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"Holly Boldness III"

MESSAGE FOR May 9, 2010 FROM ACTS 5:27-42

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          This morning we hope to conclude our study of Acts chapter five as we continue our series of messages from this book.   For the last two weeks, we have been looking at the dramatic encounter between the Jewish religious leaders and the apostles who have been preaching Christ against the wishes of these leaders.  When we meet the apostles in verse 27, they are standing before the Jewish council, defending their gospel ministry to the Jews in and around Jerusalem.  The lens through which we have looked at this encounter has been focused on the faithful preaching of the gospel by the apostles in the midst of opposition.  We have used their courageous example before these hostile Jews to see what we, by God’s grace, can learn from them as we seek to speak the gospel to a culture that is also strongly opposed to it.  Two weeks ago, we saw three necessary qualities for us to be faithful to speak the truth of the gospel in the midst of opposition.  We said we must first walk in the Spirit and live Christ-empowered lives.  Second, we must have a firm conviction on who it is we are seeking to please and we must keep Christ and the gospel the main message.

          Last week, we examined a fourth necessary quality and that is--we must have a boldness that will not waver in the face of opposing, false worldviews.  We saw that Paul pleaded for believers to pray for him—specifically that he would speak the gospel boldly and clearly.  We noted that a Biblically defined boldness in speaking the gospel is rooted in our love for Christ, our love for sinners and the unshakable conviction that the gospel we have to share is glorious and absolutely, unquestionably true.  As we placed the apostles’ defense of their ministry under a microscope, we noted that they possessed a relentless, unshakable boldness in the face of these religious leaders.  Every statement of the apostles recorded by Luke is permeated with a holy boldness in the face of stiff opposition. 

This week, we want to look at two more qualities necessary for us to be faithful in speaking the gospel in the face of strong opposition.  These two qualities are found in the final three verses of this narrative, beginning with verse 40.  At this point, the apostles have been dismissed from the council chambers and Gamaliel has persuasively made his case for the council to not act on their strong desire to kill the apostles.  He argues that the council should “keep away from these men and let them alone.”  His contention was grounded in his assumption that if they are not from God, they will fizzle out on their own and likewise, if they are from God, there will be no stopping them and in fact the council might find themselves actually opposing God.

          Let’s pick up Luke’s account beginning with the last phrase of verse 39.  Speaking of the council it says, “…So they took his advice, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”   A fifth necessary quality to faithfully speak the gospel in the midst of opposition is:  A radical love for Jesus that liberates you to wear persecution as a badge of honor.  Though the council listens to Gamaliel’s advice and does not kill them, the apostles do not escape this encounter unscathed.  They were beaten.  The method employed here is not as brutal as the Roman scourging Jesus endured, but it was no walk in the park.  It was done with a three stranded strap of calf-hide—and the one being beaten was whipped about the back and chest 39 times.  The point was not to kill the person—though some did die from the serious loss of blood.  The point was to give them a thrashing so severe that it would serve as a very painful deterrent to future offenses.[1]  Paul endured this five times from the Jews according to his own account in Second Corinthians 11.

          The Jewish leaders agree to not murder the apostles, but they would not let them go without a painful reminder that they didn’t like them preaching in the name of Jesus.  It’s irrational for at least two reasons that they would brutally whip someone who, according to what they had just heard from Gamaliel, could possibly be sent from God.  First, if they were from God—it would be wicked to beat those who represent him and second, if they were from God and therefore unstoppable according to Gamaliel’s argument, what purpose would a flogging serve?  This was clearly not a rational act, but a way of venting at least some of the Jewish leaders’ jealousy toward the apostles and of convincing themselves that they were still in charge of this situation that had clearly grown well beyond their capacity to control.  At the very least, they wanted the apostles to know they were not happy and that any further preaching in Jesus’ name might carry the price tag of a back and chest that would for days burn like fire.  In fact, every time the apostles moved the wrong way, they would for weeks be reminded of the cost of following Jesus.  This pain would be with them for awhile and the scars they received at this beating would mark them for life.

          The apostles’ response to the beating was not at all consistent with what would have been expected--especially in that culture.  The Ancient Near East, like most eastern cultures today, was a shame-based culture.  That means that one of the worst things a person could experience in that culture was to be shamed.  And there were few things you could do to a man that would have more raw shaming power than having them stand or lie face down in a posture of submission, while beating him like a dumb animal.  This had a de-humanizing effect that would have been a powerful deterrent in that culture.  The normal person would have felt unspeakably ashamed.  Yet, the apostles react more like they have had a medal pinned on, than being subjected to a painful and powerfully shaming punishment.  Verse 41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”  That’s exactly backwards from how the religious leaders wanted them to react.  This punishment was specifically applied to degrade their sense of worth, but they instead see it as something that ascribed worth to them.  What was it that allowed them to respond so differently than what was normal?

          Let’s look at two reasons from the Scriptures why these apostles reacted so differently to this beating than others would have.  The New Testament repeatedly teaches this truth that we see here so powerfully exemplified in these apostles.  That is—when you are persecuted for the sake of Christ, it is a blessing because you receive assurance of your external godliness and the eternal hope of heaven.  This is the godliness that others see outwardly in  you.  The reason this is so affirming is because the reason you are being beaten is because you are manifesting Christ clearly and those who hate Christ will persecute you.  This vindication of a believer’s godliness and the assurance of eternal heaven is spelled out in several New Testament texts about persecution.  First, let’s look at one of the promises the apostles heard from Jesus in Matthew 5:12 where he tells them that in the face of persecution they should: “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Do you hear both of those elements of external godliness and eternal assurance in that promise?  First, Jesus points to the fact that there is an eternal reward to come from being persecuted that will, by a thousand fold, make up for whatever pain they endured.  Second, he affirms their godliness by assuring them that persecution places them firmly in the same class as the honored prophets who came before them—“for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  When you are persecuted for standing up for Jesus, that places you in some pretty select company—the Old Testament prophets who were pillars of devotion to God.  To anyone who loves God and who has looked up to these prophets of God, to be placed in their company would be a tremendous honor.

We see these same two blessings that come from persecution in Second Thessalonians chapter one.  Paul is writing to these believers in chapter 1:4 and following, “4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.”  There he connects the Thessalonians’ willingness to suffer persecution as evidence of their godliness.  That’s what he means when he says that their willingness is “evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”  Their willingness to suffer for Christ was the outward evidence or godliness that clearly displayed that they belonged to God.  For the eternal part of their assurance, move to verse six where Paul continues, “ 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels”  Again, the hope of heavenly relief is promised when Jesus comes back at his return—which they assumed would be soon.

          We see these two blessings of persecution in First Peter chapter four as well.  Peter writes in verse 13, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  There’s the eternal dimension—rejoice now in your persecutions so that you may also rejoice when Jesus comes back.  Next is the temporal blessing of godliness.  Verse 14 continues, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  Being insulted for Christ is a blessing because these insults come from those who are offended by your godly character that can only be explained by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We see the promise of spending eternity with God connected with suffering in many places in the New Testament.  Hebrews 10:34 is another one.  The author says to these Hebrew believers, “32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. What enabled these believers to stand in front of their burning houses with joyful acceptance was the fact that they had awaiting them in heaven something much better than the things of this earth.  The apostles knew all of that—Jesus had taught them this and so for them—persecution meant infinitely more than a raw back, it meant assurance that they were living for God and from that—assurance like what Paul says in Romans 8:18.  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  That speaks of the glory that will be made manifest when the sons of God will be revealed in heaven, but the point is still the same.  That is—the persecutions of today can be endured with joy when your eyes are on the glories of heaven we will enjoy in Christ.  So the first reason the apostles can rejoice after being beaten is because their persecution gave them an assurance of their external godliness and their eternal hope in heaven.

History tells us that these promises we have seen in these texts have been a blessing that has strengthened countless saints over the past two millennia to patiently endure—with joy—persecution for the sake of Christ.  Think about this question and apply it to yourself.  If you were physically beaten or fired from your job or otherwise ostracized for speaking the gospel or in some other way standing up for Christ, would you find joy in the fact that your persecution is an indication that you are a genuinely godly person and that you have a future in heaven with Jesus?  Would those two truths bring joy to you in the context of persecution—a joy that eclipsed the pain of your suffering?  Would you be able to rejoice after being beaten for Christ because that treatment brings assurance that you are outwardly manifesting the godliness of Christ and will be with him in heaven eternally?  For the healthy believer, two of their deepest heart cries is first—to honor Christ with a godly life that can seen by others and which can only be explained supernaturally and second—to live with Jesus in heaven forever.  Doesn’t your heart cry out at times, “Am I a truly godly person or am I just a phony—a play actor?  Do I really love Jesus or do I serve him only because that is the way I was raised or because I haven’t tried anything else?”  Don’t you in moments of weak faith wonder if when you die you will go to heaven?  Everyone has those moments and  experiencing persecution for Christ provides the believer with a powerful opportunity for assurance in the midst of those plaguing doubts. Persecution carries powerful blessings for the believer.

 God uses a believer’s willingness to suffer persecution with joy to answer those questions in powerful ways.  Persecution can bring a level of assurance that cannot perhaps be experienced any other way.  “It is true—I do love Jesus more than my job or my relationships or my comfort—God HAS done a real work of grace in my life—PRAISE GOD and these scars I bear (whether internal or external) are proof!”  If those effects of persecution do not seem to you to be powerful blessings, something is not right, because that is precisely the way the apostles viewed them and enabled them to respond with joy to something that should have brought them shame.

Another part of what enabled the apostles to rejoice after having been flogged is in the last phrase of verse 41.  That is—“they suffered dishonor for the name.”  The apostles rejoice after this beating because they were suffering “for the name.”  In other words, their rejoicing is motivated by the fact that they were suffering for an exalted cause—the name.  The Name or Person of Christ was to them so vaunted, so revered, so cherished that to suffer for him was a privilege and an honor.  You hear veterans from past wars say that part of what motivated them to face possible suffering and even death was—love for their country—they were honored to serve the country they loved.  The love you have for whatever it is you are suffering for is a powerful motivator and believers have as their highest, most radically sacrificial love--Jesus Christ—his name, his gospel, his kingdom.  Mother’s—who we honor today—suffer countless hardships for their children and (in their best moments anyway) consider them well worth it because of their love for their children.  For the devout believer—what they honor above all else is Jesus—that makes it an honor to suffer for him.  This isn’t only because the apostles loved Jesus as a Savior and friend, however.  It was also because they understood that when they suffered as his servants, they were—through their suffering--being very closely identified with Jesus.  We read before in First Peter 4:13, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…  Do you hear how closely you are identified with Christ—they are HIS sufferings.

Suffering for Christ was a great honor for the apostles because they had seen him suffer and they knew that they were suffering only because what they were doing so closely identified them with Jesus.  The Jewish leaders were ultimately beating Christ when they beat these apostles and the apostles knew that.  That gets at what Paul means in Colossians 1:24. He writes, “24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” That verse has puzzled many because they wonder how Paul could be saying that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross were in some way inadequate and must be made complete by the sufferings of his people.  That’s not at all what Paul is saying.  The sufferings of Christ’s church could never redeem anyone and Jesus’ death on the cross was completely sufficient to save anyone who believes on Jesus.  It isn’t the redemptive sufferings of Jesus the church is sharing with him.

Paul is alluding to the Jewish understanding that the Messiah will suffer first bodily and then a second time through his people before the final judgment of God.[2]  We see this affirmed in several places in the New Testament.  In Romans 8:17 Paul writes, “17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  We must suffer WITH him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  This is why in Acts 9:4 Jesus asks Saul of Tarsus as he was ravaging the church, “...Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?”  Part of Christ’s role is to suffer through his church, which means that to persecute the church is to persecute Christ and if you love Jesus like the apostles did, then to be so closely identified with Christ that you receive his beatings, that is a cause for rejoicing! 

Do we have this extraordinary love for Christ?  Is the depth of my love for Jesus such that I yearn to be identified with him so completely that if I were to suffer his beatings, that would bring joy to my heart?  Does that describe the depth of love we have for Jesus?  A fifth necessary quality for speaking of Christ in the midst of opposition is to have this kind of love for Jesus—a love that is so deep and so extreme that anything that will assure me that I reflect his godliness; anything that assures me of my future place in heaven with him is a cause for celebration—not shame.  A love for him that is so radical that anything that will identify me with him will bring me joy—even if the cause for that identification is experiencing great physical or emotional pain.

A final necessary quality to speak the name of Christ in the midst of opposition is a faith that looks to God for deliverance.  These apostles knew that Jesus had called them to preach and they knew they would be persecuted for that.  Their Master had warned them about this many times.  They also knew that Jesus through the Spirit would give them words to speak in their defense—he had promised them that and they had just experienced his faithfulness to that promise. These “unlearned fishermen” had completely silenced these Jewish leaders.  They discovered to their great frustration that they were just as impotent to win an argument with the apostles as they had been with Jesus.  But the apostles also knew that Jesus would deliver them just as God had so many times delivered Jesus before it was his time to die.  They knew that they were invincible until it was their time to die because Jesus would deliver them and they received a miraculous deliverance from death here.  As we have seen, the Jewish leaders badly wanted to kill them.  But God used Gamaliel to speak on their behalf and dissuade these infuriated Jews from acting on their jealousy.  If it hadn’t have been Gamaliel, then God would have delivered them through someone else.

We know God delivered them from this situation because in verse 42 Luke concludes this account with “And ever day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching a preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  I think Luke wants us to notice that after they were beaten, not only were the apostles preaching in the open air in the temple grounds as before, they were also sharing the good news house to house.  This is the first time Luke mentions this.  That means that the beating they received only made the apostles more zealous to share the good news.  They broadened their gospel ministry venue to include evangelistic house calls.  The beating by the Jewish leaders only released more oxygen into the already blazing inferno of Holy Spirit-ignited, apostolic zeal.  They knew God would deliver them if they were arrested again.  And when it was time for them to die for Jesus, then they could exemplify with their martyrdom the truth of Psalm 63:3—“Your steadfast love is better than life.”

As we come to the end of chapter five and the powerful example these apostles leave us in what is necessary to speak boldly for Christ amid opposition—how do we compare with their example?  They walked in the Spirit and had Christ-empowered lives.  They were firmly convinced of who they had been sent to please.  They kept Christ and the gospel the main message.  They had a boldness that was unwavering in the face of false worldviews.  They had a radical love for Jesus that enabled them to wear persecution as a badge of honor and they steadfastly believed God would deliver them from all danger.  Do you see this grace of holy boldness in your life?  May God impart to each one of us individually and our church corporately these necessary qualities so that we may, by his grace speak effectively and often of Christ in the midst of opposition.

[1] Bock, ECNT, Acts, p. 252.

[2] Carson, D.A.  New Bible Commentary—21st Edition  electronic version


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