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"The Words of This Life"

MESSAGE FOR APRIL 18, 2010 FROM ACTS 5:17-26

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          If you’ve been following our series of messages from the book of Acts, you know that last week we examined Luke’s third summary statement about what church life was like in this dynamic period of redemption history.  Like the summary statement in chapter four, the one we saw last week in chapter five is followed immediately by an account of persecution brought against the church.  As we move through the book of Acts, we will increasingly see opposition to the gospel from those who hate Christ. Let’s read Luke’s account of this second period of persecution in the midst of which Jesus powerfully works for his glory.  Let’s read beginning with verse 17 of Acts chapter five. 

Luke writes,  17 But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the people of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.” 

This is a fascinating account for many reasons, not the least of which is this angelic rescue.  Three times in Acts we read of God supernaturally delivering his apostles from jail and two times, they were miraculously liberated by “an angel of the Lord.”   This particular account is interesting because, given the details of this escape, it begs the question, “why?”  Why did God send an angel to rescue the apostles? That’s not a foolish question when you think about it.  He could have rescued the apostles to put on display his amazing power, but if that were his main motive, Luke would have surely recorded more of the details of his deliverance.  Compared to the other two prison break accounts in Acts, there are virtually no details of the escape itself.  Compare this account with the similar one in Acts chapter 12. 

Luke writes, “6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him.” That’s great detail.  Peter is pictured chained to two other prisoners with sentries outside the cell.  This shining light suddenly appears in his cell—the angel strikes Peter to awaken him and instructs him as the chains fall off his hands without waking the guards.  They pass by not one, but two guards when, upon coming to an iron gate, it opens by itself.  That’s exciting!  That’s power!

But in chapter five, all we get is, “…during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said “Go and stand in the temple of speak to the people all the words of this Life.  Their escape, to quote one scholar, is recorded with “maximum brevity.”[1]  Also, as far as we know, the apostles don’t recount their escape to the Jews in the temple to whom they were preaching.  They weren’t told to testify of their escape—they were told to preach the gospel.  Evidently, it wasn’t important for the Jews to know this.  It’s clear from the way Luke tells this story, that God’s main purpose is not to display his mighty powers of deliverance which is clearly understated.  Also, it would seem to have made more sense for God to miraculously rescue the apostles if his reason for freeing them was to enable them to minister for several more days or weeks without another confrontation.  But the apostles are freed from the prison for only a few hours before being hauled right back in again.  God’s agenda is clearly not that his apostles be allowed to minister without further persecution.  They go out to preach the word at daybreak—(presumably, not a time when the crowds in and around the temple were at their peak), and they’re rounded up again in only a few hours.  From a strictly practical point of view, it also would have made much more sense if, when God freed them, rather than telling them to go back to the area where they would surely be re-arrested; send them to a more remote area where they wouldn’t be discovered for awhile.  But that’s not what Luke records here and that tells us something about God’s motivation for freeing them from prison in the way that he did.

So why did God deliver the apostles in this way?  I think the text gives us at least three answers.  First, God miraculously delivered his apostles as a gracious overture to the Jewish leaders.  It’s easy to think that God views these Jewish leaders as unredeemable--as though he has completely given up on them and they’re just waiting for their imminent judgment.  They killed his Son, after all.  It would be easy to assume that they were all permanently outside of God’s grace at this point and Luke’s account does nothing to elevate our opinion of them.  We know what motivated them to arrest the apostles.  It says the reason they rose up in opposition is because they were “filled with jealousy.”  The apostles at this point were enjoying great favor with the people and were very popular.  That’s why it says in verse 26, “Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.”  This wasn’t a case of the Jewish leaders doing a careful analysis of what the apostles were preaching and bringing them in because they had some questions about their doctrine.  They obviously didn’t like them preaching the resurrection, or in Jesus’ name.  The apostles were in clear violation of the Sanhedrin’s earlier prohibition, but Luke tells us that the reason they were arrested was because the Jewish leaders were jealous and were afraid the apostles were becoming a threat to their own power and popularity.  God and his will are not are not on their radar screen at this point.  This was about them and their position, their power.  They had no miraculous power—God had never blessed their ministry this way and they were jealous.

So, even though we see that these leaders were operating out of petty insecurity and pride, I think Luke also wants us to see that God is reaching out--even to these who murdered his Son.  The reason we can draw that conclusion is because these Jewish leaders were, according to what Luke records, the only ones to know of their miraculous escape.  God did this at least in some measure…for them.  God wanted THEM—these men, many of whom voted to condemn his Son to death, to see that the apostles of Jesus, like Jesus before them, were doing GOD things with God’s power.  God had placed his seal of approval on these apostles and one way that is seen is this miraculous escape. 

This was more about God revealing to these Jewish leaders that the apostles of Jesus were ministering with his full blessing and commission—Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and his apostles continue to perform his Messianic signs and wonders and preach his resurrection that vindicated him as Messiah.   A bit later in his account, Luke helps us see that this was part of God’s motivation.  After the apostles make their defense and are dismissed, the wise Rabbi Gamaliel makes this very point in verses 38-39.  38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” 

It’s clear that these events have caused Gamaliel to be open to the possibility that these men were sent from God, which is what God wanted these leaders to see.  It was this miraculous deliverance that prompted him to acknowledge this.  Remember, there were a few men on the Sanhedrin who became believers in Jesus.  Nicodemus, who Jesus met at night in John chapter three--was a member of the Sanhedrin and he ended up helping Joseph of Arimathea take down Jesus’ body from the cross and even prepared it for burial.  Gamaliel here, according to Christian tradition, also later became a follower of Christ.[2]   That’s disputed, but whether that is true or not, it seems clear that this act of deliverance was at least in part intended for these Jewish leaders.  If we find that notion to be a stretch, it’s only consistent with what Jesus has taught his disciples in Luke 6. 

He says, 27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  It would have been perfectly consistent for Jesus, through his apostles to reach out to the ones who put him on the cross.  That’s part of the reason Jesus miraculously rescues the apostles here.

A second reason could be stated this way:  God miraculously delivered his apostles to powerfully affirm the gospel they were preaching.  So much of the meaning of these narrative texts must be understood from what the author chooses to say and what he chooses to leave out of his account.  As we said earlier, Luke here doesn’t provide much detail about the prison break itself.  That means that the only words he records from this angel in verse 20 are important.  He gives a commission to the apostles.  Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”  I want us to notice two things about this very brief statement.  First, the fact that an angel of the Lord commissions the apostles to preach the gospel.  Why did he do that—they had already been given a general commission from Christ?  The Greek translation of the phrase “angel of the Lord” is the same phrase we see in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) for the phrase the “Angel of Yahweh.” And in the Old Testament, this always indicates that God himself was interacting with humans in angelic form.

The scholars tell us that though this angel of the Lord was not God in the same sense of the Old Testament, this phrase is used by Luke to pointedly communicate “the presence or agency of God.”[3]  His point is--God is re-affirming the divine commission Jesus gave the apostles in Acts chapter one, but he is specifically applying it this time to the Jews assembled in the temple courts.  Luke wants us to see that the gospel is so precious to God that he sends an angel of the Lord—which conveys his direct authority--to spring his apostles to preach it, even if it is only for a few hours.  When we asked the question earlier, “why would God spring his apostles only to preach for a few hours,” that’s the wrong question.  The very point Luke is making is--the gospel is so precious to God and lost people are so precious to God, that he is willing to send a special angel from heaven to miraculously deliver his apostles, even if this particular preaching mission was only for a few hours.  We see this same urgency from God in chapter eight when he does much the same thing.  Philip has been evangelizing the Jews when we meet in him in Acts 8:26.  Luke writes, “Now, an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down to Jerusalem to Gaza.”  This is a desert place.” Again we see an angel of the Lord commissioning an evangelist to preach the gospel in a specific venue. In this case, he wanted the Ethiopian eunuch to hear the word.

We know the gospel is precious to God because of the second thing we need to notice about the angel’s commission here.  That is—the profound way in which this angel phrases the content of the gospel message.  He says, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”  What a powerful phrase that is!  The angel, who sees people from God’s sinless perspective, sees only two kinds of people.  First, those who are physically alive but are spiritually dead.  Second, those people who are not only physically alive, but who are also spiritually alive in Christ.  And the agency God uses to make dead people live are “the words of this life” found in the gospel.  We must never forget how empowered the words of the gospel are to miraculously bring life where only death had existed.  They are “the power of God for salvation.”  These words bring life out of death.  Peter confessed to Jesus in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life…”  God has invested in words—articulated sound waves—the very power of eternal life.

God uses these gospel words, not only to get us saved in the first place; he uses the gospel to keep us saved once he saves us.  God must not only save us, he must keep us by his grace and he is faithful to do both.  Listen to Paul in Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  Let’s unpack that.  First, Paul commands the believers to live like children of God without grumbling and questioning, blameless and innocent, without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, shining as lights in a dark world.  The end result of that is--Paul would be proud that he had not run in vain, but that these Philippians would finish faithfully. 

In between his command to live like children of God and the final result of that is the means by which we live like children of God, being faithful to the end.  That is“holding fast to the word of life…the gospel.  God saves us by the gospel and he keeps us saved by the gospel—the words of this life.  There is power to both give and maintain life in the gospel.  This is consistent Acts 3:15 where Peter calls Jesus theAuthor of life.”  If God sends an angel of the Lord to miraculously deliver you from prison and he has only one command for you—to preach the words of this life, that would powerfully re-affirm to you the profound nature of your message and the value God places on the souls of lost sinners.  Luke wants us to see through this angelic commission to preach that God miraculously delivered his apostles to powerfully affirm the gospel they were preaching.

Finally, God miraculously delivers his apostles to demonstrate that nothing can permanently halt the advance of his gospel.  We see in at least two ways.  First, the apostles are imprisoned on the orders of the high priest and all the Sadducees.  These were the most powerful men in Judaism.  As we will see later in the death of Stephen, these men had the power of life or death in their hands.  On a human level, if they wanted you in prison, you were in prison and for as long as they wanted you there.  If they wanted you dead, you died.  What’s more, to break out of a jail of this type would have required a special miracle.  Luke calls this jail a “public jail.”  Literally translated, this means “a place of public watching.”  This was an intentionally public venue and people who were imprisoned there were on public display so that everyone would know they were being held prisoner.[4]  There were doors that were securely locked and according to verse 23, “guards standing at the doors.  Also, this wasn’t just Peter and John this time.  It was perhaps all the apostles.  In verse 18 it says, “they arrested the apostles and put them in public prison.”  Though no details are provided, surely it took a miracle to get the chains off, the doors unlocked and for perhaps 12 men to file out of a prison with guards posted at the door of their cells.  Luke wants us to see that these were significant barriers to preaching the gospel.

Yet, all of those barriers are nothing compared to the power of God.  It doesn’t matter how great the human authority is that imprisons you—the Sanhedrin doesn’t outrank the sovereign Lord of the universe.  It doesn’t matter how public is the prison, or how many people need to be set free.  It doesn’t matter how many guards are posted or how strong the chains or prison doors are—if God wants to set someone free, none of that matters.  This is so important for us to know today when we read of those areas that are “closed” to the gospel.  No area is ever really closed to the gospel because Revelation 3:7 says that God opens doors that no man can shut.  It requires far more of God’s miraculous power to liberate one sinner’s heart from the sin that binds him, than it did to free these twelve men from iron gates and bars.  The demonic powers that zealously watch over the lost souls of sinners in their possession are far more formidable guardians than these Jewish prison officials.  God is able to liberate souls that are deeply enslaved in sin and he will do whatever is necessary to free his chosen ones from their bonds—nothing can stop him—his gospel will not remain imprisoned.

As we close, let’s think about three questions.  First:  What difference does it make to us that God is willing to give these self-righteous Jewish authorities yet another opportunity to place their trust in Christ through this event?  For one thing, this appeal God makes to those who planned his Son’s death helps us diagnose how well we’ve understood the gospel when we think about his scandalous grace we see here.  If this causes us some tension—if it seems too far-fetched to us that God would be reaching out to the Jewish leaders, then we really don’t get grace very well.  We must know that we are not far from the Sadducees—there but by God’s grace I.  Second, it reminds us that no one has sinned so grievously as to be outside the reach of God’ grace.  Sometimes we know people who are just so mean or profane or ice cold to the things of God, we assume we shouldn’t waste any time trying to reach out to them or perhaps even pray for their conversion.  Yet, if God will go to these extreme measures to testify to the glory of his Son to these men who planned his death, then surely no one is outside of God’s grace.  Maybe you are here today and you think that what you’ve done surely must disqualify you from salvation and God’s grace.  Think again.  God’s grace is far greater than your sin.  And if you will believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay the death penalty that you deserved for your sin and accept him by faith as your Savior and Lord, God will save you, bless you, transform you and bring you eternal life—no matter what you’ve done.

A second question is:  What difference does it make to us that God would powerfully affirm his gospel message through this angelic deliverance?  We spoke to this earlier, so I will just touch on it again.  This account of God’s great valuing of the gospel message helps us see just how precious this gospel is.  So often, we take this for granted.  We must daily remember this and preach this to ourselves.  The gospel saves us and keeps us.  We must daily think about it and meditate on it until we are so filled with gratitude for what God has done, that we are filled with praise and worship for God.  God values this message so much that he sent an angel from heaven to liberate his apostles and send them to a specific venue to preach for only a short time.

Finally:  What difference does it make to us that nothing can halt the advance of the gospel?  Some of you might hear that truth and think, “Well, if God will get his gospel out no matter what, that means that I don’t have to share my faith with others.”  That kind of thinking should be foreign to the believer.  Any person who thinks such a thing, if they are genuinely a believer, certainly hasn’t understood the gospel very well.  It’s true that our disobedience will not keep anyone out of heaven.  There will be no one in hell who will be able to come up to you in the judgment and say, “If you had only been obedient, I wouldn’t be in here.”  As we saw from Revelation recently, those whose names are written in the book of life were entered “before the foundation of the world.”[Rev. 13:8; 17:8]  People will not be in hell based on my obedience, but I will miss the privilege to seeing God work the greatest miracle of all—making a dead sinner alive in Christ. 

More importantly, sharing our faith gives us a way to express our great appreciation for God’s saving work in us.  People who never share their faith probably haven’t internalized the gospel very well.  If we really, truly, deeply understood that we, who were completely undeserving, were saved by God’s grace, brought from death to life, from light to darkness, from slavery to freedom; we would be so profoundly moved by that, that we couldn’t keep from telling those we love about God and what has done for us in the gospel.  We tell our friends and neighbors all sorts of other good news—if we buy a new car or a new home or if you are going to have a baby or if you recently had a baby.  You are simply not able to keep from telling those things to those you love. Yet, with the gospel—which is inexpressively better news than those other temporal blessings, we are so often mum.  And a big part of the reason is because we have very little idea—deep in our hearts—what good news it is.  If we did, then surely you couldn’t keep our mouths shut—even if it meant offending other people.

That’s the rub, isn’t it?  We don’t want to offend people.  But surely part of the application of this story is--if God is able to miraculously break people out of prison--if God is willing to send an angelic being to re-commission his apostles to speak these profoundly powerful words of life—even if only for a few hours, he is surely more than willing—even anxious to either give us a thick enough skin to handle people’s opposition, or even better, cause the people with whom we share these words of life to appreciate and perhaps even accept the gospel instead of being offended by it.  May God give us the grace to boldly speak these words of life to those around us who desperately need to hear them.


[1] Bock, ECNT, Acts p. 238.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamaliel

[3] Longenecker, R.N. The Acts of the Apostles, Expositors Bible Commentary, Volume 9, p. 318-320.

[4] Bock, Acts, p. 238.

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