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Opposition from Authority

Acts  4:1-31

There is a curious alternation in Luke's writing: action, then tranquility, followed by action again. In the action we see doctrine being proclaimed; in the tranquility it is worked out. In one sense, this is Luke's way of coupling the faith proclaimed with the faith in deeds.

Here we see the doctrine of church and state restated:

(Acts 4:1-31 NIV) 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.

Make no mistake about it. Christ, preached boldly, will disturb the authorities greatly. We need to examine the attack of the world, the defense of the Christian and the character of the Christian shown here which enables his defense.

The Weapons of the State

The Power of the State

It is interesting that even the most powerful of governments find it difficult to presume themselves absolute. Perhaps this is because those governments which seize power by force understand how that force could turn against them - and those elected understand that people change their minds. The state, therefore, does not possess (and could not use) ultimate power. By virtue of being "the state" their power is limited. But it is significant:

·         There is the physical power of the state. It is shown in this instance by the jailing of John and Peter. But note that even in this the authorities wait until the end of the day. Such power displayed nakedly is not as effective as when coupled with its next great power.

·         That power is the psychological power of the state. By making the arrest at nightfall, the authorities intend to create a climate of fear. The intimation is that you, too, might disappear without trace.

·         There is also the power of pomp and ceremony. Above all other things, a government desires that its claim to power be declared legitimate. From this desire we have had the divine right of kings and much else. By grand spectacle the state proclaims its authority. But note: only those in doubt of their authority must strut.

The issue: who is supreme?

The issue is quite simple, really. Who is supreme? Any state constructed by man must ultimately answer that question. It is interesting to note that there are two governments on the planet older than 200 years - Great Britain and the United States. Both were founded on the explicit principle that "the king is not above the law." States founded upon the absolute authority of the state tend not to last as long - but bring plenty of trouble along the way. Nazi Germany (6 million slaughtered), Soviet Russia (20 million slaughtered) and Communist China (who knows?) - and interestingly, these are the nations that have been held up as examples by the right and left wing in America.

The ancients understood the problem. In their vernacular, these men had no authority to act - for if you are to challenge the state, you must do so with a greater authority - a greater name. So the question, "By what name?" is just their way of asking, "Who gave you this authority?"

The limits of state authority

As noted before, the state which proclaims itself supreme is quickly limited. Above all else, it must have legitimacy - the Fuhrer is always right; the divine right of kings; or whatever else you may call it. To maintain that legitimacy is a major task for the state. To accomplish that, note the use of the "threat."

This is the clue which gives away the solution. If the state were really supreme in all areas, why would they threaten the church? After all, when the police officer pulls you over to cite you, which of the two of you sounds off with threats? You're telling him who you know in the city administration, and he's writing the ticket. The one who threatens is the one who is not in possession of true authority. (This, by the way, is the secret of success for the ACLU. They threaten a lawsuit - and everyone caves in. To an organization which has no authority whatever.)

The Christian's Response

Reply to power: patience

There is a curious motif in the history of the church. God never opposes strength with strength; rather, he opposes the strength of the state with the weakness of the church.

·         Look at the change in Peter! Faced with the same authority before which he denied his Lord, he now proclaims Him. And does a night in jail shake his resolve? What has caused this change?

·         Peter has been given courage through the Holy Spirit. In that light, he can say "Fear God - Dread Naught." Indeed, so great is his courage that he acts as the one in authority.

·         God's use of the church's weakness is nowhere better shown in this: whenever God wants a public hearing before the rulers, he gets it - by having his servants arrested. The man on trial is the one who turns things upside down - as we see here.

About that Authority

God makes his point about authority in several ways:

·         First, and most important, note how Jesus is lifted up. It's never a case of "Jesus is my authority, and I'm the Pope, you know" - but rather all authority is acknowledged as belonging to Jesus.

·         This authority is so great that Peter can do what the Sanhedrin cannot: give respect. Think about it. When that police officer on the motorcycle stops you, is he respectful? Of course; he has the legitimate authority.

·         But greatest of all is the power of paradox: against these learned men in high places God sends uneducated, wrong side of the tracks fishermen.

The limitless God

You remember the threatening nature of their enemies? God makes no threats; indeed, the Apostles speak only to the facts. As we said last time, the sermon is still the same:

·         The witness of the prophecies

·         The death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

·         The guilt of the hearers and the hope of the repentant.

Christian Character

Verse 13 gives us the clue which tells us how the Apostles were able to do this. The Sanhedrin "took note that they had been with Jesus." The key to Christian character is the imitation of Christ.

Imitation by close association

Two keys we have seen for this: prayer, and the Apostle's doctrine. By prayer and study these men maintain their association with Jesus.

Imitation in action

It is not sufficient to think like Jesus, or admire him - one must act. But see here how the disciples act:

·         First, they act with boldness. It is not a rash behavior; rather, it is one that takes account only of what God desires. They speak out as if only one person matters: Jesus Christ.

·         They act with humility. You do not see them proclaiming themselves to be something great. Indeed, their first concern is that all should know that what they have done, they have done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. They are very concerned that Jesus gets the credit.

·         They behave with holiness. They foment no rebellion, pick up no sword - indeed, they pay honor to the rulers of the people. Thus there is no place for their attackers to grasp.

Reaction upon their return

If you really want to know a Christian, listen to their prayers. In this prayer given when they return, they show three things:

·         They acknowledge Christ as the one being prophesied - and in so doing proclaim the lordship of God over all things.

·         In acknowledging God, they also proclaim the futility of man acting outside God's purposes.

·         But it is not just in authority that God is supreme - it is in power, too.

Taken together, these three show us the relationship of the disciple to his Lord - one of humility and great strength. This, if you will, is the background. But what do they ask for? What is on their hearts?

·         Having spoken boldly, they ask for more boldness! The risk to them is unimportant; what is important is that Jesus Christ is preached and praised.

·         They ask - quite specifically - for miraculous signs and wonders. Perhaps we do not have because we do not ask!

·         They ask that all this be done in the name of Jesus Christ - which name they want above all else to be praised.

Does your church have no conflict with authority? Perhaps this is well; perhaps your authorities know their place. But as soon as the state deems itself supreme (or any man deems himself supreme) there should be conflict. If we follow Him, there will be conflict. In this world you will have trouble - but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

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