Persecution, Prayer, and Power

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Persecution, Prayer, and Power

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 4:5-31

My favorite story concerns a young man on his way home, late one dark, cloudy, moonless night. The hour was so late that he decided to take a shortcut through the local cemetery. We can see him picking his way from gravestone to gravestone in the dark.

Suddenly he came upon a recently dug open grave. He didn’t see it in the night, and so he fell in, head over heals. Instantly he sprang to his feet and tried to climb out, but the sides were too steep and slippery. He yelled for help, but the hour was too late and no one heard. Finally he decided to curl up in the corner of the grave and go to sleep until morning, when help would surely arrive.

He had no sooner done this than a second man took the same shortcut through the same cemetery, and fell into the same open grave. He began yelling and thrashing about in the darkness, and the noise he made awakened the first fellow. From the corner of the grave on this dark, cloudy, gloomy, moonless night, the first fellow said to the second, “You can’t get out of here.”

But he did.

Unfortunately, the story makes a relevant point. You are teaching your class in the midst of a graveyard. Some are crying for help, some are trying to climb out on their own, some are asleep, and some have given up. But all around us we find people living in graves of sin, lostness, and spiritual death.

Missions experts calculate that 167 million Americans are spiritually lost today. The Dallas Baptist Association believes that 1.2 million of the 2.1 million people who live in Dallas are unsaved or unchurched. How many lost people could you name right now?

The only answer to the lostness of our community is boldness on the part of believers. No half measures will get the gospel out and the Kingdom built. Business as usual will not be enough. The best definition of insanity I know is this: doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Only when we stand boldly for our Lord can we make a difference in the lives of the people we are called to reach.

But we are afraid. Afraid we will fail. Afraid we won’t know what to say, that we won’t be able to answer the questions people will ask. Afraid that our lives will not back up our words. Afraid of rejection or worse. Afraid of losing status and stature with our friends and society. We need power to stand boldly for God.

This week we’ll locate the power source of discipleship. Then we’ll each decide whether or not we will live in this power and victory each day.

Expect opposition (Acts 4:5-7)

My youth minister once told us: “If you and the devil aren’t on a head-on collision course, you’re probably running side by side.” He was right. When you and I stand for God, the enemy stands against us. Satan and Jesus are locked in a war, and we’re the battlefield. As the African proverb has it, when elephants fight the grass always loses. We should expect opposition if we are serious about following Jesus.

The enemy struck back quickly in ancient Jerusalem. No sooner had the crippled man been healed and the gospel preached than the authorities rose up in opposition. The “next day” (v. 5) the counterattack began as the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” met. These three composed the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, a Supreme Court to us. The rulers were political in nature; the elders were the spiritual leaders; the teachers of the law were religious scholars who served the leaders. Their meeting in full shows the significance of the threat to them, and of theirs to the church.

The high priest and his ruling “council” met at their head. Annas was still “high priest” to the Jewish people (v. 6), though he had been deposed by the Romans in AD 15 and replaced by his son and then his son-in-law Caiaphas. The “John” who met with them may have been the man appointed high priest in AD 36; “Alexander” is not otherwise known. If the president and his cabinet were to meet with the Supreme Court and leaders of Congress, their assembled power would be analogous to that present here.

Peter and John were made to meet before them. Imagine the scene. Two Galilean fishermen, heretofore residents of the bottom floor of Jewish social significance, now merit a gathering of the nation’s highest authorities. What was the highest level of authority you have encountered personally? How much thought did you give to your appearance, preparations, and words? How intimidated did you feel? Sense the fear that must have grown in the hearts of these men as they awaited their appearance before the Court.

Now they are put on legal ground: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (v. 7). In other words, what defense can you cite for the legality of your actions? The Court is asking these fishermen to defend themselves with law and reason. If they wish, these leaders can condemn the accused to death. They are literally on trial for their lives.

Everything worthwhile comes at a cost. Your home, your car, your clothes; your childrens’ school tuition; even your health comes at a price. Standing for Jesus can cost us most of all. Our Lord warned us: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11); “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). If you wish to follow Jesus, you should expect opposition.

Stand for Christ (vs. 8-12)

What will be their response? The future of their fledgling spiritual movement hangs in the balance. If their defense is unsuccessful, their group will be deemed illegal and imprisoned or worse. Peter and John, the recognized leaders of the Christian movement, will likely be executed. On the other hand, if they succumb to the pressure of the authorities, they will be unfaithful to a higher Authority. They will lose the power he can give only to those who are obedient to his Commission.