In Acts chapter 4, we see the first ever example of the persecution of Christians.
• Who is being persecuted? Peter and John, two of the apostles.
• Who is it carrying out this persecution? It is the powerful Sadducees, a ruling class of wealthy aristocrats. Actually, it is the Sadducees, ironically religious rulers themselves, who not only persecute Peter and John, but Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7), and also the apostle Paul (Acts 23).
Did they have any reason to persecute Peter and John? No! In fact, as we have seen over the last two weeks, Peter and John had been empowered by Jesus to heal a man in his forties who’d been lame from birth. This was an outstanding miracle. No one could deny what had happened, because the man was such a well-known figure in the city, always to be found begging at the temple gate. This same man was now literally jumping for joy, praising God for this wonderful gift of healing. As we saw last time, this drew quite a crowd, and Peter seizes the moment to explain to the crowd the deeper meaning of the healing miracle: just as Jesus can heal the body of this man, so he can heal the soul of anyone who will trust in him! The source of the power for this healing was not Peter or John themselves; rather, it was the power of the risen Jesus Christ, now in Heaven, which had healed the man. This crowd has been responsible for having Jesus crucified, and yet in spite of this great wickedness, God offered them forgiveness, if they would but repent of their wrongdoing and place their trust in Jesus: ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…’ (Acts 3:19)
1. The first ever persecution of Christians
Why are the Sadducees so upset? Why do they try to silence Peter and John through intimidation and imprisonment? It is because of their jealousy and hunger for power. It is nothing to do with the truth of what has happened, which they cannot deny. As a result of the healing, we read that thousands of more people were putting their trust in Jesus: ‘But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.’ (Acts 4:4) The Sadducees worked closely with the Romans, and had a degree of power of their own. The last thing they wanted was a new movement which might upset the applecart: ‘What are we going to do with these men?’ they asked. ‘Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.’ (Acts 4:16-17)
This is the bottom line – the Sadducees do not want the church to spread and grow. It wasn’t just about their power and keeping control, although that was part of it. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the apostles were teaching that Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact, the proof of this resurrection stood before them in the shape of the healed man. Moreover, the Sadducees had also been instrumental in having Jesus crucified. They were not willing to swallow their pride and admit that they were completely wrong about Jesus. They see Peter and John as heretics, who are disturbing the political peace they profited from. Rather than investigating the healing miracle further or looking to the Bible for answers, the Sadducees are only concerned about their own power, wealth and control. They ignore the fact of the healing and what it might mean. They ignore the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and what that might mean, and just try to extinguish the Christian church.
Imagine what it must have been like for Peter and John. First, they are dragged into jail for the night (verse 3). It’s as if the Sadducees are saying: ‘This is what we can do to you if you don’t do what we say’. Next, they are brought before the Sanhedrin, a group of around seventy men, including Pharisees, Sadducees, the High Priest and the head of the temple police. These men were the most powerful men in the country, both in terms of political and religious power. They met in a semi-circle and I think it’s likely Peter and John would have to stand in front of them all. They are asked: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ (Acts 4:7) It would have been so easy for them to keep quiet.
Only a few months earlier, Jesus had been tried by this group, and they all knew what had happened to him. They could’ve watered down what had happened, by fudging an answer. They could say something vague like that it was God’s power which had healed the man, missing out the offensive ‘Jesus’ part. What does Peter say? ‘If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.’ (Acts 4:9-10)
Peter’s boldness and integrity is wonderful. He’s not trying to save his own skin. Rather, he wants the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ offer of salvation to be widely known, no matter what it might cost him personally. The centre of Peter’s message is found in verse 12: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’
Let’s focus on this key verse.
2. A universal problem
Peter’s message to the Sanhedrin back then, and God’s message to us today is that we all need to be saved. Salvation means to be saved or rescued. Of course, this implies that there is something which we need to be saved from. God is telling each person, in every country of the world, and in every age that we share the same fundamental problem and that is this: we are separated from God because of the wrong thoughts and actions in our lives. This is a devastating problem for us all, and one which we cannot sort out on our own. I like to sort problems on my own when I can, but I cannot sort this problem out. I need God. Why? Because no matter how hard I try, I keep on thinking and saying wrong things which hurt others and even worse are offensive to God my Creator. The same is true for you.
We often use the illustration of imagining that all the sinful things we think and do were displayed on the screen in the church for everyone else to see. We would be more than embarrassed. We’d be so ashamed that no one would ever want to come back. But let’s imagine something even worse; as the film is being played, God himself is watching it. He is totally holy and pure, in a way we cannot grasp. Friends, this isn’t really an illustration, because God does know all about our lives, including our thought-lives.
So many of us have lived our lives taking all of God’s good and generous gifts – homes to live in, health, work, family and friendship, food and medicine – but we largely ignore the God who has given is these gifts. Even though God made us, gives us each breath and many other good things besides, we ignore his message in the Bible, we ignore his Son Jesus, and we pay no attention to the fact that one day we all must stand before God to give an account for our lives.
God’s diagnosis of the human race is that everyone is in the same situation – we all suffer from selfishness, pride and put ourselves before God, in God’s own world. This might offend you. We might not like God’s diagnosis. However, we still need to face up to it. If we receive a diagnosis from the doctor we don’t like, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It would be foolish to ignore the problem.
3. A universal offer
The wonderful truth is that Jesus Christ is able to save us from this problem. He has done this by giving his life for us. Just as British soldiers laid down their lives in the great wars in order to keep us free from enemy occupation, so Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, to set us free from the power and penalty of human sin. Jesus’ death was the ultimate loving sacrifice. He never sinned. Not even once. But he willingly went to war with sin and Satan, paying the moral debt which we deserve to pay.
As we see the flags of many nations hanging in our church today, we are reminded that this offer from Jesus is made to all the people in all the countries of the world. The name of Jesus means ‘God saves’ and his offer is given to the whole world. That includes you. God will welcome you if you humbly admit your sin and ask for forgiveness. Jesus’ offer is made to the whole of the human race: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12) If it’s given to mankind then that must include you. What have you done with this offer?
What is Peter saying to the Sadducees? He’s saying that Jesus is not just the source of healing or salvation for the lame man, it is much wider than that- Jesus is the only source of salvation for the whole world, a world crippled by sin and rebellion against God.
‘I’m so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I’m so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.’ (Tim Keller)
4. The only Saviour
Jesus is an exclusive Saviour. He is the only Saviour. No one else is qualified to die for our sins, because no one else has lived a perfect life. Because Jesus lived a perfect life, he was able to become our sacrifice. And because Jesus is God-become-human, his sacrifice is of limitless value, and able to pay the price for the sins of any who will trust in him. No one else is qualified to save human beings. That means no other religions can deal with your sin or my sin. They might offer some good advice, or some helpful morals at times, but they cannot deal with our fundamental problem – sin.
The Christian message, then, is unique and exclusive. Salvation is found in no one else. Salvation is not found in Buddhism, or humanism, or Hinduism – they offer nothing to atone for our personal sins. They have no Saviour. These religions ultimately come from human beings, as they grapple with the big questions of life, such as: who made the world? Why is the world the way it is? Who is God? What does God want from us? The Christian faith comes from God. It is not so much about what we can do for God, but what God can do for us. He can save us! We know it is true because Jesus rose from the dead and the Bible is the Word of God.
In 2023, is sounds crazy to say that Jesus is the only Saviour and all other religions cannot save. It sounds arrogant. We’re constantly told that tolerance means all religions must be equally valid. But that is not what tolerance means. We can respect other people’s beliefs without agreeing with them. In any case, it makes no sense to say all religions are equally valid as they contradict each other. For example, Jews and Jehovah witnesses do not believe Jesus is God. That’s offensive to them. We do.
How can you spot a man-made, invented religion? All human religions say we must earn the favour of God by our own efforts. Christianity says the opposite, that we cannot earn forgiveness, but it is a free gift of God, which comes to us when we receive Jesus as Saviour.
The Bible is clear.
‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.’ (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6)
‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ (Exodus 20:3)