What does the American church need most? Many rightly say, “We desperately need revival.” But how does revival come? Many say that a strong dose of persecution might do the trick.
Persecution has always made the church stronger. It burns impurity out of the church. It drives away the nominal, worldly attenders, and separates the church from the world. It drives the church to prayer. It unites the church in brotherly love. It often causes the church to expand numerically, as seen in China under Communism.
I’m not ready to pray for persecution, because I’m not fond of suffering! I’ll leave it to the sovereignty of God, who knows what we need. But we do need to be ready for persecution in case it comes. Our religious freedom in America is on thin ice. It is not inconceivable that we could face imprisonment or have our children taken from us for insisting on the moral teachings the Bible. So we need to know in advance how to respond to persecution.
I’m speaking here about something that most of us have not experienced firsthand. Sure, I’ve faced opposition as a pastor; but I’ve never been imprisoned or beaten or had my property taken away because I am a Christian. But these principles also apply to the subject of how to respond to trials in general. I’ve encountered many American Christians who do not have an adequate theology of suffering. When trials hit, they rage at God, rather than submit to Him. They think that they have a right to prosperity and good health. So they grow bitter when trials hit.
Our text reveals the response of the early church to persecution. Peter and John had been arrested, put in jail, and then threatened by the Jewish leaders because they had healed a lame man and had preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the crowd. This snapshot shows them responding by drawing near to God in prayer. It also shows the care that the church had for its members and their continuing witness to the world. It teaches us to …
Respond to persecution by affirming our commitment to God, to His people, and to His work in the world.
If (as in a recent message) this looks suspiciously like the three priorities of our church purpose statement, it is purely coincidental! Our aim as a church is to glorify God by fulfilling the two great commandments, to love Him fervently and to love one another selflessly; and, to fulfill the Great Commission, which is to proclaim the gospel to the lost. When persecution (or suffering) comes, we need to affirm these three priorities.
Persecution will either drive you away from God and cause you to become bitter, or it will drive you closer to God and cause you to become better. We see four ways that these early Christians affirmed their commitment to God:
When Peter and John were released, they went back to their companions and told them what had happened. Their spontaneous response was to pray. While they all joined together in one accord (4:24), what is recorded was probably the prayer of a leader in the gathering. Much could be said about corporate prayer, but let me just mention three things:
Have you ever been in a prayer meeting where all the requests seem to focus on everyone’s health problems? There is nothing wrong with praying for Aunt Gertrude in the hospital. But if that is the main focus of the prayer time, it reveals that we’re too focused on ourselves, not enough on God’s kingdom.
The remarkable thing about this prayer is that there is not a word about protection from further persecution, other than the passing comment, “Lord, take note of their threats”! Jesus had taught them to pray first, “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Only after that were they to pray for personal needs, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:9-13). Here they spend five verses hallowing the Lord’s name before praying that His kingdom would come by giving them further boldness and power to proclaim the Word. They never do get around to praying for their own needs! It has always been a great joy to me that when I have asked for prayer requests at our evening service, I have often heard, “Please pray for so-and-so. I was able to talk to him about Christ this past week.”
God “made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them” (4:24). This reflects several Old Testament texts (Exod. 20:11; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 146:6; Isa. 37:16). It is a simple reminder that the God to whom we pray spoke the universe into existence. He owns it all and He can provide for us whatever we need to carry on His work. He is able to do far more than we can ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). But we often fail to ask in faith.
God immediately answered by shaking the place where they were praying (that should have gotten their attention!) and with a new filling of the Holy Spirit, enabling them to speak the Word with boldness. God does not always answer so quickly. He knows that sometimes we need to wait on Him longer. Sometimes He has a different plan or way than we conceive of. But God works through believing prayer. When we pray, we should not just mumble through a list of needs and then go our way and forget about what we prayed for. We should ask for specific things that would advance God’s kingdom and we should expect Him to answer. When we face persecution or trials, we should let such problems bring us together with other believers to bring our needs before our Almighty God.
The word used to address God comes from a Greek word transliterated “Despot.” It is only used of God six times in the New Testament (here; Luke 2:29; 2 Tim. 2:21; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 4; Rev. 6:10). Despot in English conveys cruelty, but the Greek word means “absolute master,” or “Sovereign Lord.” This view of God is further underscored in the prayer, which affirms that the coalition of evil people who crucified Jesus only accomplished what God had sovereignly predestined to occur.
The Bible clearly affirms the absolute sovereignty of God. Nothing happens apart from God’s ordaining it to happen. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (rewritten in modern English as A Faith to Confess [Carey Publications], p. 20) puts it this way:
From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established. In all these matters the divine wisdom appears, as also does God’s power and faithfulness in effecting that which He has purposed.
Some try to argue that God foreknows everything, including our salvation, but He did not foreordain everything. What happens comes from man’s free will. But this passage (along with many others) clearly refutes that notion. As Calvin points out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, 1:187), Luke adds the word “hand” here to make the point that this event was not only governed in a passive way by God’s purpose, but also actively by His power. God predestines all things, even the evil deed of crucifying His anointed one, Jesus. And yet He is in no way responsible for the evil that the men who murdered Jesus committed. They intended it for evil, and they will be judged according to the evil intent of their hearts. But God sovereignly overruled it to accomplish His eternal purpose, remaining untainted by their sin.
What practical difference does this make? If you believe, as some teach, that evil events occur outside of God’s sovereign will, then you have great cause for fear and no cause for comfort when evil things happen to you or your loved ones. All you can say is, “It’s too bad that this one slipped by God!” You can hope that it won’t happen again, but you have no guarantee of it. God means well, but sometimes the forces of evil are just too much for Him! What kind of comfort in trials is that? What kind of a God is that?
Rather, it is much better to believe, with the apostles, that God mightily and sovereignly ordains everything that happens, and He orders it all according to His wise purpose. If wicked men persecute His church, God predestined it to occur for His purpose and glory, and we can submit to it, knowing that He is in control.
The one leading in this prayer knew Psalm 2 well enough to quote verses 1 & 2 by memory. He affirms his belief that the Holy Spirit inspired David to write these words. Then he applies this psalm to the current situation. The Gentiles and the peoples correspond to the Gentiles and peoples of Israel who had done whatever God’s hand and purpose had predestined to occur. The kings of the earth and rulers were Herod and Pontius Pilate. These forces were aligned together against the Lord and His Christ. But, as the psalm goes on to proclaim, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4). It is utterly futile and foolish to fight against the Sovereign Lord! God’s enemies thought that they won when they killed Jesus. But God triumphed by raising Him from the dead. He is coming again to judge the living and the dead and to reign as God’s anointed on David’s throne.
The best prayers always are based on Scripture, applying it directly to our present situation and needs. But we won’t be able to apply God’s Word in a time of crisis unless we are saturating our minds with it on a daily basis. In Proverbs 1:24-33, God’s wisdom warns fools and scoffers that because they had neglected wisdom when she cried out to them, later in a time of crisis when they cry out to her, she will be silent. In other words, the time to seek God’s wisdom through His Word is before the crisis hits. If we know God’s Word through a daily time with Him, we will be able to apply it when we face persecution or trials.
Thus we reaffirm our commitment to God in a time of persecution through corporate prayer, by having a high view of His sovereignty over all, and by knowing and applying His Word.
Twice this prayer refers to Jesus as God’s holy servant (4:27, 30). Once David is called God’s servant (4:25). This Greek word can also mean “son,” but it is probably best translated “servant.” It is the word used of Messiah in Isaiah 53, where He is the suffering servant who bore our sins. The prayer also refers to the early Christians as God’s servants (4:29), but it does not use the same word. Rather, he uses the word that means “bondservant.” It implies that he did not want to elevate the church to the same level as Jesus, God’s holy servant/son, or even as David, God’s servant/son. Rather, the apostles saw themselves as God’s slaves.
The idea of seeing ourselves as God’s slaves is important if we face persecution or trials, because slaves do not expect to receive wonderful treatment. Slaves had no rights. They were expected to render absolute submission and unconditional obedience to their masters. The owner had the right of life or death. He could give away the few meager possessions that the slave owned if he chose to do so, and the slave had no right to complain. The owner could command the slave to do unreasonable things without giving a reason for his commands. If carrying out the command resulted in the slave’s death, that was too bad. The slave had to obey without question or complaint. (I gleaned some of these insights from Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Acts 4:25, pp. 169-170.)
In our case, we know that our Master is benevolent and has our eternal welfare in mind in whatever He commands us to do. But we need the mindset of God’s holy servant, Jesus, who came not to do His own will, but the will of the Father, even when that will meant the cross. In a time of persecution or trial, we must respond by reaffirming our commitment to our Lord and Master. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price. Therefore, we must glorify God with our bodies, even if it means martyrdom.
The apostles were a part of a united, caring, generous fellowship. As soon as they were released, they went to their companions and shared what had happened to them. Luke records that the whole congregation (over 5,000 by this time) was of one heart and soul. They were marked by unusual generosity and care for one another. There are three elements here:
They had a corporate mindset. Their first instinct was to share with one another what had happened and this led to corporate prayer, as we have seen. They did not view the church as we Americans often do. We are individualists. We idolize the pioneer who goes it alone. We often go to church and sit next to people we don’t know, leaving without ever getting to know them. Many do not have any meaningful fellowship with another believer in the course of a week. I’ve often asked someone who has come to me for counsel, “Do you know any other Christians with whom you could meet during the week for mutual encouragement and prayer?” They think a minute and say, “No.”
Of course, there are times when a person needs to stand alone, even from the Christian crowd. But we need to develop this sense of community, of belonging to a body of Christians, without whom we are not complete. We need to have a network of brothers (for men) or sisters (for women) that we immediately want to get together with when a difficulty hits us, so that we can share and pray together.
They lifted up their voice to God in one accord (4:24). They were of one heart and soul (4:32). Unity does not mean that we all look alike and think alike. God has made us as individuals, and we will express ourselves differently. On doctrines that are not essential, we may disagree, although we should be striving to grow into the unity of the faith that comes with a deeper knowledge of Christ (Eph. 4:13). But we should recognize that if someone truly knows Christ as Savior and Lord, then we all belong to the same spiritual family. We should stand together against this evil world.
Calvin (p. 190) points out that unity of heart and soul is the root; sharing of personal belongings is the fruit. This passage is not teaching communism, where people are forced to share everything equally. Neither is it encouraging welfare to the lazy or irresponsible person who wants to mooch off of the body. Paul teaches that if a person will not work, he should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). Rather, it is enjoining the kind of voluntary generosity that sees a brother in need and opens one’s heart and material blessings toward that brother (1 John 3:17).
Persecution often strips us of our materialistic focus. It helps us remember that things do not last. God’s Word instructs those of us who are rich (that means most Americans!) to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18). If we see the church as family, members of Christ’s body, then we’ll be more inclined to obey this command. You may not be aware of the fact that our church has an “SOS” fund administered by our elders to help those in need. It is not a budgeted fund; you must designate gifts for it.
Thus when we face persecution or trials, we need to reaffirm our commitment to the Sovereign Lord and to His church.
The apostles did not run away from their persecutors and form monasteries inside of well-fortified walls. They did not fall into self-pity or fear or revenge. Rather, they responded by praying for more boldness in witness, and “with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33). As we saw last week, the resurrection of Jesus was at the center of their witness. No doubt the love of the church as seen in its generosity and the powerful miracles that God granted to the apostles also helped open the door for further witness. But the point is, their focus was not on themselves, but rather on what God wanted them to do to extend His kingdom through their witness, even if it cost them further persecution, which it did.
If we ever catch opposition because of our witness, we must follow their example by not retreating. Of course, Satan wants us to give up or draw back. If he can get us to fall into self-pity or fear, our witness will stop. But the Lord has us here to be a witness of His death and resurrection to those who desperately need a Savior. Often, it is our attitude when we are persecuted that opens the door for effective witness.
I read of a 19-year-old Christian girl in China who was beaten and thrown into a filthy cell. It was dark, but from the smell she knew that the slimy floor was covered with human excrement. There was no bed or chair. She had to sit and sleep in this filth. She squatted down so that as little of her bleeding body as possible would touch the floor and silently gave thanks to the Lord that she was worthy to suffer for Him. She asked Him for wisdom and strength, not to get out of this terrible place, but that wherever He put her, she would be able to continue to preach the gospel.
One day as she quietly sang a hymn, the Lord impressed on her, “This is to be your ministry.” She thought, “I’m all alone. Whom can I preach to?” Suddenly an idea came to her. She stood up and called for the guard.
“Sir, can I do some hard labor for you?” The guard looked at her with contempt, mingled with surprise. No one had ever made that kind of request before. She said, “Look, this prison is filthy. Let me go into the cells and clean up the excrement. Just give me some water and a brush.”
Soon she found herself on her hands and knees cleaning and preaching to people who had lost all hope of ever seeing another human being who did not come to beat them. When they realized that they could have eternal life as God’s free gift, they repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ. Soon all the prisoners had believed in Jesus Christ. The warden was furious. He gave her a sheet of paper and told her to write out a confession of her crimes against the revolution. She wrote out the plan of salvation, so that the warden and even others heard about Christ (from The Church in China, by Carl Lawrence [Bethany House], 1985).
We may never have to suffer for the gospel as she did, but we should follow her example. If we face persecution, we should respond by reaffirming our commitment to our Sovereign God. We should reaffirm our commitment to the fellowship of the saints. And we should be unstoppable in our commitment to the Lord’s work in the world, of proclaiming the good news of Christ to those who are perishing.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation