Tilehurst, 23rd June 2002
God speaking through us
This Is The Day
I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say
Jesus The Word Bestow
God Be In My Head
Go Forth And Tell!
There's a lot in that last reading - and it follows on from a previous chapter with a lot
going on in it, too. In chapter 3 of Acts, Peter and John heal a lame man at a temple,
and then when a crowd gathers round to find out what's happened, Peter preaches to
them and spreads the Good News. Chapter 4 carries straight on from that, with the
crowd and some of the priests listening to Peter, and others coming to arrest him.
Now, I'm not a great Biblical scholar, but fortunately my Bible commentary helps to
put this in a bit more perspective. First, there's something a bit strange going on, in
that back in the Gospels, it always seems to me that practically all the priests were
against Jesus, and always trying to trip him up. Here, however, we've got some of the
priests and even the captain of the temple listening to Peter - and only the Sadducees
being annoyed with the apostles. I don't know much about the Sadducees and indeed
any of the different sects within Judaism at that time. I tend to remember Pharisees as
being the ones usually questioning Jesus. However, I gather that while the Pharisees
were very strict in their behaviour with regard to the law, the Sadducees were more
literalists in terms of doctrine. Luke writes later in Acts that in fact the Pharisees
acknowledged the resurrection and the Holy Spirit, whereas the Sadducees denied
them. That's why it's the Sadducees who are gunning for the apostles this time:
they've been preaching about the resurrection of the dead, and that goes against their
Effect on the Sadducees
So, with the background sorted out, what actually happens in chapter 4? It all sounds
a bit like a one-sided courtroom drama. They get the apostles into the dock, and ask
them what's going on. They're expecting a bit of an easy trial here, as Peter and John
are uneducated, whereas the priests are all highly educated and have no doubt done
this kind of thing before - they're used to playing with words, etc. Unfortunately for
them, the Holy Spirit fills Peter, and he manages to combine a sterling case for the
defence, a rebuke on those who've arrested him in the first place, and a mini-sermon
all in the same speech. He even manages to quote a psalm at them as part of his
Now usually when we're imagining Biblical stories, we tend to empathise with the
"good guys" of the passage - Jesus, or the apostles, or the persecuted prophets, or the
psalmist. Just turn it round for a second though, and imagine yourself as the
Sadducees in question. You've just been given a knockout answer to your questions,
from someone who really shouldn't really have been able to come back at you at all.
What do you do? Well, first you call for an adjournment. I can just imagine it now -
the various members of the council muttering to themselves that Peter had a point.
after all, he had good evidence - the lame man was clearly healed. Peter and John
were known to be companions of Jesus, so it made sense for Peter to be claiming that
he'd healed the man in Jesus' name. Peter had also just shamed them by making it
seem as if the apostles had been arrested because of the healing itself, which certainly
wouldn't have looked good. The people were with the apostles, too - they'd all seen
the cured man, and so the priests had to be careful what they did with the apostles, as
they needed to keep their popularity up. These days it would definitely be time to
bring in the spin doctors for a bit of damage control.
So, you can't actually deny anything the apostles have said, and you can't find any
way to punish them. So you try to hush it up - tell them not to tell anyone else. Then
they have the nerve to say that they can't stop telling people. Pretty infuriating.
What I haven't worked out yet is why the Sadducees kept thinking the way they did.
They've got every bit as much evidence to believe as the priests who had been
listening to Peter, and even amongst themselves they had to admit that the previously
lame man had been cured. Surely a belief system is only worth something until it's
disproved in some form or other. Maybe they were in it for the money, or maybe it
was all happening a bit too fast for them. Perhaps they went away and thought about
it, coming back as Christians later on. We don't know - at least not in this passage.
Effects on us
Anyway, enough about the effect on the Sadducees - what effect should this passage
have on us? The way I see it, it's full of encouragement. The Sadducees were right to
be surprised when they heard Peter and John filled with the Holy Spirit and talking so
persuasively. They really were ordinary men apart from the Spirit's influence. That's
my first point of hope: if John and Peter were ordinary men and did things like that,
then so can I. So can any one of us. This passage gives us an excellent basis for our
claim of a priesthood of all believers. In fact, I nearly came in jeans this morning to
try to make the point that I'm just an ordinary guy, but I worked out that the point
would have to have been made really early on in the service. Besides, I suspect you all
know how ordinary I am anyway. The fact that this in this particular service I'm up
here rather than down there doesn't change how ordinary I am. It might, however,
change how ordinary the things I say are. This is where faith and modesty appear to
be in conflict. My faith wants me to say that what I'm saying this morning is inspired
by the Holy Spirit. My modesty tells me that that sounds too much like showing off.
It's only showing off, however, if I try to claim some credit for that. So yes, I'll claim
that if you gain something out of this morning's service, it's the work of the Spirit. If
you haven't though, you can blame me. The point, however, is that the Spirit can and
does work in and through ordinary people like us.
The second encouraging thing for me in this passage is that many believed. Luke says
that about five thousand heard the word and believed it. That sounds like quite a lot of
people at one temple to me, but the actual numbers don't really matter. Even just one
would have been a great thing. The point is that the Holy Spirit doesn't just use us -
he uses us effectively. Peter and John had just healed someone through the Spirit.
Then they go on to preach successfully to the crowds around the temple. Then they
manage to defend themselves successfully against the council, and maybe raise a few
questions there, too. Even when the apostles are persecuted, they are not only helped
by the Spirit in terms of keeping going, but the Spirit uses their situation to give even
more glory to God. That's important to me. If I can have faith that when doing God's
work, any suffering I may go through will be used to his purposes in the end, that's a
major incentive to keep going. It doesn't actually make the suffering less difficult, of
course, but it's a reason to look forward. Every question about our faith is an
opportunity to explore it deeper ourselves and to share it with others.
Probably my favourite verse of this reading, however, is verse 20. The apostles have
just been told to keep quiet, and their reaction isn't either acceptance or complaint.
They don't make a big protest about the priests violating their human rights by trying
to censor them. They certainly don't go down with a whimper and agree not to say
anything else. They pass the buck to God, as it were: "We cannot keep from speaking
about what we have seen and heard." That's a marvellous faith - one to really aspire
to. It's the kind of faith that takes a shortcut between the brain and the heart. This is
not to say that faith shouldn't be carefully thought about, discussed etc. - but the kind
of faith which makes you instinctively do the right thing in wonderful.
The final aspect of the reading I'd like to mention today is Peter's mini-sermon itself.
Here is the Good News in Reader's Digest form: "This man is standing before you in
good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God
raised from the dead. This Jesus is "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it
has become the cornerstone." There is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other
name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." That packs an
awful lot into a few sentences. Christ died and was resurrected. Christ is the
foundation of heaven - an analogy also brought up by Paul in Ephesians, extended to
the idea that we are all part of the same building, bound together by Christ. Finally,
Christ is our means of salvation. Now sure, there are details missing such as Christ's
death being the way in which he achieved our forgiveness, but I don't think I'd be
able to pack as much into under a hundred words.
So, there you have it. A pretty jam-packed chapter, full of hope for us. The main point
I'd encourage you to take away is the way God uses ordinary people. If we allow God
to permeate us completely, entering our minds, hearts and bodies, he will grant us
wisdom and strength to do his will, so we can achieve things far beyond our normal
reach. Even when things are looking bleak as they did for the apostles when they were
arrested, we need to remember and trust that God can use any situation to reveal his
glory. Our reaction to this should be the same as the people's reaction to the healing:
"all of them praised God for what had happened."
Thanks be to God.
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