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God’s power for God’s purpose: Persecution, prayer, and power

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 4:5-31

My favorite story concerns a young man on his way home, late one dark, cloudy, moonless night. The hour was so late that he decided to take a shortcut through the local cemetery. We can see him picking his way from gravestone to gravestone in the dark.

Suddenly he came upon a recently dug open grave. He didn’t see it in the night, and so he fell in, head over heals. Instantly he sprang to his feet and tried to climb out, but the sides were too steep and slippery. He yelled for help, but the hour was too late and no one heard. Finally he decided to curl up in the corner of the grave and go to sleep until morning, when help would surely arrive.

He had no sooner done this than a second man took the same shortcut through the same cemetery, and fell into the same open grave. He began yelling and thrashing about in the darkness, and the noise he made awakened the first fellow. From the corner of the grave on this dark, cloudy, gloomy, moonless night, the first fellow said to the second, “You can’t get out of here.”

But he did.

Unfortunately, the story makes a relevant point. You are teaching your class in the midst of a graveyard. Some are crying for help, some are trying to climb out on their own, some are asleep, and some have given up. But all around us we find people living in graves of sin, lostness, and spiritual death.

Missions experts calculate that 167 million Americans are spiritually lost today. The Dallas Baptist Association believes that 1.2 million of the 2.1 million people who live in Dallas are unsaved or unchurched. How many lost people could you name right now?

The only answer to the lostness of our community is boldness on the part of believers. No half measures will get the gospel out and the Kingdom built. Business as usual will not be enough. The best definition of insanity I know is this: doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Only when we stand boldly for our Lord can we make a difference in the lives of the people we are called to reach.

But we are afraid. Afraid we will fail. Afraid we won’t know what to say, that we won’t be able to answer the questions people will ask. Afraid that our lives will not back up our words. Afraid of rejection or worse. Afraid of losing status and stature with our friends and society. We need power to stand boldly for God.

This week we’ll locate the power source of discipleship. Then we’ll each decide whether or not we will live in this power and victory each day.

Expect opposition (Acts 4:5-7)

My youth minister once told us: “If you and the devil aren’t on a head-on collision course, you’re probably running side by side.” He was right. When you and I stand for God, the enemy stands against us. Satan and Jesus are locked in a war, and we’re the battlefield. As the African proverb has it, when elephants fight the grass always loses. We should expect opposition if we are serious about following Jesus.

The enemy struck back quickly in ancient Jerusalem. No sooner had the crippled man been healed and the gospel preached than the authorities rose up in opposition. The “next day” (v. 5) the counterattack began as the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” met. These three composed the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, a Supreme Court to us. The rulers were political in nature; the elders were the spiritual leaders; the teachers of the law were religious scholars who served the leaders. Their meeting in full shows the significance of the threat to them, and of theirs to the church.

The high priest and his ruling “council” met at their head. Annas was still “high priest” to the Jewish people (v. 6), though he had been deposed by the Romans in AD 15 and replaced by his son and then his son-in-law Caiaphas. The “John” who met with them may have been the man appointed high priest in AD 36; “Alexander” is not otherwise known. If the president and his cabinet were to meet with the Supreme Court and leaders of Congress, their assembled power would be analogous to that present here.

Peter and John were made to meet before them. Imagine the scene. Two Galilean fishermen, heretofore residents of the bottom floor of Jewish social significance, now merit a gathering of the nation’s highest authorities. What was the highest level of authority you have encountered personally? How much thought did you give to your appearance, preparations, and words? How intimidated did you feel? Sense the fear that must have grown in the hearts of these men as they awaited their appearance before the Court.

Now they are put on legal ground: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (v. 7). In other words, what defense can you cite for the legality of your actions? The Court is asking these fishermen to defend themselves with law and reason. If they wish, these leaders can condemn the accused to death. They are literally on trial for their lives.

Everything worthwhile comes at a cost. Your home, your car, your clothes; your childrens’ school tuition; even your health comes at a price. Standing for Jesus can cost us most of all. Our Lord warned us: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11); “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). If you wish to follow Jesus, you should expect opposition.

Stand for Christ (vs. 8-12)

What will be their response? The future of their fledgling spiritual movement hangs in the balance. If their defense is unsuccessful, their group will be deemed illegal and imprisoned or worse. Peter and John, the recognized leaders of the Christian movement, will likely be executed. On the other hand, if they succumb to the pressure of the authorities, they will be unfaithful to a higher Authority. They will lose the power he can give only to those who are obedient to his Commission.

Here’s what they did.

Seek the power of the Spirit (v. 8)

The key to the boldness and victory which Peter and John won comes early: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them . . .” (v. 8). He remembered well Jesus’ promise that the disciples would receive power in the Spirit, and then they would be his witnesses (Ac. 1:8). He knew what we must remember: we cannot fulfill the purpose of God without the power of God. Ephesians 5:18 commands us to be filled with the Spirit as a daily decision and experience. Every single day we are to yield ourselves to the Spirit’s direction and empowering, to seek his help, to submit to his control.

Peter did so here. Luke doesn’t describe the steps Peter took, but we can imagine them. He and John knew they were being called before the highest authorities of the land, and had a sense of what was at stake. So, before they went to stand for God, they first stood with him. They sought his help. They did what the church would soon do: pray for boldness and power, and experience the help the Spirit gives (Ac. 4:29-31).

You and I must do the same thing. Before you teach this lesson this week, you must first seek the help and power of the Spirit. Your words cannot change a single heart or life. Nor can mine. Only the Spirit can work through us to effect significant and eternal transformation. Before we can fulfill the purpose of God, we must first submit to his power.

Turn challenge into opportunity (vs. 9-10)

Spurgeon was asked the secret to great preaching. His answer: take a text and make a bee-line for Jesus. Whenever you and I are challenged to stand for Christ, tempted or tested in our faith, persecuted for our convictions, we have a golden opportunity to turn temptation into triumph. Here’s how.

Begin with the issue at hand (v. 9). Peter found common ground in the issue before the court—the miraculous healing of the crippled man. Name the problem, the accusation, the test or temptation. Start there.

Then find a way to glorify Jesus (v. 10). Show the critic what the Lord has done for you; use the temptation to become more holy in the area where you are tempted, with the help of God; stand up to persecution with public faith in Jesus. Turn the focus from yourself to your Father.

Now, share the gospel clearly (vs. 11-12). Peter quotes Psalm 118 to show his Jewish critics how Jesus’ ministry fulfilled their Messianic promises. Then he called his critics to faith in their Messiah.

What an amazing turnaround! Two fishermen, called before the highest authorities in the land, end their court appearance by inviting their accusers to share their faith. Peter, the man who cowered before a serving girl before Pentecost, is now empowered to stand up to the greatest power in his nation. What Jesus’ Spirit did for him, he will do for us.

If you will stand for Jesus no matter what, you will find in him all the courage and strength you will need to be faithful. His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

Expect victory (vs. 13-22)

The results of this first legal defense of the faith were remarkable. The authorities could not attribute the persuasive power of these men to their rabbinic training, for they had none (v. 13). Rather, they knew they had been with Jesus, and that the One they proclaimed had somehow done an indisputable miracle (vs. 13-14).

So they took the only option open to them. They could not deny the miracle; to imprison the men was to risk the wrath of the populace; but they could not allow this “heresy” to continue. And so they “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (v. 18). We assume they assumed that the disciples would be grateful for such a finding by the court, that their freedom would be worth its silence. They were wrong.

One of the most powerful and dramatic passages in all the Scriptures comes next: “Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'” (vs. 19-20). They did not directly refuse the order of the court. Rather, they made clear that they were responsible to a higher authority. Men who had earlier met behind locked doors for fear of these authorities now stood boldly on their faith. We think of Martin Luther, before the emperor and his court, announcing his decision to continue his Reformation: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” He always does.

Frustrated, the authorities were forced to release the two (vs. 21-22). And victory was theirs, a triumph which would be crucial to the future of their movement. By the time the authorities chose to bring persecution against the Christians, they had already grown too powerful to be stopped. Their army could not be defeated. Today there is no Sanhedrin. But you will teach the same message Peter and John defended in Jerusalem. And billions will join you in your faith.

When we pray for God to heal a person miraculously and then are astonished when the healing comes, we demonstrate that our faith was less than bold. The other extreme is also to be avoided: we cannot obligate God by our faith. He will do his will. But we should not be surprised when that will leads to what we call a “miracle.” There is no such thing with the Lord of the universe.

A tavern owner built a bar down the street from a local church. The church met to pray that God would destroy the tavern. That night a lightning strike burned the bar to the ground. The tavern owner sued the church. The church argued its innocence. The judge was right: “The tavern owner has more faith in God than the church.” When you stand in the purpose and power of God, victory for the gospel is assured.

Pray for boldness (vs. 23-31)

Peter and John immediately reported to the church; the congregation raised their voices together in united worship. Quoting Psalm 2, they rejoiced that their Lord was more powerful than their adversaries. Their new faith had been proven divinely powerful. Their movement would be divinely protected. Their work would be divinely prospered.

But only if they would do together what Peter had done personally—seek and trust the continued empowering of the Spirit of God. The believers prayed for boldness, miraculous power, and the glory of Jesus (v. 29). When last did you make this your prayer? When last did you lead your class to do the same? Will you this week?

Here is the response you can expect: “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). God will still “fill” and empower every Christian who seeks his help and will stand for his word. He still uses every disciple who will be used. No exceptions are found in our text, or our lives. Nothing in our past can keep his Spirit from using us in the present. Failed, flawed, cowardly men and women became the leaders of the most powerful movement in spiritual history. Now you and I are called to join them.

Conclusion

The invitation of this week’s study is quite simple: will you and your class pray for the power of the Spirit to make you bold for Jesus? He is waiting for his people to make this request their passion. And to empower such people for eternal purpose.

When Jim Cymbala became pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, some 20 people typically attended the mid-week prayer meeting and not many more the weekend worship services. God spoke to Jim’s heart, leading him to make that mid-week prayer service the “engine” of the church. Today more than 2,000 meet each Tuesday to pray for the power of God to fall on the church. I’ve joined them in that service, and was profoundly touched.

When last did you pray for such power for your faith family? For yourself? We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). If we ask, we will receive (Matthew 7:7).