I don’t believe it is an accident that we are looking at Acts 4:23-31 today. Our country is days into war with Iraq, the economy is difficult, joblessness is on the rise, and difficult decisions are being made in our schools. We realize that compared to many people, times are not that tough. But, we still find ourselves weary. Some even feel they are at the point of despair.
In today’s text we continue our study of Acts 4. Peter and John had been arrested for healing a man and teaching the crowd about Jesus. Though they are innocent of any real crime they are told not to preach in the name of Christ again or they will face severe consequences. They made the bold declaration that if there was a choice between doing what God said and doing what the law said, they would obey God.
It sounds very bold and noble of course, but imagine how they could have responded. These men could have left the presence of the Jewish leaders and been overcome with fear. They could have begun to consider the consequences and started to make excuses for a compromise in the faith. They could have become depressed and weary.
But that is not what they do. They went back to their friends and reported what had happened. They didn’t do this in a spirit of fear, but in a spirit of faith.
I believe most of us want to face the difficult times of our life with faith just like these disciples. So this morning we look for clues on how to respond to the tough times of life.
Focus on the Power of God
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.
When Peter and John left the company of the Sanhedrin they did not go into hiding. They were on a collision course with the very men who had killed Jesus. The last time this happened in the Garden of Gethsemane, they ran away. Not this time.
When Peter and John told the other disciples what had happened, they immediately turned to the Lord in prayer. This in itself is significant. Imagine what we might have done. We might have spent a great deal of time talking about the unfairness of our situation. We might have complained until we had made the situation into a tragedy in our minds. We could have had one giant pity party. We might have tossed and turned in bed. Perhaps we would have gotten some anti-depressants to soothe our troubled minds. We might even have turned to prayer eventually . . . but I’d hate to admit that my prayer might have been more of a gripe session than a declaration of faith.
Notice that these people in the early church don’t panic. They turn to the Lord. They address Him as the “Sovereign Lord who made heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them.”
The word translated “sovereign” is a very strong word. It is actually the word “despotes”, from where we get our word despot. A despot is a person who has absolute power and authority. These people trusted God as the one who was in complete control of all circumstances. They recognized that nothing happened outside of His control. They were confident of His love (because of Jesus), they were sure of His wisdom (because of His history) and they were convinced of His power (they had firsthand experience). Their prayer is not one of panic but faith.
Once the representative of the Pope threatened Martin Luther with what would follow if he persisted in his course of rebellion against the Catholic Church. He warned him that in the end he would be deserted by all his supporters. “Where will you be then?” demanded the envoy. “Then as now,” Luther answered, “in the hands of God.”
When the difficult times of life come our way, we can focus on the problem, or on our Sovereign God. God is still on the throne. It may seem like things are out of control . . . but they aren’t. It might feel like you are in a free fall, but His arms are there to catch you. In Deuteronomy 32:27 we read these great words, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
I guess it is similar to a picture of a dad tossing their child in the air, or a parent helping their child to walk or holding them up when they first learn to swim. The child is often scared. They jump into the water that is over their head, but they jump in spite of the danger because they trust the one who is there to catch them and keep them from drowning. Elisah Hoffman caught the idea in his great hymn,
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
I know some of you are exhausted. You are overwhelmed by life and feel like life is about to wash over you and you are about to drown. If you are a child of God, if you have put your faith in God’s provision for your life rather than your own goodness, if you are trusting Jesus instead of your goodness, then my friend I remind you that the everlasting arms are under you.
Practically, how can we become more focused on God’s Sovereignty in our lives? Here are some suggestions:
- Read through the Psalms and notice the characteristics of God
- Go outside and look around. See the splendor of creation and remember who put it all in place.
- Read some of the records in the Old Testament where God intervened in the life of Israel. Read in the New Testament of Jesus’ healings and the miracles He performed. Remember that God is more than capable to meet your needs.
- Look back on your life at the times when you didn’t think you would make it . . . but you did. Think of the “hopeless” times that you survived.
- Look at the cross. Think about what Jesus suffered there for you. Remind yourself that the God who would go to this extreme to save you is not about to desert you now.
Remember the Futility of Man’s Rebellion
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.
After turning to Psalm 2 the followers of Jesus remind themselves that this persecution is not unexpected. The rulers of the world persecuted Jesus. It is not surprising that those who stand with Christ are persecuted as well.
But do you notice those incredible words, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Pilate and Herod had conspired to kill the Son of God but they ended up bringing about God’s purpose. These men rebelled against the Lord, they fought His cause. . . but God is not outmaneuvered.
There are times when we feel like the Devil is winning. It seems like evil people prosper while we struggle. When Jesus died it seemed like the Devil had won. But what you see is not the entire story. The cross did not surprise God . . . in fact, it was part of His plan. God did not “make” the people crucify Jesus. Knowing their evil hearts, God used the foolishness of men to accomplish the wonder of His grace. In the middle of man’s rebellion God was declaring His love.
I think of it like a great chess game. A person who is a master at the game knows the moves his opponent is going to make before he makes them. He is ready with a counter move as soon as you move your piece. You do not surprise the Master Chess player. Your moves actually play into his strategy. No matter what you choose, the end result is the same. We see God’s wisdom throughout the pages of Scripture.
- Pharaoh stood against Moses but it only served to spotlight the power of God.
- The brothers of Joseph sold him into slavery but God used that to put Joseph in position to save Israel
- King Nebuchadnezzar threw Daniel into the Lion’s den and God used that event to demonstrate his sovereignty and to change the heart of a king.
- Saul chased David around the desert and God used this to develop the character of the future King
- Herod tried to kill Jesus but that act only served to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be called out of Egypt.
- The church was persecuted and God used that to get the gospel out into the rest of the world.
God is in control. He takes tragedies and uses them to change lives and hearts. He uses the bad things to wake up those who are lost in their sin. He uses difficulties to show us His ability to provide for us. He takes the hard times and uses them to wean our hearts from the world and to build character within us. God uses the bombs that are dropped by the world to prepare us for eternity. The world rebels but they are foolish to think they can frustrate the will of God.
God is not surprised but what is happening in your life. He has allowed these difficult times to enter your life for His good purposes. Evil will never win. Evil will not win a single battle! God is using the events of this world to bring about His perfect purpose. The people of the early church believed this, and so must we.
Ask for Strength to Continue to Represent the Lord
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.”
Once we have established the fact of God’s Sovereignty and the futility of those who oppose Him, we will begin to pray differently. Having understood that God has a purpose in all things, we will not ask to escape His purpose, we will ask to be faithful.
The disciples ask for two things. They ask first that they might be able to “speak with great boldness”. It’s quite a prayer when you think about it. They didn’t ask for the trouble to disappear. They asked for boldness to do the very thing that could get them killed. By implication they were asking God to take away their fear so that they might obey Him fully.
“Do not pray for easy lives,” wrote Phillips Brooks. “Pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.” That is the way the early Christians prayed, and that is the way God’s people should pray today. 
Do you see how different this is from some of the prayers we pray? We want God to remove our burden. We want Him to take away the annoyances of life. We want Him to restore our lives to times of ease and blessing. The prayer of the early church was different. They wanted to be faithful in whatever situation they faced. They wanted to represent Christ even in the times of hardship. They saw the times of difficulty as opportunities to show the world the power of the gospel to transcend the difficulties of life.
The second thing they ask is that God might work in their midst. I think the implied request is that they were asking God to show people that the message they proclaimed was true. They wanted God to validate their proclamation with His power. I liken it to saying to the Lord, “Use me. Show through your power and grace in my life that what I speak is true.”
The accounts in the Bible are not fairy tales. They are not like a nice movie. When we watch a movie we are entertained, sometimes we are inspired but we still know that in most cases it is still make believe. These are real lives. These things really happened. These are true accounts that are recorded to teach us and give us an example to follow. So, what are we to learn?
First, we should learn to focus on the Lord rather than the problems in our lives. Instead of wallowing we should endeavor to trust. Instead of despairing we must hang on with confidence. Instead of playing the problem over again and again in our head we should recount the character of God and rest in His sufficiency.
An athlete can look at a video of a missed play over and over again. But if all he or she does is beat themselves up for the failure, nothing is gained. They need to look at the play, learn from it, make corrections and move on.
Second, we must seek to live faithfully. Sometimes God allows the trials to get us moving. He may want to move us away from something or towards something. Sometimes He puts us through a test to deepen our character. Sometimes we go through tough times because that test is a stage on which to testify of God’s mercy and love.
- Perhaps God is using the anti-Christian sentiment in our society to force Christians to take a stand.
- Maybe God is using corruption in government to get Christians to get involved.
- Maybe God is allowing an affliction in your body so that you might show the world the difference that Jesus makes.
- Perhaps God is giving you hard financial times to help you learn to live within your means or to teach you about His ability to provide for your needs.
- Maybe God is allowing tough times in our lives to get us to evaluate and cherish what is really important in life.
Obviously, I don’t know what God is doing—but He is doing something. It is not wishful thinking. It is truth based on the fact that our God is the Sovereign God of Creation who is all wise, all powerful, and loves us more than we will ever be able to fully fathom.