Throughout the book of Acts there is an unseen battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The Lord Jesus has ascended into Heaven and sent his Spirit, to enable his people to share the gospel to others. ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)
Being Jesus’ witnesses through living holy lives and through speaking about Jesus to others is one of the main tasks of the church. It is one of our main tasks today. However, while this is going on, Satan is doing all he can to stop Christians from speaking about Jesus. He does this by distracting Christians, by persecuting them and by trying to lead them into living sinful lives, as we saw with Ananias and Saphira. This is a huge part of the drama of Acts: God wants the good news of his Son scattered far and wide, while Satan does all he can to silence Christians. What are we like this morning, generally speaking – are we speaking Christians or silent Christians?
In our new vision statement, we have 7 areas to focus on. The 3rd one reads: ‘Equipping and encouraging members in personal evangelism.’ So, what I want to do is, through this passage, to see how we can be inspired by the apostles to be speaking Christians, rather than silent ones. If we are honest, we need to admit that it is far easier to be silent than to speak about Jesus.
1. Speaking about Jesus will bring you trouble
There is always opposition. This is as true today as it was for the apostles back in the book of Acts. ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ (2 Timothy 3:12) In chapter 4, we saw that Peter and John were imprisoned and threatened before the Sanhedrin. These powerful men had commanded them to be silent. They must have been raging to find out that the apostles had ignored their threats and carried on speaking about Jesus. We’re told (verse 17) that they are ‘jealous’ of the apostles. Thousands have been placing their trust in Jesus. Great crowds listened to the apostles. The sick were being healed. The Sadducees are used to being the ones in control.
In verse 8 we read that the apostles are imprisoned again. And even when they are supernaturally released by an angel of God, the persecution continues, and the Sanhedrin once more command them to ‘shut up’ and to stop speaking about the Jesus. The Sadducees hate Jesus and the message of the gospel so much that they cannot even bear to speak his name. Instead, they say: ‘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.’ (Acts 5:28) And when they realise that the apostles are more concerned about obeying God than their wrong commands, the Sadducees reach boiling point: ‘When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.’ (Acts 5:33) Even when Gamaliel manages to calm the situation down and persuades the Sanhedrin to let the apostles go, they suffer once more for the sake of Jesus: ‘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.’ (Acts 5:40)
Let’s go back to our vision statement. We want all the Christians in Kirkcaldy Free Church to be prayerfully and boldly speaking to others about Jesus, as we have opportunity. But we must be prepared to suffer for Jesus. If you are silent, Satan already has you where he wants you and won’t need to bother you as much. But as soon as you start to pray for opportunities to witness and start taking them, expect to be laughed at, mocked, and be the odd one out. Remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:11-12)
You might think Jesus’ call for us to rejoice when we suffer for him a bit ‘over the top’. However, that’s exactly how the apostles do respond here: ‘The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’ (Verse 41) Is that how you respond when people mock your faith? Or does such a response seem unrealistic? It is only possible if we are regularly asking God for courage to share our faith, and asking for his help as we do it. It is only possible if we ask for strength to keep going, even when others turn against us.
In all of this we must keep perspective. Our suffering is not a waste of time. In fact, we shall be rewarded in Heaven! How wonderful! Think of Christians in countries which face severe persecution for evangelising, and who like the apostles and are told by the authorities to stop. What keeps them speaking out? What keeps them sharing the good news of Jesus even when they might be imprisoned? Surely, they are being upheld by God’s grace, and have been on their knees in prayer. Are we serious about telling others about Jesus in this church? Are you serious about it? Then pray for boldness and for the right attitude and perspective when we face opposition from others.
2. God will build his church no matter what
At the prayer meeting on Wednesday, we were reminded of Jesus’ promise: ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not overcome it.’ (Matthew 16:18) Just when it looks like Satan has the upper hand, and has managed to silence Christians by having the apostles imprisoned, God sends his angel to effortlessly open the doors of the jail, so that the gospel can keep on spreading. Of course, this does not usually happen to imprisoned Christians. But we must not miss what God is saying through this act: it is a sign that the gospel is unstoppable. God’s word cannot be chained. Yes, for a time it might seem like Satan has the upper hand. His threats, imprisonments, mockery and moral attacks will have an impact. However, Jesus is always one step ahead. What an encouragement to us today.
I love what the angel says to these men: ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ (Verse 20) Remember, the apostles have just been imprisoned for speaking about Jesus. Now the angel says, go back and keep on doing what you were doing! God is saying, in effect, ‘My message of eternal life will be heard!’ The strategy is exactly the same for us today – we keep on telling people about Jesus. They desperately need to hear about eternal life, and that’s much more important than any temporary persecution we might face. The message is a matter of spiritual life and death for people. If we really believed that, we would talk to more people about Jesus.
For us today, this image of the prison door being miraculously opened is a simple but powerful reminder that God wants his church to be telling people about new life in Christ, no matter what will happen to us. And when we do share the message, we can be assured of the smile of our Heavenly Father upon us.
3. As a church, we must focus on obeying God rather than pleasing people
But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29)
This ought to be at the front of minds as we go into the rest of this year. We must be God-pleasers. We must obey God. We are not called to be people pleasers. Our ultimate aim in life is not to please ourselves, or our boss, or our spouse, or our children. We must concentrate on being God-pleasers.
Telling people about Jesus pleases God. Often it will displease our family and friends and work colleagues and neighbours. They probably won’t mind if we speak to them about Christmas shoeboxes or collecting for the foodbank, or even how friendly our church is. But as soon as we start to talk about repentance and forgiveness of sin, as the apostles do here in verse 31, many will want us to be silent. It goes against the grain of our pluralistic society to speak of Jesus as the only Saviour. It is offensive. It goes against the grain to speak about our accountability to God. Let’s make no mistake, there’s real pressure on Christians in Scotland today to privatise their faith. Don’t give in to the pressure. Aim to please God and keep on talking about Jesus.
Even when we humbly answer people’s questions about what we believe, some will accuse us of being bigots. Some will see us as being totally out of touch. Some will get angry with us for no good reason.
‘And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.’ (John 3:19-20)
The ESV brings out the angel’s command more clearly. The apostles are to speak ‘all the words’ of this life. In other words, don’t change the message. Don’t tone it down because of the trouble it keeps getting you in. Be faithful and true and keep on speaking about Jesus as the only way to be saved. We see the courage of apostles as they immediately obey this command. And we also see their courage before the Sanhedrin. They do not mince their words: ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.’ (Acts 5:30-31)
Again, such courage can only come when the Holy Spirit is giving us the words to say. We must depend on God when we are witnessing to others, praying as we speak.