"Fanatical Obedience, Final Authority"
April 25, 2010 Acts 5:27-42
CHALLENGING AUTHORITY A POPULAR PASTIME
SHHH - Do you hear it? There is a spirit of rebellion abroad in the land. A low, subterranean rumble - not of a volcano, but grumbling and rebellion against authority. The apostle Paul makes a case in Romans 13 that we should submit to governing authorities, not just because rebellion is against the law and warrants punishment, but also because 'there is no authority except that which God has established' so the governor is God's servant in a way. Therefore, he concludes in vv5-6, "it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.This is also why you pay taxes..."
Ah, taxes. It is that time of the year again, for filing personal income tax returns. At one point in the process of preparing one of my daughters' returns this year, I was getting frustrated by the system - the provincial form was requiring her to claim thousands of dollars in education credits that were not needed to reduce her tax to zero. There was a way to adjust it in the federal form, but not in the provincial; it's just the way the forms are set up. That irked because it seemed unfair.
Other voices rant against government shortcomings. A flyer in the mail protests provincial measures which threaten the level of service we receive at our pharmacies. Also this week our own Blyth Idea Group put out a 4-page flyer calling for Township Council not to approve rezoning for the proposed new North Huron elementary school, on economic grounds. Not too long ago the federal government was severely criticized in the media for proroguing parliament while the Olympics were on - perhaps the media were worried they'd have nothing to write about?!
Challenging and criticizing authority has indeed become a popular pastime - it seems we feel WE could run the country better if we were just given the chance. But to succumb to such griping is to fall prey to Satan's tricks: the enemy loves to seduce us into rebellion and anarchy. Paul describes 'terrible times in the last days' in 2Timothy 3; several of these have to do with lack of submission. "People will be lovers of themselves...boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful...slanderous ...treacherous...conceited..." (2Tim 3:2ff) In another passage Paul associates the last days with the occurrence of 'rebellion' and 'the man of lawlessness' being revealed - a man who opposes and exalts "himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped", honoured (2Thess 2:3f). When we grumble excessively against legitimate authority (imperfect as it may be), are we unwittingly mimicking the spirit of antichrist?
In today's reading, shortly after the victory of Easter, the apostles find themselves coming into conflict with the religious authorities of the day. While they cannot go along with the leaders' demands, it's because they've submitted themselves to a higher authority - that of God's Prince and Saviour. But this authority isn't autocratic or oppressive: divine authority flows into the lives of believers to strengthen them and empower them for God's good purposes - blessing others.
WHOSE AUTHORITY? CONSPIRE OR COMPLY
Leading up to Acts 5, there are several incidents highlighting the issue of authority. The effects of the Resurrected Jesus and His agents, the apostles, start bumping up against the elevated human authority of the Jewish religious leaders - particularly the Sadducees, who guarded their Temple and priestly control with the carefully-cultivated tolerance of the Roman occupiers. In 3:13 Peter interprets the healing of the crippled beggar by saying [note the authority terms here] God "has glorified His servant Jesus...(15)You killed the author of life, but God raised Him from the dead...(16)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." You'll see 'the name of' referred to a lot, as an official endorses or authorizes an action by signing their name to it, as we authorize withdrawal of funds by signing our name on a cheque.
In Acts 4, the very next chapter, when they're hauled before the court of the Sanhedrin, what's the question they're asked? V7, "By what power or what name did you do this?" How does Peter defend his actions? V10, "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." And the famous v12, "...there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." So it's very clear to both sides that authority is what's at stake: whose name, power, the need to submit. Peter's making the case that the dramatic healing argues for the reality of Christ's pre-eminence.
One could say Peter now speaks 'with authority': v13, "When they saw the courage [or, boldness] 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." Hanging around with Jesus had helped them come to speak and teach with that same authority Jesus had which struck His listeners (Mt 7:29). A few verses later, when the officials command them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, Peter and John reply, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God." (Ac 4:19) Who's boss? Who's in charge, to be obeyed? Will you conspire and rebel against it, or comply and obey? That's the authority issue.
When Peter and John are released and the young church meets for prayer, their language shows they understand it's a contest between combatting powers or authorities. They address God as "Sovereign Lord" who made everything; they admit there's been a challenge to the Creator's rule by earthly governors - Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and people of Israel "conspired" against Jesus whom God anointed, marked to show as the Messiah or Christ, the Leader. They quote Psalm 2 where earthly rulers rage, plot, and stand against the Lord and His Anointed One. (We're in the season of Stanley Cup playoffs - that's a similar dynamic, who's going to win? Eventually only one's gotta come out on top.) 4:28 is just an awesome verse - "They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen." The church acknowledges God is the supreme authority over even such catastrophes as Jesus' betrayal, kangaroo court trial, and groundless crucifixion. Divine sovereignty prevailed even through the worst conceivable thing that could happen. God can use and turn even the evil actions of His enemies to His glory, demonstrating His supremacy.
Now we come to today's reading in chapter 5, following an intervening time where the church grows, deceit is confronted, and many people are healed. The apostles were becoming famous on account of the miracles God was performing through them. The high priest and his associates were filled with jealousy; when they have the apostles appear before the Sanhedrin, note how they begin in v28: "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name." (They don't even want to say Jesus' name!) Peter shoots back an answer that shows he's still very clear on the authority issue at stake: v29, "We must obey God rather than men!" And He adds that God raised Jesus from the dead; v31, "God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Saviour... the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him."
He says the phrase "Prince and Saviour" instead of "Lord and Saviour". "Prince" means "chief leader" - one who takes the lead, is a pioneer or author. Same Greek word as back in 3:15, "You killed the Author of life..." Can you get any closer to a term of 'author-ity'? It's an authority Peter and John are staking their lives on.
For centuries the Christian church played a key role on the stage of the Western world - not flawlessly, to be sure, as church officials at times became tempted by worldly power or fleshly passions. But Christianity was a notable force in the rise of science, medical care, explorers' initiatives to bring more people to salvation, the whole missionary expansion. People like Samuel Rutherford saw in Scripture moral imperatives to which political forces must be held accountable, hence the benefits of democracy. But for a lot of people in Western culture today, the church has faded from public consciousness or significance. Its authority has been eroded. What are the marks of true godly authority? Do our contemporary churches have the indicators of Christly authority?
One of the outflows of God's authority is boldness. In 4:13 the rulers saw the boldness (NLT) / courage (NIV) of Peter and John. 4:29, the church prays, "consider their threats and [what - protect us? Save our skin? No!] enable Your servants to speak Your word with great boldness." How did God answer their prayer? 4:31, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." The lexicon describes this word as "free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance." Do Christians have that out in public - or are we 'wussy'?
A second mark of authority is fellowship or unity. At the end of chapter 4, the believers are 'one in heart and mind'; they share everything, they sell their lands and give to others in need. "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own." Does that describe contemporary Christians - or are we selfish, greedy, materially minded, jealously guarding our glittery goods?
A third mark of acquaintance with final authority is fear. Appropriate reverence for God's sovereignty. In chapter 5 when Ananias fell down and died, v5, "great fear seized all who heard what had happened." When the same happened to his equally deceitful wife, v11, "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." Are Christians today characterized by reverent fear - or do we exhibit a blaise attitude, indifferent to spiritual things: "Maybe I'll go to church or - if the weather's really nice - maybe I'll soak up some sun by the pool or beach instead." And, with over 100 waking hours in a week, how many did you spend focussing on God's word and relating to Him in prayer? What's your percentage in an average week? Does that indicate healthy fear, let alone agape love? And we wonder why our prayers aren't more authoritative!
A fourth mark of New Testament Spirit-given authority is wonderful miracles. These were especially prevalent in the apostolic age, but they didn't stop there. Acts 5 notes many lives were changed and healed(5:12ff); the church in 4:30 asks God, "Stretch out Your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders..." Do we pray expectantly for those who are sick? Has church become ineffectual, boring because we've stopped expecting God to show up? As one person responded to the news about the tumour shrinkage in Yvonne's most recent MRI, "Prayer DOES work!" (Thank you to those who've so faithfully prayed for her.)
And a fifth outflow of authority is freedom from bondage. In chapter 5 some of the apostles were put in a public jail, but an angel brought them out during the night. When the officers go for them next day they report, "We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors" - but no one inside! Do you suppose it made Peter and John just a tad more fearless knowing they were backed by that sort of power? The ministry of "Caring for the Heart" counsellors could be one way God's still bringing freedom from bondage in people's lives today. However, on the whole, are Christians experiencing freedom - or getting sucked into bondage? At our pastors' gathering this week, someone mentioned the alarming number of young men these days becoming addicted to video games. Not porn (another problem) but the games. Rather than freedom, we become preoccupied by passing pleasures.
What is the source of God's final, supreme authority? How can we tap into again that sense of divine power that made Peter so bold, so persistent that the threat of jails and floggings and even death didn't face him? As Gamaliel said in 5:38f, "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..." Whence this unstoppable authority?
Peter anchors it squarely at Easter. Vv30ff, "The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead - whom you had killed by hanging Him on a tree.God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Saviour...We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit..." Peter had been right there, he'd even been part of it by his denial; yet he had also seen the collapsed graveclothes in the empty tomb, and met personally with the Risen Christ. Nobody was going to take that away from him or convince him otherwise. Same for John and the others. As Paul wrote in Romans 1(4), Jesus "was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead..." When we come to believe the Good News passed down from the apostles, the Holy Spirit witnesses to the truth of that in our own being. The authority flows from encountering the Risen Jesus. It was after His resurrection that Jesus came to the eleven disciples in Galilee and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me." (Mt 28:18)
AUTHORITY'S OBJECTIVE: REVERING HIM, REVAMPING US
Some rulers have viewed authority as a club by which to knock everybody else down. Sir Thomas More (who knew a thing or two about authority, being King Henry VIII's chancellor until he challenged his ethics) wrote: "Men desire authority for its own sake that they may bear a rule, command and control other men, and live uncommanded and uncontrolled themselves." Is God's type of authority like that, or is it different? What's its objective, purpose, or goal?
Why did Peter say God had healed the lame beggar? 3:13, "the God of our fathers has glorified His servant Jesus." 5:31, "God exalted Him to His own right hand." Within the Godhead, the Trinity, the Father glorified and honoured the Son, raising Him up so all creation and the heavenly powers might revere Him.
But our passage reveals other objectives of God's authority, objectives to benefit us humans. As Jesus told His disciples, it's not a throw-your-weight-around like the Gentile rulers who exercise authority; true authority or greatness in Jesus' realm means becoming a servant, slave of all, just as Jesus served by giving His life as a ransom (Mk 10:42ff). How does God's authority serve us?
Look closely at vv31-32, "God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that [very important! Preposition to a purpose clause - here's God's purpose or objective] that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him." Three key things there: repentance, forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit.
Why were the chief priests and his associates so bent out of shape over the disciples' actions? Why were they 'furious' to the point of wanting to put them to death? All they'd done was heal people, for goodness' sake! What's prompting all this fury, like the boiling lava inside the volcano spouting dangerous ash and deadly fumes? V28, "You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood." That's what really got them - their guilt. Every time Peter and John said, "You killed Him" - they felt responsible, condemned, they knew it was true. So the number one benefit God's authority provides is repentance and forgiveness of sins to deal with our guilt - all our past wrongs that secretly irk us, inflame us. How had Peter put it back in 3:19? "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord..." and v26, "When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to [ATTENTION! purpose statement coming; to what?] to bless you [bless - that's good! How?] to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways." Repentance and forgiveness so we're no longer locked up by our guilt.
Once our spiritual house gets its spring cleaning, there's a new inhabitant - the Holy Spirit (v23), 'whom God has given to those who obey Him'. 3:19 refers to this as 'times of refreshing' that 'come from the Lord'. It's because of God's authority serving us that we can receive the Holy Spirit, our Helper, Companion, Paraclete. Paul said the Lord gave authority "for building you up rather than pulling you down", or a little later he puts it, "the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down." (2Cor 10:8, 13:10) The Holy Spirit lives right with us to build us up.
And a final benefit we see here of God's authority is a sense of value, esteem, being treasured by our Heavenly Father to whom we're dear. See v41 after the apostles are flogged and ordered not to speak in Jesus' name, then released. How would you feel after flogging? Would you want to grumble and complain? Throw a little pity-party - make that a MAJOR pity-party?! Yet what is the apostles' reaction? "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." Why rejoicing - isn't that odd? They were so happy because they saw flogging as God's endorsement of their testimony, they were being accepted to be treated just like Jesus and the prophets had been treated. The language more literally is that they rejoiced that they were counted worthy of dishonour, insult, contempt, being despised; Bible in Basic English translates it, they were "happy to undergo shame for the Name." The dishonour was really an indication God valued them, invested them with worth as His representatives. They were living out Jesus' beatitude from Matthew 5:11f, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven [read: greatly God treasures you], for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Praise God for the authority which is ours in the Risen Christ - an authority to be bold, free, delivered from guilt, indwelt by His Spirit, treasured by Him! An authority that draws others to Him through us, building them up rather than tearing them down!
SEW ON FIRE
An example of someone who's seen God do amazing things to serve hurting people is Wendy Hagar, a mother of two who is a member at Glad Tidings Pentecostal Church in Burlington. Back in early 2000 Wendy learned of 40 needy orphans in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and determined to send them 100 pyjamas, mitts, and gift bags. But that's where the God-factor stepped in. She recalls, "It seemed everything I touched turned to gold.Everywhere I went, people wanted to help me." Gifts of shoes, pants, t-shirts, sewing machines, desks, medical equipment, and school supplies were left on her doorstep until her house was overflowing. May 1 this year, Sew on Fire Ministries celebrates 10 years of donating more than 165,000 gift bags to 90 countries and 32 Canadian cities. Wendy didn't set out to do that! But she made herself available to God, and He blessed many others through her. Like Peter, she's laying her life down to serve and witness. She says, "Our lives are like vapour.I want to be effective; I don't want to just be busy - I want to be busy doing Kingdom work."
The funny part in all this is that the founder of Sew on Fire Ministries confesses, "I hate sewing" then adds, "but the joy of giving is incredible." Sounds like Wendy Hagar has her priorities straight! The news article says her desire with the upcoming 10-year celebration is to give God the glory for what He's done. She adds, "If you step out in faith, He's going to bless you." Let's pray.