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God’s power for God’s purposes: Truth and consequences

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 5:17-42

Billy Graham’s bestseller Angels tells the story of John G. Paton’s missionary work in the New Hebrides Islands. One night, hostile natives surrounded the mission headquarters, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. The Patons prayed all night long that God would deliver them. When morning came, they were shocked to see that their attackers had left.

A year later, the tribal chief came to Christ. Mr. Paton asked him what had kept his men from burning down their house a year earlier. Surprised, the chief replied, “Who were all those men you had with you there?” He told the missionary that he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They surrounded the house, so that the natives were afraid to attack.

Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). Then he added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So long as we live in his purpose, we can count on his protection and power. The apostle John, survivor of the persecutions we will study today, would later conclude: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). And he is just as powerful today in Dallas as he was on that day in Jerusalem 20 centuries ago.

Where are you afraid to serve God? Most of us experience fear when an opportunity to share our faith arises. Some of us are afraid to trust God with our finances and tithe. Or with our time in serving God more faithfully. We may be afraid to handle work biblically, in fear that we will lose money or success. Pastors and teachers may be tempted to lessen the truth of God’s word in the service of popularity. Is there a place in your life where you are afraid to trust God fully with your life and service?

This week’s study will help you and your class serve God with bold courage and joy. The results could be as significant for our church as they were for these first disciples.

Anticipate angelic protection (Acts 5:17-24)

Psalm 91 has become one of my favorite passages to read to our members when they are facing surgery or other problems. It begins:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2).

When we make God our shelter, our refuge and fortress, he promises to respond:

He will cover you with his feathers,and under his wings you will find refuge;his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart (v. 4).

How will he keep this promise to protect us?

He will command his angels concerning youto guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands,so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (vs. 11-12).

Jesus experienced such angelic protection in his wilderness temptations: “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11). And again in Gethsemane: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43). Angels appeared at his resurrection (Mark 16:4-7), and at his ascension (Acts 1:10-11). The purpose of these angelic beings is clear: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).

In our text “an angel of the Lord” appeared at the most crucial moment the early Church had yet faced (Acts 5:19). The high priest and his associates among the Sadducees, jealous at the popularity of the apostolic movement, ordered the apostles arrested and jailed. Not just Peter and John this time (cf. Acts 4:7), but the larger team who led the Christian church in Jerusalem. Jail in the first century was not itself a means of punishment, but prelude to physical torture or execution.

Imagine the results if the apostles were found guilty and killed. Never again would the entire leadership team of the Christian faith be small enough and accessible to such a strategy of the enemy (cf. the selection of deacons in Acts 6, the scattering of new leaders in Acts 8:1, and the sending of missionaries in Acts 13). The apostles had no political power or legal means of defense; they possessed no financial resources with which to secure release; they could not and would not attempt to break out of jail. The future of their movement appeared bleak indeed.

But doors locked to men are easily opened by God. In this case the angel simply “opened the doors of the jail and brought them out” (Acts 5:14), charging them to return to their public ministry of gospel proclamation (v. 20). Would they flee to safety in the night? Would they return to their Galilean homes and the protection such escape might afford? Risking their lives, they did exactly as they were told (v. 21). They knew that the same angel who had rescued them this night would protect them so long as they were faithful to their God.

The miraculous nature of their escape was made clear by the arresting officers: “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside” (v. 23). This was no coincidence or human achievement misinterpreted. Professional soldiers, at risk of their lives if they failed their task (cf. Acts 12:19), made the situation clear. They had no faith by which to find spiritual reality where it did not exist. The miracle of this event was no miracle to God.

Such angelic protection would soon rescue Peter from another Jerusalem imprisonment (Acts 12:1-19), as an earthquake would free Paul and Silas from their Philippian jail (Acts 16:26). What angels did for these early disciples, they now stand ready to do for us (cf. Hebrews 1:14).

If you had eyes to see spiritual beings, you would see angels around you as you read these words. Elisha’s admonition to his frightened servant is still God’s word to us: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). After the prophet prayed that the Lord would opened the servant’s eyes, “he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). Those horses and chariots are still real today.

If you will serve God faithfully, you can count on angels to protect and serve you. Already you have likely experienced their help in ways you could not see and did not recognize. When we are with the Father in heaven, perhaps he will give us opportunity to look back over our lives and rejoice in all the ways his angels cared for us.

Obey God rather than men (Acts 5:25-32)

Next we come to one of the clearest proofs of genuine transformation in all the apostolic record. Remember that only John had even the courage to appear at Jesus’ crucifixion; Peter had cowered before a serving girl on the night of his Lord’s arrest; the disciples before Pentecost met behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).

Now their worst fears have come to reality. The Sanhedrin knows each of them by name, has already arrested them, and plans to bring them to punishment and probable execution. They are on the nation’s “most wanted” list, with no legal options. They have one more chance to retreat from danger, with the likely result that the Jerusalem officials would allow their safety in obscurity.

If you were in their circumstances today, what would you do? Would you return to the scene of the crime, the headquarters of your adversaries, and continue the very activity which led to your arrest? The apostles did. The Spirit who empowered them at Pentecost changed them forever. Frightened fishermen had become emboldened prophets. And world history would never be the same.

We should pray for such courage: “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). The apostolic witness was consistent and powerful, centering always in the risen Christ and the opportunity for forgiveness he alone provides. Their message should be ours every time you teach and I preach. Those who hear us may never have another chance to come to the One we proclaim. And God will always protect and empower those who glorify his Son.

The text nowhere claims that the apostles performed their ministry without fear. A common spiritual mistake is to confuse the presence of fear with the lack of faith. Genuine faith is not the absence of fear, but the decision to obey God no matter how afraid we are. If we’re not afraid, we need little faith.

Return to that place in your life where you are afraid to serve the Lord. Name that fear. Trust it to God in faith. Follow your Lord even though you are afraid. Only when you step out of the boat can you walk on the water.

The old axiom is still true: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. And there was no one there.”

Expect divine help from unlikely sources (Acts 5:33-39)

We have already seen how God will use his angels to protect his people. Now our story shows us that God can use humans as well as spiritual beings to advance his Kingdom. We expect him to employ the apostles to his Great Commission purpose, but not the greatest scholar among their Jewish opponents. “Straight licks with crooked sticks” is a proverb and a fact of spiritual life.

Gamaliel was the finest scholar in Israel. A Pharisee and legal expert, he may have been the grandson of Hillel, one of the two most prominent teachers in Jewish history. The school founded by Hillel typically interpreted Scripture in a moderate and practical manner, in contrast to Shammai’s more literal and demanding approach. And so Hillel’s school came to prominence and popularity in first-century Judaism.

Gamaliel was at least the recognized leader of this movement, a kind of “denominational” official and key advisor in Israel. Saul of Tarsus’s resume featured the fact that he had once been a protégé of this great scholar: “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts 22:3). Saul’s subsequent persecution of the Christian movement showed that Gamaliel’s teachings could easily lead to the severest rejection of Jesus’ teachings and followers.

Now this respected spiritual leader, a kind of Billy Graham to his people, stood to speak. A word from him would likely lead to the execution of the leadership team of apostolic Christianity, and the direst consequences to their movement.

Gamaliel cited the revolutionary movement of the otherwise-unknown Theudas (not the one mentioned later by Josephus), and its dispersion. He also mentioned Judas the Galilean, whose revolt against paying taxes to Caesar was described by the Jewish historian Josephus. His rebellion likewise came to nothing (vs. 36-37). His point was simple: “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (vs. 38-39). He was more right than he knew.

And “His speech persuaded them” (v. 40). God used a man none would have counted a friend of the Christian movement, to help preserve its leaders and maintain its growth. If our Lord could use such an adversary to become an unlikely ally of his people, know that he can use any person and source to further his Kingdom.

No one is beyond the redemptive grace of God. And no situation is beyond his redemptive power. If your fear to serve God has its source in a Gamaliel, know that your Father is more powerful than any adversary. The bumper sticker speaks truth: “God + 1 = majority.” Always.

Conclusion (Acts 5:40-42)

The protection God gave his people did not mean that they would not suffer for their faith. Their flogging (v. 40) was a severe torture in which the cat-o-nine-tails, nine long strips of leather imbedded with sharp pieces of rock and shell, was whipped across their backs 39 times. Often such abuse led to permanent damage or worse.

Despite such persecution, the apostles “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41). What a transformation from cowardice to courage. If you and I can grow to the place where we welcome persecution as an honor, knowing that our Lord considers us strong enough to face such suffering for his Kingdom, realizing that we threaten the enemy enough to force such antagonism, we will have grown mature indeed. And our church will be as powerful and significant for our Father as was theirs.

Water on a grease fire only spreads it. Persecuting true followers of Jesus only strengthens their resolve and ministry. Tertullian was right: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Rather than dissuading their proclamation, the Sanhedrin’s abuse led to the opposite response, as the apostles “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (v. 42). In public and private, in the temple and from house to house, nothing could stop their army from becoming the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.

Now God stands ready to use us as he used them. Where are you afraid to stand for your Lord? Where might your class members face such fear in their lives and faith? The angels of God stand ready to protect us; the Spirit of God stands ready to empower us; the providential work of God will employ unlikely sources to aid us. All that remains is for us to step forward in faith, no matter our fears.

I will not forget the time a noted pastor spoke to one of my seminary classes about the power of God and told the following story. A member of his congregation was jogging through a city park one night. She sensed a dangerous presence, and prayed quickly and earnestly to God for his protection. Nothing happened to her. The next day she read in the newspaper that another jogger, running through the same park, had been attacked. She went to the police with her story, and agreed to testify in the assailant’s trial.

A lawyer asked the man if he had seen the woman running earlier through the park. He said that he had. The attorney asked why he had not attacked her. He replied, “I started after her, but suddenly a giant man appeared at her side, running with her, and scared me away.” She never saw him, but he was no less real.

Who’s at your side today?