"Fighting God or Fearless of People?"
April 27, 2008 Acts 5:27-33,40-42
Things We Fear
Fear is one of the most basic human emotions. That's because we're mortal - easily injured; we don't like pain; and we don't know the future - so we can't tell whether the scary thing we think MIGHT happen actually WILL happen. Unlike the movies where you guess the hero HAS to somehow make it through to the end!
Stages of life present varying kinds of fears. These change as we grow up. First we're afraid of loud noises; we 'make strange' seeing different faces (I was worried our 10-month-old grandson whom we hadn't seen for a couple of months might do that this past week, but thankfully he still had a smile for us); as children we're afraid of the dark. Afraid of missing the bus (that was probably my #1 nightmare as a kid). Afraid of schoolyard bullies. As a teen, we're afraid of zits, having a face that resembles the surface of the moon; afraid our hair will look weird; afraid of making a fool of oneself at the big prom, or of flunking midterms.
When it comes to adulthood, there are fears of staying single; fears of marrying the wrong person; not finding a job, blowing it as a parent; fears that the neighbour's house is going to make your place look like a dump. As seniors, there are fears of illness; along with fear that you'll outlive all your peers and wind up lonesome. Those are all 'life-stage' types of fear.
The news reflects other kinds of fear. The Brenda Martin episode dredges up fear of corrupt officials that take bribes; fear of being locked in prison for a long time without a trial; fear of unjust conviction. If you'd been standing outside the Bell Centre arena in Montreal Monday night you might have experienced fear of the mob as looters and vandals caused a half-million dollars' worth of damage, breaking shop windows and torching police cruisers. On an international scale, high food costs are bringing fear of starvation: World Vision announced it may need to cut aid to 1.5 million of the 7.5 million people it supports because of spiralling commodity prices.
So many types of fear! What makes you most afraid - what would be your worst fear? ...Fear is linked to loss, injury or illness, something essential being taken from us. The Good News of Jesus however offsets our worst fears. It is a word of LIFE not loss. Scripture teaches that when we fear God foremost, all other things we may be afraid of fall into place. Proverbs 19:23 (NLT) says, "The fear of the Lord gives life, security, and protection from harm." When we fear and revere and hold God in awe, being in Christ we can know His peace even through the worst that may happen.
The Confusion of Misplaced Fear
There's no scarier place than being against God. Opposing God's plan brings grief because then you're not trusting the God who's not only Almighty but All-wise. In our passage today we meet some folks who go contrary to God thus end up very confused because they fear inferior things.
V17, the high priest (likely Annas is meant rather than the younger Caiaphas) and his Sadducee associates "were filled with jealousy". Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in any sort of resurrection; they believed the soul died with the body. They pooh-poohed the idea of angels or the spirit-world; they were materialists. In charge ceremonially, they enjoyed the status of controlling temple matters. Their attitude would be that this life is all there is; so you definitely don't want to be made to look bad in this life. Appearances, control, climbing to an upper station in life were paramount.
V18, they arrested and jailed the apostles. A jail back then did not have our individual barred compartments, complete with sanitary facilities. Instead, it was a large dark room with a single window in which all the jailed criminal-types roamed freely. If there was a single bench, it would be occupied by the strongest. The stench was overwhelming; a far cry from our prisons today.
As officials, they were unjust and corrupt, incarcerating innocent people for no crime. In the Brenda Martin case, lawyers for convicted fraudster Vaage apparently arranged his freedom by agreeing to bribe Mexican authorities with the amount of $500,000. Sounds like some corruption there!
V21, the high priest and associates arrived and called together the Sanhedrin, the full assembly of Israel's leaders. This was the Jewish 'supreme court' - 70 to 100 men, sitting in a semicircle, backed by 3 rows of disciples of the leaders with court clerks standing in front. Quite an impressive gathering. When you thrive on being the centre of attention in such places, 'fear of man' is likely one of your strongholds. I can imagine the high priest waiting for the prisoners to arrive, mentally composing his opening lines for maximum effect in front of this auspicious setting.
There was just one problem - the prisoners couldn't be found! Pomp and preening gave way to puzzlement, as the officers reported, v23: "'We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.' On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this." (Ac 5:23-24) When you go against God, prepare to be confused!
Then someone reported that the men they had jailed were actually teaching in the temple courts in broad daylight. V26, the officers didn't use force to bring the apostles "because they feared that the people would stone them". They didn't want to create an angry mob, like the one that turned against police in Montreal last week. The officials feared public pressure: the apostles were just too popular. Fear of the mob.
When the apostles are finally brought before them, the high priest complains in v28, "You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood." The apostles' message has been making the officials look bad. Aha - they fear public shame, having bad things broadcast about them (even if the stories were true).
In v32, the apostles' defence contains statements that are quite foreign and offensive to the Sadducees' established 'status quo': Peter and the others talk about Jesus being exalted to God's own right hand, the Holy Spirit being given to those who obey God. The high priest and other leaders can't stand this crowding of their worldview, which has no room for anyone but THEM at the top. V33, they're furious and want to put the apostles to death!
Gamaliel, a Pharisee, is also a member of the Sanhedrin. He's one of the most respected Jewish professors of the time (Paul was one of his students). He has enough objectivity, impartiality, and perspective to see how the apostles' affirmations are pushing all the buttons of the high priest and the other officials. He calls a time-out and asks for the defendants to be taken outside a spell to allow some cooling-off and breathing room. He recalls some previous opposition movements that fizzled and came to naught, thought they involved hundreds of men. But note how he summarizes the current situation: v38, "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."
What insight Gamaliel showed! The high priests and Sadducees were afraid of all the wrong things. Their fears pushed them to bully their way around, be afraid of what people thought, afraid of mob mayhem - to the point they just had to be in control, even if that meant fighting what God wanted to have happen. Because they didn't fear God, their other fears pushed them into confusion - for only in fearing the Lord do we find true wisdom and guidance.
Faith's Unflappability in the Face of Flogging
By contrast, look at the boldness and assurance evident in the apostles despite all the threats 'the system' can make. The apostles' experience in recent weeks had given them a certainty that they were following the Lord obediently, not fighting Him. V32 - here's their central truth: "We are witnesses of these things" - this is our experience, our reality which we can't deny. Namely, v30, "The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead"; v31, "God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Saviour" - Jesus is 'Number 1', not any human authority!
Add to this the events of the past day or two - being arrested and thrown in a dirty, stinky jail; then to have v19 an 'angel of the Lord' show up to release you, and confirm you. The angel opened the doors, brought them out, and re-commissioned them, telling them to go stand in the temple courts "and tell the people the full message of this new life". This new eternal life based on resurrection-power the Sadducees deny, but which makes life apart from Jesus pale and dark by comparison. To hear a spirit-messenger straight from God convey that - such vindication, such affirmation! "You're on the right track - full speed ahead! Let 'em have it!" The God who busts tombs, raises the dead, swings jail gates wide open, and sets prisoners free, is behind them 100%. What more could they want? What need they fear? As Paul put it in Romans 8(31,35,37): "If God is for us, who can be against us?...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us."
Clear Priorities and Crazy Perseverance
The disciples weren't pumped just because God could do anything and was behind them, by His POWER; they were excited because God's goodness shone through His greatness. Strong yet also loving. V31, "God exalted Him...as Prince and Saviour THAT (note: purpose conjunction) THAT He might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel." In other words, Jesus' exaltation - becoming the Father's 'right-hand man' - wasn't only for His own magnification and importance but in order that we might know repentance and be washed clean of sin and guilt, made acceptable to a holy God.
And see how the Lord shares Himself in v32. "The Holy Spirit...God has given to those who obey Him." God gives us Himself by the Spirit. The apostles long for the high priest and associates to experience the wonderful community and companionship Jesus promised in the Holy Spirit - John 14:23, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." It's not just about God's power but His mercy and lovingkindness.
While those who feared man and the mob were confused, the apostles who feared God were crystal-clear about their priorities. V29, "We must obey God rather than men!" Scarcely days earlier Peter and John had told the leaders in 4:19f, "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." It was a 'must', a 'got to', because God was in it!
Not that it would be easy or painless for them. Their clear priorities were accompanied by CRAZY PERSEVERANCE. V40 says simply "They called the apostles in and had them flogged." What a mass of pain is skipped over in those words! The "39 lashes" was the maximum penalty the Jews could administer, because 40 lashes was considered degrading. Did they achieve their purpose? Did they succeed in intimidating the apostles?
V41, "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." Now there's a real oxymoron, a combination of opposites: "counted worthy" of "suffering disgrace". A paradox that what was meant to shame and humiliate actually brought joy and a sense of privilege instead. Boy, did that backfire! How does that work? Tear a man to shreds yet he goes away thanking God?
Knowing Jesus takes the worst that can happen to us and turns it around, making it a PRIVILEGE because we know HE is sharing it with us, sustaining us, giving a glimpse how much He loved us to endure the suffering of the cross for our sake. This is a common theme in the writings of the apostles, one that's poorly understood in our pleasure- and comfort-worshipping culture. John could write in Revelation 1(9): "I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." Exiled on a barren sand-spit because of his faith, yet he sees it as [NLT] "In Jesus we are partners in suffering and in the Kingdom and in patient endurance."
Peter had much to say about suffering and solidarity in his first letter. "To this [suffering for doing good] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps....Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin...But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed...However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name." (1Pe 2:21; 4:1,13,16) Hear how that last statement reflects what he actually DID after he was flogged?
Paul put it even more mystically: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Col 1:24) "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings..." (Php 3:10) "Now if we are children, then we are heirs-- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Ro 8:17) To the apostles, it was all part and parcel of being 'in Christ', suffering and fellowship and glory together were all part of the same ball'o'wax. In the suffering, they actually understood and related to Jesus' self-giving for them more deeply - and rejoiced as a result.
Words of Life Echo On
Whatever we fear today - whatever burdens or afflicts us - can be changed into an offering when we fear God foremost and trust Him to be bringing His Spirit's victory through our suffering. Perhaps you suffer in your relationships with other people. Bear with the shortcomings of your boss, or your co-worker, or maybe even your spouse (short of abuse) - be a witness to them, pray for them, show them Jesus through you (remembering Jesus also confronted when appropriate): "do what is right and do not give way to fear".
Suffering tests us, shows what we're made of. This week my brother found out the results of his lymph node biopsy: non-Hodgkins chronic lymphoma, along with leukemia. That wasn't what he wanted to hear; he'd hoped it was just a passing infection. Yet his wife told me that when he got back in the car after leaving the doctor's office, he said, "Thank you, God." Could we do that? Do we really believe in a tomb-rattling, jail-breaking God who can turn even such drastic news into new life? Do we walk with a Spirit who can sustain us through life's floggings and give us joy because we're publicly identified with Jesus?
On one occasion, following unspeakable sufferings in a filthy prison, missionary Adoniram Judson appeared before the king of Burma and asked permission to go to a certain city to preach. The king answered, "I am willing for a dozen preachers to go, but not you. Not with those hands! My people are not such fools as to take notice of your preaching, but they will take notice of those scarred hands." The scars - the evidence of suffering endured and overcome with joy - give credibility to the words of life. Let's pray.