad association.
It should be noted that if the apostles had made up the story of the resurrection, the Sanhedrin had a very simple solution to their dilemma. All they would have had to do was open the tomb and retrieve Jesus’ body. That would have effectively silenced the apostles.
It is telling that they merely give a warning. And before the apostles even leave the custody of the Sanhedrin they are indicating their commitment to God—implying they won’t be paying any attention to this warning.
Keller concludes the chapter on the exclusive claims of Christianity by arguing that Jesus, is the only one who can bring true peace. By all measures, the Greco-Roman world of the 1st and 2nd centuries was morally improved by Christianity. There was improved cooperation between people of different ethnicity, class, and gender. They cared for the sick and dying and poor all around them. Overall, Christianity improved their world.
Yes, atrocities have been committed in the name of Jesus. But, when the gospel is rightly understood—the result is not one of hatred, but sacrificial love for our neighbor.
Our allegiances are most plainly revealed when we are willing to speak up for Christ at a time and in a place where it is forbidden or unexpected. I doubt any of us have experienced the kind of persecution we witness in Acts.
And yet, because of our comfort, many of us fail to proclaim Christ at all. If the Holy Spirit provides boldness to proclaim Christ in the face of persecution, then he certainly will provide boldness to proclaim Christ where it is merely discouraged.
I’m not saying we should become obnoxious about our faith, but we should be looking for opportunities. We should be putting ourselves in positions where opportunities will arise.
Dennis Johnson writes,
“If your testimony to Jesus’ grace is stifled by intimidation from people around you or over you, seek the boldness that the Holy Spirit alone can give: spend time with Jesus in his Word, and in urgent prayer ask him for the courage to be faithful to your calling as his witness.”1
Even if Christians are thrown into prison, or killed for their beliefs, the Kingdom of God will continue to increase.
The gospel is inevitably offensive. Had the apostles taken a less offensive approach—had they attempted to cater to the sensitivities of the culture—they would have stripped the gospel of its truth and power. Instead, they proclaimed the truth without shame. Yet, neither does that fact prevent the growth of God’s Kingdom.
These results did not occur because Peter and John were filled with winsome and clever ways of presenting the gospel. In fact, their gospel presentation is noted for being just as concise as it was offensive. The success of their message comes not from their personality or speaking skills, but the power of the Word of God accompanied by the work of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit provides boldness to proclaim the gospel in the face of persecution. Let us pray that God will fill us with the Spirit for that purpose even now.
1 Dennis Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 38.