And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness (Acts 4:29 ESV)
Our study in the Book of Acts takes a sharp turn very early in the narrative. After the first few accounts of a thriving, growing, Holy Spirit-empowered nascent church, Luke records for us the first instance of persecution. But, does this mean the story isn’t going as planned?
Contrary to the opinions of those in the health and wealth or prosperity gospel crowd, Christianity is not a religion designed to make you rich or prosperous in this life. Everything that the early church experienced – the dramatic growth and the persecution – was foretold by Jesus Christ. The church’s growth is not an either/or dynamic, but rather one that includes both blessing and opposition.
In our last exposition, we considered the catalyst for the commotion that would lead to persecution: the healing of a lame man by Peter and John in the name of Jesus (Acts 3). This event would “greatly annoy” the temple authorities. To suggest that there was power in Jesus’ name was to threaten the entire current Jewish religious order; to suggest that Jesus might be even more powerful than Caesar was to upset the entire Roman political order – something needed to be done!
And so we read in Acts 4 that the authorities pass a mandate: no more teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name. That should do it. Right?
Of course not! Jesus promised that the very gates of hell cannot prevail against his church! He told his followers to expect opposition, and he told them what to do – stay faithful! The Apostles and the early church knew this, and this law would come into direct conflict with Jesus’ commands. So what did they do?
It might be helpful to notice what they did not do. They did not grow discouraged, they did not give up or apostatize, they did not petition their local official, they did not try to take dominion over the government, they did not launch a political campaign, they did not move out to an uninhabited area and build a Christian commune, they did not join forces with the ungodly in order to fight back, and they did not physically defend themselves.
Peter and John went into custody, gave their defense, preached the gospel to the authorities, and were then released. They were given the charge to stop preaching. What was their first recourse?
They went to the church, reported what happened, and prayed. Yes, that’s right, their first response was to go to a corporate prayer meeting! How far removed are we from this example? How often do we find solutions in everything in this world other than the basics that God has called us to? They prayed with the church to give them boldness to preach, because obedience to this new mandate would be disobedience to God. And God answered their prayer!
The chapter ends with a parallel to the end of chapter 2, wherein the church meets together in united love, having all things in common, and prioritizing the eternal kingdom of this temporal world. In other words, in the face of opposition, the church continues to be . . . the church.
In an age wherein the nations continue to rage against the truth we proclaim, let us come to church this Sunday ready to have the word of God challenge us and renew our minds about how we ought to respond to opposition, in obedience to our glorious Savior.