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The counter-cultural boldness of the gospel

Back to all sermons Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Date: July 15, 2018

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Scripture: Acts 3:1–4:31

We have been going through the book of Acts this summer. Acts, which was written by Luke, the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke, is the account of the beginning of the church after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. This morning we’ll be reading a long passage, Acts 3:1-4:31:

 

Acts 3:1 - 4:31 - One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer-- at three in the afternoon.  2 Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts.  3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money.  4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, "Look at us!"  5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.  6 Then Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."  7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man's feet and ankles became strong.  8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.  9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God,  10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.  11 While the beggar held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon's Colonnade.  12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?  13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.  14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.  15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.  16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.  17 "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.  18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.  19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,  20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you-- even Jesus.  21 He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  22 For Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you.  23 Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.'  24 "Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days.  25 And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, 'Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.'  26 When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways."  NIV Acts 4:1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people.  2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.  3 They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.  4 But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.  5 The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem.  6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest's family.  7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: "By what power or what name did you do this?"  8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: "Rulers and elders of the people!  9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed,  10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  11 He is "'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.'  12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."  13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.  14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.  15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together.  16 "What are we going to do with these men?" they asked. "Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.  17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name."  18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  19 But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."  21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened.  22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.  23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.  24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.  25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: "'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.'  27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.  29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."  31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly

 

Acts 2, which I preached on two weeks ago and Brian preached on last week, ended with the statement that many wonders and miraculous signs were being done by the disciples, and that God was adding daily to their number those who were being saved. Acts 3 begins with an example of one of those miraculous signs, followed by a significant addition – 2000 more – to the number. In this section, a crippled man is laid at the temple gate, and Peter and John speak to him and say “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” After he is healed, a crowd gathers, amazed, and Peter preaches to them about Jesus and how to be saved from their sin. The structure of the sermon is very similar to the sermon we looked at from Pentecost two weeks ago:  he points them to Jesus while grounding it in Old Testament prophecy and the big picture of what God is doing in the world. But this time, Peter’s act of preaching leads to him and John being arrested by the religious and political elites in Jerusalem. They are told by the rulers not to speak any more in the name of Jesus, but after Peter and John refuse, they let them go, since the crowd is decidedly in Peter and John’s favor. The church comes together in prayer and asks for God to give them boldness in their witness, and prays that God would perform more miraculous signs and wonders through them.

 

If you had to summarize the theme of the passage in one word, I think it would be boldness. What is bold about Peter’s message? What do we learn about what it means to be bold as a follower of Jesus?

 

  • He proclaims that Jesus has miraculously risen from the dead

 

I covered this in more detail in the sermon from two weeks ago, but the fact remains that Peter is proclaiming something that flies in the face of reason – a man who died was raised to life.

 

15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

 

I’ve said it before but it is worth saying again. Neither the Jews nor the Gentiles believed in the possibility of resurrection in the middle of history. The Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of history, but not that anyone would come back to life in the middle of history. And the Greeks and Romans believed that the body was evil and the soul was good, and so they did not believe it was desirable to come back bodily from the dead. In other words, if the disciples had made up the resurrection story, no one would have believed it. But the fact is that Jesus rose again, and the disciples were witnesses to that. They could not stop testifying to what they had experienced.

 

It took boldness to proclaim the resurrection 2000 years ago, and it continues to take boldness today. It takes boldness to proclaim that you believe in the supernatural in America. In other parts of the world that are more open to the spiritual realm, maybe not so much. But in America, to proclaim the miraculous will result in many others seeing you as naïve and unsophisticated.

 

What would be easier? It takes much less boldness to proclaim a religion that is about good works, loving the poor, fighting for the oppressed, and so on. All of these are things that you should do as a follower of Jesus, but not at the expense of the central gospel message of Jesus dying and rising from the dead for our sins. Consider what Paul says the central gospel message is:

 

1 Corinthians 15:1-8 - Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

 

The central gospel message is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again to overcome sin and death, and that this is a historical event. How else do you explain the transformation in the apostles, that these cowards would become bold world-changers willing to go to their death? How else do you explain how all these people came to worship a crucified criminal as the eternal Son of God? How else do you explain the rise of Christianity from a small offshoot of Judaism in a backwater province of the Roman Empire into the largest religion in the world? If Jesus has not risen from the dead, how do you make sense of it?

 

When I was in living in England during my junior year of college, I watched a BBC program on the life of Jesus. They went out of their way to show that Jesus was just an ordinary Jew. But then in the end, the host of the program ended by saying that given all the evidence, he can only conclude that Jesus must have risen from the dead – how else to make sense of how this ordinary Jew could create a movement that has changed the world?

 

  • He confronts the people with their sin and calls them to repentance

 

In Peter’s sermon, he boldly confronts the crowd:

 

13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.  14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.  15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.

 

He continues:

 

17 "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.  18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.  19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,  20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you-- even Jesus. 

 

And after they are arrested, he says the same thing to the religious elite:

 

It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  11 He is "'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.' 

 

I touched on this two weeks ago during the Pentecost sermon. A central part of the gospel is the reality that we are sinners in need of repentance. It is not just that we are ignorant people who need to be enlightened, or bad people who need to become good or lazy people who need to try harder. It’s that our sin has separated us from a holy God, and we are unable to bridge the gap on our own, and that Jesus Christ came and died to pay the penalty for our sins, and that to receive this gift of forgiveness and eternal life, one must repent – turn from sin and self-centeredness to faith in Jesus, declaring Him to be Savior and Lord. Peter is not the only one to proclaim this – listen to Jesus:

 

Mark 1:14-15 - After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  15 "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

 

And listen to John:

 

1 John 1:8-9 - If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

 

To repent is to recognize “it was my sins that held him there” and to admit it, to turn from it to receiving Jesus’ offer of forgiveness as your Savior and to enthrone Him as Lord in your life.

 

Why does this require boldness? What are the alternative messages that are preached? Believe in Jesus. Admit you are a sinner. Commit yourself to Him. It is easier and certainly less offensive to leave out the sin and repentance part and to preach a message of good works and God’s all-inclusive love for everyone. But you can not fully understand the good news of the gospel until you understand the bad news of your sin. Apart from that, you’ve simply created a God that is like Barney, loving everyone but changing no one. There is no cost to that kind of love. We proclaim a God who paid a great cost to save you, because He loves you that much. You are so sinful that nothing less than the death of the Son of God would save you. Yet you are so loved that He gladly and willingly died for you. Boldness requires calling people to repentance. And that is not a popular thing to do.

 

There is something very prophetic about what Peter is doing and what true preaching is. Nowadays, people who are called prophets are more like worldly psychics or fortune tellers, telling the future, looking into the unknown. But the OT prophet was not a popular person. They called people to repent from their sins and to turn to God, to live holy lives. And most OT prophets were persecuted or killed for their boldness. As was Jesus. As was Peter. And as you will be if you emphasize the need to repent.

 

  • He declares that Jesus is the only way to salvation

 

 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." 

 

If the fundamental problem is that we are bad people who need to be good, then truly, what is the difference between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or many other religions? People who believe that all religions are basically the same are focusing on the ethics of those religions – don’t kill, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on. But the essential message of Christianity is that our sin has separated us from a holy God, and no amount of ethical behavior or good works can make you right again with God. So it does not matter if you follow the Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam or the Eightfold Path of Buddhism or any other manmade way to God – you can not save yourself. Peter, and we, proclaim that salvation is found in no one else, because the only way to be saved from your sin is to either live a perfect life or to have someone live the perfect life on your behalf and die for your sins. And that is what Jesus has done.

 

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 - Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.  21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 

And just in case you think that only the apostles preached this message, listen to how Jesus put it:

 

John 3:16-18 - "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

 

Even Jesus declares that sin has separated us from God, but that through Jesus’ life and death, we are offered a way to be right with God.

 

You have probably all heard the saying “There are many paths up the mountain,” meaning that there are many ways to God. There is a Hindu proverb that goes like this: “There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.” Contrast that approach with this quote by Kevin DeYoung, pastor and author: “All paths lead to God, but only one path will present you before God without fault and with great joy. Pick a path, any path – it will take you to God. Trust me: you will stand before Him one day. You will meet your Maker. You will see the face of Christ. There are many ways up the mountain, but only one will result in life instead of destruction.”

 

What does that mean for sincere people of other religions or those who have never heard the gospel? I don’t know. We trust that God is just and God is merciful, and we will see that displayed in however God chooses to judge the world. But for those who have heard, it’s as Peter says in v. 17 – you once acted in ignorance, but now you know, and there is no excuse. Your sin has separated you from a holy God, and the only way to be saved is to repent and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins.

 

It takes courage and boldness to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation. It is much safer to proclaim that all paths lead to God. You are inviting accusations of being narrow-minded and intolerant by saying what the apostles say here. But if the issue is not being morally and ethically a good person but dealing with the problem of sin, then the only way to salvation is through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

In this passage, after the religious elite arrest Peter and John, they tell them to no longer preach in the name of Jesus. And in response, Peter and John say, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  20 For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."  Now that is boldness – they will not compromise their message, even if it costs them their lives.

 

What is the result of their boldness? Another 2000 come to faith in Jesus.

 

  • He prays boldly

 

The chapter begins with Peter and John boldly telling a crippled person to stand up and walk in the name. It takes boldness to pray for someone’s healing, because you may not heal them. In fact, you probably won’t. My example with Karen. But what if God wants to heal and you do not pray? Better to pray boldly and have the answer be “no” then to miss out on what God wants to do because you did not pray boldly.

 

And lastly, look at how in the face of persecution, the apostles do not pray for the persecution to go away but for God to give them boldness and courage in the face of difficult circumstances.

 

29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."  31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly

 

How often do we pray for God to change our circumstances instead of asking Him for the boldness and courage to remain faithful to Him despite the circumstances? But God promised us that we would have trouble in this world.

 

John 16:33 - "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

 

In fact, what the apostles experience in Acts 3-4 is prophesied in Luke 21:

 

Luke 21:10-19 - Then he said to them: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.  12 "But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.  13 This will result in your being witnesses to them.  14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.  15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.  16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.  17 All men will hate you because of me.  18 But not a hair of your head will perish.  19 By standing firm you will gain life.

 

May God help us to focus on being faithful to Him, and to pray for the courage and boldness to stay faithful to Him no matter what opposition or challenges come our way. The last verse I want to read is this:

 

13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

 

They were ordinary men with no proper training in Rabbinic theology, yet they taught and preached with authority and boldness. May people say the same about us as we live our lives boldly for Jesus. Let us come together and pray in this spirit, asking God for boldness and courage, that He might fill us with His Spirit and enable us to speak the Word of God boldly.