Bullies and boldness
This week’s Bible reading is following directly on from last week’s. Remember last week Graham looked at the healing of the man born lame at the Beautiful Gate of the Jerusalem temple, and how that amazing miracle provided a platform for Peter to preach the Gospel to his fellow Jews. Louie’s testimony revealed how God is still showing his power today, here on the Gold Coast.
This week we’re looking at how the leaders of the Jews reacted to the healing at the Beautiful Gate, and how Peter, John, and the rest of the church responded to this reaction. We’re looking at bullies and boldness.
So let’s read the passage.
1 While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. 2 These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. 3 They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. 4 But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000. 5 The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest. 7 They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, 9 are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? 10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ 12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” 13 The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing right there among them, there was nothing the council could say. 15 So they ordered Peter and John out of the council chamber and conferred among themselves. 16 “What should we do with these men?” they asked each other. “We can’t deny that they have performed a miraculous sign, and everybody in Jerusalem knows about it. 17 But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” 18 So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? 20 We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” 21 The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God 22 for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than forty years. 23 As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. 24 When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—25 you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, saying, ‘Why were the nations so angry? Why did they waste their time with futile plans? 26 The kings of the earth prepared for battle; the rulers gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ 27 “In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. 28 But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will. 29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.
Do we see Christians bullied for expressing their beliefs today? Of course we do!
I’m sure you heard about how the Manly NRL club, known as the Sea Eagles, spent months preparing a Pride jersey for their team to wear, signifying their support for the LGBTQIA movement, but forgot to talk to their players about it. When their players found out via social media on Monday this week, seven of them explained to the club that they couldn’t wear such a jersey because it would misrepresent their beliefs. The club explained to them that they could either wear the jersey or not play: their choice. They chose not to wear the jersey, and Manly was left seven players down for a key match (which they could have won with those seven players, but which they lost—raising the question of whether Manly’s main focus is football or social justice. The club coach and captain apologised to everyone, including the seven players, but they couldn’t solve the problem.
There were two things that made this debacle an example of bullying. The first was the way that Manly’s leaders sprung the jersey on their players—there is speculation they were hoping to force them into agreement by not giving them a choice. But the second, and more important form of bullying has come from journalists and other NRL figures.
For example, Nine Wide World of Sports reporter Matt Bungard wrote on Twitter:
I don't want to hear one single thing about 'respecting other people's opinions' or using religion as a crutch to hide behind while being homophobic. No issues playing at a stadium covered in alcohol and gambling sponsors, which is also a sin. What a joke
It seems that Matt gets to define not only the motives of these seven players, but also details of their morality. That’s classic bullying.
Peter FitzSimons, not well known for his measured rationality, suggested that the club should sack anyone who refused to wear the jersey.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this bullying, and this merely two of many, many examples, is that the seven players were not refusing to wear the jersey because they were Muslim or Buddhist, but because they were Christians.
Just a couple of months ago a Muslim sat out a game because she refused to wear a Pride jersey. Haneen Zreika plays for the AFLW Giants team, and her protest was met with general support, both from her club and from the media. For example, Peter FitzSimons wrote about Zreika in his SMH column of January 28th, “Yup, here we have a young and relatively unknown footballer quietly telling her understanding club that while she totally supports gay teammates, she’d rather sit this one out because her own religious community is against it.”
What could explain the different approaches taken by FitzSimons and other commentators to Zreika and the Manly seven? Is it sexism, or is it religious discrimination? The tone of their attacks make it sound like it is very much the latter: religious discrimination.
Bullying of Christians who take a stand for their beliefs in a way that does no injury to anyone else is now an entrenched part of public Australian culture. I should clarify that causing offence cannot be equated with causing injury, and that choosing to take offense is an emotional reaction, not an inflicted injury. There are numerous things that modern Australian society advocates for that are morally offensive to Christians. If we chose to take offense every time someone did or said something we disagreed with we would spend our lives in a state of high dudgeon.
Setting the scene
Setting the scene
So, how did this first recorded bullying of Christians in Acts 4 actually play out?
The first thing to note is the people who were arrayed against Peter and John.
5 The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest.
The list of accusers is long and daunting. Basically every Jew who had any sort of power was lined up against Peter and John.
Later, when the whole church was pondering this encounter, they reflected on the opposition that Jesus himself had faced:
27 “In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed.
That’s an even more daunting list, since it includes basically everybody: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and people.
The church in its very beginning faced opposition from those in power and those without power, from those who recognised God in some form, and those who didn’t. This hasn’t changed. For us and our children it is distressing to face opposition from the mass media, from our coworkers, from our fellow students, from our neighbours, and even sometimes from our own families. It’s tempting to give up.
But remember that a conflict has two sides. The side opposing us is mighty, indeed. But what about our side?
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people,
When Peter responded, he spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t need his own weak words, and Jesus had promised him this months before.
19 When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. 20 For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Do you think Peter and John had thought back to these words of Jesus while they were waiting in the jail overnight? Their boldness suggests so.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him?
They certainly had a perspective on the conflict that was deeply grounded in their understanding and knowledge of God. They never forgot who they owed their lives to.
And when the church gathered in response, they, too understood this.
29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.
The key details
The key details
It’s tempting to look at these verses and think “our side is mightier than yours.” Especially since that is true. But that attitude is profoundly unlike the attitude of Christ who meekly went to the cross to die, despite being the Author of Life.
Notice that the response of the church is not to overthrow the evil leaders, like the rebels in Star Wars. Rather the church redoubles its good deeds and preaching of the Gospel—pressing harder into the great commission of making disciples of all men. Disciples, remember, are students of a leader, and you cannot make students by force.
The charge against Peter & John
The charge against Peter & John
Let’s examine the nuances of this conflict a little, to see how they might play out today, also.
7 They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”
Note that the rulers of Judah seemed to be afraid of the power of Jesus’ name. Thus their question was “in whose name have you done this?” They were hoping that they weren’t dealing with evidence of Jesus’ true status as Messiah.
If it were just the disciples who had managed the healing, then perhaps they could kill them. But if the Jesus they had already killed was behind it, what hope did they have? From their distorted perspective it must have seemed like an unstoppable zombie apocalypse.
The charge today
The charge today
The charge today is similar.
This week the new Senate president, Sue Lines, has insisted that she, as an atheist, should not have to follow the traditional Senate opening formalities of reading the Lord’s prayer (she didn’t seem worried about the Welcome to Country that accompanies it). Many have disagreed with Sue Lines, including her own party, but no-one has accused her of bigotry, or of denying Christians their heritage.
The self-confidence of the Christian faith, its vast contribution to the arts and sciences, the powerful witness of the church in society—the extraordinary amount of charitable work done by Christians and Christian institutions—is a frightening platform which strengthens claims made about Jesus. No other worldview or belief system has so much evidence in support of its truthfulness. Even enlightenment thinking, in many ways the natural worldview of Australia, is daunted by the power that Christianity demonstrates throughout history and the world.
That makes the name of Christ a threatening one to our culture today. To be honest, it always will be. In Acts we see a fledgling church, merely weeks old, and yet already viewed as a threat. We must understand that and expect push back, sometimes even violent opposition.
To be clear, this is not merely a political or social matter. As Paul says,
12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
So how do we respond? Let’s go back to Acts.
The church’s response
The church’s response
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, 9 are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? 10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.’ 12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
Our response, like Peter’s, should be driven by the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that he would give us the words to speak. And what sort of words are they? They are words that point to Jesus, and to the fact that only Jesus can solve our problems.
This exclusivity—only through Jesus may we be saved—is the cause of many of these problems. If there were many paths to salvation, then we could be much more flexible, we could be “inclusive” as our society so desperately wants to be.
And that’s why we need to respond like the early church, praying:
29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Our world is a complete mess. Our children are crippled by anxiety and completely unable to love one another in healthy ways. Their parents are consumed by selfishness and bewildered by how that has made their lives more miserable. Pride is now considered a great virtue, instead of a deadly sin. Our world needs healing, and we pray that God will stretch out his hand with healing power. We pray for miraculous signs and wonders to be done through the name of Jesus.
But I must sound a warning!
Given the great power that is on “our side,” we must be careful not to become proud. Pride is evil, and it prideful people inevitably hurt others. The church has been guilty of this far too many times in recent centuries. I cannot count how many people I have spoken to who want nothing to do with Christianity because of their treatment at the hands of proud “Christians.” When we see people as our enemies, instead of souls to be rescued, we will create enemies. When we think that the war is between us good people and those bad people, instead of between the forces of light and the supernatural forces of evil, then we will fail in our rescue mission.
This is the problem with the “culture wars.” We are not in a culture war. We are in a supernatural war. All human cultures, including our own, are fallible. We must align ourselves with God, not with Christian culture.
What is our strategy, then?
We have already seen how God can use the deeds we do in Jesus’ name and power, whether they are physically miraculous or socially miraculous (like orphanages and hospitals). We have seen how these deeds provide a testimony to the reality of Jesus’ power which then provides an opening to preach the gospel.
Now we can see a strategy for dealing with the pushback against this, namely all we need to do is continue to trust God’s power, to keep obeying him in deed and word, and to keep preaching the truth that only Jesus can save. We don’t need to mount a counter-offensive.
That sounds simple, right? But like chopping wood or cooking, it is only practice that makes perfect. So we need to get out there and practice!
Dear father, bend our hearts towards you. Let our ears be fixed on your word. Help us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, and focus on your rescue mission when they attack us, rather than trying to defend ourselves.
In Jesus name, Amen.