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A Healthy Church is Emboldened by the Gospel (Acts 4:1-13)

To listen to this sermon, click here

Recently, I read a blog post recapping a believer’s experience on a bus.[1] His story will resonate with all of us:

????????Well, this is awkward. I honestly didn’t see it coming. I am not the kind of guy who will chat you up on a bus. I am also not the kind of guy who likes being chatted up in the bus either. I cherish my privacy. Commuting time usually doubles up as my reading time, and this afternoon was no different. So, here I was, seated at the back of the bus. I removed my phone from my pocket to check my e-mail before I got to my reading.

“Is that an Ideos phone?” I assumed he was talking to someone else, but the guy seated next to me was obviously pointing at my phone. I nodded reluctantly, making it clear that I didn’t want to find out where this odd question was leading. He seemed not to notice, or care. A barrage of questions about phones, internet speeds and Facebook soon followed. Soon, we were in deep conversation. I have to give him this, the guy is an excellent conversationalist. I grew even more interested when our chat took a turn for the world of literature. We parked there for awhile, talking about books and the declining reading culture in Kenya and the world over. Then a Tupac song began playing on the bus radio and this sparked a new topic of music and how modern day hip hop has nothing on Old Skool rap. We found common ground on many things. I was beginning to relax. This went on intermittently for about an hour.

I should have been fully relaxed and at ease by now. But I wasn’t. There was something that I was still holding back. Something that I felt would spoil this infant acquaintanceship. Numerous perfect opportunities for bringing it up came and went, but I ignored them all. I deliberately pushed it to the back of my mind and conveniently omitted it from the conversation. The truth of the matter is, I was ashamed of the Gospel.

He goes on to say that there was a bunch of opportunities to share and the circumstances seemed just right. He was headed to Bible study. He was reading a devotional. He was wearing a Christian t-shirt and the bus was stuck in traffic for over 2 hours. He continues:

So, it wasn’t for the lack of time or opportunity. I just didn’t feel like sharing the Gospel with the guy. I have found that there’s always a convenient excuse at the back of my mind every time I fail to share the Gospel….

We have all been in similar situations where we have opportunities to share about the hope that is within us, but we fail. When we were visiting Jenny’s uncle at the hospital before he passed, we were about to leave and I knew people wanted me to pray. This wasn’t even sharing my faith, but I initially looked at Jenny: “Do you want to pray?” Jenny looked back at me strangely like, “Aren’t you the pastor?” Fear paralyzed me at that moment. I prayed but it got me thinking. What is it about us that we are ashamed of the Gospel? Why do we lack confidence? By boldness I don’t mean standing on the street passing tracts or holding up signs (though there is nothing wrong with that). God can use it! I don’t mean arguing, coercing, or being obnoxious. I mean genuinely and lovingly sharing grace and truth of the Gospel with unbelievers when we get the opportunity. Maybe it’s fear of rejection? Maybe it’s feelings of inadequacy or incompetency in sharing—we just don’t know how and how to answer if a potential hard question was asked? Or is it because we don’t want to be awkward? Perhaps we feel like our personality is the issue—God didn’t make me extroverted, so I am not wired to do that! Maybe we already compromised in our witness and feel like there is no credibility if we did share? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these!

I want to explore that today in Acts 4. In looking at the early church, we will see that these believers are able to be such bold witnesses for Christ. It wasn’t because of their education or evangelism training. It could not have been personality. Something took control over their fears and filled them to overflowing, that they could say, “We cannot help but speak of what we have seen or heard.” Oh, but they were special people and I’m just an ordinary Christian. Wrong. There was nothing special about them. There are no special Christians, but there is a special Christ we are called to lift up boldly. Boldness is a key word in Acts! I want that in my life. I want that in our church. How do we get there? The title of the message today is “A Healthy Church is Emboldened by the Gospel.”

Let’s start with this:

I.   Being a bold witness is about faithfulness, not success  (vv.1-4)

This early church started off like an evangelist’s dream. Thousands of people respond to the Gospel. Amazing miracles are happening. But look what happens in Acts 4:1. Not everyone is happy. This is the first persecution. There is a cost to following Jesus and for some of us and some of us have already lost family and friends. And once you start to follow Jesus, there will always be a time when the rubber meets the road and you have to decide whether you will choose your own happiness and protect your reputation or choose Christ and His reputation. Jesus restates the principle when he says, “Whoever wants to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16: 25). He is saying, “If you seek happiness more than you seek me, you will have neither; if you seek to serve me more than serve happiness, you will have both.”[2]

So the reward for being bold witness for Christ is persecution. The disciple is not above his master. If Jesus suffered, we will suffer. But because He suffered for our worst adversity on the cross—living in hell without God—we only suffer smaller adversities from people who want to live on earth without God. This is why Jesus said “Don’t fear those who can just hurt your body, but God who has the power to throw body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

And as they are preaching (note that John is also preaching), here comes the persecution. The lame man was probably still leaping and Peter’s sermon gathered a large crowd. The priests show up. They were in charge of the rituals and sacrifices of the Temple. These are the religious folks. They are mad that their service is being interrupted. We find out by Acts 6 that many priests come to faith (Acts 6:7).

Along with the priest comes the guy second in command to the chief priest: the captain of the temple guard. They are the temple police, which consisted of 200 priests and Levites.[3] And along with him come the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the major opponents of Jesus, but interestingly the Sadducees were the major opponents of the Apostles in Acts. Sadducees didn’t really believe in anything, especially the resurrection, angels, demons, the Messiah or immortality. They only believed the first five books of the OT. Moses alone. Having formed a party that controlled the temple and the high priesthood, they wielded enormous political power.[4] They cooperated with the Romans and in return the Romans gave them lots of power and financial benefits. Finally, they rejected…the sovereignty of God, believing man to be the master of his own destiny. These theological liberals were the first to persecute the church.[5]

The late preacher J. Vernon McGee who was known for his radio program, said, “I have found that the biggest enemies of the preaching of the gospel are not the liquor folk. The gangsters have never bothered me. Do you know where I had my trouble as a preacher? It was with the so-called religious leaders, the liberals, those who claimed to be born again. They actually became enemies of the preaching of the gospel. It was amazing to me to find out how many of them wanted to destroy my radio ministry. [6]

It is very true. When my family came to Christ, the first people to oppose us were the minister and leaders of our church. They came to our house one day asking us why we were “too religious.” We got tested right away. And I remember my dad looking at the minister and said, “I would come to church drunk and take communion. You smelled the alcohol on my breath and you said nothing. You knew I was abusive to my wife. Yet you said nothing. Now I have come to know Christ as my Lord and Savior and you are upset? Tell me what’s wrong with this picture?” He left.

phariseeNotice they are greatly annoyed. Their job is to make sure everything is normal and status quo. You don’t want the Romans to get nervous. So you have everyone annoyed. The Gospel not only comforts the afflicted, but it also afflicts the comfortable. I don’t mean we should annoy people for the wrong reasons. “Hey, let’s go to Burger King!” “No way, I only worship ONE KING!” That’s dumb annoying. I exaggerate, but some Christians are like that. I mean people getting irritated and uncomfortable at Jesus Christ shaking up what they really believe.

The enemies of the Gospel are like that here. What is this you are preaching? Resurrection? A New Moses? One Greater than Moses?  These revolutionary ideas are attacking the foundations of what these people believed for so long and so they respond with hostility. They lock them up for the night. If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be any evidence against you?

Not only are they teaching (which was the priests job not theirs), they also caused disruption (which threatened their relationship with the Romans) and then on top of that, they were contradicting the regular teachers. Unauthorized preaching conducted by unprofessional preachers? This is where Christianity was born: in a pluralistic society. You have so many groups with different beliefs. A lot of times we hear things like, “People needed religion back then. This is why the church exploded. They didn’t have and know what we know now. Now we are so diverse in so many ways and we know so much. We need to be tolerant now and maybe we don’t need religion.” Every culture of every generation has said that. Things haven’t changed. Sure we have media and technology, but the beliefs of our culture are the same as Acts. Romans said you can worship any God you want as long as you also worship Caesar. The Jews said there was one God and that God was for them only. The Sadducees had their own beliefs.

But yet the church explodes. Look at Acts 4:4. 5,000 men (not including women and children) believe. What does that tell you? You can arrest the apostles, but you cannot arrest the Gospel. Let this encourage you. We cannot save anyone. We are not called to be the final link to anyone’s salvation (though that is a privilege). We are called to be A LINK. We are not the exit, just the road sign. We cannot quench anyone’s thirst, but only create thirst as salt in their lives. A poor response to Christ does not mean it was a poor presentation. People are going to be upset with us because they are upset at Christ in us. A lot of churches want people to feel encouraged and affirmed, so they pack up their churches, but imagine if you didn’t know you had cancer and the doctor just shook your hand and gave you a lollipop and told you to go home.

And our witness will be tested. A good way to know if you are a healthy Christian is to see if the Jesus in you is shaking people’s worldviews around you. Again, I’m not saying be pushy and obnoxious or jerky about it, but do people sense you have Jesus living in you and does that shake them up? Trust God with that. Don’t take it personally and know that He is control. Secondly,

II.   Being a bold witness is about the message, not the messenger (vv.5-13)

sanhedrinThe next day, more annoyed people show up. The whole gang is here. They are called the Sanhedrin, made up of 70 people and one high priest. They are “Israel’s supreme court. The rulers (who were vested with authority), the elders (who provided counsel), and the teachers of the law (who formulated doctrine) constituted the court.”[7] Caiphas was the high priest who tore his robe when Jesus said He was God (Matt. 26:65). His father-in-law was Annas, also a high priest. Technically, the Romans had taken him down as a high priest, but he’s still around. We don’t know who John or Alexander are, but these are all the major players of the religious world.

And here we go again. They ask them, “By what power or by what name do you do this?” By the way, the lame man now healed is also with them! I don’t know if they put him in jail too or brought him earlier, but he joyfully stands there. The three men were placed in the center of a semicircle of elevated seats, which the members of the Sanhedrin occupied. These seats were purposely arranged in a semicircle so that the members could see one another. They were seated, but the defendant(s) had to stand facing the rulers of the nation. The apostles faced the council members, who looked down on them from their seats.[8]

What will Peter say? “I’m sorry, I tend to talk a lot. My mouth always gets me in trouble. Did I upset you? Oh I’m sorry!” Notice, Peter is no longer full of Peter as he used to be. He is full of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God fills you, you are no longer full of yourself. The passive voice of the verb translated filled shows Peter’s yieldedness to the Spirit’s control. He did not become filled by a lengthy prayer or an emotional experience. The filling of the Spirit occurs when the believer walks in obedience to the Word and Spirit (cf. Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16). Yielding to His control releases His power in the believer’s life.[9]

The Spirit of God always brings you to the Son of God. He is the best man bringing you to the bridegroom. You are no longer preoccupied with yourself, but you are about the honor and glory of Jesus Christ. It’s not about the messenger! It is all about the message and the subject of the message: Jesus Christ! Look at verses 10-12. It is all the name of Jesus Christ! Eight times Jesus is referred to. Let it be made known to you that this is not about my name or this lame man or his name, but only one name. Let all other names fall and let it be made known of Jesus Christ. He does not compromise. It is almost as if he is putting all the religious leadership of Israel on trial. One commentator asks, “Should the leadership be the ones on trial in God’s court? This healing is the work of God’s chosen one. If Jesus is healing, then he is alive, vindicated by God, and they are culpable for his death.”[10]

cornerstoneNote here he points to Jesus as the cornerstone. Jesus Himself quoted this from Ps. 118:22. What is a cornerstone? This is the stone that sets all the proper angles for the building. It is like the building’s plumb line in that it sets the horizontal and vertical lines of the rest of the building; it also establishes the precise symmetry of the entire edifice. To ensure the perfect precision of God’s spiritual house, the main cornerstone had to be flawless. The only one who could set all the angles of God’s house was the living, perfectly prepared cornerstone, Jesus Christ. Christ is irreplaceable because He is the cornerstone, the most important stone in any building. Because Jesus Christ is the perfect, exact, precise One on whom God has built His church, all the lines coming from Him in every direction complete the perfect temple of God. No one is ever out of alignment. No one ever falls from the structure. It all fits exactly and permanently together (cf. Eph. 4:16). So here is one analogy that fittingly illustrates believers’ security.”[11]

Look at Acts 4:12. Every believer should memorize this verse. There is salvation is no other name. Christianity has made universal claims from the beginning. They are not making this up, because Jesus himself said this (John 14:6). We believe in narrowness in every other disciple. Is it narrow to say that 2 + 2=4. Well, I think it’s 5. It’s not 5? You’re so intolerant! How arrogant of you! Truth is intolerant and narrow by definition.

Maybe we have all seen the COEXIST bumper sticker.images2

  • C = Islam
  • O = Pacifism
  • E = “Gender equality” (=the LGBT agenda) (science)
  • X = Judaism
  • I = Wicca / Pagan / Bah’ai
  • S =Taoism / Confucianism
  • T = Christianity

This is a sweet thought, but it’s not realistic. COEXIST cannot exist. They are all different fundamentally at the core. Buddha never claimed to be God. Buddhism is pantheistic and says there is no personal God and everyone can reach “godlikeness” on his own. Moses never claimed to be Yahweh. Mohammed never claimed to be Allah. Islam says that Jesus was just a prophet, and not the only way to God. Yet Jesus Christ claimed to be the true and living God. Buddha simply said, “I am a teacher in search of the truth.” Jesus said, “I am the Truth.” Confucius said, “I never claimed to be holy.” Jesus said, “Who convicts me of sin?” Mohammed said, “Unless God throws his cloak of mercy over me, I have no hope. Jesus said, “Unless you believe in me, you will die in your sins.”

The moment you say COEXIST is the right way to believe, you are being hypocritical. You are saying, “My view of God according to this bumper sticker is the right way and must be adopted by everyone.” That is just as arrogant or exclusive as anyone else’s exclusive truth claim.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions met in Chicago in 1993. The parliament met to unify the world’s religions, to probe, to try to understand other religious heritages, but above all, they met to unify and break down the barriers that separated the various religions of the world. But what place did it have in the more than 700 workshops that were held in during the eight-day conference? Pastor Erwin Lutzer of Moody Memorial Church here in Chicago, who attended to get a feel for what was being taught and believed writes:

 …At times He was variously admired, quoted, and favorably compared to other religious teachers, ancient and modern. He was seen as one more stage in the evolutionary development of religion; indeed, He was a very necessary and important stage, but He was only one enlightened man among many. A special man for His times…Christ was thus revered for His contribution in the history of religion. He was even described by some as a revealer of God, a man who had achieved the highest degree of enlightenment. Others allowed that He was the Master of Masters, the one who shows us the way; the one who is to be loved and followed. But alas, He was only one among many others. Though He was respected, He was not worshiped.

FBI agents don’t spend much time studying counterfeit money since there are too many varieties of bogus bills. Rather, they study the genuine articles, observing all their unique details. Armed with a good knowledge of authentic money, they can recognize counterfeits of whatever kind. Those who are conversant with the truth recognize error when they see it.”[12]

Does Christ belong on the same shelf with Buddha, Krishna, Bahaullah, Mohammed and Zoroaster? The world would say yes! Some may say Christ is taller than the rest…or is HE ON AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SHELF ALTOGETHER? Perhaps with a casual glance, you might see some similarities, but with a constant gaze, IT IS NOT JUST THAT HE STANDS TALLER THAN OTHERS, BUT IN HIS PRESENCE ALL OTHERS DISAPPEAR SOMEWHERE BEYOND THE HORIZON!![13] Every religion has ways to make bad men into better men, but I only know one who is qualified to take dead men and make them alive.

Our message is about him. Yes people will say Christians are hypocrites. Yes people will say Christians have done things in the name of religion that should not have been done, but what about Jesus Christ? What do you think of Him? This is the real question to bring people to!

Look at Acts 4:13. This mini-sermon made everyone really curious. They were amazed that uneducated (In the rabbinical schools) and untrained men (Not professional theologians; laymen) could argue so effectively from the Scriptures. That two Galilean fishermen powerfully and successfully argued their case before the elite Jewish Supreme Court was shocking, so that they were marveling.[14]Ordinary men—didn’t have school, any pedigree and would usually have their head down in front of their superiors. But these men had extraordinary confidence, but they had ordinary performance or an ordinary record. It could have been their accent. They are talking like someone familiar. And it slowly dawned on them that they had been with Jesus.

When was the last time you were accused for being with Jesus? It wasn’t something in them that gave them confidence. These men have a new system of identity. They have a transformed identity based on a new system. They have a new cornerstone from which they are building their lives. Many of us may seen a couple of great articles this past week on Michael Jordan, who just turned 50. One was from ESPN and one was from the Gospel Coalition called “Do you still want to be like Mike?” reflecting on the ESPN article. He is inarguably the best basketball player to have ever lived (yes I know I’m in Chicago), with six NBA titles, five MVPs, ten scoring titles, 14 All-Star appearances and countless other feats that I cannot even get into.

5188722The blogger writes: “My ego is so big now that I expect certain things,” Jordan admits. But, as Thompson observes, this is a natural consequence of life at the very top. “Jordan is used to being the most important person in every room he enters and, going a step further, in the lives of everyone he meets. . . People cater to his every whim.”[15] So Michael Jordan walks into the room and if he opens his mouth, everyone listens. He has extraordinary confidence. Why? Because he has an extraordinary record and performance. If a kid who just started playing high school basketball walks in the same room and stands next to Michael Jordan, people might not really even notice. Why? Because he has an ordinary record/performance and ordinary confidence. His head is probably bowed low and nervous.

But look what’s happened here in Acts 4. The Apostles have extraordinary confidence, but they were ordinary men! Ordinary accomplishments/performance/success, etc. but extraordinary confidence! Why? Because their confidence, their identity is built on someone else’s track record. Someone else has accomplished some great things. Someone else has performed on our behalf. Because Jesus was SOMEONE, we are free to be NO ONE. Do you know why we are not bold for Christ? We are not ordinary enough and we don’t realize how extraordinary a Savior we have. We think we have to be a superstar evangelist, being well-versed in apologetics and persuasive personality and so on. Those are all false cornerstones that we think is important to build our lives. We are ordinary people, but we have an extraordinary Savior.

 Conclusion

The gospel tells me that a bold Savior has come for cowards. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of joy. He had to do it for us—humbles for me—but He was glad to do it for us, that gives me confidence. I am humble and confident at the same time. He came to rebuild our lives and remove our false cornerstones, but we rejected Him. But when you believe in Him, He doesn’t reject us. Why? His life was torn down for our sin of building on false foundations, so our lives could be built up on Him. The gospel makes me humble, showing me I am an extraordinary sinner with ordinary accomplishments. I am no better than anyone else. I have no amazing record. But the Gospel makes me confident too, emboldening me before anyone, telling me I am loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. Why are we boldless? Because we have not let this gospel deeply change us to show us where our real confidence comes from.

Let the truth of the gospel saturate our minds. Pastor Kevin DeYoung says, “The more time you spend immersed in sports, the more time you spend immersed in politics, the more time you spend immersed in whatever your hobby, the more clearly you speak on that issue. You get bolder about those things. You see more. You understand more. So you speak more. That’s good. But what about your courage with the gospel? What about your clarity with the things that matter most? You will not be bold to speak of Jesus unless you spend much time with Jesus. Courage comes out of communion.”[16]


[1]Ngare, Cornell. “Ashamed of the Gospel,” blogged on 13 January 2013 http://wp.me/p2143d-lS accessed 21 February 2013.

[2]Keller, Timothy (2011-11-01). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Kindle Locations 813-815). Dutton Adult. Kindle Edition.

[3]Schnabel, Eckhard J (2012). Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (233). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4]Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953-2001). Vol. 17: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. New Testament Commentary (146). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[5]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (128). Chicago: Moody Press.

[6]McGee, J. V. (1997). Vol. 4: Thru the Bible commentary (electronic ed.) (526). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7]Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (150).

[8]Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (151).

[9]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (132).

[10]Bock, D. L. (2007). Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (192). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[11]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2004). 1 Peter. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (121). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[12]Lutzer, E. W. (1994). Christ among other gods (11-13). Chicago: Moody Press.

[13]Ibid (24).

[14]MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (135).

[15]Smethurst, Matt, “Do you still want to be like Mike?” written on February 21 2013, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/?p=32820 accessed 23 February 2013.

[16]DeYoung, K. “How to grow in courage,” written November 9 2012,  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/11/09/how-to-grow-in-courage/ accessed 23 February 2013.

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