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Study Notes:

Acts 5:17-42

Quenching the Spirit Pt 2 – External Opposition

Summary: The cycle of internal division and external opposition continues in the church as Peter and others remain loyal to God and His calling.

We are studying the book of Acts together – the story of the early church, learning what happened after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  How did we get from a small group of disciples in the Ancient Middle East in the first century to this room in Northern Virginia in the year 2020?  Well, the book of Acts gives us part of the answer.  It sets the trajectory for us.

So far we’ve seen that things went well in the early days.  Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He told His followers to wait in Jerusalem, they would receive power as He made them witnesses who would tell His story locally, regionally, and internationally.  That happened during the Jewish feast of Pentecost.  The early church was gathered for a prayer meeting when suddenly, without warning, they all began praising God in various languages that they had never learned.

This drew a crowd of religious pilgrims who were in town for the festival, and they all started saying, hey, that’s my native language, how do you know that?  And Peter, one of Jesus’ original disciples, stood up and began telling them that this was something God was doing to get their attention because what they really needed to know was who Jesus was and what He had done. 

And then, as he explained the gospel, the good news, of Jesus’ role as a sacrifice that pays for all of our sins, people began to respond and the Church went from being a little over a hundred people to several thousand people and explosive growth continued from there.

We spent several weeks talking about what things were like for all these new Christians.  We did a whole series of seven elements that were part of their early life and worship together that should still be present in any healthy church today, things like prayer, worship, the apostles doctrine, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

But life in the early church wasn’t always easy.  As the church began to grow, so did it’s problems.  They dealt with internal divisions and external opposition.  And what we’re seeing now is a cycling back and forth with those two things.  We saw Peter arrested for causing a scene in the Temple when God used him to heal a beggar.  He was told not to preach in Jesus’ name anymore…or else.  It was external opposition.

And then we had the issue of Ananias and Sapphira who tried to lie to Peter and the rest of the church leadership about what they were doing when they gave a financial gift to the church.  They wanted to be part of what was happening, and they wanted to look good to others, but they were lying about it and the truth was exposed.  In other words, there was internal division and the hypocrisy threatened the health and integrity of the church.

But, as we saw last week, God brought judgment and the Church marched on.  Peter and the others kept preaching, even though they had been warned not to.  And people continued to respond to the gospel – the news that God would forgive their sins, give them a new life in Christ, and give them the strength to live that life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This morning, we see another cycle begin. Peter will be arrested again as the Church faces a new round of external opposition, and though * spoiler alert * things ultimately turn out well and he keeps on preaching, we’ll see another issue of internal conflict threaten the church when we get to chapter six.  From this point on, all the way up to modern times, it’s almost always one or other – threats from without or threats from within, and sometimes it’s both at the same time.

So here’s something you and I can learn from all of this: we should expect opposition to what God is doing in our personal lives, opposition to what God is doing in our life as a local congregation, and opposition to what God is doing in the global Church, the Kingdom of God on earth.

You should expect that God wants you to grow, wants us to grow, is leading us, and that along the way we will face internal division and external opposition.  It’s been like this from the beginning, it shouldn’t be too surprising to us today.  The challenge is to be aware, stay alert, and press on with what He has called us to do and be anyway.

So let’s look at what happened in the early days and see what we can learn about God, about responding to Him, and what it can teach us today.

Remember God was doing miracles through men like Peter and the other early leaders in the church, and the news was getting out – now people from nearby cities are starting to come and see what’s going on.  So, we read in

Acts 5:17 Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, 18 and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison.

Now, these are the same guys who told Peter not to preach in Jesus’ name… or else.  We don’t know how much time has passed since that happened – a few days, a few weeks, a few months, but they can’t be happy with Peter’s defiance.

And remember, the Sadducees are like the progressive liberals of their day.  They rejected some common doctrines, like the resurrection. They’re typically wealthy, and they’re well connected socially.  The highest ranking priests are part of the group because at this time in history, with the Romans in charge of everything the Jews did, becoming a high ranking priest was more of a political than a religious appointment.

Which is why priests, who you would think would be the most interested in what God is doing, are actually leading the resistance – they’re the ones that have the apostles arrested.

When I first began to visit DC many years ago, one of the things I noticed was: there are police everywhere.  But they’re not all from the same agency.  I came from a city in California.  We had city police, county sheriffs, and the CHP – the California Highway Patrol, and that was it.  You saw police in town, sheriffs every now and then, typically out in the desert areas if you were off-roading, and of course you saw the CHP when you were on the highways.

But here, in DC, you see police everywhere and it seems like everybody has their own police force – they work for a thousand different jurisdictions and agencies.

If you’re up by the Capitol you’re likely to see the Metropolitan Police Department, that’s the DC police; the Metro Transit police working for the Metro; Capitol Police who are responsible for the Capitol and surrounding office buildings; the Supreme Court Police who are their own agency, and the Park Police who have responsibility for the Mall and Lafayette Park.  But all in all there are over 30 police forces operating in DC governed by the Police Coordination Act, and that says nothing about the surrounding counties and the overlapping jurisdictions can make things a mess.

Well, back in ancient Jerusalem things weren’t quite so complicated, but it was also a capitol city and you had multiple police and security forces operating on behalf of the Romans, the Jews, and even the priests who needed to control law and order in the Temple complex.  They’re the ones we see arresting the the apostles.  They had a jail nearby, a place for temporary confinement, it’s not a long-term facility.  So, the apostles are locked up again for the night.

Acts 5:19 But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”

In other words – get back to what you were doing boys. 

There are two ways you can read that – you can read it with enthusiasm, like, “Ah yeah, let’s get some!  Let’s show those priests and Sadducees what’s going on!”

Or, you can read it with bewilderment – like, “Um, thanks for the jailbreak Lord, but isn’t now a great time to just slip out of town quietly?  You want us to go back to doing what we just got locked up for?”

Which reaction is right?  Well, I can’t be 100% certain, because the Bible doesn’t say, but I imagine it was a little bit of both – I mean, isn’t that how it plays out in your life?  Sometimes you’re excited to see what God’s doing and you’re ready to storm the gates of hell with a water pistol and other times you’re looking for any excuse you can find to call things off or say maybe next time?

We’re not sure exactly what they felt, but we know what they did – they did what they were told:

21 And when they heard that, they entered the temple early in the morning and taught. But the high priest and those with him came and called the council together, with all the elders of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.

22 But when the officers came and did not find them in the prison, they returned and reported, 23 saying, “Indeed we found the prison shut securely, and the guards standing outside before the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside!” 24 Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests heard these things, they wondered what the outcome would be. 25 So one came and told them, saying, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”

26 Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.

Now, this is something that has come up before, so we have to say something about it: the early Christians had a good reputation with the people.  That’s not always the case.  There have times and locations in history when people outside the Church did not like people inside the Church, there have times when the Church was seen as hateful, judgmental, cultic, cold, and mean.

And there are times when the Church has deserved it because there have been times when the Church has not done a good job of representing Jesus as Savior, we were too busy representing Jesus as judge.  Now, both are true.  People need to know that they are sinners.  People need to know they have offended a holy God.  People need to know that God is not OK with whatever they want to do, however they want to do it. God has boundaries and there are penalties when you cross them.

But here’s the deal,

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

The world doesn’t need condemnation, it’s already condemned.  It doesn’t need judgment, it’s already guilty. 

It’s January, so the new school semester has either started or is getting ready to start for you soon.  Have you ever had one of those classes where the teacher says on the first day, “You’re all starting with a 100 or you’re all starting with an A – now it’s up to you to keep it?”  You want to avoid losing any points throughout the semester.

That’s s the way some people think life is – we all start with a passing grade and then you just have to make sure you don’t drop too many points – or if you do, you do enough extra credit to make up for it.  But that’s not right at all – it’s actually the reverse, you start off failing and no matter how much you study or try you’re never going to be able to get to 100.

The Church needs to warn people they’re failing, but only so they can see the hope and help that is offered in Jesus.

Sadly, we are in one of those seasons in history right now where people think that if you disagree with them, you hate them.  And there are plenty of people that want to fan that flame.  The left is guilty of fanning it toward the right and the right is guilty of fanning it toward the left, and the hard truth is: some of you are being discipled more by the talking heads of your favorite so-called news programs than you are by Christ.

You’re being told how to see the world.  You’re being told who the wackos are – and to be clear – this is happening on both sides.  There are wacko liberals according to the right and wacko conservatives according to the left and all sorts of wacko groups doing wacko things.  And every day you’re being told, or led, what to believe about them, how to react to them, how to respond to the latest news and events that are shaping the narrative.  But it’s dividing people and it’s casting a bad light on the church at times because we’re being lumped into it all.

There was a time when (Acts 5: 26) the captain went with the officers and brought [the apostles] without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.

These men were popular with crowds, even the people who weren’t Christians respected them, the things they were saying, and the work they were doing.  Contrast that with today when, in recent times there have been people who have tried to hijack the church and turn it into a voting block of evangelicals or white evangelicals and then tell us what we’re supposed to think, who we’re supposed to support, and tell the other side they better look out for us because we’re mobilized.

Friends people are trying to weaponize the church for political and cultural purposes and we have got to resist it or it’s going to turn on us and it will be ugly when it does.

Now listen: you will never please 100% of the people, 100% of the time.  There will always be people who resist the gospel, there will always be people who resist God.  There will always be people who hate the Church, and hate Christians, because they hate Christ.  But whenever possible, wherever possible, we need to be the church that ministers to the vulnerable, the marginalized, the common, the outcast, the failure, the immigrant.  We need to think and pray and struggle to figure out what it means to be a citizen in the Kingdom of God living in modern America instead of allowing people to tell us what is expected of us an American who is also a Christian.  The order is important.  We’re more than a voting block.

Now, Peter had it figured out.  He knew his allegiances and priorities.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”

29 But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.

Peter gives the diagnosis – he calls it what it is.  He tells them plainly: “You have done wrong.”  But, that’s not the whole message.  He’s not there to shout the other side down.  He’s not there to call the other side a bunch of out-of-touch idiots.  He gives them the diagnosis so that he can give them the cure.  Yes, you murdered Jesus, but:

31 … God has exalted [Him ] to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

Now, notice that with me, because it’s super important – God has done something for Jesus and something with Jesus.  He sent Jesus – remember He so loved the world that He sent His Son – and even though Jesus was rejected by these guys, He still accomplished God’s purpose: He lived a perfect life, taught us about God, modeled God’s love, power, and compassion, and ultimately gave His life as a perfect, sacrifice for us, free of any blemish, He willingly laid His life down. He didn’t have to let them put Him to death, but it was God’s plan, and when it was accomplished, God raised Him up, and now Jesus sits at the Father’s right hand in Heaven as the rightful Prince.

So, God honored Him for all He had done.  And that’s good.  That’s right.  That’s deserved.  But there’s more.  Because it was never all about Jesus and what He could accomplish – it was all done for us – So God has done something for Jesus – raised Him and honored Him – but He has also done something with Jesus: He has given us repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name.

This is the only reason why you need the diagnosis: it’s so you can appreciate the cure that’s being offered to you.  You need to know that you are a sinner.  You need to know that you have done wrong in God’s sight.  You need to know that you are guilty before a holy and righteous judge.  You need to know that you are condemned.  So that you can also know that you are offered forgiveness, freely.  Complete, total, instant, forgiveness and a new life – if you will agree with God, renounce your sin, call it for what it is, and surrender your life to Christ.  “My life, Your way God,” instead of “my life, my way.”

Unfortunately, not everyone responds well to the diagnosis and cure.

Acts 5:33 When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them.

You’ve got to be pretty serious about your issues if you start plotting to kill someone, don’t you think?  But friends, this is what happens when people persistently reject what God is trying to do in their lives.  You want your life your way, and you want it so badly, that you’re willing to fight for it.

Fortunately, for the moment, a calmer voice prevails.

Acts 5:34 Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39 but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.”

Gamaliel is a Pharisee.  He’s held in great respect by the people – even outside the Bible history remembers him as the most influential Pharisee of his time.  And remember, the group questioning Peter is called the Sanhedrin, they were like a Jewish political Senate and religious Supreme Court and all rolled into one. 

The Sadducees, the liberal group, held the majority, but there was also a significant group of Pharisees, typically conservative religious scholars and teachers who disagreed with the Sadducees on many points and had greater connections with the common people.

Gamaliel knows the common people don’t want to see the apostles killed, so he makes this point about two other men who recently led uprisings and how it worked for them.  We know about these events from history books outside the Bible – we know both were real men, who led real rebellions, and in both cases they were hunted down by Rome and put to death.

So, Gamaliel says, “Look, let this go.  It’s probably going to end like these other guys anyway, let the Romans take care of it and then it’s off our hands and we can tell the people – ‘Look, wasn’t our fault.’  And,” he says, “in the off chance that all of this is of God, you don’t want to be working against Him.  So, the most politically and theologically expedient thing to do is to let this go.”

Acts 5:40 And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

They had to flex a little bit of power here, they couldn’t just let them off with a warning again.  But notice how the apostles respond:

41 So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

They’re undeterred.  Unfazed.  They press on. They say, “we have to do this because we know it is true.”

Look, I might be able to force or intimidate you enough to make you say the sky is green, but you know it’s blue and you can’t deny it.  Well, in the same way, these guys have been radically touched by Jesus.  They know this all real, and there’s no way they can turn their back on it.  They must obey God.

And what is it that God is telling them to do?  Look with me back up at verse 20 – after they angel set them free they were told:

20 “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”

These men are arrested, questioned, threatened, then beaten for offering people life. For telling people that God has exalted Jesus so that we might be given repentance and forgiveness of sins; so that we might find freedom, restoration, healing, cleansing, love.

Why is that something you want to resist?  It’s not rational, but we do.

God is at work in His people individually, in this congregation at City Gates as a family, and in the global Church, He is at work in the world.  The Holy Spirit is convicting people of sin in their lives, He’s convicting them of the need for righteousness, He’s convicting them of their guilt in the coming judgment.

He’s correcting us, rebuking us, training us, calling us and offering to empower us, if we will surrender and follow.  He offers us a new life in Christ, and then offers to help us grow and fill that life with community built on purity, strength, justice, and truth.

But there will be opposition along the way.  There will be division in the church and opposition outside.  People will resist and reject what God is doing.

Do not worry, do not fear.  The gospel goes on.  The Kingdom advances.  At times we Christians will be misunderstood, misrepresented, and maligned, but it should not shock us or confuse us. Just don’t contribute to it.  Be discipled by God and His Word, not your favorite media outlet or voice.  And rest in this: God’s plan prevails.  Next week in Chapter Six, we’re going to see yet another problem – the threat of internal division will come up again, but… it’s a problem driven by the fact that so many people from such diverse backgrounds are coming to faith.  In other words: it’s a good problem to have.  So watch out for, and resist, internal division and external opposition – but be encouraged in the faith, be encouraged by the God who brings you all the words of this life.

Let’s pray.

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