Sovereignty, Responsibility, and Boldness

March 2, 2009

(This sermon on Acts 4:23-31was preached 11/9/08. The audio is available here.)

Imagine that you are engaged in a personal ministry. You are confident that you are following God, and it seems that you are having some success. Then, suddenly, there’s a huge obstacle in your path,

  • It might be a failure on your part,
  • It might be a rejection or betrayal by former colleagues,
  • It might be a financial barrier,
  • It might be opposition, or threats from others.

How do you respond?

In Acts 4, that’s the situation Peter and John and all the apostles find themselves in.

Jesus was killed just a few months ago. That itself had seemed to be the end of their hopes. But God raised Him from dead. Jesus opened their eyes to Scripture and to His own prophecies to see that the crucifixion had to happen, to see the role of Christ’s suffering in God’s plan. The apostles now know that Jesus is living, active, still at work.

He then sent the Holy Spirit on them with power at Pentecost, baptizing them and filling them for their special task. These apostles saw three thousand saved that day – and they themselves baptized every one. They’ve seen more come to faith day by day.

Then God worked through Peter and John to heal a man who was lame from birth. A crowd gathered, and Peter preached; once again, thousands more were saved.

It would be understandable if, at this point, the apostles thought, “Wow! Look at God work! What success! Everything is just going to get better and better!”

But things didn’t get better and better.

As we saw last week, the Jewish authorities arrest Peter and John. They threaten them, warning them not to speak any more in the name of Jesus. Peter speaks boldly in their presence, saying there is no other name by which men must be saved, saying that they cannot but speak about what they have seen and heard, saying they must obey God rather than men. But the Jewish authorities just threaten all the more. They release Peter and John, but make their point absolutely clear: “If you continue to speak in the name of Jesus, watch out. We’re here. You know what happened to Jesus. If you love your families, if you want to see your children grow up, you had better keep quiet.”

This is the first serious challenge to the young church.

Put yourself in their shoes: These are not supermen. They have families, worries, and cares. If they are put to death, there are no food stamps, there is no welfare, there is no social security for their children. They must be facing a strong temptation to be quiet. Satan undoubtedly tempted them in these terms: “Think about how many are already saved! Let’s just teach them. Let’s just live together and enjoy each other, be family to each other. We can stop this proselytizing. For it’s this speaking in public that will get us in trouble. Indeed, maybe this is a sign from God –we’ve been spreading the Gospel, and we’ve had our success. Now maybe we’re supposed to stop and focus on deepening our joy in Christ.”

Imagine what would have happened if apostles had done that. That would have been the end of the church. Or, possibly, the church would have been a tiny enclave, a minor sect within Judaism. In other words, that would have been disastrous.

So how do the apostles fight this temptation? How can we, facing our own obstacles, fight the temptation to quit, to change, to adapt in ways that destroy our ministry?

Peter and John fight in four ways that are applicable to us:

  • Acknowledge your weakness
  • Know the truth
  • Trust the truth
  • Ask for God’s enabling

1) Acknowledge Your Weakness

The apostles begin by acknowledging their weakness. That is, they don’t get themselves pumped up, and do a rah-rah football cheer, saying, “Those chief priests are wimps! We can take them on! Be strong! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

No. They realize this is a serious threat. They know that they face the temptation to give up. They know that they are weak

Peter will later write,

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

Consider: How much chance does an unarmed man have if he goes one-on-one with a lion – no matter how pumped up he might be?

So what do Peter and John do? They acknowledge their weakness in two ways:

a) They acknowledge they need other believers

Verse 23 tells us, “they went to their friends” – presumably to a church meeting in a home. They went to their fellow believers and reported the threats of the Jewish leaders.

God doesn’t intend for us to face battles against temptations, against persecution, against Satan, against spiritual forces on our own. Indeed, Satan tries to isolate us, to keep us from sharing our trials and troubles. He is happy if we are isolated, regardless of whether we are all bravado or all worried and concerned. God gives us one another to support each other, to hold each other up.

b) They acknowledge they need God’s help

Though they need each other, even altogether they cannot stand against the powers arrayed against them. So the believers go to God, and seek His power, His assistance.

They lift up their voices “together” or “with one accord.” They unite in prayer, crying out to God. They know they need God

Do we know the same?

Most all of us would answer that question “Yes” on an exam. But do we live it out? When faced with temptations and trials, do you turn to other believers for help, and then together turn to prayer? On issues facing us as a church – such as our venue, and the church budget – are we praying together? Are we fervent in prayer together for this weekly service, for sanctification, for outreach?

For me personally, it is very easy to go through the motions of prayer, but deep down to really think that I can do it. What about for you?

May we push each other to depend together on God, acknowledging our weakness through prayer.

2) Know the Truth

After acknowledging their weakness, the gathered believers pray an extraordinary prayer. They are in personal and corporate crisis. They are in danger. They face the temptation to abandon the community, to go back to being regular Jews. So they are dealing with deep relational issues – their relationship to each other and well as their relationship to God. They are dealing with a crisis that could fracture their community.

So how do they pray?

They pray a doctrine-filled prayer.

We’re going to detail the doctrines they cite shortly. But first: Note how contrary this is to our present culture. Prominent forces within the church today say,

“Doctrine divides! We want relationships, not doctrine!”

“Doctrine is for the head! We want our hearts to be moved!”

“We’re not interested in propositions, in truth claims – we’re interested in genuine experience!”

Such statements would be nonsensical to the apostles.

When their community is tempted to fall apart because of temptation, they depend on doctrine in their prayer to God.

When fearful, they turn in prayer to doctrine to settle their hearts.

But this is not in contrast to experience – the experience that results from this doctrinal prayer is powerful.

So let’s look at this prayer and note twelve doctrines they cite or allude to. We don’t know who spoke this prayer, though clearly all present agreed with it. Peter may have been the speaker, and I’ll refer to him as such.

Acts 4:24 “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,

a) The doctrine of the existence of God. They address God. He must exist.

b) The doctrine of the sovereignty of God: They call Him, “Sovereign Lord.” The Greek word is the root of our word “despot.” It means absolute master. They will elaborate on God’s sovereignty later in the prayer:

c) The doctrine of creation: God created all things, seen and unseen. He even created us, and all human beings! He thus has the rights of a creator over us.

v25a who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

d) God speaks! The doctrine of revelation. Thus Peter rules out deism, the idea that God created the world, set it in motion, but then left it to operate on its own. He rules out the idea of God as an impersonal force. And he rules out any notion about God as unknowable. He tells us about Himself, so He must be knowable.

e) The doctrine of inspiration: God speaks through men moved by the Holy Spirit

At this point in his prayer, Peter quotes Psalm 2:1-2. Let me read this psalm in its entirety, for Peter surely expects his fellow believers to have the context of his quotation in mind:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

What doctrines come out in this psalm?

f) More on God’s sovereignty: No human power is a threat to God. For how does God respond to all these kings and rulers plotting against Him, and against His Christ? Y Verse 4 tells us He laughs at them! All they do is “in vain.” They have no power to thwart His purposes. Have you ever seen a two-year-old shake his fist at an adult? Many two-year-olds assert their power and authority. But the adult is perfectly capable of maintaining control. The two-year-old has much less power than the adult, no matter how much he expresses his anger. It’s always helpful to remember that the difference between us and God is much greater than the difference between a two-year-old and an adult. And while some parents, unfortunately, seem to take the threats of two-year-olds seriously, God never takes out threats seriously. We are no threat to Him. Whatever nations, whatever forces are arrayed against Him, He’s not frightened. He is in control. He laughs at His enemies.

g) Psalm 2 abounds in the doctrine of the person of Christ:. Just note a few points

  • He is God’s chosen Messiah, verse 2.
  • He is God’s chosen king, verse 6,
  • He is the ruler of every nation, of all the earth, verse 8.
  • He is the one who will destroy God’s enemies, verse 9.
  • He is God’s Son, verses 7 and 12.

h) The psalm hints at the doctrine of salvation in verses 10-12, as the psalmist calls these rebels to repentance. These kings must see the Son as the Lord; they must serve Him and rejoice in Him. And if they do so, they will be saved, they will have a refuge. The alternative is judgment and condemnation.

Let’s go back to Peter’s prayer in Acts 4:

4:27 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

i) Peter elaborates on the doctrine of the person of Christ. He calls Jesus God’s holy servant. Like David, He is God’s servant as the anointed King who does the will of God. This title is also an allusion to the “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah, particularly to Isaiah 52 and 53, which prophesy the suffering of the servant.

j) The doctrine of prophecy. Peter applies Psalm 2 to recent events, including Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. So: God spoke centuries before Christ about events that would happen during His life.

k) The doctrine of the covenants. Look at verse 27. Peter alludes to the first sentence of the psalm, “Why do the nations (or “Gentiles”) rage and the peoples plot.” In the psalm, the words “nations” and “peoples” are in parallel; both words refer to all ethnic groups other than Israel. Peter says those gathered against Jesus include kings and rulers, as mentioned in Psalm 2:2 – that is Herod and Pilate. Then Peter mentions Gentiles or nations – non-Israelites. But then note what Peter says: Those gathered against God include not just the “peoples,” in parallel with nations; instead, Peter calls them the peoples of Israel! Those gathered against the Messiah, against the Davidic ruler, include the peoples of Israel! Instead of being God’s people, the people of Israel have conspired with the “kings of the earth” to fight against God’s anointed Messiah.

Peter had said this might happen in Acts 3:23. He is speaking of Jesus as the prophet who is to come:

23 And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’

The prophet like Moses is coming: All who don’t listen to him will be cut off from the people. Thus, to reject Jesus is to be cut off from true Israel. He is the true Israel. Only those united to Him are in God’s new covenant.

There is much more we could say: But for today, just note that Peter brings up the doctrine of God’s covenant with His people.

l) Peter elaborates on the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all that happens. These kings and rulers are gathered against Jesus, rebelling against His authority. Yet verse 28 tells us that they are doing exactly what God predestined to happen. Each of them is following his own desires, each is making choices, doing whatever he perceives is in his own self-interest; each is responsible for those choices; and yet each is doing exactly what God, centuries earlier, had predestined would happen. This is always the case with every opponent of God. He is in control, even of the evil deeds of evil men.

Do you see the depth of doctrine Peter depends on here? We could outline an entire semester of Systematic Theology from this prayer!

All this doctrine is either true or it is not true. If it is not true, it provides these believers with no basis for their upcoming appeal. If it is not true, it gives them no basis for their relationship with God or with each other. But it is true. They know it is true.

So clearly, this doctrine doesn’t divide! This doctrine isn’t for the head only! This deep doctrine is exactly what these believers need in this crisis.

So let’s see how these very doctrines then spur the Jerusalem church to bold witness in the face of persecution:

3) Trust the truth

Overarching all the doctrines we’ve seen is the name Peter chooses to use to address God: Sovereign Lord. Peter highlights God’s sovereignty – for trust in God’s sovereignty is key for the church at this point. If they are to risk their lives, to risk their income, to risk their families, they need to have confidence in the great truth of God’s sovereignty. They need to know that just as God planned the crucifixion of Jesus, God planned the arrest of Peter and John. God created these Jewish leaders, and He laughs at their resistance to His Christ. God will use their evil acts for His good purposes, just as He used the crucifixion for His good purposes

So they not only need to know the truth. They need to trust the truth.

So do we.

Doctrine is central. But one can have correct doctrine and be completely impotent. These great truths about God and Christ transform us when we know them and trust them – so that when we face trials and suffering we trust that God is in control. When we face dangers, we trust that God will permit only what is for our good and His glory.

We can then say with the psalmist,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5)

4) Ask for God’s Enabling

But Peter does more than recall great truths about God and trust in those truths. He asks God to do three things. Listen for these three in verses 29-30:

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

a) Look upon their threats

In Psalm 2, God sees the opposing kings and laughs at them. That’s what Peter is asking God to do here: To see their threats and to respond in such a way that they are frustrated in their plans to attack God and His people.

This may seem trivial – why ask God to do what He always does? Why ask the all-seeing god to notice what is happening? Indeed, Peter’s request may even seem to imply that God is not already taking notice. He needs our prompting or He’ll fall asleep on the watch!

That’s clearly not the case. But note that in Scripture God’s people frequently pray this way.

Consider Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

2 Chronicles 6:40 Now, O my God, let your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayer of this place.

Or Hezekiah’s prayer when the Assyrian king Sennacherib threatens Jerusalem:

Isaiah 37:17 Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God.

Or Daniel’s great prayer asking God to fulfill Jeremiah’s prophesy of returning the people to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon, despite their continued rebellion:

Daniel 9:18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name.

Thus, God wants us to know His character, and to call upon Him to act in accordance with that character. Far from demeaning Him, that is to His glory.

He is the all-seeing God. So we say, “Lord, look upon the evil around us. Look upon the suffering. Act, for the good of Your people and the glory of Your Name.”

That’s Peter’s first request. The next two requests ask that God act in particular ways as He sees those who threaten the early church. Let’s jump to his third request, and then come back to the second:

b) while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.

That is: “Act miraculously to establish the truth of Your word, to show that our bold words are true.”

Do you pray like that? Is it right to pray like that? Does God work miraculously today?

God performs a mighty miracle every time He brings someone to Himself, every time He replaces a heart of stone with a heart of flesh – every time He takes a spiritually dead person and makes him spiritually alive.

Furthermore, He is sovereign! He is creator! He always works to the glory of His Name, and is well able at any time in any place to act with signs and wonders.

Biblically we see signs and wonders concentrated in specific periods:

The time of the Exodus

The time of Elijah and Elisha

The time of Jesus and the apostles

So it’s not surprising to find that such signs and wonders are rare in many places and at many times. In addition, we know that such signs and wonders are not in and of themselves central to salvation.

But God has used them in history, particularly to verify the truths spoken by His messengers, and He does seem to be doing that today, particularly when the Gospel is spreading to new people groups who have been enslaved to false religion for centuries.

So don’t be reluctant to pray this way. Always pray for God’s glory to be shown. You can suggest ways that He might act. And then trust Him to magnify His glory.

c) grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness

Peter and John spoke God’s Word boldly before the council. They now face serious threats. And they ask that they and all the believers might continue to speak boldly, forthrightly, with confidence and courage. They pray that they might continue to proclaim the hard points – such as saying, “This Jesus, whom you crucified” – not fearing the results, but trusting God with whatever might happen, knowing that God laughs in derision at His opponents! He is sovereign! So, says Peter, “Let us act in knowledge of your sovereignty. Give us boldness!”

Do you pray this way?

Or do you simply say, “I’m not a bold person. I just witness in quiet ways.”

Of course we differ in personality. Of course we differ in giftedness. So did those in the early church. But note that Peter didn’t say, “Grant to your apostles to continue to speak with boldness.” He said, “Grant to your servants, your slaves.” That’s you. That’s me. Every believer is a slave of God.

Every one of us is called to be bold in our witness for Christ. And every one of us needs God’s power if we are to be bold and courageous and effective in our witness.

So pray for boldness!

And when you have been bold – like Peter and John – pray for more boldness! Don’t take for granted that you will be tomorrow.

When you’re frightened, and you know you shouldn’t be, don’t just be quiet. Don’t just say, “Maybe God won’t notice how frightened I am of this threat.” Say, “Look on this threat, O God! Frustrate their plans! Give me your Holy Spirit! Enable me to hold firmly to Your truth, to proclaim it through my words and through my life!”

Pray for boldness!

Conclusion

What happened as a result of this prayer?

31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

God manifested His presence among them. They knew He was there. He gave them a special filling with His Holy Spirit. And, despite obstacles, despite threats, they spoke the Gospel with great boldness.

And we are here today as a result.

We opened by asking you to imagine an obstacle you face in ministry, a roadblock that seems to keep you from continuing. Sometimes we should change direction as a result of an obstacle – for sometimes God puts obstacles in our way to cause us to change. We will see some examples of that later in the book of Acts. He’s sovereign after all.

But when faced with such obstacles, always ask:

Is this God’s command to all believers, and it’s simply hard to do? There’s no surprise in such difficulties! We are to persevere through hardship.

Or is this God’s specific calling to me, that I must follow, regardless of the obstacles?

If the answer to either question is “yes,” go forward just as Peter and John went forward! Follow the same steps they took:

Acknowledge your weakness – before other believers and before God. You will not fulfill God’s purposes on your own.

Know the truth! Love God’s Word; meditate on it day and night; learn God’s character. Don’t be swayed by the latest fads and winds of doctrine.

Trust the truth! Look to God’s sovereignty, His goodness, His mercy, and step out in confidence.

Pray for His enabling! Pray that God would fulfill His character in Your life. Pray that you might so trust His character that you are bold, courageous, winsome, and wise.

The Sovereign God, the Creator of all things, calls to Himself rebellious sinners who deserve hell, forgiving them through the death on the cross of His Son Jesus. All who turn to Jesus, all who repent and trust Him as Savior and Lord, become God’s children, Christ’s witnesses, God’s ambassadors.

Are you His child?

Are you His bold witness?

Are you His ambassador – by His power?

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