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Facing Off Without Falling Apart

Seven principles for proclaiming the gospel in hostile territory.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Acts: The Rest of the Story". See series.


In Acts 4 we witness an epic battle between a David-like underdog and a behemoth giant. In one corner you have two unschooled, unimpressive Galilean fishermen named Peter and John. In the other corner you have all the power and authority of 2,000 years of religious tradition. This was the first such clash in the history of the Christian church, and it all took place in the temple precinct.

Earlier in the day, Peter and John had been on their way to the temple to pray around three o'clock, when they stumbled upon a middle-aged man, who had been lame from birth, begging alms. Peter looked at the man and said he didn't have any money, but in the name of Jesus Christ he commanded him to walk. Immediately, Luke tells us, the man leaped up and began walking and praising God. He followed Peter and John into the temple, so that by the time they left, there was quite a crowd. Everyone was amazed, because they recognized this man as the one who always sat and begged in the same spot. Peter seized the opportunity to tell the crowd that this miracle was not done because of his own power or piety, but through faith in the name of Jesus.

Because they had raised such a commotion, the religious authorities in charge of the temple arrested Peter and John. This is the first of many times in Acts when the early Christians clashed with the Jewish rulers. Luke writes this account in such a way as to impress upon us the array of rulers the Christians were facing off against. In Acts 4:1-6, Luke lists no fewer than eleven different individuals or groups who opposed Peter and John. There were the priests, the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees (verse 1); the rulers, elders, and scribes (verse 5); and four individuals: Annas and Caiaphas, John and Alexander (verse 6). These are all the heavyweights lined up against these two measly fishermen—one of whom has already denied Christ three times.

As a follower of Jesus, when you look at the opposition, do you ever feel small? Do you ever feel small intellectually? America has great centers of learning like Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton, at which intricate arguments are articulated that seem to refute the credibility of the Bible. They tell us God could not have created human beings; rather, we're just the result of natural selection. We feel small morally, as we deal with the daily onslaught of immorality from our culture. Just try to suggest the idea that sexual intimacy ought to be reserved for marriage, and you'll be viewed as a nut case. We even feel small religiously. We live in a world in which countries with enormous populations have very few Christians; where Christian workers are refused visas; where Bibles are banned. How can we say that salvation is found only in Christ when there are so many who may never really hear of Christ except in connection with an American flag?

As we read Acts 4, let's ask ourselves what this passage teaches about living in a world in which we feel small. What can we learn about this clash between the messengers of Christ and those opposed to Christ? I want to offer seven principles.

We should expect a clash.

Luke records in Acts 4:2 that the Jewish leaders were "greatly disturbed" that Peter and John were preaching about the resurrection of the dead through Jesus. The Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection; they didn't believe in life after death at all. In the same way, we can expect the world to be greatly disturbed by the gospel today.

It isn't clear in our English translation, but the phrase in verse 1 that describes how the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees "came up to them" carries the idea that they came upon them suddenly. They didn't just meander up to Peter and John and say, "Hey, we need to talk about this." One moment Peter and John were preaching, and the next moment they were ambushed by soldiers. The captain of the temple guard—the official in charge of the temple police—threw them in jail for the night. He didn't have to do that; he could have simply ordered them to court the next morning. Instead, he decided letting them spend a night in jail would dampen their spirits.

But it didn't work. The next day, Peter and John stood firm before the Sanhedrin. So the authorities took their intimidation a step further (4:21). When they told them "to not teach or speak in the name of Jesus" they added: if you do, we'll beat the tar out of you.

When we speak boldly about the gospel, we shouldn't be surprised when we get this kind of reaction. This is one of the reasons we often shrink away from talking about it. In our culture, we won't be thrown in jail, but we may be laughed at. We may be left off the invitation list. If you're a student and you speak up about the gospel in the classroom of a secular university, you might risk a lower grade. If you talk about it on your application, you might not even get into the school. These are just a few ways the world tries to intimidate us into keeping our faith to ourselves.

You can confine the messengers, but you can't confine the message.

There is great irony in verses 3 and 4. The religious rulers were trying to intimidate Peter and John by interrupting their preaching and throwing them in jail. But immediately in verse 4, Luke writes that those who heard the message and believed numbered about 5,000! Remember that 3,000 believed after Peter's first sermon; now there are 2,000 more. Peter and John didn't even get to the altar call, but 2,000 people came to Christ anyway. Do you see the point? You can confine the messengers, but you can't confine the message.

I have a Turkish friend named Ziya, who grew up in a secular Muslim family. When he was 17, he went to an Anglican church with ten friends because of an article he read about the church in a local newspaper. The newspaper claimed the church lured young people to become Christians by offering them wine, $100 US every Sunday, and the possibility of marrying a young British woman (which implied a chance to live in the United Kingdom). Ziya became a Christian that morning, despite the fact that the church didn't give him or his friends any money, didn't allow them to drink the Communion wine, and provided no prospects of a lovely British wife. His family disowned him for converting, and his life has been difficult since. He wrote me recently to say, "I'm still broke, sober, and single after all these years, but that's how I first met with Jesus."

You can't confine the message. Even after his family disowned him, Ziya still follows Christ. Sometimes we wonder how we would respond in a situation like that.

The Spirit will give us words to speak.

It would be a huge mistake to believe that this story is all about what courageous men Peter and John were. It would be a huge mistake to overlook what Luke says in verse 8: "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them …" It would be a huge mistake to forget the promise Jesus made to his disciples when he said, "When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say" (Luke 12:11-12). Right when we need him the most—not before or after—he will give us what we need.

I heard a story about missionaries in Africa who were translating the Bible into a tribal language. They were finding it difficult to translate the word Jesus used for the Holy Spirit: paraclete. One day the translators came across a group of porters in the bush carrying bundles on their heads. They noticed there was always one person among the porters who didn't carry anything, and they assumed he was a supervisor, there to make sure everyone did their work. But they soon found out he had a special job. He was there in case anyone fell over with exhaustion; he would come and pick up the man's load and carry it for him. The word they used to designate this porter meant "the one who falls down beside us." The missionaries decided to use that word to translate paraclete.

That's an excellent way to understand the Holy Spirit. At the moment we fall—when we have no idea what to say—he comes beside us to fill and empower us. Peter had already been filled with the Spirit in chapter 2. In Acts 4, however, we witness a special filling at a specific time, which allowed him to speak in face of danger. The Spirit will do the same for us. Sometimes we'll say something we didn't think much about at the time only to discover later that it had a special impact. The Holy Spirit will give us just what we need when we need it most.

We must not compromise the message.

Peter's message in 4:8-12 is so pointed and clear. Initially, he addresses the religious leaders with a measure of respect; he calls them "rulers and elders of the people" instead of "you brood of vipers." Then he employs a little irony: Hey, are we on trial here for helping this lame man? Is it a crime to make someone well? Then he gets more pointed. He tells them this man is able to walk by the power of Jesus Christ "whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead." Then he continues: And by the way, salvation is found in no one else.

That's not a very popular thing to say these days. It's okay to have your own beliefs. People aren't all that offended by our believing in Jesus. But if you want to get a reaction, then tell someone there is no other way to be saved. Tell someone that because no one else did what Jesus did—no one else lived a sinless life, offered his life to take away the sin of the world, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven—there is no other way to find salvation. People don't like that.

The minister who delivered the sermon at President Ford's memorial service chose John 14 as his text. I was so glad he chose that text; it's the one in which Jesus says:

Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.

The minister read the part where Thomas interrupts Jesus and says, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, so how do we know the way?" Then he read Jesus' great response: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." But he stopped there and began his sermon. It bothered me that he stopped there, because Jesus didn't only say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

I don't want to be overly critical of that minister, but it seems to me he stopped just before the point where people get upset. It seems to me he de-clawed the gospel. I don't like to offend people. I say this humbly, and because Jesus said it: there is no other way.

Formal education will not make us bold for Christ.

You might think, "I can't really articulate the gospel like that. I've never been to Bible school or seminary." In response, notice what Luke writes in verse 13. When these religious leaders saw "the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized them as having been with Jesus."

Peter and John were not illiterate country bumpkins. Rather, the text indicates they simply weren't educated in the right schools—the rabbinic schools. You might say they went to Boise State instead of Stanford. But their confidence made the leaders realize these guys had been with Jesus. How did they make that connection? The same thing happened with Jesus. John 7:15 says that when the Jews heard Jesus teaching "they marveled saying, 'How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?'" It was the same with Jesus as with Peter and John. They were bold and straightforward and clear. They had insight into the things of God, even though they had never had the education the scribes had. You don't need to be formally educated to be bold and clear in what you say for Christ in public. What you need is real fellowship with Jesus—the kind of experience that enables you to say: "I cannot but speak what I have seen and heard."

One thing I've learned is that there is nothing in advanced education that makes a person a clear and courageous spokesman for the truth. I believe in education. I believe some Christians are called to be scholars. But scholarship doesn't make a person courageous, straightforward, and clear. What makes a person bold is being utterly sure that he's seen God's truth. You might say that boldness and clarity come from spending time with Jesus. The more you have real dealings with him, the more confident you become and the more you want to speak the truth for his sake.

Those who benefit from wrong may ignore the truth.

The religious leaders excuse Peter and John and begin to confer with one another. They're at a loss. In verse 16 they acknowledge that these courageous men have performed a great and undeniable sign of power in Jerusalem. But they immediately decided to threaten Peter and John to keep quiet about Jesus. Verse 16 states reasons to seriously consider the truth of what Peter and John say. Verse 17 describes the behavior of a people who aren't interested in the truth, but only in the benefit that they get from falsehood. When people are benefiting from sin, they turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the mounting evidence that they should change.

This is still true today. The mind perceives reality selectively in order to justify what the heart desires. We perform intricate surgeries on prenatal infants in order to save their lives. We can convict a person of two counts of murder if they kill a mother with child. Yet we abort millions of babies each year. How does that happen? Because those who benefit from wrong often turn a deaf ear to contrary evidence for what is true and right.

We must obey God rather than men in our call to be witnesses for Christ.

Verse 19 tells us how Peter and John respond to the council's threat: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." This answer must have frustrated the rulers incredibly. Peter assumes he has to choose between heeding God and heeding the rulers, which implies the rulers aren't speaking for God. Peter doesn't express any apology for this assumption; he just says it. With a disarming simplicity, he speaks as if they must operate on his assumption. The issue, he says, is whether we obey you or God. He makes them tell him which he should do. Their answer could be an admission that they were not on God's side.

We are called to obey the governing authorities unless they contradict God's Word. The basis for Peter's response is his utter assurance that Jesus is alive, and obeying him comes before obeying any human ruler. Peter says, "We must speak what we have seen and heard." They have an experience of the living Jesus that has made them utterly unstoppable. They're witnesses. All of us are witnesses. All of us should stand up and tell it like we see it and let the chips fall where they may. Your job is not to win, but to bear witness.


More than anything else, this story ought to give us confidence that when the world tries to stop our witness, the message will continue to bear fruit and the messengers will continue to speak out.

Mark Mitchell served as Pastor at Central Peninsula Church for 35 years and is now the Executive Director of the Bay Area School of Ministry (BASOM), a ministry seeking to raise up pastors and ministry leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We should expect a clash.

II. You can confine the messengers but you can't confine the message.

III. The Spirit will give us words to speak.

IV. We must not compromise the message.

V. Formal education will not make us bold for Christ.

VI. Those who benefit from wrong may ignore the truth.

VII. We must obey God rather than men in our call to be witnesses for Christ.