When Jesus left the scene after the resurrection, the disciples gradually picked up the pieces and began to organize themselves into a powerful group. But as of yet, we haven’t seen them go anywhere. They were all packed for a journey, but they hadn’t gone anywhere yet. Getting ready is one thing, but actually going is another entirely. It requires something of us. What is this? In Acts 3-4 Peter and John put it beautifully on display for us. Keep reading to find out what it is and what it means for us.
Let me start with a bit of a survey this morning. Do you think Christians today have more or less freedom to pursue the practice of their faith than we did 10 years ago? If you would say, “More freedom,” raise your hand. If you would say, “Less freedom,” raise your hand. Okay, let me change the question just a bit on you. Do you think Christians have more or less cultural power than we did 10 years ago? If you say, “more,” raise your hand. If you say, “less,” raise your hand.
Okay, confession time: I wasn’t really sure what kind of responses I’d get there. Well, that’s not totally true. I had some guesses. My guesses were this: Most self-professed Christians today believe that the answer to both of those questions is, “less.” Want to know the truth, though? The truth is that in terms of cultural power, the church and Christians generally are in about the worst spot we’ve been in the history of this nation. The church and followers of Jesus aren’t looked to as leaders on pretty much any front. If you feel like the world hates you more for being a Jesus person than at any previous point in your life, you’re right. It does.
But, in terms of legal freedom to live out your faith without fear of harassment at least by the Federal Government, things have never been better. The state of religious liberty in this country from a Constitutional Law standpoint is better than it has ever been. In terms of religious liberty alone, there isn’t anywhere better to be in the world than right here. There have been 15 major Supreme Court cases dealing with religious liberty in recent years. Religious liberty proponents have won all of them and they haven’t even generally been close. With the loss of cultural power, though, it doesn’t feel much like it sometimes, does it?
Think of what interesting times we live in as followers of Jesus. We have at one and the same time more freedom and less power than we’ve ever had, arguably, anywhere in the whole world or across the annals of church history. What all of this means is that our situation in some ways today is a great deal more similar to the situation of the early church than we might like. In the last couple of weeks we have seen the members of that early church begin picking up the pieces after Jesus left by taking one next right step after another, as well as how the church got its explosive start when the Holy Spirit descended on the original group of disciples.
Last week we reflected on the practices and character traits that early group put in place under the Spirit’s direction that made sure they were built to last and structured for success. Getting organized into an actual, defined group was important, but there was one more step they had to take if they were going to reach the full potential Jesus intended for them to have. They had to start actually going somewhere. Well, going somewhere requires something of us.
Have you ever gotten all ready for a trip, but then never left? You probably haven’t because that would be silly. To put that much effort into preparing for something and then not actually go anywhere would be silly waste of time and energy. And yet, getting ready for a journey is one thing. Actually taking that journey is something else entirely. Right up to the point that you leave, it’s all just theory and ideas. They may be grand ideas and a compelling theory, but they aren’t anything more than that. As soon as you take that first step, though, things rush into reality and they just may not be quite like you had imagined they would be. The fear of that moment of realization makes taking that first step more challenging than it seems like it should be.
Well, as we have just remembered together in observing the Lord’s Supper, the movement of which we are a part is driven by some really grand ideas. The God who created the world and everything in it is so committed to seeing you become fully who He created you to be to His glory and your joy that He was willing for His only Son to be brutally put to death in order to pay the price for your sins and open the gates for you to a relationship with Himself. Then, on the third day, He rose again. Like I said, big ideas. And the theory is that once He left the scene after His work was completed, He sent the Holy Spirit to empower and equip us for the task He left us to complete so that we are not only never alone in pursuing it, but so that, in Him, we are never without everything we need for accomplishing it. Pretty compelling theory. But ready as we may be, nothing is going to happen unless and until we actually start going somewhere. Yet as I said, going somewhere takes something of us. In fact, it demands it. It demands boldness. And as we continue Telling Our Story with the help of Luke’s record of the early church in Acts, that’s exactly what we are going to see today in some pretty inspiring ways.
As we pick up the story in Acts 3 this morning, we find Peter and John heading into the temple for the time of prayer. This was a daily event that all Jews who were able in the city participated in. Well, whether they were going there to participate or to engage in more evangelistic activities Luke doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us is that as they walked into the temple, they came across a man who everyone going into the temple knew. He was a lame beggar who was there every single day asking for handouts. He’d been being brought there for years. He was a fixture almost as permanent as the walls themselves. Just like he did every day, this man was calling for passersby to have pity on him and give him something so that he could eat that day. For whatever reason—we’ll call it the prompting of the Holy Spirit—that day Peter and John used this particular gate to go into the temple. When the man’s cries fell on their ears they stopped, spoke to him briefly, and then healed him in Jesus’ name.
Well, this understandably created a stir. For folks to see this man they all knew as the cripple at the Beautiful Gate (that was its name, not its description), jumping and dancing and glorifying God at the top of his lungs prompted an obvious question in their minds: How did this happen? This was the kind of stuff that Jesus had been rumored to have done. But He was gone. Who could be doing something like this now? They didn’t have to wonder for long. The man was literally hanging on Peter and John and shouting for all to hear that they were the ones who had done this great thing. A curious crowd began to draw near.
Like he had done on the day of Pentecost, Peter seized the moment so that he could point the people back to Jesus. He proclaimed the Gospel to them. But he doesn’t do it the way you and I might. In fact, at the beginning of his message here he sounds uncomfortably like one of those angry street preachers everybody loves to hate. He basically accuses the crowd of killing Jesus. “You killed the source of life…” He goes on, though, to bring them back to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
In the middle of their sermon, Peter and John are arrested by the Sadducees who are irritated, Luke says, because the pair are talking about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Sadducees, you may remember, were the group who rejected the very idea of a resurrection. They wanted to shut up these lunatics and figured a night in jail and an intimidating appearance before the entire Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, would cower them into silence. Except it didn’t.
Standing before the Sanhedrin the following morning, Peter picks up basically right where he left off, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and salvation in His name. The group was stunned. All they could do was marvel at the boldness of these two. What could possibly give them such courage? There was only one thing that could have done it. Luke tells us in 4:13: “When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed…” like we just said. But what was it they attributed this boldness to? Look at the rest of the verse: “…they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus.” That was the only thing they could figure out. Something about this Jesus made these men bold beyond what anyone there thought wisdom should have allowed. Let me ask you: Has being with Jesus made you bold? Listen: Peter and John didn’t have anything you and I don’t have ourselves as fellow followers of Jesus. They were simply so convinced it was true that they were willing to act on it regardless of what the immediate physical consequences might have been.
Indeed, Peter and John, threatened with more arrests, imprisonment, and even physical beatings, openly promised to defy them if they felt God so leading. Verse 19: “Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.’” Finally, the Sanhedrin members threw up their hands. They threatened to beat them if they spoke up about Jesus again and sent them on their way. The apostles had the crowds—the dramatic healing had only happened the day before—and the hands of these political leaders were tied.
When the pair were released, they went immediately back to their brothers and sisters and told them what had happened. The group broke into a spontaneous time of prayer. The first time I read this prayer and was really paying attention to what it said my jaw hit the floor. I’m telling you: If we make their prayer here our prayer, there really isn’t anything we won’t be able to accomplish as a church. There aren’t any barriers that will hold us back from reaching the full potential God has built into our community here. None. Are you with me? This is powerful stuff.
They start by praising God for His sovereignty and power. When you are facing challenges that are bigger than you, it is important to remember that you serve a God bigger than the challenges you are facing. They acknowledge together that even though the forces of power in the city thought they were doing whatever they pleased in putting Jesus to death, it was really God Himself who was behind the scenes controlling the whole thing from the start. And now, these same forces were conspiring against them, flexing their political muscle, once again. And, while knowing what was true before is good, in the midst of present challenges, it is sometimes easy to forget about everything but that current challenge. What happened before is fine, but we want help here and now, right?
So then, what did they pray for? What was it that made my jaw hit the floor? Protection? Safety? Comfort? Open doors to share the Gospel without worrying about the consequences? Nope. Listen to this in 4:29: “And now, Lord, consider their threats…” are you ready for this? Are you sure? “And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Cue prayerful mic drop.
In other words, God, you do your thing, and help us stay bold in our witness. But what about…? There weren’t any “whatabouts” here. There was only faithful boldness. God, whatever might happen to us—they may very well follow through on their threats—let us be concerned with being bold first and you take care of your part. That was their prayer. And the kingdom expanded. Jesus’ kingdom advances on the boldness of His followers.
Listen, our culture doesn’t like Christianity anymore. It just doesn’t. A primetime CNN talking head the other night in trying to make a point about the Founding Fathers not being worthy of the admiration they often received argued that nobody claims Jesus was perfect when He was on earth. Folks who make arguments like that about Jesus Himself don’t have any patience for His followers. And that wasn’t isolated ignorance. Governor after governor during this pandemic has had no problem openly trying to restrict the religious liberty of Christians (and other people of faith) while openly allowing causes they support to go on unhindered. The very fact that there have been 15 major Supreme Court wins for religious liberty in recent years means there have been 15 major challenges to it. We don’t get threatened with violence like they were, but an increasingly powerful cancel culture is just fine seeing us canceled out of existence if that were possible.
The easy response to all of this is to hunker down in our Christian conclaves and pray for protection. That’s the natural response. Many believers make that very prayer their own. But where we do, the kingdom of God retreats. Friends, our call is not to retreat in the work our Lord set us to accomplish. We’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to step out and see the kingdom advance. Just like it did for our brothers and sisters here in Acts, that will happen today when we summon up the courage to prayerfully step out and speak His words with all boldness. Jesus’ kingdom advances on the boldness of His followers.
Now, this doesn’t mean being unwise or unloving in our efforts, but sometimes we hide behind not wanting to be unwise or unloving and remain in the safety of our comfort zones rather than summoning the boldness to see the kingdom advance. Jesus’ kingdom advances on the boldness of His followers. If we are going to see God’s great plans for us come to fruition here at First Baptist Oakboro, it is going to require boldness. He’s moving in our midst. He is moving in our community. The ground is already prepared. The crop is coming to bear. We need only step out with boldness and begin harvesting the fruit. Here’s your challenge, then: What’s one thing you can do to be prayerfully bold for the kingdom this week? Got it? Now, get to work.