"Standing in the Name"
May 7, 2006 Acts 4:1-22 Communion
All sorts of things in life can make us afraid or intimidate us. It's not always easy to show courage in the face of that which threatens us. But knowing Jesus gives confidence to face our deepest fears and stand fast with His help against hostile foes.
A professor gave his class an assignment. They were to turn in a five-page paper. The theme was Courage. Each student was to describe the best example of courage that he or she had ever witnessed. One student boldly turned in five blank pages. The professor gave the student an A. (How many of us would have been THAT courageous?)
Most people are far less bold. In fact, fear unfortunately grips many people. Ann Landers receives an average of ten thousand letters each month-nearly all of them from people with problems. She was asked if there was one predominant theme in the letters she receives. She said, "The one problem above all others seems to be fear. People are afraid of losing their health, their wealth, and their loved ones. People are afraid of life itself." What a tragedy! We have a loving, caring heavenly Father, eager to work things out for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28). He wants us to be able to trust Him totally, rather than go through life worried and anxious.
Yet there may well be something troubling us right this moment - something that's intimidating us or making us uneasy. What would that be for you? Pause and reflect for a moment - how would you answer this question: "What (or whom) am I most afraid of?" Or complete this sentence in your mind: "I feel most intimidated when..." [PAUSE]
As we delve into God's wonderful word together, the infallible Scriptures, may we hear His reassuring voice and receive His Spirit's healing calmness for whatever threatens us.
The first big event after Pentecost in the early church was the healing by Peter of a man who had been crippled from birth. The man had asked Peter and John for money, but instead of money (which he lacked) Peter said, "What I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." (Ac 3:6) When the man's walking and jumping draws a crowd, Peter is quick to interpret it not as the result of his own power and godliness. Instead he credits God with glorifying Jesus. Peter tells the crowd, "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead...When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways." (3:15,26)
All this talk of Jesus and resurrection made the religious authorities very uncomfortable. Alarm bells were being triggered: these were followers of Jesus, whom they viewed as a blasphemer and threat, the would-be temple-cleanser; the apostles were accusing the leaders of crucifying an innocent man; and they were insisting on this "resurrection" business - which contradicted a pet belief of the main ruling party, the Sadducees. So chapter 4 opens with a confrontation, a showdown. V1 says "the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees" came up to Peter and John. Most of the priests were Sadducees. The captain of the temple guard was considered second in rank to the high priest - he was pretty powerful. The Sadducees controlled the temple, the very place where Peter and John were speaking to the people. "You're on our turf - so you'd better play by our rules, or else!"
V2 adds that these power-brokers were "greatly disturbed" because the apostles were teaching and "proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead". Resurrection might have gone over OK with Pharisees, but not Sadducees. "Greatly disturbed" can be translated "annoyed" (NRSV), displeased, offended, worked up. These officials were some ticked. Look out! They seized Peter and John and let them cool off overnight in jail. The next day, v5, "The rulers, elders and teachers of the law" met. They would have been arranged in a semicircle, and had the accused come and stand in the centre. Are you intimidated yet? V6 states that "Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and the other men of the high priest's family." The Big Guns are lined up against Peter and John! Annas was high priest AD 6-15. He had been deposed by the Romans. According to them, his son-in-law Caiaphas was now high priest; but the Jews considered the high priesthood to be a lifetime position, so they still accorded Annas authority and respect, even though now Caiaphas was acting high priest. We don't know the positions of the others named, but it seems to boil down to a powerful "Family Compact" united in their dislike for these troublesome Galileans.
These were terrifying men to have as foes. They had arranged a kangaroo court and subtly crucified Jesus. They were deadly, and intimidating. They were accustomed to being feared and obeyed, accustomed to having the reins of power firmly in their hands. Robinson comments, "The Sadducees were also aristocrats and political ecclesiastics who disliked popular disturbances." They frowned on the sort of mass gathering Peter's preaching had been prompting. The NIV Study Bible notes the Sadducees "held that the Messianic age - an ideal time - was then present and must be preserved." They were firmly ensconced in the seat of power; they had successfully navigated the sensitive channels of collaboration with the occupying Romans. Disturbance would not be tolerated because they had a lot to lose. In short, the Big Guns would seek at all costs to protect their power and would ruthlessly preserve the 'status quo' - quickly eliminating undesirables, if that's what it took.
Are you feeling just a tad intimidated yet? How would YOU like to be hauled up before these legally adept murderers?
Yet even in churches today there can be 'power brokers' who intimidate and fear change. This past week Gary and I attended the EMCC Regional Gathering in Kitchener. The special speaker was Tom Clegg, a pastor and church growth consultant from Des Moines, Iowa. In his second of three talks, he reminded us that healthy churches grow; growth brings change; change brings challenge; challenge forces us to trust in God; trusting keeps us healthy; healthy churches grow...(etc.) Tom Clegg used the example of King Hezekiah smashing the bronze snake in 2Kings 18(4). Moses had made the bronze snake in the desert at God's command, but by Hezekiah's time the Israelites had made it into an idol, burning incense to it. Tom observed, "The worst snake is a good snake that has gone bad." Tom challenged us to consider what might be bronze snakes in our churches. He noted that the church often loves its traditions more than its children. Every one of the Reformers was thrown out of the church. Wesley had to resort to the open fields. Robert Raikes was criticized for inventing the Sunday School. In the 1960s, when people in the drug culture turned to Christ and became Jesus people, the Bible colleges responded by passing regulations against blue jeans. "If we pray for revival, we had better be ready to change." Tom asked, "What change is God asking you to make for the sake of becoming better disciplers? Where are you rejecting God, refusing to change?"
One of the workshops was on youth ministry. Several of our denomination's foremost youth workers were there. One observation was about 'bronze snakes' was that people really want youth to come to church, but they're often not willing to change the style of our church worship so it's more appealing to the younger generation. At a men's breakfast recently I was sitting beside one older gentleman who was very adamant that drums should not be used in worship. If a young person had been listening, they probably would have found him somewhat intimidating. I don't suppose he would have liked the idea of the tambourine or 'resounding cymbals' in Psalm 150 either!
Those who are in power, like the Sadducees, seek to preserve control, to keep the 'status quo'. They may resort to scare tactics such as threats and intimidation to stop someone (even God) from rocking the boat. V17, "we must warn these men" comes from a verb meaning to "threaten". V18, they commanded them; v21, "After further threats [same root as v17] they let them go." They're really trying to bully, to throw their weight around.
Bullying is still a big problem in modern life. There are a couple of younger members of our youth group that tend to get picked on; it's important to have monitors around or else they may suddenly find themselves thrown up against a wall. Even 'the system' can sometimes be a bully. A Christian Week article wonders if the greatest single threat to Canadian democracy is the Gideons! A mother from Richmond BC proudly claims to not belong to any 'organized religion'. One day her grade 1 child brought home a school newsletter that included an offer of a free Bible to parents who wanted their child to have one. This mother succeeded in getting her opposition to the Gideon's offer on the front page of newspapers across Canada and onto the political agenda of some federal politicians. She says the 'secularism' that guides our society demands children not be exposed to the corrupting influence of any belief system. Columnist Joe Couto responds by noting that assumption is wrong: Canada's Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the term 'secular' should not be read by the courts or public bodies such as school boards to mean 'excluding religion'. There needs to be a level playing field for all views, not favouring only the belief system propagated by atheists and agnostics. Couto also notes, "the assumption that secularism is somehow superior to all those old superstitious religious beliefs such as Christianity is the same accusation secularists make about religious faiths: that they wish to impose a belief on others. This is called hypocrisy...Secular elites in education, business, the legal system and government are selling an amoral wasteland that inevitably produces the worst kind of citizen." Who's the real threat here - "people who invite anyone interested in Jesus Christ to come of their own free will and find out for themselves? Or the secularists who seek to drive out any different views and promote their belief in unbelief?"
Peter and John stand courageously in the name of Jesus against the system that's trying to threaten and intimidate them. Already back in chapter 3(15f) they attributed the miracle to the risen Saviour, saying: "By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong.It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see." So in 4:7 when the Sanhedrin interrogates them, they at least ask the right question: "By what power or what name did you do this?" The name represents the authorization, the approval and support of the person in question. We affix our names to cheques, to contracts, to petitions as a way of saying "I stand behind this, I'm putting my resources toward it."
There is only one name conferring supreme power and authority in a disciples' mind. Before He ascended, Jesus declared, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Mt 28:18) John wrote, "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right [power, authority] to become children of God..." (Jn 1:12) Philippians 2 says of the One who became obedient to death on a cross, "God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth..." (Php 2:9f) We don't honour His name nearly enough!
So Peter is crystal-clear when he answers the inquisitors' question, v10: "then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed." (Ac 4:10) The Greek verb translated here as 'healed' is sozo, which usually is translated "to save": in the King James Version 93 times "save", 14 times "to make whole / heal". Remember Jesus' name in Hebrew is a composite meaning "God saves", so there's a grammatical link to the effect that of course Jesus' name is linked to saving / healing. Peter could just as easily be translated as saying, "It's by Jesus' name that this man stands before you safe and whole."
Now watch how Peter goes on the offensive (that's often the best defence, isn't it?). V10, "whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead..." They're not going to like that - makes it sound like they and God were at cross-purposes! V11, Peter refers to an analogy Jesus applied to himself right out of Psalm 118(22; Mt 21:42), "He is 'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.'" You builders rejected it, set it at nought, discounted it, treated it with contempt: but this is the very unique and special rock God has chosen to make the capstone or cornerstone, literally the "head", most important in the whole construction. By their shoddy treatment of the Nazarene, the Sanhedrin had unconsciously been fulfilling centuries-old prophecy. They weren't going to like that comparison, either - made them the villains! But it was nonetheless true. The whole chain of events had the sovereign fingerprints of God all over it: it's just His style to exalt the lowly and lift up the fallen, while casting down the powers-that-be from their thrones (1Sam 2:8; Ps 18:27; Prov 3:34; Lk 1:52, 14:11). God is the UN-bully; the bully-breaker.
Peter's on a roll, guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would be giving them words to say in such situations - hauled before councils (Mt 10:19f). He goes on in v12 to highlight just how unique and special this name is. "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." No other human prophets or 'messiahs' were ever perfect enough to die as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice, or were resurrected to show their redeeming mission had been accomplished. Jesus is absolutely unique among the world religions in this regard; generally other religions are about works, "do it yourself". But Christians confess it's about grace, "Jesus has done it": life is a grateful response instead of a relentless grind.
Is Peter being politically incorrect and exclusive? Yes, but he comes by it honestly enough. Jesus Himself declared, "No one comes to the Father except through Me." (Jn 14:6) The New Testament is consistent in insisting there are not 'many paths up the mountain': "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men..." (1Tim 2:5-6) And the word "must" in "by which we must be saved" is not some translator taking liberty with the text: the Greek implies a sense of necessity, "oughtness". The author of the letter to the Hebrews stressed, "How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" (Heb 2:3)
Appeal to Jesus' authority has flipped the whole proceeding. Peter has switched from lawyer for the defence to Crown Prosecutor, laying the charges. History (the events of recent days) is on his side; prophecy is his star witness. And the evidence of the healed man is staring them in the face. Vv14,16: "since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say..."What are we going to do with these men?" they asked. "Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it."" Who's the jury? All the people standing around, who have known and had to walk past this beggar for the best part of 40 years! Robinson comments, "Actually Peter had turned the tables on the Sandhedrin and had arraigned them before the bar of God."
Park for a moment on v13; it hints where the apostles received their strength to take a stand on Jesus' name. "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." The council was flabbergasted by the uncowed, fearless boldness and confidence that Peter and John exhibited. Their usual victims were always shaking in their boots; not these men. These fishermen; unschooled laymen, without technical training in the professional rabbinical schools of Hillel or Shammai. Astonishing! Where did such courage come from? They "had been with Jesus." They had hung around day and night for upwards of three years with the Son of God.
Keep your devotional life regular, and fresh (not 'routine'). Add some variety from time to time; the main thing is to keep checking in with the Lord, opening your heart to Him, letting His Word and thoughts and desires seep through your soul. Spending that time with Him will shape you in His holiness and give you confidence when the world falls apart around you and threats pound at the door.
The apostles could not be bullied because they had learned to trust in One who was greater than themselves. Isaiah 28(16) tells us, "So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed." Jesus is the only truly satisfactory foundation for your life. You can rest in Him when the waves come sweeping through. We can respond to threats and intimidation not by bullying in return, but allowing God to work things out. Peter himself wrote later, recalling Jesus' example, "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." (1Pe 2:23)
One of the most inspiring examples of courage in the history of the church was the martyrdom of Polycarp, who was burned at the stake for his faith. The aged Polycarp had been arrested by the Roman authorities and brought to the arena for execution in front of the cheering crowd. The proconsul pressed him hard and said, "Swear, and I will release you.Revile Christ." Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong; and how can I now blaspheme my King that has saved me?" (Eusebius, Eccl.Hist.ch.15)
But sometimes Jesus' deliverance brings us safely through in this life, as in the case of Peter and John who were warned but released. Here's a more recent example. Sixty-year-old Foster Walker accidentally strolled onto the scene of a holdup at a store in Memphis, Tennessee. The gunman pointed a gun in his face and said, "Hand over your money or I'll shoot." Mr. Walker said, "Go right ahead and shoot. I just got through reading my Bible, and I've already said my prayers." The robber just stood and stared at him, speechless. He didn't shoot. Foster turned and walked out of the store, untouched!
Those who follow Christ have learned with Him to die to self and live a life of trust. In His name - and no other name like His has been given - in His name we find healing and safety. Let's pray.