When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. – Acts 4:23-31
We have something significant we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ from Acts 4. As a way of helping us see what the first century church was experiencing in Acts 4, I want you to imagine a scenario with me. Consider that one day you woke up to another fairly normal day in your life. You get dressed for work, make a pot of coffee, and are having your devotions at the table in your kitchen before the kids are waking up.
All is quiet, except for the bubbling sound you hear of the coffee percolating on the counter behind you. The quietness is interrupted by a quick sound on your phone- a breaking news alert. This news alert says that it is considered hate speech to say that Jesus Christ and Christianity are the only way to God. As you quickly scan through the story you see that this law now makes it a crime for anyone to preach the gospel. This kind of speech is considered outlawed.
You’re stunned and become immediately worried. You’re worried because you don’t know what will happen on Sunday. Will we have an exhortation? What will Pastor Dave say in his sermon? You wonder what he is going to do. What will his response be?
As the week goes on, you continue following the news and you see that this new law is received with a majority approval from American citizens. Sunday morning comes around, and Pastor Dave stands up to preach. He preaches as if he would have preached a month ago if the law had not been in place, sharing what the Bible says and preaches the gospel.
The rest of the day goes by as normal. A few days go by. On Wednesday you hear the bad news. Pastor Dave has been arrested for that sermon he preached. Word begins to go throughout the church as to what happened. And then, you hear something else. You hear that I was fired from my job because I refused to cooperate with the investigation and help prosecute him.
In one week our preaching pastor is arrested and a lay elder is out of work. This scenario may never happen here, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. This is the type of experience the first century church was going through from their government in Acts 4. Two of their most significant leaders within the infancy of the early church were arrested. What do you think their response was?
The aim of this sermon is keep in front of you some really important truths that we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ who were going through persecution and trials from their government. This election year has been one that we haven’t seen before. Christians are having to wrestle with potential situations that they haven’t had to think through before. No matter what happens on November 9th this week, or what happens five years from now, what should be on the front burner of our hearts and minds? How should we think and what should we say in response to all of this? Do we engage in the political process and try to change it, fighting as if there’s no tomorrow? Or do we pull back, hunker down, go into hiding, and try to ride it out until we die or Jesus returns? Where is your greatest joy and treasure right now in the hurricane of breaking news, blog posts, and the constant chatter about who will lead our country?
Acts 4 answers is meant to be a help for you in this week. I hope that when you go vote on Tuesday this passage will be resounding in your mind and welling up your heart with a serious joy in God. The title of this sermon may not make much sense to you now. Vote as if you’re not voting. By the end I hope it will. I hope this sentence will jump into your mind Tuesday as you pull that curtain behind you, and start filling in those oval circles on the ballot. I hope you will pray, “God, help me to vote as if I’m not voting.”
The situation we find the church in started back at the beginning of Acts 3. This took place after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus who commissioned his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. They are now living out what Jesus told them to do.
In Acts 3, Peter and John were headed to the temple for prayer. As they were approaching the temple they came across a lame beggar who was asking for money. This man had been lame from birth. He never even knew what it meant to be able to walk. As Peter and John walked by, the beggar asked for money.
Instead of giving the man some money, Peter said, “Look at us.” The man fixed his attention on these two men, expecting to receive some money from them. Peter said to him, “I don’t have any silver or gold to give to you. But what I do have, I am going to give to you freely. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up on your feet and walk!” Peter than reached down and grabbed this man by the arm and lifted him up.
The man’s ankles and feet were immediately made strong and he went into the temple walking. He went in not only walking, but leaping and praising God. As Peter and John went into the temple, this event raised quite a crowd. The people were all familiar with this lame beggar because they had seen him everyday they had walked into the temple. Now he was hopping around like a little boy praising God.
Peter used it as an opportunity to preach the gospel. “Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago (3:19-21).”
Even as they were still speaking they were arrested and put in jail. The following day they had to give an account to the high priest, rulers, elders and scribes. Again Peter and John boldly proclaimed the gospel. These leaders had to let them go because they couldn’t find any way to punish them, but didn’t let them go before giving a warning to not preach Jesus Christ crucified. Their response was, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (3:20).”
When they were released they returned to their friends and gave a report of everything that happened to them.
The church had two of their most prominent leaders thrown into jail, with threats of future persecution if they continued loving and proclaiming the gospel. There was most certainly a felt dependence that the church had for the leadership that John and Peter were giving. How did they respond to the threats of them being arrested in the future? When Peter and John returned, they praised God and they prayed to God. How quickly have we responded like that when we have felt overwhelmed about this election?
Let’s look at the content of their praise and prayer and we will close out with their response, as a way to see what our response should be in 2016. Where did they turn to in this moment?
The Sovereignty of God in Creation (Acts 4:24)
Look at verse 24. “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.”
We hear the term, the sovereignty of God, used often. I’m not going to teach you anything new this morning about the sovereignty of God. Grace Church, you’ve been well taught week after week as to the full splendor and magnitude of God in his sovereignty. I’m here to remind you this morning about how the sovereignty of God factors in to our current situation. CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed. The real job of every moral teacher is to keep brining us back, time after time, to the old, simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see.” Don’t be so quick to search out the latest breaking news or social media post, but be quick to meditate on the same rock solid, life giving promises of God’s word. We need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed.
The sovereignty of God can feel more real on a Sunday morning when all is well, yet seem so perplexing on a Thursday night in the emergency room. We can lift our voices in one accord together singing Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty/ Who was and is and is to come/ With all creation I sing, “Praise to the King of kings/ You are my everything And I will adore you. And the next day we can feel like God isn’t very mighty, we don’t want to praise him, and it takes all our strength to adore him.
You need to hear the same and profound truths about God, Jesus, salvation, sin, heaven, hell, the Holy Spirit, prayer, Bible reading, and your need for a savior until you die. You don’t need something new but you need to be reminded of that which is from the before time began. God is in control as absolute ruler over the universe which me made. He owns it. He runs it. No election and no nation will thwart one tidbit of his entire plan for this earth.
When we read all the events that happened from chapter 3 and into chapter 4, and then see that their prayer starts out by addressing God as the Sovereign Lord, we should ask how that truth shapes this situation. This is what you should be doing in your personal devotions. How does what you just read affect how you will live your day? It’s good to have the truth of God’s sovereignty in your mind when your leader is arrested for sharing the gospel, but how does it bring encouragement to trust God and energy to be bold in continuing to share the gospel?
How does the reality of the sovereignty of God fit into the situation they are dealing with? When we say God is sovereign, we are saying that he is the absolute ruler of everything. He does all that is in line with his holy will and no one can stop him.
I would imagine that part of the fear the church had in this moment was due to the fact that two of their leaders were just arrested, and threatened to be arrested again. The church had not been around very long. This church was looking to John and Peter for direction, leadership, teaching and discipleship in helping them grow in their faith. What would we do if Pastor Dave was arrested or killed? That would be a significant blow to our church.
John and Peter had been with Jesus for three years and learned from him. What would happen if they were arrested, or jailed, or even killed? How would this young church survive? It wasn’t as if they could call the the church down the road to ask if they had anybody to take their place. They didn’t have a depth of commentaries, and books, and resources to know how to run a church. If John and Peter were taken away from them a significant gap would be created within their church that would need to be filled.
However, if we know that God is the absolute ruler we can say that he’s in control of the church. The church doesn’t belong to John and Peter and the church is ultimately not dependent on John and Peter to keep it going. The church is absolutely dependent on God to sustain it.
Secondly, this small church was dwarfed in size and influence and power by the established religious leaders of the day. The temple priests, and captains, and Sadducees, had enormous power- even the power to arrest people like Peter and John. Compare that to a fledgling, infant church that was just breathing its first breath. It seemed like the Sadducees and rulers had the ability to snuff them out in a single breath. While the church was making its first infant gasps, the established religious leaders could easily make a firm grip around their throat and squeeze.
Finally, how does the truth of God creating the heavens, the earth, the sea and everything in it help them in their situation? Think about the word made. God was the architect of something that came from nothing and that which he used to make the something was words. Can we ever get over this? God used words to construct the world and its creatures. We build stuff with wood and bricks. God built the earth, animals, and human beings with words.
Now, compare that to the spitball type threats that the Sadducees were making towards Peter and John. What could their words do to them? In a temporal sense, their words could put them in jail. Both Peter and John suffered painful trials later on in life because of government leader’s words led to action. That action was beatings and torture for Peter and for John it led to having his body boiled in oil.
What did Jesus say their response should be when these threats are lobbed at them or when their bodies suffer pain for the gospel? “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your rewards is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).” They were to rejoice in their situation because rewards; real, everlasting rewards, were waiting for them in heaven.
God’s words and actions can’t be compared to his enemies words and actions. God is sovereign and man is subservient to that sovereignty. So their first response to Peter and John getting arrested was taking comfort in the sovereignty of God over creation.
The Futility of Nations in Opposition to Jesus (Acts 4:25-26)
The Christians take the passage that David wrote (Psalm 2) and apply it to their own situation. For David, he was rhetorically asking questions. Why do you ask a rhetorical question? You don’t ask it to gain information. Sometimes you ask a rhetorical question in a public setting that isn’t appropriate to have answered. Many times a rhetorical question is asked because the answer is so obvious.
David was having his enemies from other nations threatening to attack him. When he pens these questions, he is not seeking new information. He is expressing the ridiculousness of anyone going up against the Sovereign Lord. God had established a covenant with Israel and with David. God had promised to fight for them and be their protector. Psalm 2:3 expresses God laughing in disgust at evil nations trying to take down God’s chosen people.
Fast forward now to Acts 4. The same God is still on his throne. The Christian church is praying, “God, the deck is stacked against us. We have barely existed for very long as a group of believers. We can do nothing to stop what is being threatened against us. The religious government and establishment has all the power and they are threatening to put us in jail and do even worse to us unless we stop proclaiming the gospel. Why do these people act so arrogantly? Why do their minds revolve around making vain plans to overthrow you?”
Why can these Christians have such confidence that they will prevail? One of the reasons is that they see this opposition not against them personally, but against the Anointed One, Jesus. “The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed (4:26).” Their confidence was not in their strength and ability to stand against the government. The opposition was not coming against their own kingdom, but the kingdom of Jesus, and that is why they knew they would prevail.
The opposition we are seeing in the last three years to the Bible and towards those who are serious about doing what the Bible says, is not unusual in world history. What is unusual is what we have experienced in this country for the past 300 years. Christians have by and large enjoyed unopposed, free expression of what we believe and what we practice. The winds of culture are changing and this isn’t something that should really surprise us. This is normal and it started out as normal as soon as Jesus left the earth and people started following him.
We can stand in confidence in 2016, no matter how bleak things are, because we know how this ends. We know how great our God is and we know that Jesus is King over the universe. God’s rule and reign makes the United States Presidency, the entire Congress, and the United States Supreme court all look like the city council board of a town of 500 people. There’s no comparison!
Consider Revelation 11, in which God’s power is on brilliant display. “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets, and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’ Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail (Rev. 11:15-19).”
I find that highly invigorating. I read this and I feel the flimsiness of all the marble and granite in Washington, DC, and sense the permanence and power of God’s kingdom. We will receive a reward as God’s servants and his enemies will be destroyed. Right now the kingdom of this world is in opposition to God. Expect it. But there is a day coming when Jesus will return to establish his kingdom in a new heaven and new earth.
The first century church took comfort and hope in the futility of the nations and their leaders who are in opposition to Jesus.
The Predestined Plan of God (Acts 4:27-28)
We have looked at God’s plan from the beginning of creation and then jumped to his plan during the reign of King David to see the hope that the church had in times of opposition. Now this prayer takes us to the time of Jesus’ life. Verse 27 lists those who were opposed to Jesus leading up to his crucifixion. Herod and Pontius Pilate were opposed to Jesus. They willingly allowed an unjust man to go through sham trials and be executed. They were the established government and politicians of that day. The Gentile people opposed Jesus and even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, opposed him.
The established government and a majority population were all complicit in the most unjust act in human history. They killed the Son of God. And it was totally necessary so that we could have forgiveness of sin and access to and friendship with God. So when you see this list of leaders and people that were opposed to Jesus, consider it for our day.
It’s stunning to think back on just the last three years of our country. There have been significant changes to longstanding laws that no longer reflect God’s intentions for human beings. The redefinition of marriage and the transgender movement have quickly gained significance and support and we see new laws being made in accord with it. Where might we be in another three years? What might this do for religious freedoms that we have enjoyed? In some cases, we already are starting to see Christians pay real prices for their convictions. The sexual revolution has come in like a hurricane and is only gaining support in the court of popular opinion.
So what should be the primary reality we should remind ourselves of and ask God to have our hearts hold on to in troubling times like these? I had a friend tell me that if a particular candidate got elected there would be blood in the streets. There are concerns that that if the election goes a certain way we will never get our country back to what it was. I’ve heard that this is the tipping point. I’ve heard that our country will be ruined forever if their candidate doesn’t get elected.
These things may happen or they may not, but what should be deep in our hearts and quick to our lips? Look at Acts 4:28. “…to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” God uses dark times and wicked people to bring about his great plans. The word predestine means to decide beforehand. God had appointed beforehand for his Son to be crucified. He used an evil act to bring about the salvation of his people. As the disciples and followers of Jesus were sitting in a dark room after Jesus had been killed they were in fear and despair. They had no idea that this was what God had predestined to take place long ago. God reigns over kings and rulers- even wicked kings and rulers. He reigns over all of history. He’s reigning in these moments in the Untied States of America.
The Christians in Acts 4 sounded and acted differently than the world. Their hopes were not in building an empire or crafting a religion that would give them power. Their citizenship was not one of nationality, it was one of heaven. They saw that in the recent past their Savior had been killed by government authorities. Now, two of their prominent leaders were put in jail by the government authorities. Their response was to pray and say, “God, you were sovereign when you spoke the world into existence. You spoke through the mouth of your servant David to say that any evil king or wicked plot can’t stand against him. And even your Son was killed, yet this was all a part of your predestined plan which you decreed to take place.
The foundation that this entire prayer is held up by is a trust that God is free to do what is according to his holy will. Whatever his plan is, it is for our eternal good. That was the aroma of these Christians to the world. Will it be the aroma we have on Wednesday?
The death of Jesus on the cross was the darkest day in history. We have some dark days now but it was never as dark as that day, when the Son of God cried out to his Father asking why he had forsaken him. God knew and was in control of what he was doing then and he knows and is in control of what is happening now. God’s predestined plan will happen. That is a guarantee. We know how the story ends.
THEIR RESPONSE (Acts 4:29-31)
You may be tempted to think, “Well if God’s plans will come about because he predestines them to, why even vote? Why even care about what happens? Why even try to do anything about what is happening in our country?” Was that the response of the Christians in Acts 4? How did they respond to the sovereignty of God?
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus (4:29-30).”
I see three things that they asked from God in this prayer, and none of them are ones that indicate they were fatalists. Quite the opposite. They saw that prayer was the way in which they took action and the way in which God’s will came about.
First, they asked God to look upon their threats. This means that they were asking God to see and respond to their situation. It was an acknowledgement that they were not able to do this in their own power and it was a request for God to be active and involved. When you’re in a difficult situation is it not comforting to tell your close friend what you are going through? It is helpful that you know that they know what you are dealing with. How much more comforting should it be for us, when we in prayer ask God to look upon our situation and see it.
The second thing they ask for is really remarkable because it goes against what we tend to pray for first in hard times. We pray for deliverance, or healing, or for a change in the situation. How often do we pray in hard times for boldness to keep speaking and living out the gospel? Imagine if Pastor Dave was arrested and I was fired from my job. Would our church’s first prayer be to ask for boldness to keep doing the things that got us in the situation in the first place? They prayed for boldness to continue speaking the gospel and that was what got John and Peter arrested! “God, please give us more of what got us in trouble!” That was their prayer!
Where does this kind of boldness come from? It comes from a deep and robust belief that God’s predestined plans are for God’s glory and for our good. If God’s plans and ways are higher and better and greater than the plans that make worldly sense, it is good to pray for boldness to keep doing what our main calling is as Christians. We are charged with loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. All the commands for Christians hang on the two greatest commandments- love God and love other people.
What’s the best way you can love other people? The best way you can love other people is to tell them and show them how much greater God is to you than anything else in the world. God was greater than the Jewish religious establishment and Roman authority in Acts 4. And he’s greater than the American government in 2016. We have an opportunity here to uniquely show other Christians and other unbelievers that our hope is not in the US Government but our hope is in Jesus Christ. If we had all the godly laws on the books in America yet didn’t show love to those around us, it would be as nothing. And showing love to those around us means being the aroma of Jesus Christ to them. It means that your life should smell different to your unbelieving friends. It means telling them the gospel and showing them what it looks like in your life.
Is this what you want more than anything? It is what the Christians in Acts 4 wanted more than anything. During this time in our nation speak and live the gospel boldly to those around you.
Finally, after asking for boldness to speak God’s word, they asked for healing, signs and wonders to continue to be performed. Their first request was for God to see and know their situation. Their second request was for him to grant them boldness to proclaim the gospel. And this third request for healing, signs and wonders to take place was not untethered to those first two prayer requests.
When John and Peter healed the lame beggar it gave them a greater platform to preach and proclaim the gospel. It gathered a crowd of people around them. So this prayer request isn’t only for signs and miracles to take place for that sake alone. They wanted them to happen so that their ability to proclaim the gospel would have a greater reach.
There were two miracles that happened in Acts 3 and 4 that I want to draw your attention to. One we usually think of as a miracle, and the other we tend to pass over as a miracle. The first miracle was that a lame beggar was given the ability to walk. That’s a miracle! When we use the word miracle, we usually think of quick healing that wouldn’t have been possible by medicine or a doctor. It is right for us to pray for these things to happen.
The second miracle, is the miracle of new birth. Acts 4:4 says, “But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” Five thousand men alone came to faith in Christ through this situation! Maybe one of God’s plans in allowing this political unrest and shifting to happen is that nominal Christians (in name only) in America would see with new light that they believe they are saved but are really not. And maybe God will use us to proclaim the gospel to them and lead them to salvation. Let’s pray for that to happen.
Finally, in verse 31 we see that God answered their prayer. “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Lest you think this is dependent on you, we see that the Christians here are empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel boldly. How often do you ask God to be filled with more of his Spirit? Pray that daily. The Holy Spirit is the engine by which you are able to do what he commands. You need his help to live a pilgrim life in exile as a citizen of a heavenly country. Cry out to God for help and ask him to fill you with his Spirit to think, feel, and do what his hand and his plan has predestined to take place.
When I say, vote as if you’re not voting, I mean that you can go and vote on Tuesday without worrying about what is going to happen. Our votes matter. You should vote. But our votes fall under the control of King Jesus who is ultimately reigning. If the United States were to crumble this week like the Roman Empire, we serve King Jesus, whose kingdom will never crumble and never fail. Vote out of an understanding that you are a citizen of heaven before you are a citizen of the United States.
I want to give you some really practical ways you can apply this sermon to your life this week and in the weeks to come.
- Pray for God to know our situation, grant us boldness, and do wonders that we wouldn’t expect. How often do we pray about these situations before we go on Facebook to debate them? Do we spend more time praying or more time scrolling Facebook over this stuff? When you walk into the voting booth on Tuesday, pray. Before leaving the voting booth, pray.
- Don’t see these changes in America as opposition to you personally. See them as opposition to King Jesus. They don’t hate you, they hate the Father.
- See this as an opportunity to be the aroma of Jesus and seek opportunities to boldly speak the gospel. Be offensive in your Christianity, not defensive. If things continue to get worse see it as an opportunity to boldly speak the word to your friends. Don’t pull back, but ask God for help, and engage them in gospel conversations.
- Let your conversations, tweets, and Facebook posts have the aroma of a pilgrim, exile, and citizen of another country. This is not your home. Talk as if this isn’t your home. How do you do that? Proclaim God’s word boldly.
- Be joyful and don’t grumble. Paul learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need- He can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. The same is true for us. Don’t grumble about the current choice of candidates. Be joyful that we still have the right to vote and that we aren’t ruled by a dictator.
- Get your news not only from unbelieving journalists, but from Christians who report the news with a Christian worldview in mind. Come to me later if you need some suggestions.
Remember that God is sovereign over creation, the nations rage with futility in opposition to Jesus, and God’s predestined plans will take place. This election holds no surprises for God. Because of that we can come before God in prayer and ask for boldness for him to know our situation, give us boldness to proclaim the gospel, and give us his Holy Spirit for the power to do it.
Vote as if you’re not voting this week. Pray for God to know our situation, to grant us boldness to speak the gospel, and for him to do mighty works through us in the power of the Holy Spirit. If we have to face persecution as a church in the coming years for doing so, we know this unshakeable truth- if God is for us, who can be against us? We know how the story ends.