Let’s open to the Word of God, the fourth chapter of Acts, and we’re looking at a chapter that essentially is built around one single theme, the predominant part of this chapter running down through verse 31 looks at the persecution that came against the early church, the persecution that came against the early church.
The Book of Acts, as you know, is the history of the first church. It gives us something about the inception of that church, its birth on the Day of Pentecost, born in a miraculous display of Holy Spirit power. We then looked at the very early weeks and months of the church when thousands of people were being converted. By the time we get into chapter 4, the number may well have exceeded 20,000 people who, in a flurry of Holy Spirit regeneration, were added to the newly born church.
But soon into chapter 4, in fact, at the very outset of chapter 4 where we begin to get an idea of how many believers there are, we also find the first persecution. If I can take you back to the beginning of the fourth chapter, let me read the opening verse. They were speaking to the people: “As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. And many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about 5,000.” Men, there, meaning males. Add females, add to the 3,000 on the day of Pentecost, and those being saved daily, the Lord adding to the church as we learned at the end of chapter 2, and it’s pretty easy to get to a number like 20,000 believers.
They don’t have an organization. They don’t have structure. They don’t have a building. So they’re still collecting in the temple. They pose an imminent threat to the system of Judaism, which has already been assaulted by the Lord Jesus Himself whose name they all proclaim. It was that Jesus that the system and the establishment rejected and had the Romans execute. They had been preaching that He is alive from the dead, and it is by His power that the church has come to life and continue to grow, and it is by His power and in His name as one who is alive that they healed the man at the beginning of chapter 3. This healing of a man that everybody knew was a beggar, a beggar who had sat for a long time. Later in this chapter, it tells us that he was in his 40s, and much of that time, no doubt, had been a beggar and a very familiar site by the gate called Beautiful, sitting there every day, begging. This was a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb, so no doubt started early as a beggar.
The miracle, literally, was known by everyone in Jerusalem, added to the credibility that Jesus was alive, because when Jesus was alive, He was a healer. He was a miracle worker. Now, He was still alive, and He was transmitting His power through the apostles. The threat, then, to Judaism and the threat to the leaders of Israel was very, very serious. They saw it as a religious threat. They also saw it as a political threat. They saw that the impact of this movement exploding in their city, contrary to what they expected; they expected we kill the leader, cut off its head, and the rest dies.
Well, that didn’t happen. He did rise from the dead. The leaders knew that. They bribed the soldiers to lie about it, and now they’re threatened by the reality that not only is He alive, but He’s continued to unleash His power to draw followers, and even to do miracles.
So in chapter 4, we have the beginning of the persecution of the church, which is still going on today. I told you last time that current figures would indicate that there are about 100 million Christians in the world, right now, in this year, that are under persecution. And I’m not talking about those that are socially abused, or alienated. I’m talking about those that are actually under the threat of bodily harm and death. As many as 100 million. Well, all of that persecution which will continue to go on until our Lord comes, and even after the rapture of the church, there will continue to be an antichrist world in which Christians will be slaughtered far and wide. This persecution, all is launched here, and it is launched initially because it is a threat. The growth of the church is a threat to apostate Judaism.
Now, we’ve all known, I think, those of us who are believers who’ve lived in the world at all, we’ve all known a measure of alienation, being ostracized. We’ve all understood that to one degree or another. We know what it is to have to forfeit friends, family. We know what it is to be under pressure not to speak for Christ, or it might threaten our position in the world in some social structure, be it a job, or a school, or whatever. We all understand that. That’s part of the persecution. But the kind of persecution we’re going to see here threatened life and limb.
Now, to start with, I want to just kind of back up from this, as I often like to do to maybe give you a larger perspective on persecution. And by the way, those of you who are under persecution, I trust that the Lord will encourage you by the things that we’re saying in this series. Now, we have to understand that persecution is a trial, all right? Persecution is a trial, and trials are for our benefit. I know that is perhaps not the way we think of persecution. There are people, well-intentioned I assume, who are busy lobbying to get our government and other governments around the world to bring a halt to persecution, to stop the persecution. And while it’s certainly noble to call nations that are killing people to stop killing them, and nations that are threatening people to stop threatening them, imprisoning them, harming them; at the same time, it must be noted that none of this happens outside the purposes of God. This does not lessen the culpability of those who do it. But we need to be reminded that persecution is a trial, and trials have a positive impact. They’re designed by God to that end.
Listen to James 1. James 1 verse 2. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its perfect result so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” There is unmistakable revelation that trials produce a tested faith that yields endurance and causes a believer to be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
In verse 12, James then adds, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial, for once he has been approved, having stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” So there is a promise that trials produce a perfected faith, and an eternal reward. They have benefit in this life, and they have benefit in the life to come.
Peter understood that. Listen to 1 Peter chapter 4. First Peter chapter 4. “Beloved,” verse 12, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you. But to the degree that you shared the sufferings of Christ, that would be unjust persecution and suffering. Keep on rejoicing so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exaltation, for if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” There again, a fiery ordeal. What is this fiery ordeal? Well, Peter is writing a letter to persecuted believers, aliens, chapter 1 verse 1, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia, who were chosen. These aliens to the world system are under persecution. Verse 5 says they’re being protected by the power of God through faith. They are to rejoice, because now, for a little while, you have been distressed by various trials so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold, which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found or result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. There’s nothing more precious in this life than a tested faith. Nothing worth than wondering if you’re saved. Worrying if you might not be a true believer.
How can you be sure? You can be sure if you’ve gone through a fiery ordeal. You can be sure if you’ve gone through an extreme trial, you’ve gone through a great test. You can certainly be sure if you’ve gone through dire circumstances of persecution and your faith is rock solid, and it survives, and it endures, and it grows, and it is perfected. And then, you rest secure in the confidence of that assured faith.
Trials produce that, as well as we see in all of those, an eternal reward. So here are the writers of the New Testament telling us that we should, in the midst of trials, rejoice, that we should, in the midst of trials, welcome their product, their fruit their result, and that we should look forward to our heavenly reward. The apostle Paul talks about a terrible trial he was experiencing in 2 Corinthians 12. He says, “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. He said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’” Paul’s response, “If power is perfected in weakness, if faith is perfected in trials, then I will rather boast about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Then he says this: “Therefore I am well-content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with difficulties, and with persecutions for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
He knew that persecutions brought about spiritual strength. Persecutions brought about a tested faith. Persecutions brought a tested faith. Persecutions produced a greater eternal reward. He also knew that persecution was inevitable in preaching the gospel. Philippians 2:17. “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” If I lose my life getting the gospel to you, I rejoice.
Similarly in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. What sufferings is he talking about? It was all persecution. Beaten with rods, whipped by the Jews, stoned, shipwrecked, in danger from robbers, rivers, everywhere he went. Natural disasters, natural and supernatural enemies, demons. He found joy in all of that, in all of it, because in his weakness, he became strong. And as he became strong, his faith was perfected, and his joy came out of the confidence of a perfected or assured faith. He also had great hope for his eternal reward.
Listen, the world hated Jesus. He said that. They hated Him, really, with an insatiable hate that could only be satisfied when they had Him dead, and then He rose from the dead and continued to live through the apostles and through His church. And so, as Paul said, believers who follow after Christ receive in their bodies the wounds intended for Christ. We take the blows meant for Him. It isn’t that they hate us; it’s that they hate Him, and He’s not here, so they attack us. But it is in this sense that all believers who suffer persecution must view their persecution. It is designed by God to produce a perfected faith. It is designed by God to produce maturity, assurance, joy, and eternal reward.
In Mark 13:13, we read, “You shall be hated of all men for my sake.” In 2 Corinthians 1:5, the afflictions of Christ overflowed toward us. To the Corinthians, Paul says he was always bearing in his body the dying of Jesus Christ. He says to the Galatians, “I bear in my body the marks of Christ.” He even prayed for more, that I may know Him, and fellowship of His sufferings. Philippians 3:10. For the Christian then, persecution is a noble expectation. It produces growth and glory, and maturity, and assurance, and blessing, and encouragement, and reward, and is part of who we are. It is one of the privileges of our union with Christ.
Some of you may be saying, I never thought of persecution that way, but that is the Bible’s way to think about it. That is how the church learned to think about it, through the very revelations of Scripture that I’ve just recited for you.
Now, as we come to chapter 4 of the Book of Acts, the church is going to learn this. The church is going to learn the blessing and benefit of persecution. Those who were persecuted in the past have all entered into the eternal reward, and if they were here, they could give testimony of the glory of that reward. The sufferings of this world, they have learned, are not worthy to be compared with the joy that will be ours in the presence of the Lord. We have a far greater weight of glory awaiting us.
Well, the early church is beginning to learn this. And as chapter 4 unfolds, there are some principles that arise as we watch how they handle persecution. I’ve identified seven of them, and I gave you three last time. We’ll work on giving you the rest this time. One could simply ask the question: how did the early apostles and the early church handle persecution? By what means? The answer is here. First of all, we started in verse 5 to look at the response, and the first thing I told you last time was, this is the first principle of facing persecution: be submissive to it. Be submissive to it. That is precisely how they responded. When everybody gathered together against them and confronted them, they saw it as an opportunity to preach the gospel to the Sanhedrin. They wound up sitting in the middle of the gathered rules and elders and scribes of Jerusalem, with Annas, the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, two other of the elite blue bloods related to the high priestly family. All of them from that descent. They took Peter and John, placed them in the middle of the encircled Sanhedrin, and began to ask them questions. This is the first necessary response that the Lord providentially has brought me to this place and this is going to give an opportunity that probably couldn’t be gained any other way.
There was no resistance. That’s what we see here. It’s really an argument from silence. There’s no struggle here. They knew that even as new believers, that God had allowed this. They were content with that. They waited for God’s purpose to be unfolded. This is God plan. Everything they’ve seen has been God’s plan. From the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and then it was all explained that this is the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies, and they understood all of that for the first time. We see them pour out references to the Old Testament. For the first time, the apostles do that in the Book of Acts because they understand it.
So it’s all coming clear to them, the whole unfolding plan of God, and they submit to it. The second thing we saw last time, the second principle that rises out of this persecution is they were filled with the Spirit, verse 8. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them. They were beyond their own strength, like Paul. They were in the midst of weakness. They had no human resources. They had no one who would get them out of this situation. They didn’t know what they were to say, but they remembered the words of Jesus who said, “Take no thought in what you’ll say. I’ll put the words in your mouth.” That, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So there, we find Peter yielding up fully control to the Holy Spirit.
Now, that’s not just some kind of nebulous expression. What it means is peter didn’t try to operate in his own strength, in his own wisdom. In fact, it parallels James 1. You remember in the next verse, after we read that trials have a perfecting work, producing endurance in a completed faith, we read immediately after that, these very familiar words from James. Remember them? “If any of you lacks,” what? Wisdom. Let him ask of God who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it’ll be given to him, but he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind, for that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
In other words, throw yourself completely, trustingly on the power of God, which means: yield to the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the trial, in the midst of the struggle. So, we saw that last time, the necessity of calling on God, and crying out to the Holy Spirit to take over and fill your life, and give you the words and the understanding and the wisdom to deal with it. This is triumphant.
The third thing and last point that we looked at last time was, in the midst of persecution, boldly use it as an opportunity to present the gospel. Boldly use it as an opportunity to present the gospel. Verse 8, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them. And this is bold: “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man as to how this man is has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all of the people of Israel that buy the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by this name, this man stands here before you in good health. He, that is, Jesus Christ, is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” This is really so powerful.
How emboldened are these disciples? You say they’re essentially just in the church for weeks. The church is newly born. They’ve just been literally given the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. They received the indwelling Spirit. They’re filled with the Spirit. How in the world could they have such assurance and confidence and boldness? The answer? They knew all that the Old Testament had said but didn’t understand its meaning. They knew all that Christ had said but were shaky and foggy about its meaning. But when Christ rose from the dead, met them in the upper room, and for 40 days explained the meaning of everything, all of it came together in completion. Now, their theology is full, and rich, and historic.
Jewish people who are converted to Christ are the only converts who can drag their former religion into the new one. If you’re a converted Buddhist, you can’t bring anything with you. If you’re a converted Hindu, you can’t bring anything. But if you’re a converted Jew, you bring everything and you understand it, and that’s what was happening to them. They were new in the sense of New Covenant converts, but they had such a vast education that now all had become clear. They understood the plan, the purpose. There is Peter there in verse 11, rattling off Psalm 118 verse 22 to show again this experience of now for the first time understanding even isolated portions of the Old Testament. They preached the exclusivity of the gospel.
What did they do in persecution? Soften the message? No. Broaden the message to be inclusive, so no one is offended? No. They preached the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ and in no one else. Now listen, they start throwing around Old Testament verses, and they do this with confidence, and this shakes the rulers in the Sanhedrin. Verse 13. Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.
Now understand, they, like the rest of the Jews, had been raised on the Old Testament. They knew the content without knowing the meaning. But now, all of a sudden, with their teacher after His resurrection explaining it all to them for 40 days, with the Holy Spirit becoming an internal resident truth teacher, they are profoundly educated in an understanding of Scripture. And so, they speak with confidence about salvation in Christ and Christ alone. And this shocks the Jewish Ph.D.’s who are supposed to be the only ones who can speak with certainty. They’re astounded that these uneducated Galilean fishermen say what they say with such boldness, such confidence, and who talk like they knew what they were talking about. They’re really stunned by this. They obviously know that this is beyond what they should expect, and they began, end of verse 13, to recognize them as having been with Jesus. They were like Jesus. Confident, assured, authoritative.
Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, what shocked the crowd as He spoke as one having what? Authority. They saw the same boldness in the apostles they had seen in Jesus. They saw the same forthright fearlessness they had seen with Jesus. And neither Jesus nor these men had ever set their foot in any rabbinical, authorized school. And yet, they taught as if they had authority. Certainly, none of them, not Peter or John, or any other apostles, in one sense, could handle the Old Testament the way Jesus did, but this is what they were used to from Jesus. None of them could be as assured and as bold and confident as the omniscient Son of God, but it was very much the same.
That leads to a fourth principle. Be obedient to God no matter the cost. Be obedient to God no matter the cost. The leaders have a problem on their hands. They are looking at the man who had been healed standing with Peter and John. He’s still there. Remember? That’s how the scene started, right? Well, when Peter and John came to the Sanhedrin, they brought the man, the living illustration. They didn’t know what to say in reply. They were in no position to deny the miracle. There’s the man. Can’t deny that. They’re not in any position to question the disciples’ understanding of the Old Testament. They could’ve repented. They could’ve said, “We were wrong. Obviously, Christ is alive because His power is at work.” They didn’t. They have to figure out a way to deal with this.
So, in verse 15, they ordered them to leave the council, and then they began to confer with one another. They take them out of the room. They don’t set them free. They just get them out of there so they don’t hear the deliberations. And they say, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.” Does that tell you about unbelief? How stubborn is unbelief?
All right. The miracle happened. It’s a notable miracle. The whole city knows it’s a miracle. We can’t attempt to deny the miracle. What are we going to do with these men. This is a tough problem. Oh, by the way, there’s no law against healing people. There didn’t need to be a law against it ‘cause nobody could do it. There’s no rule against a good deed. And furthermore, Peter and John were popular with the people. How popular were they? 20,000 people by now or about that make up the church which, as far as they’re concerned, doesn’t appear as a church, but a mass movement against them by the populous. They can’t kill these men or they’re going to have a revolution on their hands. That’s not good. They can’t let them go, and at least they can’t let them go doing this, teaching and healing. They’ve got to come up with something, and this is the brain trust now of Judaism. So, they come up with a solution, verse 17, “‘But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.’ And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
That is the inevitable moment in persecution. Is it not? Every martyr came to that moment in the past. Every martyr comes to that moment in the present. We read it in the papers all the time. ISIS finds Christians, they bring them in, they say “denounce Christianity, embrace Islam or we’ll chop your head off.” That moment comes in persecution. Will you deny Christ? Will you deny Christ? You read the history of the persecution of the church, and that moment comes back again and again and again. They brought them in, commanded them never to mention the name of Jesus again.
Kind of an interesting little turn. The early believers had to be commanded to be quiet about Jesus; modern believers have to be commanded to say something about Him. We’ve come a long way from the fire of the early church, I fear. They still despise His name. They still hate Him, and they can’t get rid of His name, they can’t get rid of Him. So, they warn them. The warning implies some kind of threat, some kind of response if they fail to obey, to speak no longer to any man that name. What they mean there of course is public speaking. The verb is used to refer to actual public speech. No more preaching. So they put a ban on preaching. There are bans on preaching all over the world today. There always have been in the life of the church. So they threatened them with some unnamed retribution if they don’t stop preaching. A ban on preaching. I wonder how far away that is, even in our own country.
So how do they respond? Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge.” Boy, that is well-crafted, isn’t it? They might’ve been fishermen, but they were pretty shrewd. You need to make another judgment, gentlemen. Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you or to God. That’s it. You say, well, wait a minute. The Bible says that we are to be subject to the powers that be for they are ordained of God. Romans 13. The Bible says that we are to be subject to the king and all rulers, and to submit to them and be good citizens. First Peter chapter 2. We are to come under authority. God is ordained government. They don’t bear the sword for nothing, and we’re to be model citizens and not revolutionaries. And so, this would’ve been the time for them to say okay, we will submit because the Bible tells us to submit. We are to honor the king, and the governor, and those that are in authority over us. God has ordained all authorities for the preservation of life.
But that has limits, folks, when what men tell you to do is contrary to what God tells you to do. Then, who do you obey? You be the judge. Whether it’s right in the sight of God to give heed to you, rather than to God, you judge that. How did Daniel face that? Daniel was told: do not pray. Daniel answered that question, “I have a higher authority.” Daniel, by nature, was a submissive young man. He had demonstrated that in his training in Babylon. He was a well-rounded noble, accommodating man, and rose to a prime ministership in an alien country. But when it came to being told not to do what God commanded him to do, that’s where he had to obey the higher authority.
So what does someone do in persecution? First, you boldly proclaim the message that brought about the persecution, and secondly, with holy courage and boldness, you take your stand. You have, really, no choice. When the culture tells you you cannot proclaim the gospel, when the culture tells you you cannot read the Scripture, when society forbids you to name the name of Jesus Christ, or when society demands that you do something God forbids like allow homosexual marriage. That is an oxymoron. You have a higher authority.
Listen, they knew that they had a responsibility to government. It was Peter who wrote those words: submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every human institution. He wrote that. He understood that. But when obeying that government makes you a violator of Christ’s command, you cannot be obedient. You must not be obedient. You will not be obedient. Chapter 5 verse 29, it comes up again. Further persecution. Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” We must obey God rather than men. I say this not only to you, but to persecuted Christians around the world who may hear this message. When they command you to stop speaking the name of Christ, you cannot obey them. When they command you to stop preaching the gospel, you cannot obey them. When they command you to accept something immoral, something unjust, or something unrighteous, you cannot obey them.
Here we are in America, and some professing Christians have so little courage that the voice of their neighbors sound louder in their ears than the voice of God. The real secret here is the tribute once paid to John Knox. He feared God so much that he never feared the face of any man. Well, that was Peter and John. They obeyed in faith, leading the results to God. That’s boldness.
A couple of other things come out of this. Little dialogue here. It shows how opposite Judaism was from God, because they were put in a dilemma where doing what the leaders of Judaism told them to do would be absolutely contrary to God. Again, another way to demonstrate how ungodly Judaism was. It also let them know that their superficial self-designed authority was meaningless in God’s kingdom.
So, verse 20, they say it as clearly as you can say it: “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” That’s how John described his experience with Christ. First John 1:1. You remember how he begins that epistle? “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” Christ. We saw Him. We heard Him. We touched Him. We handled Him. The Word of Life. We cannot speaking about Him. This, of course, is where persecuted people have to take their stand. And if it means off with the head, burned at the stake, whatever it means, there’s no choice. Paul put it this way, 1 Corinthians 9:16: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” I bring judgment down on my own head. I’d rather be judged by man than by God. I’d rather have the condemnation of an earthly tribunal than to have the condemnation of the heavenly one.
We can’t. We can’t stop speaking about what we’ve seen and heard. We can’t. When they had then, verse 21, “threatened them further, they let them go.” Why did they let them go? Finding no basis on which to punish them, “on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened.” There is a mass movement going on. There are the people who have become true believers and are now making up the church, but the whole city, the whole area is electrified by this incredible miracle, and they’re all glorifying God for what happened. Doesn’t mean they were all believers, but they all knew it was a work of God because they knew the man, verse 22, the man was more than 40 years old on whom the miracle of healing had been performed. That means for decades, they had seen this beggar in his lame condition. So they threatened him, but we don’t know what the teeth in the threat might be, but they didn’t put any. They didn’t say we’re going to do this, or we’re going to do that, because they were afraid of this mass movement, this populace.
So, they just released them. If you look over at 40, it’s a similar situation. Only this time, they put some teeth in their demands. They called the apostles in, and they flogged them. They whipped them, and then ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So, the first time, they think the warning might scare them. The warning doesn’t scare them. The next time, they whip them and give them the same command.
That doesn’t stop anything. Then, as you know, eventually they began to kill them. But at this point, they do nothing. Verse 23. When they had been released, they went to their own, their own friends and family, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. They just gave a report. They had stood their ground. They had been bold. No threats could’ve deterred them. This is an appropriate response to being brought to the brink in persecution when your life is threatened.
Wonderful story of John Chrysostom, summoned before the Roman emperor Arcadius, threatened with banishment if he didn’t stop preaching Christ. He is said to have said this: “You cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” The emperor said, “Then I will slay you.” “Nay. You cannot slay me, for my life is hid with Christ in God.” “Then, your treasures will be confiscated.” “That can’t be. My treasures are all in heaven, where no one can break in and steal.” “Then I will drive you from men, and you will have no friends.” “You cannot do that either. I have a friend in heaven who said I will never leave you or forsake you.” Ultimately, Chrysostom was banished to a remote place on the edge of Armenia. And all he did when he got there was preach. All the time. So they determined they had to banish him further into a terribly obscure place, and he died on the journey. No threat could break his spirit, and no threat could take him away from obedience. Boldly obey Christ in the face of persecution. Boldly obey Christ in the face of persecution.
So what did we learn? Be submissive, be Spirit filled, boldly use it as an opportunity, and be boldly obedient, no matter what the cost.
There’s a fifth principle, a fifth principle. Bind closer to other believers, verse 23. “When they had been released, they went to their own companions,” friends, “and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” You know, persecution produces unity. Go over to verse 32. As this persecution accelerates, the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and one soul. Not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own. All things were common property to them. With great power, the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and abundant grace was on them. There was not a needy person among them. All who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sale and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. This is an incredible coming together. Persecution does that. It produces unity. They clung tightly to one another, dependent. The persecuted church is the united church because it draws its strengths in that corporate fellowship. Persecution inevitably produces unity. It forces believers to circle the wagons, to cling to each other, to hold on tightly.
Persecuted church, then, because expressive of its love. It becomes stronger in its union. Persecution then makes the church collectively strong. So, the fifth principle, just in that one little verse: “Bind yourselves closely together with other believers.”
Two more. Number 6, thank the Lord. Thank the Lord. When the message was given and they heard it, verse 24, they lifted up their voices to God with one accord. There’s the unity. And they said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is them, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David your servant said,” Psalm 2, “‘Why did the nations rage and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’ For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
What was their response? Just immediate praise to God. Immediate praise. They pour out true worship. They address God as Lord, not the usual Kurios, Lord, but despot. It becomes the English word, “despot,” referring to one who is the absolute ruler of slaves, the absolute master of all. They see themselves as slaves, and they praise their master. They praise their God with one accord, who is the creator of the entire universe, the God who has all of the rulers of the world and nations of the earth in the palm of His hand, the God who allowed them to gather against His Christ. And in their gathering, they accomplished His purpose, which was predestined. This is where theologians get the invisible hand to describe the providence of God, verse 28, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to accomplish.
This is praise. This is blessing God. Their response to the report then, is to praise the Lord, to lift up their praise. They recognize the guilt of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Romans, the people of Israel. But behind it all is the invisible hand of God, affecting His predestined purpose.
This is so critical in persecution, to see that this is part of a scheme, a plan, a purpose unfolding, that God ordained before the world began. Listen. This is where your comfort comes from. This is not outside the plan. This is inside the plan. This is not outside the power of God. This is inside the power of God. This is His purpose, it is His plan, it is by His power and His will. The Old Testaments prophesied that the world would gather against the Messiah, that the kings of the earth would take their stand and the rulers would gather together, and they did, and who are those rulers who gathered against Jesus? Herod, the Idumean; Pilate, the Roman; the Romans and the Jews. The world gathered against Him, just what is prophesied in Psalm 2, and raged, the Gentiles raged, the Jews raged. But all they did in their rage was what God had predestined to occur. This is where the one in persecution finds final, ultimate comfort. This is in the plan of God. That’s how the Book of Genesis ends, in the story of Joseph. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for God. Psalm 76:10 puts it this way: He causes the wrath of men to praise Him.
So, how do you handle persecution? Be submissive, be Spirit filled, boldly use it as an opportunity, be obedient at all costs, bind yourselves together with other believers, and praise the Lord for His purpose and providence in it all.
And then, the final note. Amazing. Pray for greater boldness. Pray for greater boldness. Verse 29. “And now, Lord, take note of their threats,” after all the praise and affirmation, then comes the request. What’s your request? Get us out of this.
No. Here’s their request: “Grant that Your slaves,” your douloi, “may speak Your word with all confidence. Give us greater boldness.” That’s the prayer of a persecuted believer. Give us greater boldness, greater boldness. Amazing. You are despotēs. You are the absolute ruler. We are douloi. We are slaves. We are committed to whatever Your Word says. We will speak Your Word with all boldness and confidence. And Lord, undergird that speaking. Extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant, Jesus. Undergird our preaching with more miracles, more wonders. Keep it up. And you know that that is what was happening.
If you go back to the end of chapter 2, we know that there were wonders going on. Verse 43. “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.” Scripture wasn’t written yet. They needed to be validated. They were validated by the miracles, and so they cry out to God: do more miracles to undergird our preaching. Give us greater boldness, and do more miracles.
Their prayer was answered fast. Verse 31. This is heaven’s response. “When they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the Word of God with boldness.” Verse 32. “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and one soul.” Powerful. Too many to number, now. Bold, fearless, undaunted, confident, courageous, trusting in the purpose of God. They are triumphant.
This is how to face persecution. The church, throughout its history, has demonstrated a similar triumphant character. We rejoice in the faithfulness of the saints because we’re here today because of that faithfulness. Faithful saints preserve the Scripture. Faithful saints preserve the credibility of our Christian faith. Faithful saints wrote the books illuminated by the Holy Spirit that explain the Scripture so that it could come to life through the centuries and be brought down to us. We look backwards and see many faithful persecuted believers, but we need to realize that there are many today living. There will continue to be many more in the future. Maybe some of you, who knows.
I was glancing through a book that just came out in the last couple of days called “The Upper Room,” which gives an account that I wrote of John 13 to 16. I was reminded of a little story I put in there about a young man in our church here who used to like to go down to Los Angeles and tell people the gospel. He was in the middle of Los Angeles, and he was at 7th and Broadway, and he was giving the gospel and passing out gospel tracts and sharing the gospel. And somebody came along and bashed him in the back of the head, fractured his skull, and killed him. Tried to save him by drilling holes in his skull, but they couldn’t. That’s a few years back. That’s how it is for some people right now in our world, and it could be our legacy in the not too distant future. But we can rest on the truth of the testimony of the early church in the fourth chapter of Acts, can’t we? What a great gift this is.
Father, thank You again for Your Word. We always say that, and we always mean that from the bottom of our hearts. Thank You for its glorious insights, revelation, truth. Be with persecuted believers. Use this message wherever it can be a help and encouragement to bring glory and honor to You through the faithfulness of Your persecuted saints, and give us courage and strength when we face the hostility that comes against Your glorious name. We ask these things for the sake of Christ. Amen.