Faith on Trial
Date: 03 Apr 2016
Text: Acts 5:21-32
I had intended this morning to return to our studies in Revelation by looking at Revelation 6, but the more that I studied it and meditated on it the more I felt led away from it and towards something else. That ‘something else’ that I was led to relates to a few passages in Acts that talk about the faith of some of the Apostles and various events in their lives some time after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Consequently today I want to look at a passage in Acts 5 that deals with a group of Apostles and the difficulties they faced, then next week a passage in Acts 9 that deals with the amazing and dramatic conversion of Saul and finally the week after that look at a second passage in Acts 9 that tells of the Apostle Peter’s work.
Following His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles a number of times over a period of 40 days. Whilst He was eating with them shortly before His ascension, the Lord had told them to wait until Pentecost “for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (Acts 1:4). Jesus went on to explain that “in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). As ever with these disciples I’m never sure that they fully understood what Jesus had told them but they obeyed Him nevertheless, after all He hadn’t ever let them down in the past and there was no reason to suppose that He would now.
As we know from the opening verses of Acts 2 they did just as they were instructed and on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon all of them just as Jesus had promised (Acts 2:1-13). As a result of this baptism they were immediately able to preach the good news of Jesus in different languages to the multitudes of people from a huge variety of countries all of whom could hear the gospel in their own language. From that point on they were able to form the very first fellowship of believers and were able to carry on the work for which Jesus had prepared them. From that time on they went throughout the region preaching the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ and the coming kingdom of heaven as well as healing the sick (Acts 3). However, their work of preaching, teaching and healing wasn’t without its difficulties and they were hindered by the authorities on too many occasions.
As a result of being filled by the Holy Spirit this disparate group of men went from being a bunch of cowering wrecks to becoming a close knit group of empowered Apostles. Just as had happened with Jesus, the priests and Sadducees were very upset by the activities of these disciples of Jesus since they were able to continue to preach the risen Christ. On one occasion the authorities were so annoyed that they put Peter and John in prison overnight. However, regardless of what the powers that be may have felt, “many who heard the message believed” (4:4a) and “the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand” (4:4b). As ever with Scripture there is no mention of women, so that number could easily be doubled! After spending a night in the cells Peter and John were challenged by “rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law” (4:5) to state from where they got their power or by what name they did these things. Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times, was now filled by the Holy Spirit and so preached the message of Jesus to them. Peter and John, and the others, had healed many people of their illnesses and disabilities and so Peter was able to tell the priests and the Sadducees that “it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead...” - (Acts 4:10) that they were able to heal people. The Apostle then went on to ‘hit them’ with the gospel.
As with far too many people today, the leaders heard the words but ignored the message. A man who had been healed by Peter stood before them and so the Pharisees and Sadducees could hardly deny what the Apostles had done and yet they still ordered them to cease their activities. The authorities simply couldn’t think how to punish the Apostles or even whether to punish them. Consequently Luke tells us in Acts 4:21, “After further threats they let them go”. Having been released Peter and John rejoined their friends and went straight to prayer. After a short time to pray and regroup, they then went back to their previous activities of preaching and healing in the name of Jesus as if nothing had happened. Nothing and no one will ever hinder the spread of God’s Word or the good news of Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t too long before the Apostles were arrested again and put back in jail. Not only were the Sadducees angry at their instructions being ignored but Luke tells us they “were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:18). Remember that the Apostles had the authority of Jesus behind them whereas the Sadducees had only their self-assumed authority. So, if these leaders thought that putting the Apostles in prison would bring an end to their activities they were sadly mistaken. During the night “an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison and brought them out” (Acts 5:19). Thinking that they were being safely held under lock and key the guards went to check on them. Just imagine the look on their faces when they couldn’t find them anywhere in the prison confines. Not only couldn’t they find them but they were at a loss as to how they could have escaped. Shortly after that someone rushed in and reported that the Apostles had been found; they were in the Temple courts preaching again. As I said a moment ago, nothing but nothing will ever stop the message of Jesus Christ from being heard.
Without using force for fear of being stoned, the guards brought the Apostles before the Sanhedrin. We need to understand that the Sanhedrin was the highest tribunal of the Jews and it had wide ranging powers over Jewish civil matters together with a number of powers over criminal law. It also had its own officers of justice who could carry out arrests as directed, and it was these officers who apprehended the Apostles and brought them before the Sanhedrin to be questioned.
Luke doesn’t go into any details of the mood of the members of the Sanhedrin although I would imagine that they were quietly seething. They had ordered these men not to continue with their activities; this wasn’t a request, it was an order and they were used to having their orders carried out. Despite that the Apostles simply carried on preaching the message of Jesus and, as the Sanhedrin reminded them, “are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” (Acts 5:28) or as The Message puts it, they were, “trying your best to blame us for the death of this man”. Remember that it was the Sadducees who were among the plotters against Jesus and who brought Him before the Sanhedrin. It was this group of men who persuaded Pilate to have Jesus crucified and as such, the Apostles and all Jesus’ followers believed that the Sanhedrin had Jesus’ blood on their hands. There is no way that the Apostles or the other believers would ever seek revenge against these men but I doubt very much that they would go out of their way to be obedient to them.
Not only had the Apostles continued with their work but note the comment made by the Sanhedrin, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28). Such was the power of the message of the risen Jesus that this handful of ordinary men who on the Day of Pentecost had been accused of having “had too much wine” (Acts 2:13), had been able to fill a huge city such as Jerusalem with the good news of Jesus Christ. Similar things happen today with great works stemming from the faith of a handful of people. For instance, there is a missionary organisation known as Operation Mobilisation that operates a number of ships around the world. OM volunteers spread the message of eternal life through Jesus Christ wherever they go in the world and it is now a massive organisation staffed by hundreds of volunteers. OM started in the 1960s as the result of one man, George Verwer, having a vision that this was what God wanted him to do. George was faithful to God and God was faithful to George and always provided just what was needed when it was needed. As a result of that more and more people around the world have been able to hear and read God’s Word. George is now allegedly retired but still preaches when given the opportunity. I should point out however that if you ever do ever get the chance to hear George speak, be prepared, he can preach for a couple of hours with barely a pause for breath.
Having been challenged, Peter and his friends gave the perfect riposte to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” - (Acts 5:29). I have always believed that God will never ask us to do something that is against the existing laws of a country; in fact we are always told to obey the laws of the land. Both Peter and Paul tell us that that is what we should do. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:13-14, “Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Whilst Paul says in Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” However, when push comes to shove and there appears to be a conflict of interest we should always obey God and suffer the consequences. The late, great, theologian and preacher John Stott has this to say, “But if the authority concerned misuses its God-given power to command what he forbids or forbid what he commands, then the Christian’s duty is to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s.”  As it happened, the Apostles weren’t breaking the law when they went about their daily task of healing, preaching and teaching; they were merely disobeying an edict from the Sanhedrin, something entirely different. Mind you, I suspect that the Sanhedrin were so used to having their rulings obeyed without question that they were more than a little peeved by the actions of the Apostles in totally ignoring them.
The Apostles were standing up for what they believed and doing what God had led them to do. Similar things happen today and I’m sure that when we cast our minds back over the last couple of years or so we can see Christians in the UK and other parts of the world suffering for simply standing up for what they believed. We can think of a Christian couple who ran a B&B in Cornwall and who lost a court case because they wouldn’t provide a double room to a ‘married’ gay couple. Then there was the Christian baker in Northern Ireland who refused to bake a cake with a slogan supporting gay ‘marriage’. In more recent times there was a student sacked from a social work course at Sheffield University because he too disagreed with gay ‘marriage’. In the last week or so there has been the case of a Christian JP who having already been sacked for expressing his disagreement with same sex couples being allowed to adopt children, has since been suspended as a non-executive director of Kent and Medway NHS Social Care Partnership Trust for holding such views. This man had worked in mental health for 20 years and has held the same views over that period. In each of these cases, and there are plenty more, the people involved and punished were doing what they believed was what God wanted them to do. They were expressing an opinion based on God’s Word. Thankfully organisations such as BCM are still able to preach the gospel on the streets of central Birmingham although it isn’t too long ago that two American evangelists were arrested in Alum Rock for doing just that. So much for human rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression!
Such is life in the 21st century and such was life in the 1st century. Peter and his friends had offended the sensitivities of the Sanhedrin and the religious authorities, the self same people who had ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. They had broken no laws but simply preached the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we read Acts 5:30 we can see that the Apostles weren’t afraid of the Sanhedrin; after all they had God on their side. Peter and the others reminded them that, “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging Him on a cross.” (5:30).
In these few verses in Acts 5 we meet again Jesus’ disciples as they go about the work given to them by the Lord. These men who healed people of their physical and mental illnesses as well as preaching a powerful message of repentance through faith in the risen Jesus Christ, were the same men who at the time of Jesus’ arrest “deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50). The group included Peter, the self same Peter who told Jesus, “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29) but who went on to deny Him three times only a few hours later. Now, as a result of being baptised by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they were able to do exactly what Jesus wanted them to do and empowered them to do.
There are times when our faith may be as weak as that of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest. And yet if we remember that we too have been baptised by the Holy Spirit and have been empowered to serve Christ in any way that He calls us, then we can be like these early disciples. We too can endure the trials that our faith may face because we too have the power and authority of Jesus with us.
 Stott, John, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Acts, Inter-Varsity Press: Nottingham, 1990, page 116