Witness and mission

Sermon: Sunday, 19th November, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 4:13-31

When God’s work is being done and the Kingdom of God is advancing, there is always opposition from the forces of evil. The early chapters of Acts have several wonderful summary statements about the growth of the church.

After Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost we read: ‘Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.’ (Acts 2:41)
And after the healing of the man lame from birth we read: ‘But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.’ (Acts 4:4)
Then in Acts chapter 6 we read, ‘So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’ (Acts 6:7)

What a wonderful time to be alive! However, Satan is not going to watch idly from the side-lines. He seeks to silence the early church through persecution, whether in the form of threats, violence or imprisonment. He also seeks to stop the work of the church through disunity and internal squabbling, false teaching, and by distracting the apostles from their work; we read about this in Acts chapter 6. Satan attacks from outside of the church and from within the church itself. His tactics today are exactly the same.

This is a strong pattern in the Bible. When Nehemiah is rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, there are moral problems from within the Israelite camp which threaten the work. And there is also persecution and threats from the nations who surround Israel. The same can be said about Israel in the time of Moses. The internal threats to God’s covenant people are in the form of complaining, unbelief and idolatry. The external threat comes from the Amalekites who viciously attack them.

Today, in 2023, as we seek to plant a church in Leven and develop gospel work in Kirkcaldy, we must expect spiritual opposition. We must expect people to fall out in church, moral failure, threats of division, and we must expect opposition from many unbelievers, who don’t want the cause of Jesus to advance. More personally and as individuals, if you get more involved in speaking up for Jesus in your family, at work and with others you know, you ought to expect tough things to happen. Expect some people to ‘unfriend’ you, ostracise you, and gossip about you. Expect a degree of mockery and exclusion and mistreatment. It was that way for Jesus, and he said it would be that way for us. Evangelism has a cost.

1. Silence or speaking

Quite clearly, the enemies of the early church want to silence Christians: ‘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) Peter and John could talk about thousands of different topics, and that was fine! However, they must stop ‘going on about’ Jesus Christ. That was off the agenda. That was to be a ‘no go’ area.

Today, it’s exactly the same. There are many countries where it is against the law to ‘proselytise’ by telling people about Jesus. If an Iranian Christian attempts to convert someone to Christianity, they can go to jail. Additionally, if a Muslim in Iran converts to Christianity, that person can face jail time or even death. Persecution of Christians is growing in India, where Hindu extremists continue to promote the idea that Christians, because they practice a faith that originated outside of India, are not as devoted to India as are Hindus.

But what about in the UK? We have religious freedom here, but there’s still a huge pressure not to talk about Jesus Christ. For many, it’s like that subject is banned. We can talk for hours about trivial things and that’s ok, and we can talk about our hobbies, and our families and football and the weather, but often when we try to discuss and explore deeper things such as the meaning of life or why Jesus is so wonderful, we receive a negative response or total apathy.

A survey by Premier Christian Communications, reported that 93 percent of the Christian respondents “believe that Christianity is being marginalised” in the U.K., while 50 percent said they have experienced prejudice because of their faith. 80% percent of those who took part in the survey believe that “Christianity is not given equal respect” as other worldviews and religions. 26 percent of respondents said that they are unable to be open about their faith in their workplace or equivalent setting. According to Premier, 67 percent of respondents said that it is not considered acceptable in society for Christians to share their faith with others.

We need to be realistic. We all feel the pressure of this. We all feel the pressure to stop speaking about Jesus and keep our faith private. Despite living in a country which speaks so much about tolerance, in Scotland in 2023 many people are intolerant towards Christians who want to share their faith. What should we do? How should we respond? Should we just hide our faith at our workplace, and avoid Christian conversations, and keep our faith private as many want us to?

We must learn from the godly example of Peter and John. But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4:19-20) This is what we must do. No matter what, we must keep on sharing the good news of Jesus with the lost souls around us. It comes down to this, are we going to obey God or are we going to obey the voices in culture which want to shut us up? Of course, we’re not called to ram our views down the throats of others. If we try to engage people and they aren’t interested then we respectfully stop, and prayerfully and sensitively wait for another chance. The one thing we must not do is be silent. What will happen to our church if most of us keep quiet about our faith? We won’t be here 10 years from now!

I love those words: ‘We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’. That’s how we should be. We love God so much that we want others to love him too. We’ve been so blessed by God’s peace and forgiveness that we want others to experience that too. We’ve discovered, like the Samaritans in John ch 4, that Jesus ‘truly is the Saviour of the world’, and we long for others to be saved, as we have been, so we open our mouths and speak to people about Jesus. We will not be silenced. The eternal destinies of those around us are too important for our silence.

“We must reject the position advocated all too frequently publicly and privately in response to pressure not to proclaim Christ; which is that silence, letting my life do the talking, serves God best before a hostile world.’ The holy Spirit does not empower his people to silence.” (David Cook)

If we are honest, many Christians in our churches keep quiet about their faith. That is one reason our churches are in decline. People will not know the message of Jesus unless we tell them! So, how can we challenge ourselves this morning? How can we have something of the courage of these men? How can we become bolder Christians?

2. The secret of speaking up for Jesus

Secret 1. We must pray for boldness.
When Peter and John are released, they go back to the church family to update them. Instinctively, they respond to difficulty by praying together. What do they pray for? Do they pray that the persecution would stop? No. Do they pray for an easier time in the future? No. v29 ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.’ They are praying for boldness. In other words, their main concern isn’t primarily about their own troubles; their main concern is that the gospel would keep going out and be heard by more and more people. Now here’s a question: when was the last time you prayed for boldness to talk about Jesus? Do you pray that others would be emboldened too? We should! We must! We’ve been praying for the conversions of those we know (5 minutes for 5 people). Keep that going! But let’s also start praying that the Christians in this church would not be intimidated or silenced by mockery. Let’s pray that we’d be more concerned with the glory of God than for our own comfort. Let’s pray for boldness.

Secret 2: We must spend time with Jesus.
We ought to encourage those of us who long to speak more about our Saviour: ‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.’ (Acts 4:13)

We’re told that the apostles were unschooled and ordinary. Perhaps you feel ordinary today. Perhaps you feel you’re not very well educated in theology. That should not stop you from sharing your faith. Even the Sanhedrin recognised that Peter and John had incredible courage and wisdom. Wisdom and confidence are available to us too. And if we spend time in God ‘s company, though Bible reading prayer, then it will become obvious to others that we too have ‘been in the company of Jesus’.

Secret 3: Really trust that our sovereign God is in control of what happens to us and others.
‘When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. ‘Sovereign Lord…’ (Acts 4:24)

The word ‘sovereign’ speaks of God’s total power and authority. In verse 24, they remind themselves that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. That helps us to keep persecution and mockery and the possibility of losing friends in perspective. The powers of this world might be against us at times, but we have a much, much higher power on our side, so we don’t need to be afraid.

In verses 27-28, We see that God is so powerful and so sovereign that even when God’s enemies grouped together to have Jesus killed, even then God was in control, and was using these events for good and for his own glory, through the salvation of countless people. Peter and John, in effect, ask the question – is some persecution and threats from a few humans a problem too big for God to handle? No. We must apply this logic to our own lives. We must share our faith in Jesus Christ, trusting that even if this results and great hardship for us, God is in control of this too, and even more than that, he’ll use it for our good. He is in control. He is the Sovereign Lord.

Secret 4: We must ask God to keep on filling us with the Holy Spirit.
‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (Acts 4:31)

We need to pray for the power and presence of God by his Spirit, if our witnessing to Jesus is to be effective. Be encouraged! As we speak to family members and colleagues and neighbours, we are not on our own! And once again notice the pattern, when we are filled with the Spirit, what happens? We tell other people about Jesus.