God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Truth and Consequences
Dr. Jim Denison
Billy Graham’s bestseller Angels tells the story of John G. Paton’s missionary work in the New Hebrides Islands. One night, hostile natives surrounded the mission headquarters, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. The Patons prayed all night long that God would deliver them. When morning came, they were shocked to see that their attackers had left.
A year later, the tribal chief came to Christ. Mr. Paton asked him what had kept his men from burning down their house a year earlier. Surprised, the chief replied, “Who were all those men you had with you there?” He told the missionary that he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They surrounded the house, so that the natives were afraid to attack.
Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). Then he added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So long as we live in his purpose, we can count on his protection and power. The apostle John, survivor of the persecutions we will study today, would later conclude: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). And he is just as powerful today in Dallas as he was on that day in Jerusalem 20 centuries ago.
Where are you afraid to serve God? Most of us experience fear when an opportunity to share our faith arises. Some of us are afraid to trust God with our finances and tithe. Or with our time in serving God more faithfully. We may be afraid to handle work biblically, in fear that we will lose money or success. Pastors and teachers may be tempted to lessen the truth of God’s word in the service of popularity. Is there a place in your life where you are afraid to trust God fully with your life and service?
This week’s study will help you and your class serve God with bold courage and joy. The results could be as significant for our church as they were for these first disciples.
Anticipate angelic protection (Acts 5:17-24)
Psalm 91 has become one of my favorite passages to read to our members when they are facing surgery or other problems. It begins:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2).
When we make God our shelter, our refuge and fortress, he promises to respond:
He will cover you with his feathers,and under his wings you will find refuge;his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart (v. 4).
How will he keep this promise to protect us?
He will command his angels concerning youto guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands,so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (vs. 11-12).
Jesus experienced such angelic protection in his wilderness temptations: “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11). And again in Gethsemane: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43). Angels appeared at his resurrection (Mark 16:4-7), and at his ascension (Acts 1:10-11). The purpose of these angelic beings is clear: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).
In our text “an angel of the Lord” appeared at the most crucial moment the early Church had yet faced (Acts 5:19). The high priest and his associates among the Sadducees, jealous at the popularity of the apostolic movement, ordered the apostles arrested and jailed. Not just Peter and John this time (cf. Acts 4:7), but the larger team who led the Christian church in Jerusalem. Jail in the first century was not itself a means of punishment, but prelude to physical torture or execution.
Imagine the results if the apostles were found guilty and killed. Never again would the entire leadership team of the Christian faith be small enough and accessible to such a strategy of the enemy (cf. the selection of deacons in Acts 6, the scattering of new leaders in Acts 8:1, and the sending of missionaries in Acts 13). The apostles had no political power or legal means of defense; they possessed no financial resources with which to secure release; they could not and would not attempt to break out of jail. The future of their movement appeared bleak indeed.
But doors locked to men are easily opened by God. In this case the angel simply “opened the doors of the jail and brought them out” (Acts 5:14), charging them to return to their public ministry of gospel proclamation (v. 20). Would they flee to safety in the night? Would they return to their Galilean homes and the protection such escape might afford? Risking their lives, they did exactly as they were told (v. 21). They knew that the same angel who had rescued them this night would protect them so long as they were faithful to their God.
The miraculous nature of their escape was made clear by the arresting officers: “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside” (v. 23). This was no coincidence or human achievement misinterpreted. Professional soldiers, at risk of their lives if they failed their task (cf. Acts 12:19), made the situation clear. They had no faith by which to find spiritual reality where it did not exist. The miracle of this event was no miracle to God.
Such angelic protection would soon rescue Peter from another Jerusalem imprisonment (Acts 12:1-19), as an earthquake would free Paul and Silas from their Philippian jail (Acts 16:26). What angels did for these early disciples, they now stand ready to do for us (cf. Hebrews 1:14).