TEXT: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2
It is wonderful to be back with you this morning! As I wrote in the church newsletter, I look forward to sharing bits and pieces of the sabbatical with you over the coming weeks and I hope the overall benefit of rest and renewal will be evident to you. Next week, in particular, I’m going to speak more about the God-designed benefits of Sabbath rest.
Today, though, I want to speak from Scripture to a different topic. It seems to me that we are at (at least) a generational high in terms of civil unrest, war and terror, and political uncertainty. Consider just some of what’s in the news: racial tension, mass shootings, BREXIT, the presidential election, ISIS, and the list goes on. And those things show no signs of abating in the near future. On top of that, Christianity seems to be losing its place in the cultural fabric of our country, and that can unsettle even the most stalwart believers among us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve wondered more than a few times about what kind of world my children are inheriting.
I was pondering these things recently and the opening words of Psalm 2 came to my mind: “Why do the nations rage, and the people devise a vain thing?” And as I spent some time looking at that Psalm, I was drawn to the scene in today’s text in Acts 4, where a group of early Christians quoted this Psalm in the midst of civil unrest, political uncertainty, and religious persecution. So I’d like to look at that story with you and see what we might learn for our own context.
The background to this story began back in Acts 3 with the healing of a lame man in the area outside the Temple in Jerusalem. Peter and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, encountered the man begging and offered him all they had: Jesus. Praying for him in Jesus’ name, he was healed and began following them around the Temple courts as they talked about Jesus and all he had said and done. What follows is in two parts: the trouble that got them into (with some legitimate reasons to be afraid) and the response of Peter, John, and the other believers in the face of that trouble.
Reasons to Fear (vv. 13-22)
Peter and John were quickly arrested. It had not been all that long since the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, so all the same tensions and opposition from the religious leaders was still in the air, perhaps even more so because the early Christian movement was gathering followers quickly. That Peter and John did something that brought such attention to the name of Jesus flew directly in the face of the power and authority of the same religious leaders. And those leaders had the same power to bring to bear against them that they brought against Jesus.
After the night in prison, Peter and John were put on trial. Though the religious court did not find anything worthy of their conviction and feared the large crowd’s response if they did (see v. 21 – “on account of the people”), they did try to intimidate them into silence. I see at least three explicit words describing that culture of opposition:
- WARN (v. 17) – “so it will not spread any further… let us warn them to speak no longer… in this name”
- COMMAND (v. 18) – “they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus”
- THREATEN (v. 21) – “when they had threatened them further, they let them go”
I’m not sure we can fully appreciate the intimidation factor at that time. This was a local religious government overlaid with an oppressive foreign government, and fully opposed to Jesus and what he stood for. It’s the kind of thing we might fear in modern times, when in reality we still enjoy far more cultural freedoms and independence and security than Jesus’ disciples did.
But here’s what I want you to see: the peace, joy, and purpose of those early believers was not contingent on a supportive culture or government, on earthly prosperity, or even on personal safety. The peace, joy, and purpose of those early believers was fixed on their faith and hope in Jesus Christ, and him alone.
Just consider Peter’s response the religious leaders WARNED and COMMANDED them to stop talking about Jesus: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (vv. 19-20) But what may be even more inspiring than the faith of these notable disciples is the response by the group of new believers when Peter and John reported these events back. Spontaneous worship broke out!
Worship and the Presence of God
After Peter and John reported these events, the gathered group of believers “lifted their voices to God with one accord and prayed.” (v. 24) They may well have been afraid, but they didn’t huddle in fear. They may well have been angry and opposed those in power in Jerusalem, but they did not argue or revolt or post angry memes on Facebook. They gathered with the community of faith and prayed. And listen to what they said.
- Praise (vv. 24-26)
Their response was a spontaneous exclamation of praise to God, specifically for God’s power in this world. First, the friends declare, “O Lord, it is you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” (v. 24) Having praised God’s work in creation, they quote from Psalm 2, “Why did the Gentiles rage…?” (vv. 25-26), which describes the sovereignty and power of God, even over the so-called powers of this world.
I am challenged and instructed by these words of praise. This is not just generic “God is good; God is great” praise, but is specific to the situation at hand. Peter and John have run up against the earthly powers of their time and place – the religious leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. They have been imprisoned and put on trial, threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus. And God has brought them through all of that. Rather than view this as a lucky break they were emboldened all the more to trust in God to talk about Jesus. The people’s praise and their knowledge of God’s Word reminded them through their worship that God was sovereign, even over earthly rulers and powers. I am also reminded of how ably scripture teaches us what God is like, giving us words and thoughts with which to pray and praise our God!
What would it be like if, instead of responding to the evening news with fear or anger or hopelessness, we prayed in faith to the “Lord who made Heaven and earth and the sea” and before whom the activities of nations and people are just an ‘uproar’ and ‘a vain thing?’ At the very least, would not taking time to pray and praise our God frame how we think about all the rest and give us a needed perspective?
- Open Eyes (vv. 27-28)
The next few verses are particularly striking to me. These folks don’t have their heads buried in the sand. They aren’t just singing “Kum Bah Ya” in a room somewhere, but are keenly aware of what’s going on around them. They are engaging the world with faith WITH OPEN EYES. In fact, I believe that it is just this kind of open-eyed awareness that enabled Peter, John, and friends to offer the specific praises we just looked at. They knew just what had happened:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to occur. (vv. 27-28)
Why did Psalm 2 come to mind? Why were the praises about the sovereignty and power of God over earthly powers? It is precisely because these same people had seen the earthly power that had set itself against Jesus and now was set against them and they connected the dots. Specific names and scenes came to mind: Jesus before Herod and Pilate; the crowds shouting, ‘Crucify!’; the opposition and threats to Peter and John.
One of the critical pieces to a living faith is paying attention to what is happening around you. I often remind you to pray: God, what are you doing in and around me and how can I be a part? Open eyes and ears not only help us see God at work, but also fuels our prayers of praise as well as petition.
- Petition (vv. 29-30)
What do we do with that open-eyed information? Is that the time to worry, fear, be enraged? Too often, it is. But John and Peter’s friends continue in prayer, now moving from praise to petition, asking God to CONTINUE the kind of sovereign protection God described in Psalm 2 and that God has already shown to Peter and John. So they pray, with open-eyed specificity:
And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that your bond-servants may speak your word with all confidence, while you extend your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (vv. 29-30)
Again, this is not a generic prayer, “Lord, help my friends out”; it is specific, mentioning the threats, the preaching, and the healing that were all a part of Peter and John’s experience over the past few days. And it rests on the assurance of God’s sovereignty and power, already named through praise and also seen in the past few days. They also don’t devolve into “deliver us from this or that” but stay focused on the work of the Sovereign God… making Himself known throughout the world. That’s another key point; we can get everything else right in terms of praise and open-eyed assessment of the world, and then focus in on a “what’s in it for me” kind of prayer. These early Christians model for us the kind of perspective and attitude that I think we desperately need today.
Finally, already present as they prayed, the Holy Spirit filled the whole group and they all began to talk about Jesus with boldness. So the ministry and message of Peter and John spread among the followers of Jesus and the surrounding city and countries in this very manner.
Praise, Look, Ask
How shall we then respond to a culture and world seemingly crazier by the moment? God’s Word teaches us, “Fear not! God is sovereign over the Heavens and the earth and is at work among us.” There is reason to praise, and not only alone; but importantly, in community. And our faith is not a head-in-the-sand faith, but one in which we are invited to be informed, open-eyed, and aware, for not only is this the world we live in, but it is the world God loves! And finally, God invites us to pray and participate in His work in this world. That may look different for each of us, but it also shares this commonality: through our unique experiences and locations and opportunities, each of us have the same calling – to talk about and live for Jesus, the one we have “seen and heard” in faith. God make it so; Amen!