Good morning! We’re going to dive right in.
By way of review, let’s briefly discuss what we’ve covered in the previous two weeks. Acts 1: Jesus gives the apostles their mission: be witnesses. Then he ascends into heaven. Acts 2: Pentecost. Apostles are gathered together in a room. Loud freight train wind inside the room, tongues of fire dancing on their heads, they start speaking in different languages they don’t know, Peter preaches a message about Jesus, and 3000 people get saved. Acts 3: Peter heals a lame guy. People want to know how he did it so he tells them about the power of Jesus. Religious leaders don’t like it so they throw him and John in jail. They say they can’t stop preaching about Jesus. Acts 4: The rest of the believers start to think that maybe this whole Jesus thing might be harder than they thought. The pray for boldness. God hears their prayer and grants them boldness. They all lived in harmony with each other and met everyone’s needs.
Now we’re in Acts chapter 5. Before we hit Acts, however, I want to take you back to the book of John for just a moment. Remember that in chapter 3 Peter and John heal a guy. This was pretty cool because up until this time, Jesus was the one who got to heal people. Looking in John 14, though, we get a glimpse of what’s to come.
In verse 8 you have Philip asking Jesus if they might see the Father. He wanted to see God. Like Moses on the mountain, he wanted a close encounter with God. Jesus has to be shaking his head at this point. “Don’t you understand anything?” you can imagine him saying. “You’ve been with me how long and you still don’t get it? If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. We’re the same.” Why is this important? Why be so hard on the disciples? Jesus knows what’s going to happen. He knows he’s not going to be with them forever. He knows he’s going to be crucified. He knows he’s going to ascend into heaven and leave the work to the apostles. Why be hard on the disciples? They have to understand. In Acts 1 we see Jesus telling them that they are going to be witnesses. They are going to do the hard work. They have to believe Jesus and the Father are one because they have to know that when a command comes from Jesus, it comes from the Father.
What’s remarkable isn’t that, though. It’s what comes next. In verse 12 Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will do the works that he does. More than that, anyone who believes in him will do greater works than he does. Greater works! Jesus is briefing the disciples on how it’s going to go down. “You know the stuff I’ve been doing? Yeah, you’re going to do greater things. When the Spirit comes and lives inside you and empowers you, you’ll do even more than I’ve done. You’re going to perform miracles.” We don’t know how the disciples responded to that. I bet some were like some theologians and preachers today. “You know, Jesus, that’s blasphemous for you to say that. We can’t possibly do greater things than you.” Can’t you just hear them in all of their piety? “We will never be greater than you.” I can imagine Peter sitting over on a rock rubbing his hands together. “Wow! We can catch all the fish we’ll ever need. I’m going to need a bigger boat.”
Greater things than Jesus did…can you imagine? If we believe in him, we will do what he did and more. Why is this so important? Look back at Acts 5.
Many signs and wonders were done by the apostles. People even carried sick people into the streets and laid them on mats by the road so that when Peter walked by his shadow might fall on them. From what I know about the miracles of Jesus, that seems to be a little greater. When Jesus was crowded by the mobs, a woman reached out to touch his robe. Here, sick people were lining the streets hoping that Peter’s shadow might fall over them; such was their belief in his power to heal. All this time, more and more people are becoming followers of Jesus, showing that even amidst all these miraculous happenings, the apostles were still preaching the gospel. That’s where the true power comes from. That’s where the authority comes into play. The apostles weren’t taking any credit for themselves. Peter wasn’t strutting around so people could see him. If you remember from his first miracle, he made sure people understood that the power came from Jesus. He was only the conduit.
Again, the chief priests and religious leaders didn’t like what was going on. Part of it was they didn’t like to be shown up. No one likes that really, but these guys hated it even more. Here were people professing the same God as them who were able to heal people and who preached with boldness no matter what happened to them. The priests couldn’t understand why they had no authority themselves. The other part of it was political. They were terrified that people were no longer going to follow them, would no longer listen to their rules…would forsake the Jewish faith and follow this new faith.
In light of this, they arrest the apostles again. But something weird happens. In the middle of the night an angel shows up and sets them free. Here’s the freaky part though: no one knew it. The guards were still standing at their posts unharmed. The doors were still locked. For all we know the leg irons and chains that held them were still in place, there just weren’t any bodies in them. The angel came and let them out and then urged them to “go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” The angel told them to preach the good news, to tell the truth about Jesus.
That’s why at Cornerstone we say we have a one-word theology: Jesus. It started with Jesus. It will end with Jesus. In the middle, it’s all about Jesus. That’s our message. That’s what we hope to proclaim. There is one truth! There is one hope! There is one way! There is one life! His name is Jesus.
The apostles go the next morning and begin to preach again in the temple. Someone went into the chambers of the high priest and the Jewish council and said, “You know those guys you threw in jail last night and that you can’t find now? They’re in the temple preaching. Just thought you’d like to know.” Then the captain of the guard and his officers went to bring them before the council. Luke goes out of his way, though, to make sure we know they weren’t forced. He just asked them nicely.
So the apostles are standing yet again before the chief priest and religious leaders and the council once again questions them. “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Needless to say, the council is not happy with the apostles. They just can’t seem to get these guys to shut up. Nothing they do seems to work. If they threaten Peter and John, the apostles simply pray for more boldness. If they put them in prison, an angel sets them free. What is a religious council to do?
Peter and the apostles answered in the way that was becoming more customary for them. “We must obey God rather than men.” A couple of things here: If you were on a council of religious leaders and people kept telling you they were going to obey God and not you, you might get rather angry. First, you’d get angry that they weren’t obeying you. Second, you’d probably get angry that someone thought they understood more of what God wanted than you did. The council was furious.
Then a man named Gamaliel stood up and addressed the council. Gamaliel is a pretty shrewd guy. He knows what’s going on and he loves the council because he likes having power too. Basically he points out to the council that if these men are just men and aren’t being empowered by God, they will simply go away and their followers will disperse. If, however, they are truly from God, nothing anyone does will stop them from doing what they were doing.
He basically urges the council to just wait and see what would happen. No one wants to go up against God. Let them run out of steam and go home. Isn’t that what we say about people who seem to have a ridiculous amount of energy concerning spiritual things? Let them go a couple of months and then they’ll forget this whole thing and go back to the way things were. Don’t we expect that from students coming home from camp or a mission trip? They’ll calm down. Things will get back to normal.
For Peter and the rest of the apostles, this was rapidly becoming what normal was. They went against the norms of society. They did things that made everyone else cringe. Surely God wouldn’t want you to interact with sick people. What if you get sick too? God would never ask you to do anything dangerous would he? He wouldn’t want you to die. God would never tell you to do anything as rash as associate with Gentiles!
The religious council listened to Gamaliel and let them go. They did, however, just to get the point across one more time, beat them before they were released. Once more they warned them against preaching in Jesus’ name. Then they let them go. The next two verses are simply amazing. “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” They were glad they were considered worthy to suffer. If someone was beating them for preaching about Jesus, it must have meant they were doing something right. Jesus himself was persecuted. If we’re being beaten, we must have the right idea! They rejoiced in their suffering. Then they went right back to preaching. Scripture says they never stopped. Not for one day, not for one moment. They preached the truth of Jesus.
It truly is enlightening to see how and why Biblical authors wrote the way they did. If you were just to read chapter 5 by itself you would miss out on all that’s about to happen in 6 and 7. The apostles had just suffered for preaching the gospel. They rejoiced that they were considered worthy. They knew there was still a job to do, though, and had to continue.
As the church was growing and more and more people were following Jesus every day, there began to be a need for a system that would help meet everyone’s needs. Remember back in chapters 2 and 4 when Luke said that they had everything in common and no one had any need? The apostles had been doing everything, preaching the gospel and taking care of the needs of the people. It was becoming more than the 12 could handle on their own, so they decided to set apart servant leaders to help do some of the ministering to the body. One of these was Stephen.
Stephen was one of these guys who simply couldn’t be stopped. Scripture says he was “full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” Stephen was not an apostle, was not one of the men who had been with Jesus, yet was still performing great wonders and signs. There arose a group of men who disputed with Stephen and tried to discredit him before the people, but they “couldn’t withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” So they planted false witnesses to accuse Stephen of blasphemy to the council.
Before the council of elders and scribes these false witnesses testified to the blasphemy of Stephen. With the council already angry about the apostles preaching about Jesus, it didn’t take much for them to be worked up.
The high priest asked Stephen if the accusations were true. In response Stephen began to preach.
What follows is a history of the Jewish faith from Abraham to Moses. Stephen went into great detail about the God these Jews claimed to follow and the patriarchs of their faith. He used facts from their own history to accuse them of not being faithful. Stephen spoke of the faith of Abraham, how he became the father of Isaac even in his old age. He spoke of Isaac becoming the father of Jacob and how Jacob was the patriarch of the 12 tribes.
Stephen went on to discuss Joseph and how, because of his faithfulness to God, he became the second most powerful person in Egypt. Then he talked about the long Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and how they prayed for a deliverer. Then came Moses. Stephen spoke at length about Moses and the story of the escape from Egypt.
All this was prelude to the purpose of Stephen’s sermon. Stephen drew a parallel between Moses and Jesus. What’s incredible is that he never used Jesus’ name. Stephen built a case to the Jews that they had always been stiff-necked people. They had never listened to whomever God sent. They had always resisted the Holy Spirit. Why should anything be different this time? Why would they now choose to listen to the truth?
As you can well imagine, this didn’t sit well with the Jewish council and high priest. In fact, they were enraged. They cast Stephen out of the city walls and stoned him to death. In this moment of tragedy we see Stephen looking toward the heavens and he said “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” In the midst of this horrific act Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As he was dying Stephen pled to God to forgive the people because they didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t understand. They didn’t get it.
That’s the same problem we have today. People outside the faith don’t understand. They don’t have a clue what following Jesus is all about. As Christians this is something we need to grasp. We treat people as if they should know better when it’s obvious they don’t. Shouldn’t we instead love them with the love of Jesus? Shouldn’t we instead welcome people who are asking questions, even if they’re hostile toward us?
Remember that once we were searching. Once were uninformed. Perhaps once we were even hostile to the gospel and to Christians. We had to have our sins forgiven. Why would we ever treat someone else with hostility because they don’t get it? I think we can take a lesson from Stephen and the apostles. The apostles rejoiced because they were considered worthy to suffer for the gospel. They were happy to be beaten because it meant they were doing something right. Stephen accepted his fate with humility, not wishing harm on his murderers, but instead praying for their forgiveness.
We follow Jesus. We are his body. We must speak of what we know. We must speak the truth. However, we must speak the truth in love, drawing people to Jesus through kindness and humility, not through force. Jesus is the truth. If we preach Jesus with boldness and love, he will draw people to himself. If we allow the Holy Spirit to do the work for us, he will. We get into trouble when we rely on our own devices, our own clever words, and our own skill to do the job.
I have nothing on my own. I am only worth something because of the Holy Spirit inside me. I have learned that when I simply preach the truth and don’t worry about the result, I tend to preach a lot better. When I try to be clever is when I stumble over myself and end up in a heap on the ground.
We follow Jesus. If we preach the truth in love we can face whatever comes. We can face persecution. We can face imprisonments. We can face beatings. Yes, we can even face death.
As we close I want us to focus for just a moment on the fact that at one point in time we were all lost in sin. We were all separated from God, possibly even hostile toward him and his church. Then we recognized that Jesus sacrificed himself so that we might have life. Jesus humbled himself and came to earth to live as a human. He subjugated himself to ridicule and persecution. He endured the most gruesome death imaginable on a crude cross. He rose from the grave so we might have new life. He made it possible for us to enjoy reconciliation with God.
We were all there at some point. Maybe some of you are still.
In case you didn’t know, yesterday was the most holy day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Starting Friday night at sundown, Yom Kippur began. It went through sundown last night. Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. It is the day in Jewish faith when all the sins committed by man against God are forgiven.
In Biblical times, the high priest would take two goats. One was used for the traditional ritual sacrifice, but the second was set free. What the priest would do is he would lay his hands on the goat’s head and symbolically place all the sins of the nation onto the goat. Then they would let the goat go to wander off into the wilderness. The picture is this: your sins aren’t here anymore. They’ve wandered off on the head of that goat. It was a beautiful visual picture of sin leaving us and going where we can’t find it. In fact, this goat had a special name. It was called…the scapegoat.
If you’re in Christ, your sins don’t belong to you anymore. They are gone. They’ve been washed away by the blood of Jesus. If you’re not in Christ, he paid the debt to wash away your sins. The price has been paid, the ransom has been made. You must take the first step of obedience and follow him, though. As we’ve been reading in Acts, we are all guilty of sin. We must repent of that sin and follow Jesus. Then his act of sacrifice can remove those sins from us, can wash them away, and he can send them away to wander in the desert.
As we finish this part of the service I’d like to invite you to join with us in worship. This isn’t a traditional invitation, but an extended time for you to respond to the message as the Spirit leads. The way we do that is to enter into a time of worship again. If you need to kneel and pray, you are welcome to do that. If you want to find Tim or me, please do that. We’d be happy to pray with you. If you just need to stand and sing songs out of a heart of thanksgiving, you do that.