A Healthy Church is Unstoppable (Acts 5:12-42)
We are back in our series in Acts called “Healthy Church: Lifestyles of a Church that Walks and Talks the Gospel.” One of the things I never thought about before that has emerged from our study in Acts is that the coming of the Spirit has meant the coming of incredible courage. The Spirit of God transforms these cowardly ordinary disciples into men and women whose feet might be trembling, but their hearts set unflinchingly to do the right thing despite the danger and despite the consequences. Tim Keller once defined it as “Courage is facing your heart’s greatest nightmare and doing the right thing – the unselfish thing- anyway, no matter what the consequences…”
They were courageous and unstoppable. Despite outside attack through persecution, they persevere. It was the church father Tertullian who said, “‘Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…The more you mow us down, the more we grow; the seed is the blood of Christians.’”Despite inside attack through deception, they persevere. They are unstoppable. Now today, we will see more outside attack, which increases to physical pain, but they still persevere. How did they have that kind of courage?
For me, it doesn’t take much to stop me. I’m a coward in so many ways. A little praise lifts my spirits and a little criticism gets me down. I’m like a boat that tossed by the waves. I want to keep going, keep serving, to keep following the Lord despite all of that. We all need courage that makes us unstoppable. It takes courage to keep serving when you feel like you need to be served. It takes courage to stay in a tough marriage. It takes courage to stay in a job we don’t like. It takes courage to keep looking for jobs when we have faced rejection. It takes courage to be single when people make marriage an identity issue. It takes courage to be a stay-at-home mom when the culture around you makes career an identity. It takes courage to be pure in a sex-saturated society. The truth is, our cowardice is everywhere. We fall apart and stop moving forward when our cowardice is exposed. These disciples get beaten at the end of this chapter and they walk out stronger than ever. How do we get that? Where do we get it? How can we be a church that is fueled by courage? Three reasons why we see the early church was unstoppable and how we too can be:
I. Committing to truth more than pleasing others (vv.12-16)
Right after the whole Ananias and Sapphira incident, everyone saw that God is more interested in a smaller, pure church than a bigger fluffy church where sin is tolerated. We learned that early on at Living Hope when the Lord challenged us as we were getting smaller because we were committed to grace, but to truth as well with some church discipline issues. Not that we are a perfect church, but continuing to grow to be a church that is constantly being perfected by the Lord and His love.
Notice they keep on serving the Lord after the Ananias and Sapphira incident. They don’t try to explain it away or hide it or pretend it didn’t happen. And as a result, look at v.13. The “rest” here refers to unbelieving Jews who almost became Christian, but they didn’t like the “sin stuff.” I like the miracles and stuff, but why do you talk about sin all the time? Give peace a chance and let’s sing “Kumbaya” together.
Not everyone is going to be happy when you make commitments to the Lord. We can’t change the message to cater to people. And they stayed committed to the Gospel. It is amazing to see churches that will not mention sin at all to purposely attract people. At the same time, here God kept growing them (notice Luke stops counting). This gives us courage to trust God when we continue to preach the whole Gospel. They were reaching people regardless of gender (men and women), economic class (rich sick people are brought in cots and poor sick people are brought in straw mats) and people with other worldviews (thinking shadows can heal). By the way, it does not say Peter’s shadow DID heal, but that these people thought it could heal. Notice also that the gospel is now spreading outside Jerusalem (v.16). Power will flow from purity. It is not great talents that God will bless, but great likeness to Jesus, as Robert Murray McCheynne once said.
All kinds of people are coming to Christ as well as a group hardening their hearts toward Him. That is not in our hands. God calls us to stay committed to the Gospel. The question is not even for outsiders, but for us. Are we more committed to the Gospel in our own lives? Spurgeon said, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”
God told Isaiah to go preach to the people and the more he was going to preach, the more their hearts would get hardened (Isaiah 6). Wow, what a tough ministry! Anyone want to sign up for that? But a principle comes forth from this. Ray Ortlund notes, “Every time you hear the Word of God preached, you come away from that exposure to his truth either a little closer to God or a little further way from God, either more softened toward God or more hardened toward God. But you are never just the same. And if you think you can hold the gospel at arm’s length in critical detachment, that very posture reveals that you are already deadened. The same truth enlivening someone else is hardening you. And don’t tell yourself that if only God would perform a miracle in your life, you would believe and open up. Jesus performed miracles, and the people who saw them only became further hardened (John 12:37–41). 
Some people are determined to make their heart sermon-proof and that will lead them astray. So write this down as Richard Baxter once said, “Lord, help me fear my own hardness of heart than anything else.” Ortlund adds, “Beware of rigidity, ingratitude, a demanding spirit. Beware of an unmelted heart that is never satisfied. Beware of a mind that looks for excuses not to believe. Beware of the impulse that always finds a reason to delay response. Beware of thinking how the sermon applies to someone else. God watches how you hear his Word.”
If you want to be unstoppable and if we as a church will be unstoppable, we have to look at how we are responding to God’s Word. Are we getting more hardened or more softened toward the Gospel? The harder your heart, the softer your feet to face your nightmares. The softer your heart toward the Lord, the stronger your feet to be courageous. We need a tender heart toward the Lord and a heart of steel of other people’s opinions and changing circumstances. Often it is the other way around. We have a heart of steel toward the Lord and a heart that is moldable and easily changed by people and circumstances. It first comes from a commitment to the truth of the Gospel. Secondly:
II. Fixing eyes on Jesus as the hero and not ourselves (vv.17-32)
And here we go again. The religious establishment is Satan’s tool here to stop God’s church. This time they lock all of the apostles up, even the new guy. Did they do anything wrong? Absolutely not. They didn’t do anything wrong and did everything right and they got locked up. I don’t think they were like, “We signed up for this? This is ministry?” Thomas was not, “I doubt this is what God wants.” Opposition does not always mean failure. Harmony does not always mean blessing either. They knew by this point that if their Master got persecuted, they will too. Because it is not about them, it’s about Christ.
Anyway, God delivers them through an angel. God is humorous here, because the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels. And the angel tells them to go back and continue what these religious leaders had stopped. “Wait, maybe you were too busy delivering messages but that’s exactly how we got in prison!” I don’t think they said that. Why? Because it was not about them, it was about Christ. I love that the Gospel is called the “Life.” It is not a Sunday or Christmas/Easter thing, a phase I’m going through, or a small adjustment and some surface level makeover, but it’s all of Life!
The angel didn’t tell them to be more seeker sensitive. Don’t try to get strategic or clever. Just get back to work! By the way, sometimes God delivered them from prison, sometimes he didn’t (like in Paul’s), other times he opened the prison doors (Paul and Silas in Acts 16) and the apostles stayed inside witnessing. It is not about us. It’s all about Him and His Word.
Kevin DeYoung says, “Jesus does not promise us long life. He does not promise us riches and uninterrupted good health. He does not promise the triumph of Christian values in the marketplace of ideas. He does not promise a favorable response to the word of God. What Jesus does promise is that his word will go to the ends of the earth and he will be with us to the very end of the age. In the midst of all that is broken and sinful and tragic in this world, God wants us to have this sure hope: that no man, woman or child, no government institution or law, no power, prince or potentate can silence the word of God.”
And they do it right away and go back to preach as soon as the sun is up. Why? Didn’t they need a break perhaps? Or a sabbatical? Maybe, but it wasn’t about them, it was about Christ. The religious leaders are hilarious here. They organize a big meeting to handle these apostles, but small problem. They call for them and the officers come back with some good news and some bad news. Good news: “We found the prison…it was securely locked…and the guards are standing and guarding…” But what’s the bad news? “No one’s inside.” And lo and behold, “They’re back preaching in the Temple!”
And they go bring them again and question them. Notice in vv.27-28 the mention of “you.” The religious leaders think this whole thing is about them. How does Peter respond? It’s not about us, it’s about God! Interesting title here is given to Jesus: “Leader.” The Greek word is found is Act 3:15 in Peter’s previous sermon as “Author.” Here is translated as “Leader.” Hebrews 2 it means “Captain” and in Hebrews 12 it is translated as “Pioneer.” It is such a rich word that it is difficult to translate. Part of it means He is Israel’s leader, prince and Messiah, but there is more to it. Interestingly in Greek literature, it is the word for “hero.” Hercules is called this word. The religious leaders here know of that word and are familiar with it, but why does Peter use it?
I think it is showing us where these disciples get their courage from. It is not from within. They are not visualizing success. I have seen that on Oprah or some talk show. People talk about their fears and are told, “Just see yourself in that job interview and you answering all the questions perfectly!” or “Just see yourself asking that girl out and she falls into your arms” o “Imagine yourself cancer free.” That is how the world tries to find courage. Think positively. The reality is they might not get that job or that girl or get healed. Then what? Where will they get courage to persevere? And I see this in our churches sometimes. Look at Peter’s boldness or Daniel’s courage or Mary or whoever. Sometimes they are helpful, but Mary or Daniel or Peter is not here in my situation. I need something deeper and the apostle Peter is pointing to it.
We need a hero. T.A. Barron in Family Circle Magazine writes, “A new national survey of American teenagers reveals the startling truth: Only half the kids questioned have a hero at all. That means there is nobody—nobody—in the lives of those young people who has made enough of an impression on their hearts and minds to be called a hero. It gets worse. Of the kids who responded that they do have a well-known hero, more than three quarters chose a movie star, musician, or athlete. On top of that, almost no women were named. And more than twice as many kids cited as their heroes Spiderman or Superman.”
Os Guinness in his book The Call says the reason we don’t have heroes anymore is because we have traded heroes for celebrities. DeYoung says, “Christians need heroes. They can live without celebrities. The two are not always easily distinguished. Some heroes become celebrities and some celebrities can be heroic. But in general, the two words mean different things and refer to two different kinds of people.
- Heroes are admired for bravery, nobility, honor, and character. Celebrities are admired for beauty and talent.
- Heroes grow through suffering and we respect them for it. Celebrities flounder in dysfunction and we are amused by it.
- Heroes are followed; we want to learn from them. Celebrities are feted; we want to lounge with them.
- Heroes make us feel unworthy when we are around them and not the best we can be. Celebrities make us feel special just to be near them.
- Heroes serve others with or without being noticed. Celebrities perform to be seen by others.
- Heroes don’t look for status, recognition, or payment. Celebrities look for the cameras and for lucrative compensation.
- Heroes desire to sacrifice for others. Celebrities enjoy others sacrificing for them.
- Heroes deflect praise. Celebrities crave it.
- Heroes edify. Celebrities entertain.
Everyone wants to be famous, even Christians. We are hoping our video goes viral. We are hoping someone famous liked our status or retweeted our tweet. But God is looking for heroes and He never calls us to be anything He didn’t show us to be. Here Peter is saying, “It’s not about us. Let me tell you about the Ultimate Hero.” Their eyes were on the heroic Christ. And they became heroes themselves for us as a result. By the way, don’t have a hero until that person dies, because it’s not how you start, but how you finish right?
Living Hope, we need heroes here and the Bible calls those people servants. Lead worshippers, we need you to courageously usher us into the presence of God and not wannabe Matt Redmans or Chris Tomlins. Teachers of little ones and bigger ones, we need you to courageously serve and love them which often means no praise, no immediate results and lots of sacrifice. Married men, we need men who are not disengaged from their families engrossed in work, sports and smartphones, but courageously and actively loving their wives and children. We need heroes who say no to sexual sin, who are generous without recognition, and who serve without asking. These are what heroes are made of, but it only comes by looking at the Ultimate Hero, Jesus Christ. Lastly and quickly, a church that is unstoppable is:
III. Following Jesus into suffering and not earthly success (vv.33-42)
We don’t have time to get into all that’s here, but Gamaliel, a Pharisee, stands up. This guy we find out later was a mentor of Paul. He was the greatest teacher of his era and pretty much the poster boy of Phariseeism. Basically he’s saying, “Guys, guys…it’s all the same. We have had rebels before.” He mentions Theudas and Judas who led revolts. Both ended up being nothing. Jesus is another one like that. It was all fireworks. Starts off with a bang, but ends up as smoke. Let’s wait and see and not do anything rash. Then he says, “If God is behind it, it will be unstoppable. If man is behind it, it will stop.”
Let’s be careful here. He’s saying, “Whatever succeeds has God’s blessing.” Not always true. Cults and false religions in our day have millions of followers. Look what happens. They beat them, probably with 39 lashes. What do they do? Leave ministry? Complain about how nobody recognizes the work they do? Update their status and let everyone know how much they suffered? They had great joy because they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. This is an oxymoron. Thank you for honoring me with this dishonor! What?! Ajith Fernando says that we have a new dimension of the theology of suffering here: To suffer for Christ is an honor that causes joy. It’s not about them. It was all about the name. And they kept preaching that name! Unstoppable.
Does this stuff happen today? You bet. Did you know that according to the International Journal of Missionary Research that more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined? And the 21st century is on pace to beat the 20th century. Between 2000-2002 Muslims slaughtered 10,000 Christians in Indonesia. It is estimated that currently over 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide. Open Doors estimates that up to 70,000 North Koreans have been sent to labor camps for their faith. What the persecutors don’t realize is that the church of Jesus Christ is unstoppable. The more you mow us down, the more we grow! The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church! While we are going around getting our Bibles autographed by Christian celebrities, these are the true heroes! By the way, we don’t know how long we will have freedom in this country, so our turn might be coming!
Notice no entitlement that they deserve to be spared from pain. Success is being faithful to His name even it means losing your family, your health, your wealth or even your own life. This is foreign to us. Stephen Crosby says, “American cultural virtues of success are: “bigger is better” – more people, more money, more fame, more notoriety, more TV exposure, more books sold, etc. Jesus’s virtue of success is: faithfulness to assignment is better . . . period.”
Every day I get stuff in the mail or email that says stuff like this: “How to overcome obstacles hindering “your ministry” from becoming a ‘success!’ ‘Removing limitations to your ministry!’ ‘Going to the next level in your ministry!'” and so on. Crosby adds, “The only thing rarer in the church today than a theology of the cross is a theology of suffering… God’s method of kingdom advance has never changed. We don’t need seminars on overcoming obstacles. It is not that complicated.
“Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone. If it dies, it brings forth much fruit.” Jesus’s kingdom advances based on the principle of death and resurrection, not “how to make your ministry a success” seminars. PERIOD. His kingdom advance and your personal greatness are NOT related. His increase could result in your decrease. If you are not yet willing to be insignificant, you are not yet trustworthy for “ministry.” Your “destiny” might be to give away all your life’s energy and virtue, and never see a drop of fruit until after you are dead and gone. It was that way for our Master, and we are not above Him. What may work on Madison Avenue and the board rooms of American industry, is not fit for the kingdom.”
There is nothing remotely “successful” about dying alone on a cross, abandoned by all but a few of your friends. I am firmly convinced Jesus would not be welcome to speak at our conferences. The fruit of His life, labors and ministry were not seen until AFTER his mortal days. His ministry was not “successful” enough to be the keynote speaker at the annual “Realize Your Destiny” conference! It is Satan, our adversary, the spirit of antichrist, that demands action, that demands to see something, to prove one’s status and ministry.” Late revival preacher Leonard Ravenhill said, “The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”
He increase could mean our decrease. Our destiny might be giving all of our lives away, being forgotten and trusting God with the results. FAITH stands for “Forsaking all I take Him.”
This doesn’t happen automatically. Where are you cowardly today? Maybe we need to think of our sins as cowardice. Maybe we are lazy because we are cowards, fearful of responsibilities. We are cowards in our unrighteous anger because we need to always get our way. We are cowards in our giving in to lust, because we choose instant gratification over lasting joy. The Bible says, Perfect love casts out fear right? Where do you find perfect love? Look at your hero. In Hebrews 11, the author says, “Remember Abraham, Remember David, Remember Noah, etc.” Remember all these people, when it came to Jesus, He says, “but fix your eyes on Jesus, the “founder” (same word as “Leader” here or “hero”). He is the ultimate hero, who faced my heart’s greatest nightmare. His unstoppable courageous love for us cowards drove Him to the cross. He bravely took on all the mocking, scoffing, beating and lashing. He faced our ultimate humiliation. He suffered for our worst nightmares of answering for our sins. So we look at Him. He was brave for me. He faced my worst nightmare, so I can face my small nightmares. He faced my worst humiliations, I can face smaller ones. His love is unstoppable! So I can apply for that job. I can stay in my marriage. I can keep serving, keep parenting, keep trusting for that mate and give my life away, to say like the hymn writer,
“But drops of grief can never repay
The debt of love I owe
But here, Lord, I give myself away
Tis’ all that I can do.”
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As quoted in http://calvinisticquotes.blogspot.com/2010/11/same-sun-which-melts-wax-hardens-clay.html accessed 5 April 2013.
Ortlund, R. C., Jr., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Isaiah: God Saves Sinners. Preaching the Word
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As quoted by Challies, T. http://www.challies.com/articles/heroes-and-celebrities accessed 5 April 2013.
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Crosby, S. “Success or Fruitfulness,” http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/life/Success_Or_Fruitfulness/49298/p1/ accessed 5 April 2013.