One of the things you begin to pick up on as you study the Bible, is that Satan will stop at nothing to derail the church from her God given gospel responsibility. Church history is full of story after story of so – called religious leaders being used as instruments of Satan rather than being used as instruments of truth and grace. There are more than enough modern-day examples of church leaders absolutely failing in their God – given responsibility to not only proclaim the gospel but to adorn the gospel with their lives and their ministries.
Even some of our “heroes” throughout church history were guilty of some seriously sinful and grievous sins in the name of Christianity. Martin Luther had a sharp mouth that polarized his opponents and his view of the separation of church and state – along with his encouragement for state officials to crush rebellious and oppressed peasants – led to an all – out bloody massacre.2 John Calvin was known to discipline his church members “with a severity [that was] not always matched by the government” and it is well known that he approved of the execution of a man named Servetus who was deemed a heretic and burned alive at the stake – rather than beheaded as Calvin had recommended.3 So church history shows us that even the best of us fall prey to Satan’s tactics.
The thing we need to be reminded of as we observe leadership gone wrong in the church, is that try as we might, none of us are immune to the peculiar temptations and idolatry that so often plague the church and God’s people. And I also think it is important to recognize that sometimes, our religious language only acts like lipstick for our sinful behavior as we are being used by Satan to mar the image of God’s kingdom rather than being used by God to build it up.
You can even see some of these failures with our biblical heroes: Adam and Eve listened to the Serpent and introduced the entire human race to the infection of sin, Noah got drunk and passed out naked in front of his kids, Abraham lied twice about the identity of his wife – which nearly got her raped, David used his power to rape his friend’s wife and then murdered his friend to cover up what he had done, Judas betrayed Jesus for a fat financial payoff, and Peter denied knowing Jesus because he was afraid. The Bible is full of leaders who failed epically!
Here in the book of Acts, we have already observed Satan trying to disrupt the ministry of the gospel through threat of death after Peter and John healed the lame man in chapter four. And we also saw Satan trying to mess with the church from the inside in last week’s text as he tried to jack everything up through some church members who wound up getting slain in the Spirit – literally! And now, the religious leaders (the council of Pharisees and Sadducees) – who should have been the good guys – get used by Satan to try to get the apostles to stop preaching the gospel. Look at the text with me…
17But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20“Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23“We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
27And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So, they took his advice, 40and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
#1: THE APOSTLES GET ARRESTED (VV. 17 – 25)
In verses 17 – 25, the apostles get arrested for preaching the gospel, an angel shows up in the middle of the night and miraculously busts them out of jail, the apostles go back to preaching in the temple in obedience to the angel’s instructions, the religious leaders who had arrested the apostles because of their jealousy show up the next morning expecting to hold a public trial – and possible execution of the apostles – only to find out that they somehow escaped and were back to preaching again. The audacious obedience of the apostles just absolutely knocks my socks off!
I mean, I guess, when you tell some religious leaders (who are not exactly leading religiously in the first place) that you are not going to obey them and that they can basically go kick rocks because obedience to God is of first importance (Acts 4:19 – 20), and then you get arrested for ignoring them and then God shows up and miraculously sets you free, I guess that would fill me with some kind of audacious courage too! God certainly seemed to be blessing the apostles in the midst of their disobedience of their spiritual authorities as they sought to obey him alone! But that does not mean that audacious, obedient, courage, does not come with some kind of earthly consequences either.
#2: THE APOSTLES GET QUESTIONED (VV. 26 – 33)
In verses 26 – 28, the apostles are hauled into the court room (though not by force because their captors were afraid of getting hurt by the crowd of people who were listening to the apostles preach) and once they had the apostles where they wanted them they began to question them about why they were filling Jerusalem with their teaching and why they were spreading stories around about the blood of Jesus being on the council’s hands. This council, these leaders, did not want the apostles to tell stories about the their sin in murdering Jesus because the message of the cross, the empty tomb, and the promised return of Jesus continued to cast shade in their direction.
And of course, the apostles, respond in the power of the Spirit by using the moment to preach the gospel once again when they say in verses 29 – 32, “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 Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” and of course, Luke tells us in verse 33 that once the council heard these things, “they were enraged and wanted to kill them”.
Again, I really admire the tenacity of the apostles, but I also really admire the way they faced their accusers while standing firm on the gospel. They did not try to play games by appealing to logic (although anything anti – gospel is purely illogical), they did not try to beg for the council’s mercy, and they did not try to manipulate the situation by offering false apologies.
They remained firmly rooted in the preaching of the gospel and even threw in a couple of extra jabs about the Holy Spirit being a witness to the council’s evil atrocities in contrast with the Spirit – filled obedience of the apostles. Once again, their tenacity for the gospel comes at a high cost!
#3: THE APOSTLES GET BEATEN AND SET FREE (VV. 34 – 42)
In verses 34 – 40, one of the council members named Gamaliel stands up and gives a word of caution to the rest of the council by essentially reminding them of past false messiahs whose ministries ended terribly, and he warns them to leave the apostles alone just in case they are really acting on behalf of God. Who wants to be found opposing God?
The council seems to heed Gamaliel’s warning – at least in terms of not executing the apostles – and they beat the apostles severely, charge them to stop spreading their message, and turn them loose to roam the streets again; at which point Luke tells us in verses 41 – 42 that the apostles left the courtroom “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus”. The apostles did not wine and complain about their suffering. They were filled with overflowing joy and even more courage to continue preaching in the name of Jesus – even in the temple right in the council’s faces!
At the end of the day, you just cannot stop a Spirit – filled person who has truly witnessed the power of the crucified, risen, and returning Christ. No matter what the opposition tried, the apostles never shut their mouths. No matter how many times, Satan attempted to stop the gospel from spreading – either through internal pressures like Ananias and Sapphira or external pressures like Israel’s religious leaders – no matter how many different ways Satan tried, God always wins.
Even in death, the apostles still proclaimed the gospel as they were martyred for their faith. Church history shows us that Matthew had an angel present when was murdered with a sword; Mark was dragged to death through the streets of a city; Luke was hanged on a tree; John was boiled alive in oil and banished to an island alone; Peter was crucified upside down; James was beheaded; another James was thrown off a tall building and beaten to death with a club; Philip was hanged; Bartholomew was beaten like Jesus until he died; Andrew was crucified while preaching; Thomas was impaled with a spear; Jude was filled with arrows; Matthias got stoned and beheaded as was Barnabas; and Paul was beheaded too.4
The moral of the story is this: If you have really encountered the crucified, risen, and returning Christ, then you will not shut up about it and no power of hell or intimidation from Satan will stop you. Why? The answer is that when someone really comes to grips with the depravity of their own sin, the grace of God in the person and the work of Jesus, and the promise of eternal life in God’s presence, something radically transformative happens in that person’s life and they just won’t shut up. They do not try to win fights to merely win fights. They do not walk around angry because of those who oppose them.
They simply will not stop sharing the message of the gospel in a winsome and attractive and bold sort of a way. They will not shut up! Arrest them and they won’t shut up. Question them and they won’t shut up. Beat them and they still won’t shut up. Threaten them and let them go and not only will they not shut up, but they’ll start a Spirit – filled revolution that will take the world by storm!
When you think about this story, doesn’t it give you a new appreciation for what it means to be a follower of Jesus? What did you really believe it meant to be a follower of Jesus? Being a follower of Jesus is not about the comforts of our social gatherings or our political causes. Being a follower of Jesus is about sharing the gospel at all costs. A cruise ship is meant for comfort and entertainment. A battleship is meant for making war against an enemy and rescuing those who are being oppressed by that enemy.
When church members and church leaders begin to make that mental and spiritual shift deep down in the recesses of their hearts, something changes in the spiritual atmosphere, and it stirs up a hornet’s nest of Satanic activity. But, no matter what Satan throws at God’s people (even when he turns those who should be wearing the same jerseys against us) once you get a taste for the radical, transforming, message of the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of Christ’s return, you begin to realize that being the church will most definitely mean that you face some really harsh conditions because Satan knows his days are numbered, he knows that the Spirit within you is unstoppable, and he will stop at nothing to shut you up and shut the church down.
But the good news that keeps us going (even in the face of severe opposition, rejection, betrayal, and suffering) is that the bloody cross turns enemies into family, the empty tomb turns dead people into ferocious gospel proclaiming people, and the promise of Heaven gives us the kind of hope we need to endure the evils of today. That is the picture of true freedom that enables you to share the gospel wherever, whenever, and however you can, no matter who is trying to stop you!
If you have faced severe opposition because of your unwillingness to let go of the truth, let me remind you that the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of heaven is the only fuel you need to keep opening your mouth and speaking the truth.
If you have found yourself fading into the shadows of sinful activity that has dried up your thirst for sharing the gospel, let me remind you that Jesus knew you would experience these days and he still died for you, and he still left the tomb empty for you, and he still promised you eternity. It is never too late to turn to your Heavenly Father in repentance and trust once again.
If you are feeling especially wounded or hurt today because someone that should have been on your team has failed you and turned their heel against you, let me remind you that David prophesied that exact scenario about Jesus who endured the very same thing when he went to that cross on your behalf, and when he rose up out of that grave in full victory over his enemies, and when he promised to return to set everything right once and for and all as he sweeps you off your feet and into his loving presence for all of eternity.
In the face of all the evils in this world that would attempt to shut the church down and shut the church up, we have to remember, we have to be refreshed by, and we have to be strengthened by the message of the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of heaven. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day, (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 42.
3 Ibid., 83 – 84.
4 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 85.