Courageous Nobodies

Acts  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Acts 4:1–22 ESV
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
Scripture: Acts 4:1-22
Sermon Title: Courageous Nobodies
           Have you guys done anything fun or gone somewhere this summer that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you were in school? When I was younger, I liked summer, but I liked school, too. I liked the challenge of homework and being around friends. I was a good student, but I’m also glad to be done. If pastors go to school from the time they’re young, all through high school and college and then to seminary, they likely spend at least 20 years in school. Doctors and lawyers usually go for at least that long too. It’s a long time but there’s a lot to learn.
           Do you guys remember what the Bible passage was about last week? We started hearing about 2 men, Peter and John, who healed a man who couldn’t walk. Today we’re going to hear how some people didn’t like them preaching about Jesus. They wanted Peter and John to stop.
           But Acts 4 verse 13 tells us that as they watched Peter and John and knew about them, these leaders “realized that [Peter and John] were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” That doesn’t mean Peter and John never went to school. They would have gone to school when they were young, just like you guys. They learned a lot of the Old Testament part of the Bible. While they were growing up, though, it was decided that they weren’t the best and brightest, they didn’t have what it took to complete the rigorous study of being a religious leader. So, they didn’t go on to higher education and more schooling. They didn’t come anywhere close to seminary. 
Do any of you have a guess at what Peter and John did for their work or jobs? They were actually fishermen, that was their job. Sometimes that sounds really good to me! But while they were fishing, Jesus called them to be his disciples even though they hadn’t gone through all the schooling and testing. Over time, Jesus taught them and gave them what they needed to do things the other leaders thought only the most educated and trained, best and brightest students could do.
           Maybe you don’t like school or don’t do well in it as you grow up.  Maybe you decide you’re going to start working as soon as you can and not study all sorts of books. No matter how well or not so well we do in school, the Bible tells us by spending time with Jesus, he can use us for him and the church. We read in other parts of the Bible how we are to train ourselves spiritually, kind of like how athletes train for the sports they play, we train ourselves in God and in his Word. That doesn’t mean we must perfectly memorize everything but studying what Jesus did and taught shapes us and changes who we are. That training makes us more and more like him. I want to encourage you guys to do your best in school, but whether you’re a great student or average or you get discouraged, know that God can use ordinary people that spend time with him to do important and even amazing things for his plan.
Prayer for Children and Holy Spirit
           As you’ve hopefully picked up on, this passage is a continuation of the events around the healing miracle we read about last week.  In Acts chapter 3, the apostles, Peter and John, healed this man who begged every day for money at the temple because he was born crippled. We’ll hear today, in verse 22, how much of a long-time disability this was—he was over 40 years old. He wasn’t the only one impacted that day, though. When he was healed, we read how everyone around him was filled with wonder, amazement, and astonishment. They came closer to check him out, and then Peter preached about Jesus and his grace. That’s where we left off; let’s continue.
           Brothers and sisters in Christ, major league baseball hall of famer Yogi Berra coined the now popular line, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” He said it at some point in the 1973 season while with the New York Mets. The Mets’ season had not started out great; they had a record of 40 wins and 51 losses. Whether he truly believed his own words or not, he and his teammates’ optimism paid off. They finished the season on a 40 win-28 loss run, enough to lead the National League East, taking the NL Championship, though they lost to the Oakland A’s in the World Series in 7 games. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you can probably figure out that this famous phrase means that until the final horn sounds or whistle blows, until the last out or run is registered, the game continues. Both teams have an opportunity to win, even when it seems extraordinarily doubtful, a team could overcome a seemingly impossible deficit. “It ain’t over till it’s over.” 
As we go back to our passage, I think we can hear that in multiple ways. In one way, it’s the transition from Acts 3 to 4. We ended last week with everything seeming good and positive and people were happy, but then who shows up to ruin the party? Verses 1 through 3 tell us, “the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because [of their teaching]…They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.” We’re not told how the crowd reacted, but perhaps there was some confusion, even anger. People likely wondered, “Hadn’t these guys just done something really good? Let them go!” 
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” also speaks to a bigger event. Luke, the assumed author of Acts, continues the unfolding of events in verses 5 and 6, “The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family.” These were the Jewish religious leaders; this was the group known as the Sanhedrin. It appears to have been made up of members from the 2 main groups of Jewish beliefs that we hear of in the New Testament, those groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Much like we have our divisions over differing beliefs in the Christian church today, that was true back then in the Jewish faith as well. The common platform, though, part of what united them despite their differences, was that they were pro-Jews, pro-Messiah or Christ—God would one day send one, and as of recently, most of them were anti-Jesus. That’s who Peter and John and this growing church were up against.
           This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about these folks, though, right? If we look back to Luke 22, it was “the chief priests and the teachers of the law [who] were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.” All throughout his ministry, Jesus clashed with these particular people, and they wanted to put an end to him. Jesus was preaching something different. An increasing number of people were following him rather than them. The Sanhedrin couldn’t have that. Things fell into place when “Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.” 
Later in Luke 22, when Jesus was arrested, he spoke “to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders…Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest…At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them.” It was the Sanhedrin who determined that Jesus spoke blasphemy. It was they who brought him before Pilate and Herod, accusing him of being ant-Caesar. It was their shouting and deception that led to his crucifixion.
All of that was in the past, though, right? We can see this going back and forth in favor of the leaders and then in favor of the church. The leaders killed Jesus, but he came back to life, he rose from the grave—great news for Jesus’ followers, a bit troubling for the Jewish leaders who didn’t have a body. A few weeks went by, Jesus ascended to heaven, and those watching were told he’ll be back. Things still sound good for the church. Maybe not too bad for the Jewish leaders either. Hopefully things can blow over, go back to being in their favor.
The book of Acts starts without conflict. If we didn’t know the story, maybe we’d think the apostles and believers could live happily after, going on with their lives quietly. Things, conflict, was over. But that wasn’t the case. Jesus’ disciples would not give their master, their rabbi, their Lord and Savior’s ministry up. There’s this ongoing almost tug-of-war. Jesus’ side wages an offensive, they keep promoting the message. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the opposition, try snuff it out, to not let it do too much damage and deter people from following them. 
This is the first time in Acts, looking at the early church, that we find persecution—being publicly opposed in speech or harmed in various actions for one’s faith—was part of life for Christians. Our second point this morning is that: persecution is part of the life of the church. What Peter and John came up against is strikingly similar to what Jesus went through prior to his trial. Both Jesus and these men were seized and led or put away. Just as the Sanhedrin tried to get Jesus to claim his authority to charge him with blasphemy, so they asked the disciples, “‘By what power or what name did you do this?” They can’t argue with the results. They can’t say that this was all a setup—for over 40 years this man had been in cahoots with Peter and John, choosing not to walk so that on this day, they could allegedly perform a miracle. No, he had been healed! These religious leaders, who opposed Jesus and his mission did not get it, though. But as much as was in their power, they did not want it to get out that this was in any way connected to Jesus.
Persecution is something the church has and will continue to struggle with until Christ returns—that’s when it will be over. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus touched on it at least twice.  Luke 12:11-12, he said, “‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” Notice how verse 8 began, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them.” It wasn’t just what he thought might be appropriate; no, the Spirit was with him.
So too we read in Luke 21 about signs of the end of the age—wars, revolutions, earthquakes, other disasters. Here are verses 12 through 19, Jesus said, “‘But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.’” 
When Jesus came to this earth, he knew what he was going to go through. He knew that he would experience great agony in being a sacrifice for sinners. He knew that it wouldn’t stop with him, though. He knew it would continue to those who followed in his commands and the faith he taught. To some people that sounds terrible: why would God permit that? “He can allow himself to experience pain. Why, though, should others have to experience pain, even that which causes distress in other parts of our lives, even torture or death?”
It’s important for us to remember where this persecution of Christians of any time period—ancient, past, present, future—is rooted. In his commentary on Acts, pastor and professor Derek Thomas reminds us how persecution isn’t just of the will or mind or actions of people. It wasn’t just that the Sanhedrin members’ thought and believed the wrong things about Jesus, and so they arrested those who believed in him. Thomas writes, “In every instance of opposition…the work is that of Satan, attempting to destroy the kingdom of God…[but] we are never to lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is in control of his church.” Jesus has given believers the assurance of the Holy Spirit and assurance of eternal life, whether persecution is something we continue to live through or if it means going to meet our Savior sooner than we might expect. The disciples had heard it straight from Jesus’ mouth, “The gates of Hades will not overcome [my church].”
We have to be aware that persecution of Christians wasn’t just a Bible-time phenomenon. Every week I receive an e-mail from an organization sharing stories of believers in different parts of the world seeking prayer. This week, one of those shared how the terrorist group, Boko Haram, in some part of Africa, “kidnapped a Christian refugee woman in the middle of the night. They dragged her into the bush and stole all her valuables before sending her back to the refugee camp with a warning for other Christians: Get out of the area within three days or be killed.” Another request was for a church in Cuba, who the government “recently revoked permission for [them] to construct a new building.” Their pastor believers this is “punishing Cuban Christians for their rejection of a new constitution legalizing gay marriage.” I’ve been following a church in China that’s been targeted over the last year who’s faced many persecutions: indefinite imprisonments, physical and emotional harassment from police, family members being removed from homes and communities, worship services being broken up, and other distressing actions against them. 
All of this continues today. While we may or may not face these kinds of persecutions in our lifetimes, we ought to support those who do. In acknowledging that these things happen, we must continue to recognize: Jesus is in control. Jesus doesn’t want or need us to feel pain to make himself feel better—that’s not why these things continue. All these things that we hear happened in the past and are happening now are all opposition the devil brings against God’s church. In the end, praise be to God, his work is in vain. The devil will not succeed in defeating Christ!
Tertullian, one of the leaders in the church around the year 200, wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church…Those who see us die, wonder why we do, for we die like the men you revere, not like slaves or criminals.  And when they find out, they join us.” Something seen throughout history is when Christians are persecuted for their faith, the church tends to grow. That’s not a charge to hurt more Christians. That’s not to say true faith is just joining a club of dedicated people who are willing to die for a cause. As we’ve heard, saving faith requires the Holy Spirit, requires trust in the Lord, but persecution can be a catalyst for others to come to Jesus.
Our final point now: Believers must be with the Lord to stand against the attacks of the evil one. That you and I believe and can claim that we would stand against persecution, that we would not deny the faith, that we would not give in despite the threat of harm or even death is not about how strong physically, mentally, emotionally we are, how many degrees or titles can be attached to our names, what denomination we’re a part of—at the end of the day, each of us is a nobody. We’re ordinary people with ordinary struggles. When persecution comes, in the form of harassment, ridicule, or deprivation—how can we possibly not give in? 
Thankfully, as we heard before in the words of Jesus in Luke 12 and 21, we can trust and know that the Holy Spirit will help us in those times. Your response is not dependent on your assessment of your public speaking or debate or apologetic skills. It’s also appears that it isn’t dependent on each of our pain tolerances. It’s not about us—we need God’s help, his intervention. 
That shouldn’t nullify or lead us away from spending time with our Lord though.  The disciples, Peter and John, got to do that in person. They lived and walked and ate and discussed with Jesus, day in and day out, for the better part of 2-3 years. They had an advantage. But we’re not without help.  We have the inspired, recorded, passed down, and translated word of God. 
The Belgic Confession Article 2 testifies, with creation, “God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.” We confess in Article 5, “We receive [the Bible] for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith…For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.” Article 7 states, “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it.” 
The Christian life is not primarily a pursuit in being great readers of a great book, and if we aren’t, then we should be ashamed of ourselves. But God testifies to us in this book and through men and women who have believed in him throughout history, that this book holds truth that is for our good, our benefit, and ultimately, for our salvation. To endure any persecution faithfully requires us to know and believe the one who this book points to, the one who reveals himself through this spoken and written word. Out of all the ideas we can propose about who God should be, what he does, how he acts, we have no where else to turn and know as trustworthy but here.    
We’ve primarily looked at how Peter and John endured opposition and arrest, and how other Christians do as well. We have to remember it’s not about what these apostles had done. All they had to their accomplishments, their reputations was “that these men had been with Jesus.” What made them courageous or gave them boldness, confident and able to speak without doubt persuasively tying Scriptures to events was that they had lived with the man these leaders crucified.
We have to ask ourselves the same question, the same challenge I put before our children. If someone were to look at our lives today, our church body, our ministries, everything about us—could they tell something was different about us?  If they could, and wondered what caused the difference, would they conclude, it’s because we’ve spent time with Jesus? To go back to Yogi Berra’s line, is that how we live our lives of faith? In troublesome circumstances, when we suffer again and again, when it feels like our country or the world is looking less and less like the kingdom of God, can we say, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and draw our strength, our courage, our resilience, and perseverance from our Lord and Savior?   
We close with Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, “‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’” Amen.  
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