It may not seem right to think of the church as triumphing during times of persecution, especially if you are the ones undergoing the persecution. But that is exactly the picture that God's Word paints. Even in times of bitterest opposition God's church is marching on like a mighty army which cannot be stopped. You can kill a Christian, but you cannot kill the cause of the gospel for which he lives. The early church father Tertullian, who was born about 150 AD and faced terrible persecutions said this: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church . . .The more ye mow us down, the more quickly we grow; the blood of Christians is fresh seed." (Apologeticus ) In other words, from every drop of blood that is spilt, more Christians spring forth. And this is precisely what we have seen in the 2000 years of church history since then. The Gospel is the power of God and it cannot be bound physically as the Jewish leaders in this chapter were vainly trying to do.
God's Word Cannot Be Physically Bound
That does not mean that we cannot be bound. Notice that the apostles are indeed bound in verses 17-18. And we may face prison for the sake of Christ as well. But let's look first at why they were bound.
The Apostles Bound
Why they were imprisoned.(v. 17; cf. vv. 12-16)
"Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation."
And somebody might wonder: "Why in the world are they getting angry with the apostles for healing people? That's a good thing, isn't it? You would think that the government would encourage mercy ministries because whatever problems private citizens solve are problems that government officials won't have to solve." But it wasn't just healing people. Verse 14 talks about multitudes of people becoming Christians. In verse 28 the leaders complain, "you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine…" The bottom line issue that made them angry was that the church was having a profound impact in the community, and they felt threatened. If the apostles had just kept their religion in their closet, it probably would have generated very little trouble. But these Christians were not leaving their Christianity to Sunday morning church. It spilled over into all they did in the week so that the people could see the impact that Christ had made on their lives. Sunday morning Christianity was not dangerous to humanists then and it is not dangerous to humanists now. But practical Christianity lived out every day in the power of the Spirit certainly is dangerous to humanism and is much more likely to receive opposition. If you have never suffered persecution you need to ask yourself what kind of Christianity you have. Paul said, "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12).
This is what made the Soviets so angry with the Christians before the Soviet Union came apart. The Christians were having an impact. And China recognizes that Christianity played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. I've read the Soviet Laws. They were just as crazy as the Sadducean reaction against healings here. The Soviets made laws that no private person could give charity, feed the poor, start an orphanage, a library or a hospital. They forbad
set[ting] up benefit societies, cooperatives of industrial societies; to offer material aid to [their] members; to organize children's and young persons' groups … or to organize groups, circles, or sections; to arrange excursions and kindergartens, open libraries and reading rooms, organize sanatoria or medical aid.
Alexander Solzenitzen pointed out that tyrants have always sought to restrict the good that private citizens might do because it was perceived as an indirect competition with and threat to the state. Ancient Rome forbad Christians from starting orphanages or picking up babies that had been left out to die. You find similar restrictions in modern China. And the reason Christianity has grown so much there is that it's not just a Sunday religion.
And that should be a challenge to us. Richard C. Halverson, the Senate chaplain said, "The time that the church should be having its greatest impact on the world is when all its buildings are empty." Think about that. Christianity is a lifestyle, not a meeting that we squeeze into our schedule once a week. And when we meet together on Sundays, it is largely for our growth. We come to worship God and receive the strength that we need for the battle. Our greatest impact on the world is not in the worship service. It is when we go out into the world to apply and live out what we have heard on Sunday.
So it was practical Christianity that was being persecuted.
Where they were bound (18)
Verse 18 goes on: "and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison." They were not even given the dignity of being imprisoned in a cell for righteous folks. They were lumped in with common criminals. And when you are persecuted for righteousness sake, it will not always be broadcast that you were righteous. Everyone will assume that if the state has arrested you, you must be a pretty bad person. You may have to bear the shame of being lumped together with thieves, murderers, extortionists and others who are suffering for the evil they have committed. Prolife leaders have seen this in America. When I was arrested on one missions trip, the authorities told me that meeting with Christians was as bad as murder, treason and drug dealing. Christ too was lumped together with criminals. In fact He had a bandit being crucified on each side of him. And He knows every grief that this will bring. And He has promised to provide you the grace necessary to triumph in the midst of such false accusation. Now in this case, it is not in God's will that they remain in prison for very long, so He freed them.
The Apostles Freed (19-21a)
Beginning at verse 19:
But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, "Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life."
God does not always guarantee that His people will be freed when they are falsely accused. But one thing we can be sure of is that nothing in heaven or earth can keep us in prison unless that is God's will. When you are the butt end of persecution you will always discover that God is advancing His cause through it, unless of course as Peter says, you are facing trouble for your own sinfulness. We sometimes do that, don't we? We bring on the persecution through our rudeness. But we are talking about persecution for righteousness sake. Here the freeing was by a miracle, but God can use any method that he chooses. One person expressed concern about my going back into the country where I was arrested. But the truth of the matter is that just as you cannot die one day sooner than God has ordained, you can't be imprisoned for one day more than God has ordained.
By a miracle (v. 19)
But let me comment for a moment on the nature of the miracle. Verse 19 says, "But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out," I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to read good Christian biographies so that you can see that this was not something that just happened in the first century. God continues to deliver his people in many remarkable ways when it is not in His purpose for them to continue to be bound. His angels continue to be ministering spirits. In Ethiopia I heard of many remarkable deliverances of God's people from death, while many others perished. Neither group was outside God's control. God delivers us or calls us home as it pleases Him and as it works out best for the advancement of His kingdom. Here God makes clear that the deliverance was for the sake of the ministry.
For a ministry (v. 20-21a)
...and said, 'Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.' And when they heard that, they entered the temple early in the morning and taught.
When God prolongs our lives, or rescues us from trouble, it is not for the purpose of our comfort. It is for the purpose of further ministry. We are to be servants at God's disposal, and whether we live or die, we are to seek to serve and honor God with everything that we have. When God allows His servants to die, that death is not in vain. When we get to chapter 7 we will be seeing an illustration of that in the life of Stephen, Lord willing. But the same can be said of all God's deliverances of His people in history. Just two examples from Ethiopia with which I am most familiar. On one occasion there were several church leaders who were imprisoned after being beaten with more than 100 stripes. One of the jailors taunted them saying they would never get out of prison. That night a huge storm blew the roof off the building and the rain melted the mud walls and all the prisoners escaped except the Christians who were too weak to move. The Lord used that intervention to cause the jailors to free them and brought salvation to some.
My father told me of another occasion when an Ethiopian leader was going to make an object lesson out of a Christian leader. He forced all the community together to witness the death of the Christian and to show them that a similar fate awaited them if they accepted this foreigners religion. They tied the Christian up and ordered a truck driver to run over him. The truck drove towards the man and right before it got to the man it abruptly stopped. He backed up and tried again and once again it stopped. When exactly the same thing happened on the third try, he left the truck and ran away. God used the forced attendance at that meeting to be a witness and throngs of people inquired about this Christ who had protected the man and came to salvation. There are many other stories from China, Russia and other countries of people who have either been delivered for further service, or while they were in prison have led many to Christ. Our life and our death should be used for the purpose of ministering the gospel to others.
The Sanhedrin Frustrated
Their self-confidence (v. 21b)
The Sanhedrin at this point is not aware of what is going on. They thought they had the situation under control, and they arranged a meeting of Congress to definitively put a stop to the problem. This probably seemed like a piece of cake. Verse 21 goes on to say, "But the high priest and those with him came and called the council together, with all the elders of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought."
It was rare to have the Sanhedrin unified on anything, but they were unified in their opposition to Christianity and no doubt they thought this problem could be handled. When men get into positions of power it is very easy for proper humility to give way to self-confident pride. But it is important for all who are in positions of power, whether it is parental authority, church authority, school authority or governmental authority, to realize that we do not have things sown up neatly. We are dependant upon God for all things. Do not fear the confidence of your enemies. God can undo them just as He undid Haman in the book of Esther.
Their surprise (22-23)
Let's look at their surprise in verses 22-23.
But when the officers came and did not find them in the prison, they returned and reported, saying, 'Indeed, we found the prison shut securely, and the guards standing before the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside!
The officers had checked the place over and had found that the prison doors were secure and the guards were in place. There seemed to be no explanation for the disappearance of the apostles. But did this make them change their minds? Did this make them wonder if God had intervened on the apostle's behalf? No. But it did frustrate them. Verse 24 describes their uncertainty.
Their uncertainty (24)
"Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests heard these things, they wondered what the outcome would be." Notice that their doubts were not concentrated on the miracle of the apostles' escape at this point. Miracles didn't seem to phase them. In chapter 4:16 they admitted that no one could deny that a miracle had been performed. But they were still opposed to the Gospel. I had one person tell me that if God would do a miracle in front of him right now, then he would believe the Gospel that I had talked to him about. And I told him, "No you wouldn't. And I read him some Scriptures that showed that his problem was rebellion not ignorance. Verse 16 says, "Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed." In the last four chapters they had seen a multitude of miracles. They had seen more miracles under Jesus and the apostles than any other age had ever seen. Yet they were not converted. What they doubted was the outcome of this whole affair. They were pragmatists.
I think this is instructive for us in our fight against humanism. It is true that education and the political process are important. God has ordained those things so that people are left without excuse. But do not put your hope in those things alone. That was one of the problems with the John Birch Society. They were firmly convinced if they could get the facts to enough people, that people would change and the country would embrace conservativism. They ironically had the same Messianic hope for education that the liberals do. Apart from regeneration and the power of the gospel, no amount of facts will change our country back to God. When you listen to Tedd Kennedy in the confirmation hearings you get the impression that he doesn't care about the facts. He's got his mind made up and he wants to stop the candidate. And so, while education and the political process are important, too many Christians have put their faith in those things rather than in the Gospel to change our society. Ironically, even those who are against big government, often think that the only solution to big government is if we elect officials who will reduce government. In other words, their solution to government is government. While I would be thankful if that happened, I must insist that the only ultimate hope for our country on any level is the change of men's hearts through the Gospel.
If rational thought would have convinced these spiritual leaders of the truth of Christ, they would have been convinced already. But it is not enough to address the intellect. The whole person must be changed in regeneration before his humanistic resistance to the Gospel will be done away with. These people are illustrations of the truism that " a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." That is just to say that there is more involved in our decision making than the intellect.
Just a case in point, the scientific evidence that has been put forward to demonstrate that fetuses are human beings with pain, brain waves, distress etc has not changed very many people's views on the right to abortion. Sure there are some who are oppossing abortion now for humanistic reasons, but what the majority have done, is admit that the fetus is a living human with pain, but say that abortion is justified anyway. This is why I resist the notion of the Roman Catholics that we can oppose abortion on the basis of natural law and natural reasoning, as if that were a common basis of argument between believer and unbeliever. It is not. God and the Gospel must not be left out of the picture since men's hearts must change before their evil actions will change.
On the other hand, God uses all of this evidence to leave men and women without excuse. So it's not fruitless. I'm not saying that. These Jewish leaders were left absolutely without any excuse. But look at the dilemma that their opposition put them into.
Their dilemma (25-26)
Then one came and told them, 'Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!' Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.
This posed a dilemma. Failure to arrest the apostles might erode their power and allow them to gain many more converts. But arresting them might cause a riot and a general uprising of the people on behalf of the apostles.
Failure to arrest might erode their power
An arrest might cause a riot
It was obvious that putting a stop to their influence was not going to be as easy as they had supposed. So the officials played it cool at this stage and brought the apostles without using violence. All of this is just to show that the powerful Sanhedrin was really on the defensive and unsure of itself. It might rage; it might use cunning; it might threaten and legistlate, but it was on the losing side of the battle. God was in control and God would not let them overstep the boundaries that He had set for them.
And this is what frees the apostles up to be so bold. They can trust God to handle providence. They can trust God to handle their opponents, and when they are not concerned about what others will do to them they can concentrate on their own responsibilities. Many of our fears come from trying to take the responsibility of God's providence on our own shoulders. And that's a weight no one can bear.
Anyway, the church was advancing like a mighty army and the mighty Sanhedrin was on the defensive because God was fighting for the one and against the other. And if we as a church face persecution in the future we can have the same comfort and confidence. We do not need to fear what men might do to us for our God reigns. God has His purposes for either curbing the wrath of men or allowing that wrath to run its course. In fact there is a scripture that says that God causes the wrath of man to praise Him. Sometimes the church grows far more when we have apparent set backs.
So let me briefly review what we have said this morning. Though we may be bound like the apostles were, God's Word cannot be bound. 2 Corinthians 2:14 says, "Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place." And someone might respond: "Well, if that is the case, why are we being persecuted?" But it is precisely because we are triumphing that we receive the opposition from humanists. It is practical Christianity that affects the culture and everything that we do that is so dangerous to humanism. That's why it arouses the persecution. You may escape persecution if you belong to a church that bows to every government dictate and burns incense to Caesar and is content to worship on Sunday, but God calls us to be more than Sunday go-to-meetin' Christians. He calls us to love Him with our mind, with our hearts, with our strength, with everything that we are or have.
If you are bound it is for the Lord and if you are free it is for the Lord. Frequently we do not use either position affectively. It is one thing for God's enemies to seek to bind the progress of God's Word, but let it never be said of us that we have bound God's Word by our fears, shyness, laziness or any other obstacle of the flesh. Jeremiah on one occasion was so troubled with the opposition of God's enemies to his witness that he refused to speak it any more. He said, "God, I am tired of this. I'm not going to speak Your Word anymore." But that was impossible, because that Word was burning in him like a fire and he had to let it out. Every one of us are called to be witnesses to the Word which cannot be bound, let us seek to demonstrate that in our lives. If you want some practical suggestions on how you can share the word of God which is burning inside of you, talk to me. There are many, many ways that are suited to all the different types of personalities that we have among us. But let's advance His cause and never allow the Word to be bound.
Charge: 1 Peter 4:12-19