When Push Comes To Shove
We live in a time when there is a growing rift between those who follow Jesus Christ and those who do not. Moral issues such as Abortion, Homosexuality, stem cell research, physician assisted suicide and cloning are lead stories in the newspaper. Judges up for federal appointment are consistently measured not by their ability to interpret law, but by where they stand (or are perceived to stand) on the moral controversies of the day. A Judge who is an evangelical Christian will face a hard time in confirmation hearings.
We live in a society that requires a loving, consistent and unwavering voice for the things of God. We need people like Peter and John in our time.
In the book of Acts we have been following the story of the start of the church. Most recently we learned about a time when Peter and John were headed to the temple for the time of prayer. As they passed a beggar they said, “In the name of Jesus rise and walk.” They helped the man to his feet, his muscles immediately grew strong, and he walked, danced, jumped, and praised God.
As a result of the miracle, people gathered around Peter and John. They took this opportunity to tell the people about Jesus. Because of their proclamation of the gospel, they were arrested. They were brought before the Supreme Court of the Jews called the Sanhedrin, and asked to defend themselves.
Peter told the court the miracle was by the power of Jesus who was crucified, buried, and arisen from the dead. He told the men that Jesus was the only way of salvation. This is where we pick up our story. I hope you’ll see that some of the lessons we can draw are extremely practical.
GOD CAN USE ANYONE WHO IS WILLING TO BE USED
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 [v. 13]
The influential men of the Sanhedrin were used to having power over others. Their position and learning intimidated anyone who came before them. But these two men were not intimidated. They spoke clear and held fast to the facts of the gospel.
The leaders noted that the men were “unschooled, ordinary men.” This does not mean that they considered Peter and John to be illiterate. This phrase, “unschooled, ordinary men” would be similar to saying today, “they haven’t even been to college!” The court was startled at the knowledge and poise of these “uneducated” men.
God makes a habit of using unschooled, ordinary men and women,
- Abraham worshipped many gods before He met the Lord God Almighty
- Moses who killed a man and admitted he wasn’t a good speaker
- Rahab made her living on the streets
- Esther was a small town Jewish girl who won a beauty pageant.
- David was a man everyone (including Samuel) figured could not have been God’s choice as the next King because of his age and size.
- Amos was a simple Shepherd
- Mary was a an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary heart
- The disciples were a rag-tag group of men who came from various walks of life
God used these people, and He can use you. God can use the person who has made mistakes in their life; the person who was once an antagonist of the Gospel; the people we used to view as enemies; and the people that we have already written off. God delights in using the humble and willing.
There are two prerequisites to being used by God. First, we must be willing to be used by God. We have to be available.
Second, like the disciples we need to be people who have been with Jesus. We cannot serve God in our strength. We cannot get to Heaven by our goodness. We must trust Christ alone for eternal life. It is His transforming power that will make us vessels of God’s grace and influence.
The fact that you are here this morning would indicate that you have positive feelings about Jesus. But that is not enough. You must be a follower of Christ. A true Christian is a person who has believed the facts about Jesus (He was uniquely God in human form, He lived a sinless life, He died a willing and sacrificial death, He literally rose from the grave, and He is coming back) and is resting their hope and building their life on these facts.
Do people recognize that you have been with Jesus? Do they see a marked difference in your life? Do they see Christ in the way you speak about others? Do they see His influence in the way you handle your opponents? Do they see in you a humility that is anchored to an awareness not only of your own sin, but also of His mercy toward you?
PEOPLE WILL GO TO GREAT LENGTHS TO RESIST THE TRUTH
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.” [14-17]
Instead of admitting the facts and opening their hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ, these men “dig in their heels” and fight against the truth. Whenever people are hostile to the gospel we need to remember that they are not opposing a system of thought. They are not opposing the ideology of some religion. They are opposing the facts of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and present ministry through His followers. The historical facts make Christianity hard to simply dismiss. The world finds that fact aggravating.
Those who are opposed to the gospel will resort to all kinds of tactics,
- They will pass laws that restrict religious expression (the use of force)
- They will attack us personally (if you can’t attack the facts, attack the person). Just this last week we had someone visit our website and they went to the guestbook page and attacked us (I erased the entry).
- They will misrepresent us (they will say things such as: Christians hate Mormons, Muslims, Pregnant Women and homosexuals; Christians are militant Republicans; Christians want to force everyone to believe as they do). None of these statements is true, of course. We don’t hate the people who disagree with us. We love those people and that is why we present the gospel to them. Christianity is a-political.
- They will magnify our failures. A Christian scandal is big news. It is seen as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Christian faith.
We must not minimize the lengths people will go to in trying to sidestep the implications of the gospel message. We need to face the fact that we will face opposition. We must be prepared because sooner or later it will come.
THERE ARE TIMES WE SHOULD DISOBEY THE AUTHORITIES
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.” [18-20]
The Sanhedrin didn’t know what else to do. They couldn’t punish the disciples for what everybody recognized as a miracle. So, they told Peter and John never to preach about Jesus again.
The disciples respond, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard”. There was no way they could stop telling others about Jesus. He had transformed their lives and they were convinced He was the Savior of mankind. This kind of news you can’t keep to yourself.
If you grasp the significance of Jesus. If you understand the true force of the salvation he offers, you will speak about the Lord as freely as you talk about your children or your latest accomplishments. Why do you think it is so difficult for people to share their faith today?
I digress from my main point. Peter and John face a problem. To continue to speak about Jesus would be to disobey the clear instruction given by the Jewish court. What should they do? This question is answered by different people in different ways. James Boice points out that in history there have been four different ways of responding to the authority of the government.
First, there are those who say that God is the sole authority and deny the authority of the state entirely. These people withdraw from society out of the desire to serve only the Lord. Monks would fall into this category. Boice comments,
It is also the essential approach of those evangelical Christians who so separate themselves from the secular world that they withdraw from the surrounding culture, refuse to participate in elections, have only Christian friends or work only for a Christian company. [Boice, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS p. 186]
Second, there are those who view the state alone as the authority. These people cry along with the Jews, “We have no King but Caesar”. These people believe God has nothing to do with public life or the rule of law. These folks love the slogan “separation of church and state” (which of course is vastly distorted in it’s use).
A third group acknowledges both the rule of the state and God but they believe the earthly authority takes precedence over the Heavenly authority. If God’s law contradicts the law of the land then the law of the land should be obeyed.
The view held by Peter and John recognized the authority of both the institution, and the Lord, but saw the Lord’s authority taking precedence over the state. This fourth view is the Biblical view.
We have an obligation to treat earthly authority with respect, honor, and obedience. The disciples showed respect to the Sanhedrin. They acknowledged their God-given authority, but when their commands conflicted with the commands of God, they could not obey. Their response was a simple question,
“Should our first obedience be to God or to you?”
In Acts 5, in a similar circumstance the disciples answer with an emphatic, “We must obey God rather than men.”
There are times when we MUST disobey the governing authorities and be obedient to God. James Boice tells of a time when Martin Niemoeller was arrested for continuing to preach the truth of the gospel in Nazi Germany. Another minister came to visit him in jail and told Niemoeller that he could be released from jail if he would just refrain from speaking on certain topics. “So, why are you in jail?” he concluded.
“Why aren’t you in jail?” Niemoller replied. [TWO WORLDS]
Christians have an obligation to continue to obey God . . . no matter what the government says. Let me give you some examples from every day life.
- If your employer instructs you to do something illegal or immoral you should refuse
- If a medical facility insists that you participate in euthanasia, genocide or an abortion procedure. You must refuse.
- If the government tells you that cannot mention your Christianity in school, or your job, you must continue to honor the Lord in the school, or your place of employment. When the opportunity is there you must continue to share the gospel.
- If a law said we must not worship we would still need to find places to gather to exalt the name of our Lord as He commanded.
- If it was declared a crime to say that homosexuality, abortion, pornography, prejudice, adultery or any other such thing was sin, we could not keep quiet.
- If it was a law that said we could not say another religion was wrong, we would have to disobey the law. You cannot proclaim the truth without saying those who disagree with that truth are wrong.
I feel constrained to point out a few things as a matter of clarification. First, whenever we feel we need to disobey the authorities we must always remember that our disobedience must be based on the clear teaching of scripture and not on some distortion of the text. We may disobey ONLY when the law of men conflicts with the law of God. We must be sure that there is a conflict.
Second, our civil disobedience must not be done in a way that breaks other laws of God. It is right to speak out against abortion but wrong to bomb clinics or to assault those going into the clinics. It is okay to speak against corrupt rulers but wrong to try to assassinate them. It is appropriate to resist an unjust authority but it is wrong to attack them personally. The principle is clear: we must be Christian in our behavior even while we stand against an unjust or sinful command.
Third, we must be consistent in our stand. If we are going to stand for the gospel we must stand for it consistently. We can’t say one kind of sin is OK (because we like it, it benefits us, we don’t want to rock the boat) but another is not. If we are going to stand on the truth of Scripture we must be willing to stand on the truth of Scripture in every case.
Finally, when we resist authority we must be willing to accept the consequences. You might lose your job, you might be thrown in jail, or you might be ostracized. If these are the consequences that come from doing what is right–so be it. The Lord can and will take care of his own. Peter and John knew they could be thrown back in jail. They knew that there was a risk that they could be executed just like Jesus. But they stood on the firm belief that we must obey God rather than men. We must take a similar stand.
From time to time you read the story of a lawyer who is sent to jail for “contempt of court” because they are unwilling to violate the lawyer-client relationship. They know they will be sent to jail. However, they believe the lawyer-client privilege is essential to the justice system. They determine to stand on principle and face whatever consequences they must. We, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, need to be this committed to the Word of God.
Peter Cartwright was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Illinois. He was an uncompromising man who had come north from Tennessee because of his opposition to slavery. One Sunday morning when he was scheduled to preach, his deacons told him that President Andrew Jackson was in the congregation. Knowing Cartwright was used to saying whatever he felt God wanted him to say, regardless of how people might react, they warned him not to say anything that would offend the chief executive. He stood up to preach and said, “I understand President Andrew Jackson is here. I have been requested to be guarded in my remarks. Let me just say, Andrew Jackson will go to Hell if he does not repent.” The audience was horrified. They wondered how the President would respond to this. After the service he told Cartwright, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could whip the world.” [Hughes, Preaching the Word 4:32]
We need more Peter Cartwrights in our time. There could easily come a time in our own country when preaching the gospel would be met with penalties. Already any Bible-believing grace-proclaiming Christian is called a “religious zealot” or a “right wing fundamentalist or extremist”. The leap from here to persecution is not as big a leap as you might think.
The opposition to the gospel is strong and determined and it has gathered a head of steam. Let me give you some principles for living faithfully,
- If the Bible calls it sin, we must call it sin. If the Bible calls it immorality, then we must call it immorality. If the Bible says it is right . . .we must stand on it.
- We must always guard the value and dignity of people even if they do things we don’t like. We can condemn the sin but we must love the sinner.
- We should be the best workers, citizens and neighbors in the world. We must not use our Christianity as an excuse to not fulfill our commitments. We are commanded to share the gospel with everyone but we must be careful of not doing so in a way that inhibits our work.
- The goal in all conflict circumstances should be redemptive. As believers our goal should never be to get even or destroy another person. Our goal ALWAYS must be to lead another person, organization and even our country to the Lord. The tactics we use must be geared to this end and to no other. Though we may need to break a law—it must always be for the purpose of showing that the law transgresses a higher law, the law of God.
Imagine what would have happened if Peter and John had obeyed the directives of the court. If they had simply kept quiet we would not be here today. Their courage and faithfulness allowed the gospel to pass to the generations that followed. In a similar way, our faithfulness to the things of God in our day—our courage in the face of opposition will determine whether or not Christianity survives in America.