Suffering with Joy
Suffering With Joy
Rodney Gehman – January 7, 2024 – Acts 5:33-42
Today we pick up again in our series on the book of Acts, going verse by verse, chapter by chapter from beginning to end, and today we’re at the end of chapter 5. I want to pick up where Pastor Steve left off last week, because I think he set the scene very well for us by walking us through some of these verses already.
So if you’re just joining us now, to catch you up to where we’re at in Acts, Jesus’ first followers, a little over 100 of them, called disciples or students, plus the Apostles which he installed as the leaders, have witnessed a lot in the last couple of weeks or months. First of all Jesus had been crucified in a brutal, horrific death that left everyone grasping for answers. But just a few days later, that all turned to joy and amazement as Jesus returned to them fully alive and well.
In the weeks that followed his resurrection, Jesus told them he was going to go away again – but this time he wouldn’t leave them alone. He would send a helper, a comforter, a counselor, the Spirit of truth who will remind them of all the things Jesus taught them over the years, and guide them into what is good and right and true. Then 40 days after he rose from the grave, Jesus rose again – this time back into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father to this day as ruler and Savior and high priest.
10 days after his ascension into heaven, In Chapter 2 of Acts, Jesus’ words came to pass, and the Holy Spirit’s power was poured out on 120 Jesus followers during a festival called Pentecost. The church began to explode in growth, going from 120 to 3000 in one afternoon. Then to 5000, and more and more as people are drawn to the good news of Jesus. But in John 15 and 16, Jesus promised his apostles – look, if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. They’ll put you out of the synagogues, and even think they are doing God’s work by killing you.” And sure enough, here in Acts 5, we see these apostles being thrown in prison now for the second time by the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.
So the apostles are arrested again, and brought to trial before the religious leaders, who say, “You aren’t listening to our authority.” [ 002 ] Verse 28, “Didn’t we tell you not to teach in this name?!”
Peter and the others reply, well, [ 003-1 ] like we told you last time (back in 4:19), it’s better for us to obey God’s commands than to obey human decisions. And that would have chafed the religious leaders big time, because people were supposed to come through them to get to God. Peter goes on to say, verse 30, [ 003-2 ] The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging him on a tree! [ 003-3 ]God exalted Jesus to his right hand as ruler and savior to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sin. [ 003-4 ]We have witnessed and are witnesses to all of that, as is the Holy Spirit who is given to those who obey him.
The idea here wasn’t that Peter was condemning the religious leaders or shaming them, rather he was stating the facts: You decided that Jesus was a lunatic, so you killed him. But we are proclaiming the fact that God reversed your conclusions about Jesus by raising him from the dead and exalting him, AND sending his Holy Spirit to people who are obedient to him.
Most of the Sanhedrin though only heard that they were being accused by uneducated and untrained people claiming to have divine authority, so… [ 004 ]
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, it leads one of two directions – either to repentance and a deeper love for the Lord, or into a deeper, more intense rejection of Him and his ways.
At Pentecost, in Peter’s first message, the response of the crowd was: brothers, what should we do? Here in chapter 5, the response is murderous rage. The only thing that kept these apostles alive, verse 34, was that one of the leaders stood up at this moment and intervened. A guy named Ga-may-liel, an important teacher and Pharisee.
Gamaliel appears to be one of those people who sits in the meeting and doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, you better sit up and listen. He begins his speech by saying…
[ 005-1 ] 35 He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re about to do to these men. You should think before you just act on your emotions here. 36 Some time ago [ 005-2 ] Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his followers were dispersed and came to nothing. [ 005-3 ]37 After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. He also perished, and all his followers were scattered. [ 005-4 ] 38 So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. [ 005-5 ]For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.
The fact that he was able in this one conversation to unite the ultra-conservative Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees shows how respected he was. Gamaliel is like, look, we’ve seen and heard of this kind of thing before. A guy claims to be somebody, convinces a bunch of people to follow him, and then gets himself killed. The followers try to keep the thing going for a bit, but without that leader in place, they can’t do it. It fizzles out. We’ve seen this before.
And while it’s not here in the text, Gamaliel is really saying, look we took out their leader. He claimed to be someone, and got himself killed, just like Theudas and Judas. His followers are making a fuss now trying to keep the dream alive, but just leave them alone and history will repeat itself. And everyone was persuaded.
THE MURKY MIDDLE GROUND
They haven’t changed their minds about Jesus. They were still hostile to the apostles and the message of him being the Messiah. Even the great teacher Gamaliel is rejecting Jesus’ lordship by putting him in the same category as those two rebels Theudus and Judas.
He kinda sounds really intelligent when he says “if this is of human origin, it will die out. But if it’s of God it will succeed.” And in the grand story, in God’s overarching theme for all of human history, yes that’s true. But on a small scale, like the decision he’s talking about here, or deciding if you should help start a church, or which college you should go to, or if you should take this job or not…in the ordinary decisions of life, you know it’s not always that simple nor is this always reality.
Scripture from beginning to end opens our eyes to see that this world is a battlefield, and sometimes it looks like evil gets the victory and all the spoils, while truth is still trying to tie its shoes. Sometimes, Satan is given permission to steal, kill, and destroy, while missions, churches, schools, hospitals, businesses – really good things that God has called people to, that they prayed about, sought godly counsel on, that they knew was God’s will for them to step into sometimes go by the wayside and close or die out. I’ve been part of things like that. Not everything that succeeds is necessarily from God, and not everything that appears to fail is just a human error.
And I think if we look a little closer, Gamaliel’s apparently wise advice is actually anchored in fear. The Sanhedrin faced a massive decision here – either these rebel apostles are spreading lies and need to be shut down, or they are spreading truth and the whole Sanhedrin should join them. They agreed – shut it down; kill them all, and Gamaliel goes wait, wait, wait, wait. That could look bad.
WE’RE THE GOOD GUYS
There’s a way this works out really well for us. Stay away from them and leave them alone. And if it turns out that it was of human origin and fails, well, we can say we saw it coming. We knew history would repeat itself, we have no skeletons in the closet, we have no one to apologize to or stories to get straight. And if it turns out God really is on their side, well then so are we because we didn’t shut it down. We knew God was with them, so we let them go. We’re the good guys either way!
[ blank ] You see how soupy and murky that water is in the middle? This guy is trying to have his cake and eat it too. The Sanhedrin probably all applauded Gamaliel’s “wisdom” and patted themselves on the back for finding a position that takes the “high road.”
I’M NOT “ONE OF THOSE CHRISTIANS”
Before we trash Gamaliel and the rest of the Sanhedrin, though, I wonder how many of us would have to be honest that the American version of Christianity lives in that murky middle water too, where someone says I’ll go to church, give some offerings, say some prayers so that if people ask if I’m a Christian, I can say of course. But, I’m not going to pursue it wholeheartedly or give control of my life to Jesus, because let’s face it – those Christians that raise their hands when they sing, pray all the time or even speak in tongues - that’s all a little weird. I’m not going that far.
And in the wisdom of Gamaliel, hey if this whole Christianity/Jesus thing is false in the end, well I haven’t lost much. I’ve still more or less lived life on my own terms and had some fun. And if it turns out to be true, well, you can’t say I rejected it completely. Check the records. I was there. I gave money and went to the retreat. I maybe wasn’t a full on follower of Jesus, but I didn’t reject him either, so...
One foot in each camp. The murky middle. Jesus once spoke to an entire church who acted like that. An entire church that was built in the murky middle and Jesus said to them in [ 006-1 ] Revelation chapter 3, you’re neither hot nor cold, and I wish you would just make up your mind already. Either dive all in and learn from me, or don’t. Either live life according to my terms or don’t. Either pursue holiness or pursue pleasure - Pick one. You sit in that murky middle ground like lukewarm coffee, and it’s disgusting. [ 006-2 ] So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.
Because, like Theudus and Judas, you claim to be somebody [ 006-3 ]: For you say, “I’m rich, I’m wealthy, I don’t need anything, I’m independent and self-sufficient, but you don’t realize you’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” Jesus said that to a church!
Which means we’re not off the hook today. I can’t preach this honestly without confessing that I can easily fit into Gamaliel’s shoes. I have sat in that lukewarm middle ground way more times than I’d like to admit, not willing to fully commit to certain things based on how I would look to certain people in my life. If I choose this, what will these other pastor friends think? If I choose this, what will the people at the Network think?
And let's call it what it is: it’s a sin against God, by fearing people more than I fear him. I know that my fear of people has affected how I lead here in the church, and so I’m sorry for sinning against you all in that way as well. I deserve to be spit out.
THE PERSISTENT CALL OF GRACE
But the beauty of the heart of God and the grace of Jesus that gives someone like me hope is that he waits an awfully long time to spit out the lukewarm water - way longer than I would. He is unbelievably patient, and continues to mercifully invite us [ 006-4 ] to be zealous and repent! “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.”
Jesus doesn’t expect our house to be perfectly clean before you let him in – he’ll clean it up when he gets there. He doesn’t expect you to have all the richest food and put on a display of wealth to try to impress him with how spiritual you are – he’s got abundance you haven’t even heard of… he’s bringing the food. And He’s not even like a bill collector, knocking on the door so he can come in and condemn you for all you’ve done wrong – because he paid your bill with his own life, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Your past won’t be brought up again or thrown in your face. There is no file somewhere where God can access your record of sin and use it to shame you or manipulate you or embarrass you.
Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrificial blood scrubs your record clean so that you are counted as someone who has never sinned one time, and only ever did what was right. Yeah, but I… washed. But that time back in college I… washed. Even the time I… don’t even remember it. As far as the East is from the West, that’s how far he has removed our sins from us.
GOING ALL IN
Going all in on Jesus means to rest in him. To trust him. To believe him. To enjoy him. To die to self, and live for Christ. And that’s exactly what these apostles have done. They are ready to give their lives for the Name of Jesus… to overcome the enemy by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.
The last time Peter and John were arrested, they were scolded and told not to preach anymore. The Sanhedrin agreed together that since Peter and John did not obey their orders, they obviously did not get the message clearly enough. And so in verse 40, they had all the apostles whipped within an inch of their lives.
They ordered them again not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them, hoping that a) they will be out of the game for a while as they recover from the beating, and b) that they will think twice before they preach in public. John Stott writes “Persecution will refine the church, but [it will never] destroy it.” [ 007 ]
41 Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name.
That old enemy of ours will use every tactic in the book he can think of to try and destroy the Church. He is a roaring lion, who roams from here to there and everywhere in between just looking for someone to eat up with his lies and deception, and if that doesn’t work, sometimes he moves to physical suffering. But every tactic of his, including persecution, backfires on him by only increasing praise and glory to the Name of Jesus Christ, and the very Church Satan tries to extinguish, 6:1, continues to grow as more and more disciples are made as people come to faith in Jesus.
LEARNING FROM JESUS
We’ve been talking about discipleship in our community groups this year, defining discipleship [ 008 ] as being a “Christ-learner” where we are a student of the life of Christ, not just trying to learn new facts, but learn a new way of living where we are being daily transformed by his grace, and continuing to grow in what it means to learn from him. Walk with him. Grow in him. Rest in him. Imitating his life of prayer and dependence on the Father, and to living a life led by the Holy Spirit… even when that means following Jesus into suffering.
These apostles are doing exactly that – they have endured some of the exact same suffering that Jesus had gone through. They were now on the painful end of the same kind of hatred that Jesus had experienced, and what these apostles are learning from Jesus here in verse 41, is that even when you are beaten within an inch of your life, you can endure it to the end with the same kind of deep and settling joy that Jesus had as he endured the cross.
THE LORD’S SUPPER
It’s both the suffering of Christ and his joy that we recall as we move into Communion today. [ 009 ] Tim Keller is famous for saying, the gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. The only way Gamaliels like me can know the love and acceptance of the Father is because Christ willingly suffered in our place, standing in for me under the wrath of God. And it’s in the bread and the cup that we are reminded of how costly the free gift of grace is.
Most of you have probably made a decision to follow Jesus at some point in your life; Like the apostles, you’ve responded to his call to be his follower and learn from him, gone public with your faith through baptism, and imperfect as you are, you are filled with his Spirit and committed to living a life of repentance and praise and faithful witness. If that’s you today, you are invited to participate in Communion as part of the Universal body of Christ, even if you don’t consider River City your home church. As we eat the bread and drink the cup together today, we are participating again in the grace that God has given us in Christ.
Today we’re going to do Communion just a tiny bit differently. Instead of passing out the elements row by row, here in a moment, I’m going to invite you to stand, to make your way to the aisle closest to you, come up to the front and pick up a piece of bread and a cup of juice. There are gluten free options at both tables today, so we’re happy to provide that option today.
Then, for the sake of order, once you have the elements, head to the side aisles to return to your seat. Just hold onto the bread and juice and once we’re all seated again, I’ll come back up and lead you through the meal as we usually do.
Maybe you’re with us today, and you have either rejected Jesus outright, or you haven’t decided yet, or you have to admit you’ve been living with one foot in and one foot out, hoping that you’re doing enough to be on God’s good side, but not fully committing. I invite you in these next few minutes to repent. To change your mind about Jesus and go all in. Fully rest in him, relax into him. Stop trying to protect yourself. Stop trying to cover all your bases. Stop trying to be in control of your life.
- Either right now, or as people are coming forward to get the elements, call out to Jesus in prayer. You can do that on your own, with a simple prayer from your heart. There are no magic words that make it work or not work. There are no hoops to jump through, no amount of money you need to give – Jesus jumped through the hoops for you, and paid the entry fee with his own life. It’s about faith. Trusting and resting in what you can’t see.
- If you’re changing your mind about Jesus today, believing in him for salvation – welcome to the family! We’d love to hear your thoughts today, so please find someone with a lanyard and let them know if you prayed that prayer today.
Parents with young children – If your child has made a credible profession of faith, and you’ve seen the fruit of repentance in their lives, they are welcome to participate at your discretion. But if they haven’t opened the door to Jesus yet, that’s okay, we’ll keep praying for them that they do one day, but they should not participate in Communion today. Use this as a teachable moment for them, and talk to them about what we’re doing here and why.
42 Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
Every day they gathered in the temple or in people’s homes, taking advantage of opportunities to witness to Jesus no matter where they went. Every single one of us is a witness for Christ every minute of every day. Around your kitchen table with family. With your neighbors when they stop by. The people you work with. The people you buy things from. The people you’re sitting next to right now. You are a witness, an ambassador for Christ, everywhere you go, whether you think about it or not.
So, I want to encourage you today – Every day, whether you are gathered here or in your own homes across this community, don’t stop doing the good work of teaching and proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Keep up the good work of being an ambassador, the good work of being a representative for Christ, whether that is a role you play here on Sunday mornings, or as you are an ambassador in your school, your home, your neighborhood, or your workplace.
[ 012-1 ] Let’s read this benediction together from 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17… 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, -- [ 012-2 ] 17 comfort our hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.