God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Beware of the Serpent
Dr. Jim Denison
One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a lion who tailed a herd of oxen but could find no way to attack the young calves he saw as prey. Each time he drew near, the full-grown oxen circled around their young, horns at the ready. The lion could not hope to succeed against such strength. So he devised another strategy. He hid near the herd and whispered gossip and accusations unseen. Soon the oxen were divided into smaller groups of accusation and slander. And it was easy for the lion to attack the splintered herd.
God’s word warns: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This lion always attacks God’s people at the point of unity. He’s a spiritual economist, seeking the maximum damage for the minimum effort. And he knows that if he can divide us, he can defeat us.
Jesus prayed for his followers across history, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Let’s learn to join his prayer this week.
Earn the enemy’s wrath (Acts 4:32-37)
A group of pastors were gathered at a conference. Heated debate arose around a point of theological interpretation. In the midst of all the arguing, one wise pastor turned to the man at his side and said, “I’m sure glad we’re just the decoys.” His friend asked what he meant. He clarified: “While we’re here arguing and drawing the enemy’s fire, it’s the people back home in their prayer closets who are doing the real work of the Lord.”
The pastor’s sentiment is a welcome endorsement of the ministry of prayer, but a bit naïve. The enemy knows well who his real enemies are. And he always attacks those who attack him. If you and your class are not facing temptation and spiritual adversity, it may be that you’re doing little which threatens Satan. And so, odd as it seems, a valuable spiritual principle is to live so as to earn the enemy’s wrath. Then you know you’re in the will and purpose of God.
Here’s what we can do to please our Father and anger our enemy.
Value the family of God (v. 32)
Verse 32 is proof that apostolic Christianity was miraculous in origin: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Remember that they had come from fifteen different languages and cultures (cf. Acts 2:8-11). The ancient world was notoriously tribal in nature, as extended families and homogeneous cultures learned to depend on none but themselves. To live in harmony across racial and language barriers was unique in their time, counter to centuries of learned behavior.
But such unity was their daily experience. “All” the believers, with no exceptions, “were one in heart and mind,” united in their emotions and their intellect, their feelings and theology. The unity amidst diversity which characterized them immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2:44) had only grown in strength and depth.
They proved their unity not by words but works: “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (v. 32b). This early economy was not an endorsement of “socialism” or “Communism,” despite such claims in the last century. The apostolic Christians possessed no such notions. Rather, these first believers had no one but each other. Their Jewish families likely disowned them for rejecting the traditions of their elders. The Romans wanted nothing to do with them. They lost jobs, houses, and community. They were forced to share all things in common.
Such unity is our most powerful witness, as Jesus made clear (Jn. 13:35; 17:21). Justin the Martyr quoted the astonishment expressed by enemies of apostolic Christianity: “How you love each other!” I was won to Jesus more by the love I saw in his people than the theology I heard expressed by his leaders. Every father is pleased when we love his children. And the enemy is angered by such unity.
Testify to the resurrection of Jesus (v. 33)
Works and words are the two “wings” of genuine witness, two sides of the same coin. Which of your arms would you rather lose? I have long admired the statement attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” But I also know that we must use words for our works to be effective spiritually.
Salvation requires words: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Paul’s consequent question makes the point: “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (v. 14).
The apostolic Christians knew that their witness required both unity of example and power of speech: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Ac. 4:33). They were under compulsion: “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac. 4:20). Their conviction was clear: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Ac. 5:29).
When we are willing to testify with courage, we will receive “much grace.” God’s purpose will never lack God’s power. We must show others why we love each other so much, so they can know how to experience such love in their own lives. And the enemy is angered by such courage.
Help those who are hurting (vs. 34-35)
As more and more people came into the faith, the social and financial needs of the first Christians continued to grow. They would not yet pay for their faith with their lives (though this strategy of the enemy would soon be initiated). But their lives were changed in dramatic and difficult ways by their commitment to Christ.