Acts 4:23-35

In the last forty years the changes in American society amount to no less than a cultural upheaval. In the ’40s and ’50s people heard songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and Yes We Have No Bananas Today. By the time I was a teenager, rock music, the sexual revolution, and the drug culture were in full bloom. The bad kids were no longer smoking in the boys’ room; they were smoking marijuana in the boys’ room, and the radio was blaring lyrics like Get Down Tonight and I’ll get high with a little help from my friends. Today the lyrics are about free sex, violence, rape, and suicide, to name a few common topics, which leaves me wondering if it is possible for the moral pendulum to swing any farther.

A regular theme from media commentators is that “Youth culture has always been pushing the limits of society. Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy; kids will be kids.” But such comments only prove that they have lost any fixed reference points for morality. Such people tout themselves as open-minded, but opening their minds completely has only caused everything to fall out, including moral discernment.
Do they not see that there is a moral difference between Elvis, who used to be regarded as “cutting edge rock” and Madonna, or “Alice in Chains”? To be sure, they all are alike in that they are provocative in their times, but the difference is the extent to which one must go to be provocative. Today it takes not just the gyrating hips of Elvis but the bare hips of Madonna, the pictures of dead girls courtesy of “Alice in Chains,” and profane rap lyrics about the rape and murder of innocent people.
Obviously there is a difference. And there is a difference between the scandalous curse word in “Gone With the Wind” and the non-stop profanity, violence, and perversity of movies like “Natural Born Killers” and “Fatal Attraction.” And if you are ever in doubt as to how the depictions of families on television have changed, just pop in a videotape of an old episode of “Ozzie and Harriet,” and then watch “Roseanne.”
There is a drastic difference in our schools today. Some of you remember when teachers and students led devotionals in class; I do. We read from the Bible and prayed without fear of either strange heterodoxy or a law suit. The culture was much closer to a Christian consensus then. Today it has been ruled unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to hang on the wall, and if Johnny is a Christian often he feels that he is part of a beleagured, counter-cultural minority and gets less attention and public respect for his beliefs than those who are openly homosexual, a lifestyle which was classified by the American Psychiatric Association as an emotional illness until the mid-’70s.
Our culture has changed. If you work in the marketplace or attend a school or university, I have told you nothing that you don’t already know. In fact, on this score you could tell me a lot that I don’t know. You know how you are perceived in many circles when you say things like “I love Jesus Christ,” or “I believe that the Bible is the Word of God.”
I have not said all this so that we can collectively throw up our hands and lament “What’s this world coming to?” Nor am I leading up to the suggestion that we lobby for the halls of government or the local schools to be outposts of Christianity. They never will be, and that is what the church is to be. But I do want us to come to an appreciation of the extent to which it is no longer politically correct to be a Christian in America. Perhaps in the ’40s or ’50s American culture was not explicitly Christian, but at least it was more benign. There was an easier friendship between the culture and the church. It has moved from benign to sinful to sinister in the span of one lifetime.
But I’ve got good news. It is in times like these that the church of Jesus Christ is at her best. It is when the bullets of persecution are flying and the bombs of paganism are falling that the church serves best as a spiritual field hospital for those dear brothers and sisters who have been wounded in battle. It is when the flood of immorality rises to threaten every home that the church serves best in the sandbag line to save a community from drowning in its own decadence. It has alway been when the night of a depraved culture has been the darkest that the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ has shown brightest through the witness of His church. That was true in the first century; and it is true in the twentieth.
The practical question of today’s message is, “How does that happen in your life and in mine?” How do we behave when our commitment to Jesus Christ makes us politically incorrect, or makes us feel like a fifth wheel? What do we do when in our innocent cultural confrontation we feel like a square peg in a round hole? The answers are very simple, though they take a lifetime to live out, and they arise directly from the text before us.
Peter, John, and the other Christians in the early church were also politically incorrect, so much so that they were threatened by the religious leaders of their time, and told not to speak the name of Jesus any more. What did they do, and what do we do?
I. We draw on our relationships with other Christians.
Luke, the author of the book of Acts, recorded that as soon as Peter and John were released from prison and the interrogation by the Sanhedrin “they went to their own companions” (Acts 4:23). The New International Version reads, “their own people.” The word “companion,” 3r “people” is not in the original Greek text, which merely reads, “they went to their own” — the ones who were like them and of whom they were a part. They had just been rejected and despised by the Jewish leaders — the very ones Peter and John had been raised to respect — and after their persecution they returned to their felow Christians.
When you feel a little rejected by the world or fed up with the ways of the world, aren’t you glad you have a refuge among brothers and sisters in Christ? That’s one reason the fellowship of this church is so important; we need a safe place where people love us unconditionally and understand our commitments and our ambitions — which are the opposite of the world’s ambitions. We need a place to run to when we feel like we’ve just taken another blow on the chin. What do we do when we’re not P.C. because of Jesus? We draw on our relationships with other Christians.
II. We depend on God.
This is the message I want to emphasize, because it is by far the most prominent in our text. When Peter and John returned to the other Christians they reported to them what had happened, and then they all went to God in prayer. A summary of the contents and results of that prayer comprise most of the substance of the story. This prayer is also a beautiful model of how we are to pray with other Christians when the winds of persecution or difficulty begin to blow. And the first principle that this prayer teaches us is that we should exercise the priority of praise.
The prayer of these Christians began with praise. Look again at Acts 4:24: “They lifted up their voices to God with one accord and said, ‘O Lord, it is Thou who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all of them that is them’.” They praised Him as the Creator of the world.
They also praised Him as the Ruler of the nations. In Acts 4:25 their prayer continues, “Who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say, ‘Why do the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Christ’.” This is a quote from Psalms 2, and it depicts the leaders of the nations plotting against God, raising themselves up to rebel against Him.
If these Christians had memorized this part of the psalm, no doubt they were familiar with the result of the plot that is mentioned only two verses later in the same psalm. How does God react to the rulers of the earth consulting with one another and pooling their wisdom to revolt against the authority of God? Is He intimidated by their treason against Him? Does He fear that His position is in danger because of their mutiny? The psalmist recorded His reaction: “He who sits in the heavens laughs.”
That was the reason these Christians quoted Psalms 2 in their prayer — they knew the threats of the powerful Sanhedrin had not shaken God off His throne. He continued to be in charge, and because of that they would continue to serve Him, unafraid of the dictates of earthly rulers such as the Sanhedrin. So they joined in praising God as the Creator of the world and as the Ruler of the nations.
Also, they praised Him as the Engineer of history. In Acts 4:27-28 of their prayer they praised God that He had brought about His purposes in the death of Jesus. Those who put Jesus to death thought they were getting rid of Him, but they did not know that God had predestined Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of humankind. Where man ruled, God overruled. He so engineered history that He used the plans of evil men to accomplish salvation, forgiveness, and new life for all through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And the church, in the midst of persecution, praised Him for that.
It is important at this point for us to pause long enough to be impressed with the fact that these Christians who were under pressure did not rush into the presence of God immediately asking for His help in their jam. They opened their prayer with an extended expression of praise. That teaches us something of the greatest significance — there is something more important in life than securing the benefits that accrue to those who follow God and ask for His blessings; that something is glorying, delighting, having the privilege of knowing God Himself. This is the highest purpose and the deepest longing of every Christian, and when a Christian takes hold of that experience, the result is praise.
Hear what Lloyd John Ogilvie wrote: “The depth of our praise measures the quality of our relationship with Him … Without [praise,] prayer is talking circles around the perpendicular pronoun: ‘I’; with it we do what God has asked — we glory in Him.”
“The depth of our praise measures the quality of our relationship with Him.” Let me state that another way: our praise of God is dependent on and determined by our knowledge of God. Personal praise is dependent on personal knowledge. We understand this in human relationships. The only person we can honestly praise is someone whom we know. If you just met someone last night, you would not stand up this morning and say, “He has strength of character and depth of integrity. He is trustworthy and tenacious.”
We would not feel comfortable praising someone we did not know; a lot of people feel uncomfortable praising God in prayer or in song. Why? They do not know God; to know God is to praise Him. For that matter, how are we ever going to trust someone we do not know?
This was the glory of the early church: they gloried in their knowledge of God, they praised Him as Creator, Ruler, and Engineer, and they put their knowledge and praise of God ahead of their requests for God’s blessings. And so should we.
The first principle this prayer teaches us is that we should exercise the priority of praise. A second principle is that we should express our desire to proclaim the gospel. In Acts 4:29 we read that they prayed, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak the Word with all confidence.” It has always amazed me that these Christians prayed for the very thing that got them in trouble in the first place. After their lives were threatened by the Sanhedrin for speaking about Jesus, we would expect them to pray that God would save their necks. “Vouchsafe our departure, O God; guide us, protect us, bless us, and keep us, and we’ll be careful to give You all the praise” — sort of like we pray.
But they prayed, “Lord, grant it, or make it so, or let it come to pass, that we will have another opportunity to tell people about Jesus.” That request shows they were depending on God, because it was reasonable to assume that they were going to get in more trouble with the authorities if God answered their prayer. In other words, “Lord, throw us back into the raging sea; we know that You are holding the lifeline.” They were placing their lives in the hands of God, which is the safest place to be.
On one occasion Martin Luther was threatened by a representative of the Pope. This messenger reminded Luther of the Pope’s power and warned him that one day his supporters would desert him. Then he asked Luther, “Where will you be then?” Luther responded, “Then, as now, in the hands of almighty God!”
When we are in the center of God’s will, and we come to the realization we are in the hands of God, we don’t fear embarrassment or what others can do to us. And, by the way, we always know we are in God’s will when we are telling people about Jesus or praying for the opportunity to do so. When you are not P.C., depend on God by expressing in prayer your desire to proclaim the gospel to others no matter what the cost.
Another way our dependence on God is expressed is when we experience the power of prayer. Acts 4:31 tells us the result of their prayer: “When they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” The place shook.
Have you ever been in a prayer meeting like that? I have, and the most recent one was in St. Maarten with our mission team. On a Wednesday morning we brought prayer requests on little sheets of paper and our devotional that morning was to pray together. We prayed for boldness to share Christ that day, we prayed for needs of family and friends back home, we prayed for personal needs, and we prayed for individuals whom we know were without Christ. I don’t really understand how it happened, but I do know that the presence of God was with us in an unusual way. I know He is always with us when we gather in His name, but there are so many things He does not do among us because of hindrances in our spirits. The Bible says of Nazareth that Jesus “did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58).
But during our mission’s time of prayer, He did something great and we all wept for a long time as we prayed. Most of the time I’m not very emotional, but the immediacy of the presence of God was overwhelming to me; deep longings and unexpressed pain just seemed to be siphoned out of my spirit by God Himself, and I too cried for a while. No, the room didn’t shake, but God shook me, and I suspect that everyone else was affected in the same way.
I expect that if this body of believers — our church — experienced that kind of transparency and reality every time we gathered in the presence of God, people would beat a path to our door because most people today are tired of religion and unimpressed by its traditions, but they are impressed by the reality of a life changed by God and lived in His presence. And it’s not the emotionalism that’s important, it’s the presence and power of God. Experience the power of prayer.
What do we do when we feel we don’t fit in because of our love for Christ? We draw on our relationships with other followers of Christ, we depend on God, and that dependence is expressed in prayer when we exercise the priority of praise, express our desire to proclaim Christ, and experience the power of prayer.
III. We die to self and live for God.
These believers “began to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). That was exactly what Jesus had done, and the Sanhedrin had Him killed. That was exactly what these Christians had been told not to do by the same Sanhedrin. In doing so they were giving their lives away. As the apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation, “They did not love their life even to death” (Revelation 12:11).
I once read a story about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; it was told as a true story. Napoleon’s army came to a village where everyone had fled except one man. He was a woodsman — what we would call a lumberjack — with his axe stuck in his leather belt. When they saw him and were about to shoot him, the commanding officer noticed how calm and courageous the man appeared. He decided to save the woodsman’s life. “However,” he ordered, “We will brand him for life.” The soldiers heated a branding iron and stamped the letter “N” on the palm of his hand. When the man asked what it meant he was told that the “N” stood for Napoleon, and “You now belong to our Emperor.” The woodsman had always been a loyal Russian. He took the axe from his belt, put his hand on the block, and cut that hand off at the wrist. He said, “That hand may belong to Napoleon, but I am a Russian, and if I must die I will die a Russian.”
God help us to cut everything out of our lives that belongs to this world. It will make us politically incorrect, but it will also make us the church.

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