The Joy of Passing the Test

March 12, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor

Acts 5:17-42

In Acts 5:7-42, Peter and the apostles defied the warning of the Sanhedrin to cease talking about Jesus, and taught the Gospel openly in the temple. They even were empowered by the Holy Spirit to brazenly remind the Jewish priests of “hanging him [Jesus] on a tree” (Acts 5:30). When we in our own lives face tests of resistance to the Gospel, how do we respond?

 

Thoughts to consider when facing resistance:

 

  1. God often protects His people.

The apostles were freed from jail by an angel (Acts 5:19) and from possible death by the moderate teachings of Gamaliel (Acts 5:33-39). They were released with a flogging (Acts 5:40), but in all circumstances the apostles had one response: sharing the Good News of Jesus (Acts 5:31,42). They chose to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They truly showed that they could walk through fearful threats from others, with a loving God who often protects His people. The apostles were willing to risk their comfort, their reputations, and their lives for the expansion of the Gospel.

 

  1. God always protects the Gospel.

The apostles’ response to threats and even flogging, was not fear, anger, questioning God, rhetoric against it, or vengeance. Instead it was “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” [Jesus] (Acts 5:41). Nowhere here, or elsewhere in the New Testament, are we told to demand our rights. Instead, the NT response to injustice is joy! Always, we know that our Father is watching over us and working for us.

Why joy when apostles facing resistance?

  1. They passed the test – showing their quality as worthy followers of Jesus Christ.

If we can get past the fear of resistance, we just might find an opportunity to speak up and represent the Gospel of Jesus.

  1. The Gospel continued. – with no disciple backing out, spreading the Gospel in the temple (Acts 5:42) and eventually to the whole world.

As John Ulrich’s former Muslim friend exclaims, “The Gospel is worth it.” The opportunity of sharing the Gospel of our repentance & our sovereign God’s forgiveness (which opens us to personal transformation and eternal life), is worth facing discomfort and even personal suffering. May we recognize resistance to the Gospel through the leading of the Holy Spirit, and lean into/embrace the opportunities and joys of testing.

Discussion Questions

  1. Has the Gospel always been good news to you?
  2. What opportunities have you experienced in your life recently to share the Gospel? How did you respond?
  3. When joy is not your first response to resistance to the Gospel, how do you get there? Can you prepare? (Resources: Daniel 3:17-18, Matthew 5:10-11)
  4. What has transformed Peter and the apostles into courageous, focused, powerful leaders who openly shared the Gospel? Can this happen to us? How?
  5. If the Gospel is more important than our physical safety, why does God so often protect us anyway?

Introduction

This is my friend Jim Steele. Jim is the one without red hair!. As you can see from the photo, Jim is not a superhero or a government agent even though his name sounds like it! He’s an ordinary guy. Jim was a farmer in a little town in Zimbabwe called Chinhoyi. He was also an elder at the Presbyterian Church there and a Gideon – one of those guys that pass out Bibles to people. Jim was just an ordinary guy – an ordinary Christian. But when we had been in Zimbabwe for about four years, Jim faced a test. This was during an incredibly tumultuous racial and political time in Zimbabwe. The government was stirring up mobs to seize farms that were owned by whites. There was violence and unrest throughout much of the country. At a point, that unrest came to the town of Chinhoyi. The Government listed some farms for seizure, the crowds came on, and when 14 of Jim’s fellow farmers refused to leave, they were arrested and thrown in jail.

Now a Zimbabwean jail is not a nice place to be. Jim decided to do the right thing and give these guys a visit to encourage them. He brought blankets and Bibles for each of them to the jail. That’s when the test occurred. When Jim showed up at the jail with his blankets and Bibles in hand, rather than allowing him to visit those farmers – for reasons that were not clear – the police arrested Jim and threw Jim in jail along with them. Now, here Jim is with his blankets and Bibles in jail. He is in a racially charged, violent atmosphere. There are 27 guys in one cell – so many that they had to sleep in shifts – half of them laying side by side in the middle of the cell – and half of them standing around the outside. Half of them are white, and half are black.

Now let me ask you a question: How would you respond if a test like that came? How would you respond if you were unjustly imprisoned for bringing blankets and Bibles to help people? How would you respond when it cost you to follow Jesus? What would you do? Would you demand your rights? Lawyer up? Stage a protest? Would you be fearful? Keep your head down and get through it? Would you question God for allowing that to happen to you? How do you think you would you respond?

I can tell you how Jim responded: Jim responded with Joy. Where other people would have seen danger and a disaster, Jim just saw a big opportunity: The captive audience he had always wanted!  He and one of the black prisoners convinced everyone that they would have to work together. They made a plan for sleeping. Then Jim started an extended Bible study! By the time they were released, the whole group was singing hymns together. Jim responded to the test with joy!

Let me ask you that question again: How would you respond if a test came? How would you respond if it suddenly cost you to follow Jesus? I guess in all honesty the question isn’t just “How would you respond?” The question really is “How do you respond?” Because whether we recognize it or not, we all face tests. Hopefully, we’re not going to get thrown into jail. But all of us – whether we are a teenager at school – or an employee in the workplace – or family member talking to other family members – all of us face moments of testing: moments where we might be tempted not to obey – or to hide our faith – or even to be ashamed of Jesus. We all face moments of testing.

In our study of Acts today we come to a place where the Apostles face a test. A moment where – for the first time in Acts – real pain is involved and where circumstances might tempt them to stop talking about the gospel. How will they respond?

Today we’re going to look at the story of the Apostles being imprisoned, released and beaten. As we look at this story, here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to look at this story in terms of God’s protection. We’ll have just two points today, that both relate to God’s protection. Ultimately, we will talk about this issue of the test and how we respond to these moments of testing in our lives.

Here is my prayer today: It is that you will recognize the moments of testing that you face, no matter what they are – that you will embrace the test in that moment – and that you will find the joy of passing the test – in your life. That’s my prayer.

To bring us up to speed with the story of Acts, here is what has happened so far: Peter and John healed a lame man at the temple in the name of Jesus. As a result of that, they began to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the thousands of people that had gathered there and several believed.

The religious authorities – the guys that had gotten Jesus crucified – did not like this one bit. They arrested Peter and John, put them on trial, and commanded that they no longer do things in the name of Jesus. They warned them that there would be consequences if they did. We noted that this was a real threat, because the incident had occurred at the Jewish temple – the one place where the Romans had given the Jewish leaders the right to punish, imprison, and even kill people for misbehaving. There was this incident, and they were warned at the temple.

Now after that incident, Peter and John were released. Then Luke changes scenes and tells us the inside-the-church story that we looked at last week, where God protects the church by judging Ananias and Saphira. At the end of last week’s passage, Luke began to switch back to this bigger, outside-the-church perspective. Look at what he tells us in 5:12: The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.

Now that verse kind of slipped right by us last week, but it’s actually significant. I will give you a special prize if anyone can tell me where Solomon’s colonnade is. We’re back at the temple – right where they told the Apostles not to go. They are doing things in the name of Jesus again, and the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully. That’s where our story starts this week:

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin – the full assembly of the elders of Israel – and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this.
Then someone came (let me say this is the guy you do not want to be! )and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
– Acts 5:17-26

I hope you can appreciate the comedic irony of this scene: They arrest the Apostles for preaching Jesus in the temple, an angel releases them, the Saducees and religious authorities can’t find them, and it’s because they are not in jail, they are back preaching at the temple. This had to be exhausting for the religious authorities. It’s like a giant game of whack-a-mole! Only the Apostles keep coming up at the same place! It’s doubly funny because the Saducees don’t believe in angels! Tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor: “Let’s see – how am I going to bust these guys out – I could use an earthquake – Nah – I’ll send an angel!”

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
– Acts 5:27-32

The Saducees say “You guys are making it look like we killed Jesus!” Because they didn’t actually kill him – since the blasphemy that got Jesus crucified didn’t happen at the temple, the Religious Authorities had to get the Romans to do the actual execution. They are saying “You’re making it look like we killed Jesus!” Peter says “You DID kill Jesus. You condemned him, and now God has raised him from the dead, and called you to repent and we’re here to remind you of that.

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men (the apostles) be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the council: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
– Acts 5:33-42

Wow! These guys are like energizer bunnies for Jesus. They are constantly testifying about him and his resurrection, and they pass the test. What do we learn from this story about these moments of testing – these moments where there is danger or cost in following Jesus? Let me show you two things. The first is this:

God Often Protects his People

This passage should be a comfort to us, when it looks like it’s going to cost us to follow Jesus.

  • When it looks like it is going to cost us dearly to follow him
  • When it looks like it’s going to cost us some popularity
  • When it looks like it’s going to cost us a relationship that we really want to hold on to
  • When it looks like it going to cost us a promotion or a job
  • When it looks like it might bring us into actual danger like Jesus might call us to go someplace we don’t want to go if we follow him
    This passage should be a comfort, because it shows us that God often protects his people.

Think about the story of Acts with me. Think about all the threats that God’s people have faced –  going into Jerusalem – the city where Jesus was crucified. Being arrested and threatened in chapter 4 when they healed the lame man – the impurity in the church and the damage that could have done to the Apostles leadership – we saw that last week. Here they get arrested again. Only this time it’s bigger. This time it’s not just Peter and John. It’s all of the Apostles. This time they don’t just hold them overnight. Luke tells us they throw them in the public prison. The authorities are making a statement. This time it’s a big, pre-meditated, formal hearing with all of Israel’s religious authorities. The Apostles have faced a lot of threats.

Now think about their response: They have one response, no matter what happens, and it’s this: “We’re going to talk about Jesus.”

  • We’re throwing you in jail! OK – we’re just going to talk about Jesus.
  • We’re going to warn you not to talk about Jesus! OK – we’re just going to talk about Jesus.
  • We’re going to beat you: OK – we’re going to cry, but we’ll cry about Jesus!

One Response! It’s like the fisherman that always exaggerated no matter what! It was always “I caught a fish this big!” Finally, the village got so sick of it, that when he came back in on the boat, they handcuffed him so he could do this. Someone said “How big is your fish now?” He thought for a minute, and said “the eye was this big”: One response!

Now think of all the means that God used to protect the Apostles: In Chapter 4, he used the presence of the man they had healed. Since he was with them, the authorities couldn’t accuse them of sorcery. In Chapter 5, God used judgment – striking Ananias and Saphira dead. Think about our story: God used an angel. He used the crowd. Did you notice it said they had to treat them gently because of the crowd. He used a Pharisee – an opponent of the Apostles – to protect them. Gamaliel makes this speech before the council – and trust me – Gamaliel was no friend of the church. He trained Saul, who imprisoned and killed lots of Christians.

Here’s the point: God is sovereign. He has several weapons at his disposal. And most of the time, he protects his people. He has ways of doing that that we would never think of. Do you think the Apostles were going “Well – if we get arrested, God can always send an angel to release us.” – No!  Were they going “Maybe one of the Pharisees will stand up for us in the Sanhedrin” – No! God can protect his people in ways that we could never anticipate, so we don’t have to live in fear. God often protects his people.

Can I ask you a question? How much more would you obey Jesus – how much more would you live for Jesus – how much more would you talk about Jesus – if you really knew that God was going to protect you? How much more would we be like the Apostles if we believed that?

Think about it – how would our relationships change? Kelley and I watched a movie the other night called “I’m Not Ashamed.” It was based on the diary of a girl that died in the Columbine High School shooting that occurred in 1999. The girl was a Christian, but at the beginning of the movie she was living two separate lives: At youth group, she was this God-focused, Christ follower with all the answers. But at school, she was very different. She hid her faith. She did that because she was afraid that if she owned Christ, it would cost her relationships and her popularity. She was terrified of that.

Some of us can go there. We’re two different people because we are afraid of the consequences if we own Christ in our relationships. How different would it be if we really believed that God could protect us in our relationships?

How much more would we talk about Jesus if we really believed that God would protect us? It’s time to start inviting people to the launch of our church. Some of us are going to go door to door. A lot of us are kind of scared. We don’t want to be one of those pesky, holier-than-thou Jesus people. Or we don’t want to be known at that! You don’t have to be that to talk to people about Jesus. What would it be like if you believed that God could protect your reputation? How much more would you speak up for him? Parents – how much more freely would we give up control of the life of our kids – how much more would we encourage our kids to do whatever God asked them to do – wherever he asked them to do it – even be a missionary on the other side of the world – If we believed that God could truly protect them?

I think it would change our lives. And that’s the first thing we see in this text: God often protects his people. But there’s a second truth in this passage, and it’s this:

God Always Protects the Gospel

God often protects his people. He always protects the gospel. I’ll explain that in a minute – but let me say that in this story, in Acts 5, we come to a point – really we come to the first point in Acts – where God does not shield the Apostles from Pain.

Look at what Luke tells us in verse 40: They called the apostles in and had them – flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

Luke tells us they had the Apostles flogged – and by the way – that’s probably even more serious than it sounds. I don’t know why, but when I first read that I kind of had the impression that, like, they gave them a spanking and sent them on their merry way. But the scholars I read said that this was probably what was known as “the 40 lashes minus one” – which was the maximum beating that the Old Testament law allowed. So this would have been serious – and bloody – and painful.

But notice the Apostles’ response: This is the first time in the story of Acts that God hasn’t protected them. This time there’s no angel to open the door – no protective crowd – no benevolent spokesperson. There’s just the beating. So we wonder – how will they respond? With fear? Anger? Confusion? Questioning of God? Look at verse 41: The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

They respond with joy. Not a word about fear – or anger – or questioning – just joy that they were worthy to suffer for the Name. And church, I have to say that is significant. Because it is a concept that is largely missing in our culture. It’s missing in our culture at large, but it is also missing from our Christian culture. I see a lot of anger at injustice. I see a lot of fear. I see a lot of rhetoric against it. I see a lot of scheming to avoid it. I even see vengeance taken on those we feel are being unjust to us: Boycott them! Campaign against them! Put a nasty bumper-sticker on your car. I see a lot of messaging – Christian and non-Christian – that says “Demand your rights, and don’t put up with injustice!”

The problem for us as Christians is this: I don’t see much of that the New Testament. And I’ve looked. In fact, I asked three people this week who know their Bibles if they could think of a single verse in the New Testament that tells us to demand our rights, and they couldn’t think of one!  “God helps those who help themselves.” Just kidding, that’s not in the Bible!

What is in the Bible as a response to injustice is, ironically, Joy.

  • Joy that you are gaining an eternal reward
  • Joy that injustice is maturing you
  • Joy that you are worthy to suffer for Jesus.

I see it all over the New Testament and from every Apostle that wrote:

  • Peter says “Though you suffer trials, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
  • Paul says “We rejoice in our sufferings”
  • James says “Count it pure joy when you suffer trials of many kinds”
  • John says “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
  • Hebrews says “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”
  • And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says “blessed are you, when men revile you and persecute you. On that day rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”

That is the uniform response to injustice in the New Testament. I’m not saying that we should never fight against injustice. There are times when we should, especially to help the weak.
This business of demanding your rights is not much emphasized in the New Testament. We need to have the capacity to respond to mistreatment – with joy.

The Apostles respond with joy. Now, why were they joyful? The passage gives us two reasons:

They Passed the Test

Look at verse 41 again: The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

There are so many ways that we could interpret these events – as an outrage against justice – as a source of fear – as a sign that God had abandoned the Apostles. They didn’t see it that way. They rejoiced because they saw the resistance as a test – a chance to show their quality as followers of Jesus Christ.

It was a test. Peter knew the shame of failing the test. On the night of Jesus’ trial, Peter denied him three. He failed the test. But this time, they pass the test and rejoice, because it shows that they were worthy to suffer for the Name. There’s joy in passing the test.

Some of you are in difficult circumstances. You have family members, or co-workers, or classmates, or friends, or a workplace that are very opposed to God and to his message. What if that that resistance wasn’t a sign that you should get out of there? Or that God had let you down? What if that resistance was a sign that God counted you worthy to carry his name in that difficult circumstance? What if the right response wasn’t to push back or walk away but to gently, humbly stand your ground and represent Jesus when God gave you the opportunity?

What if you are supposed to be there and speak up? What if God was calling you to speak of Jesus in your family – at your job – here in the Perry Creek Community? What if he wanted you to do that even though it might be a little difficult – or embarrassing – or even frustrating to people? Some of us spend so much time trying to avoid the test that we never get to experience the joy of passing the test. There is great joy in passing the test.

Most of you know my story of when I was held captive by the War Vets in Zimbabwe. There was a lot about that day that was not fun or joyful! But I do remember one moment when they had told me to take my shoes off. I was kneeling in the dirt, and the guy had basically told me I was going to get a beating. I remember this verse coming to mind “They rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer for the name.” I remember thinking: “Maybe today – just for this day – I’m worthy. Maybe I can pass the test.” And I knew it was going to be OK.

They were joyful because they passed the test. Secondly, they were joyful because:

The Gospel Continued

They had protected the gospel. They held on – not one of them backed off of their confession – not one of them responded to the threat. In fact, look at verse 42. Look where they ended up after all this went down: Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

They are back at the temple again – right back in the heart of danger, proclaiming Jesus. They are never going to stop, because these guys know one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt. They know that the gospel is precious. They know that this life-giving message of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus is important:

  • More important than not rocking the boat with the Saducees
  • More important than their comfort
  • More important even than their lives

And God used that knowledge to protect the gospel.

They are like my friend Ray. Remember my Muslim friend Ray who spoke to us last fall? I spoke to him last week. Every time I ask him about the resistance he’s meeting – and about the persecution of his Christian friends in Iran – and about the cost of being a Converted Muslim – he always says the same thing: John, Jesus is worth it. They are like my friend Jim Steele, who was filled with joy – even when he was in that jail cell – because he knew the gospel was growing.

They rejoiced, because the gospel continued, and they passed the test. Let’s bow our heads. Let me ask you a question:

  • Where will you face the test this week?
  • Where will you face a moment – where you have a choice to obey Jesus – to live for Jesus – to speak up for Jesus?
  • Will you recognize that moment when it comes?
  • How will you respond?