When I was in China, some of the people on our tourist group visited a TSPM (or a state run state) church just to see what it was like. And never before have I seen so clearly why American Christianity has not made a dent in American humanism and will never make a dent unless there is Reformation. That church service could have been a clone of many church services in our city. In fact, it was being led by a black American evangelical. Everything was approved by the state government, including the talk about body life, the music band, the American say-nothing songs and the feel-good preaching. It was kind of a shock to some of the tourists after all they had heard about persecution against the underground church. Why?! Why have an underground church if American evangelicalism is satisfactory to the PSB agents who attend these services? And it struck me with real force that this communist regime is not against the soft, statist, passive, feminized Christianity of 2005 Americana.
It is a very specific kind of Christianity that they are seeking to stamp out. And that Christianity looks just like the kind we find in the book Acts. Now if John and Peter had been smart, like that TSPM church was, they probably could have avoided getting arrested. Of course you know that I am speaking facetiously – John and Peter were smart. But I think that it is important to realize that the leaders of the Jews were ordinarily rather tolerant, as long as you followed the rules. But you cross those rules, and watch out!
In this chapter we have the first of many confrontations in the book of Acts. And this is the first of many jailings. And listen - they probably could have been avoided if Peter and John would have followed the enlightened thinking of many modern mega-churches. In his biography of John Knox, Doug Wilson contrasts William Maitland and John Knox. Both were Protestants; both wanted Reform in Scotland, but Maitland did not think it was proper to have confrontation. Because of the trouble that would ensue over not partaking of the mass, he argued that the Protestants could partake, but interpret what was happening, not as a mass, but as true communion. And apparently he was brilliant in his arguments. But Knox was even more brilliant in debating him, and Maitland reluctantly conceded the point and stopped going to mass. When Mary Queen of Scots said that the church could not meet without her permission, Maitland tried to accommodate the Queen, and Knox vigorously refused. He knew there could be no Reformation if the church was licensed and approved in all it did by the Queen. And he took his cue from the New Testament. Later, when Knox had trumped up charges brought against him by the queen, Maitland urged him to submit and make some small compromises. Try not to irritate the queen! Now his goal was good. Maitland was very fearful that Knox would be killed and they would lose a valued Reformer if he kept up his confrontational tactics. He wanted Reformation, but he just didn't see what it would take to bring such Reformation. Knox refused, went to court and won on every charge brought against him, much to the Queen's frustration. The chapter ends by saying, "John Knox finished his course in honor and with integrity, and that course was one of no compromise. And William Maitland finally threw in his lot with the queen's faction and, like Kirkaldy, ended his life in ignominy, a defeated suicide." (p. 172)
I plan to spend a fair bit of time on Acts chapter 4 because it highlights not only the kind of spirit and theology and character that is needed for Reformation, but it demonstrates the fact that true Christianity cannot avoid confrontation in a humanistic society. And if it does, there is something wrong with that Christianity. And I think that part of what has been wrong today is that evangelicals have been satisfied with being conservative rather than being Biblical. They are uncomfortable with radical proposals, whether those radical proposals come from the right or from the left. Conservatives try to get along. Analyze the last 20 years of conservatives in congress. You see it there too with very few exceptions. In the same book on John Knox, Wilson said,
The great theologian R. L. Dabney once commented on an effeminate form of American conservatism which would never be guilty of the ‘folly' of martyrdom, and which was simply the shadow that followed radicalism to perdition. This is the same phenomenon which caused one wit to observe that if the liberals in our Congress were to introduce a bill to burn down the Capitol, the conservatives would counter with a bill to phase the project in over the course of three years. When one group wants to drive us over a cliff at eighty miles an hour, it is hardly a pragmatic response to insist on fifty miles an hour. This is why "pragmatic" temporizers of all ages have never liked the discovery that pragmatism can be convicted by its own standard: it does not work. (p. 170). 1
I love Wilson's analysis. In Acts chapter 4 we find a Christianity, which (whether it worked or not), could not be ignored. Acts 4:1. "Now as they spoke to the people." I want you to notice first, that Peter and John bypassed the apostate authority structures and went straight to the common masses. This is not because leaders do not need Christianity, or that they cannot be converted. Later we find priests, Levites, Pharisees and aristocracy coming to Christ. Very few came, but they did come. But the apostles' appeal was to the masses. And verse 2 makes clear that this was one of two reasons that infuriated the Sadducees. Verse 2 says, "being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead." The word "and" indicates that there were two things they were upset about. The apostles were undermining the liberal theology of the Sadducees who didn't believe in a resurrection, and they were teaching it to the masses rather than trying to convince the leadership first. Now think about this: the difference in theology itself was not the key issue – and I know this because there had been academic debates between the Saducees and the Pharisees for over a hundred years on this subject. And yet they were able to tolerate each other and align themselves against the Christians. They could tolerate differences among the elite. So I suspect that it was the bypassing of the leadership that was most offensive to them. And I think that is why Luke lists it first. Verse 2 clearly says "being greatly disturbed that they taught the people." I'll comment on that a bit more in a bit, because I think this is a key cause for the persecution that occurs in China and in other countries, where the commoners have been coming to Christ. But for now I just want you to note four things about the strategy itself:
First, it shows that the apostles were not elitist in their approach to the Gospel. They were willing to minister to every segment of society, not just the segments that were wealthy and could finance the church. And for that matter, he had just finished healing the lame man who is clothed in beggar's garments. The beggar is clinging to them according to chapter 3:11. I cannot imagine a Pharisee allowing that or a Sadducee. In both their healing and their preaching, the apostles identified with the common man just as Jesus did. Peter was not a pope decked out in beautiful silk garments, sitting on a gold chair, waiting for people to kiss his toe. As Mo Leveritt puts it so beautifully, "Christ left the most exclusive gated community in the universe, and moved into the worst ghetto of Israel."
Second, this phrase shows that the apostles believed in influencing primarily from the bottom up. Christianity was a grass-roots movement. Now don't get me wrong: speedy, top down Reformations did occur on occasion in the Old Testament. A king would get converted and clean up the nation overnight. That's the cool thing about top-down Reformations: they are fast. And I think that's why evangelicals in America are so pre-occupied with gaining the White House. If you get the right person in there, you can get results almost overnight. Whereas a grass roots movement takes time to build momentum. It's a long term strategy. But here is what is ironic about this passage: Israel didn't have time. Christ had promised that it would be wiped out within one generation: that means, within forty yers. They didn't have time. And so to me it is all the more remarkable that the apostles still focused on a grassroots approach to Reformation. You see, what typically happened in the Old Testament cases where there was a top-down very speedy Reformation, was that things would revert back to the way they were as soon as the king died. That doesn't make those Reformations bad. I would rejoice if a short-range mini Reformation occurred like happened under Josiah, Joash and Hezekiah. In fact, Acts goes on to talk about priests and other leaders who became Christians. But if long term change is going to happen, it can only happen as the citizenry as a whole have their minds and lives transformed. This is true whether the form of government is a monarchy, an oligarchy, a republic or a democracy. If your hope for Reformation is exclusively placed in getting the right president elected, or the right Supreme Court nominees confirmed, you are missing out on the most important element in Reformation: the people. It doesn't have to be either/or dilemma. You can work for both. But we do need to have a long term strategy of making the Reformation pervasive, rather than elitist.
I think this was part of the problem with missions in India. Some missionaries focused on the upper castes, thinking that Christianity would filter down to the masses. They thought that this would be the speediest way of getting the nation. Now I've got to give them credit because they at least had faith that they could gain the nation. But in their attempts to be culturally sensitive, did not create Reformation, but instead created a culturally irrelevant backwaters church. They created a caste conscious church that Dalits and other backwards caste people's did not feel welcome in. To this day they don't feel welcome in those churches. Those churches didn't rock the boat. In this they were not following the lead of the Reformation conscious early missionaries like William Carey. In fact, one of the Indians who is an advocate for the Dalits and other Backwards Caste peoples has nothing but praise for William Carey and his culture challenging and culture transforming approach. So the first point was that this was not elitist. The second point was that it was a bottom-up (or what some people call a grassroots) strategy. The third point was that this was a long-term strategy for Reformation.
The fourth thing to notice about this first phrase is that teaching was at the heart of this Reformation. And it's been at the heart of every Reformation. If you change enough minds, a culture will be changed. If you are uninterested in the mind, and instead want to take the easy way out of manipulating emotions, you will change nothing long term. There are always consequences to a change in worldview. And that is why our main focus in this church and in Dominion Institute is on teaching: doctrinal teaching, worldview teaching, leadership teaching. This is what characterized the Protestant Reformation. Scripture wants every thought led captive to Jesus Christ. Scripture calls for teaching that is relevant, that confronts idolatry and rebellion wherever it is found, and which links law and Gospel in a holy matrimony that causes people to rejoice in the law.
To sum up: that first phrase shows that they were not elitist, had a grassroots plan, had a long term perspective rather than just a short term view and had teaching at the heart of what they did. Moving on.
Verse 1 continues to say: "the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them." Those three groups represent the three parts of society that are usually the most threatened when Reformation comes. The priests were the religious leaders. The captain of the temple represents the employees who maintain their salary by maintaining the status quo. And the Sadducees were the lay political leaders. Later Acts mentions Rome itself which was afraid of social change. But for now I want to focus on these three that were so inter-related.
The Sadducees were the aristocracy. Josephus says, "They only gain the well-to-do; they have not the people on their side." They were the upper crust and the ones with political power. Their main interest was maintaining political control of the country, and they were very interested in courting Rome's favor. Anything that might encourage political unrest was smacked down ruthlessly by the Sadducees. And they were constantly maneuvering to gain more control. For example, the Sadducees managed to fenagle their own relatives into the priesthood, and most priests sought to stay in favor with the Sadducees, and were Sadduceean in their doctrine. Historian, Steven Barabas said, "This centralization of power led to a number of forms of reaction, especially from the Pharisees. Probably not theological at first, the Sadducees became so in order to defend their policies against the attacks of the Pharisees. Under the Romans they become the party favorable to the government. As aristocrats they were naturally very conservative and were more interested in maintaining the political status quo than in the religious purity of the nation."2 So you can see why they are upset.
The temple guard was in charge of the temple police. They were hired employees. Their whole livelihood came from doing what the leaders said to do. If they questioned the leaders, they could lose their jobs. So they are vulnerable as well. It's amazing how in country after country when war crimes atrocities are recounted, people keep saying, "Hey, I was just following orders." There is a strong motivation for hired people to oppose Reformation, whether it is Reformation of church or state.
The priests are the third group, and most were related to the Sadducees, so there was blood loyalty. But they too could lose their church positions if they didn't cooperate. Talk about licensed religion! These priests were informally licensed and many had sold their souls in order to maintain their position. It makes me think of the TSPM churches in China, and many state churches in Nazi Germany, and even the fear that many in our own land have of preaching the whole counsel of God. One preacher told me, "I can't preach that. I'll lose my tax exempt status." And my response was, "But it's in the Bible, and you yourself admit that your people need to hear it." But he was afraid to. Listen to what Hitler said of the clergy in his day.
I promise you, that if I wished to, I could destroy the Church in a few years; it is hollow and rotten and false through and through. One push and the whole structure would collapse. We should trap the priests by their notorious greed and self-indulgence. We shall thus be able to settle everything with them in perfect peace and harmony. I shall give them a few years' reprieve. Why should we quarrel? They will swallow anything in order to keep their material advantages. Matters will never come to a head. They will recognize a firm will, and we need only show them once or twice who is the master. Then they will know which way the wind blows. They are no fools." (p. 50 of What is a Nice Guy)
I found that one phrase especially significant, and true: "They will swallow anything in order ot keep their material advantages." Matters will never come to a head. He didn't say they wouldn't disagree; but matters will never come to a head. That is so insightful on how human nature tends to work. So here are three groups that are highly motivated to stop Reformation from happening. Their very positions of prestige make them vulnerable to the manipulation of tyrants. Do you know who were the most troublesome people to the Reformers like Calvin, Luther and the other Reformers? It was their supposed friends who agreed with them, but had a lot to lose. People like Maitland. People like John Calvin wrote against in the Nicodemite Letters. Those were people who said they believed the Reformed faith, but stayed in Rome, partook of mass and didn't make waves. In fact, very few people knew that they were Reformed. But that's a side issue. Back to these three groups:
Verse 2 says, "being greatly disturbed" [not just a little disturbed, but "greatly disturbed"] "that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead." Why are they so upset? We have some hints in this chapter. Look at verse 17. "But so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name." They are in part afraid of these ideas spreading in the populace; - ideas that they don't agree with. And this is a fear that you see in China and India and North Vietnam and North Korea and Tibet and so many other countries. Interestingly, while China and India have opened their doors to some competition in the free market of commerce, they are utterly opposed to allowing a free market of ideas. You can see it everywhere. It was nauseous to listen to their news programs. The news stories were so obviously propaganda that it turned my stomach. They know the power of ideas. It was ideas gripping the minds of the common people that led to the communist revolution in China in the first place. They knew that the pen is mightier than the sword, and they are scared to death of these ideas. Now that they are in power, they don't like this free market of ideas any longer. You see the same thing in America. The sixties produced the riots in universities from people who were not in the establishment. And they wanted their ideas heard. But they didn't want to compete in the free market of ideas by way of debate. They wanted revolution, and took advantage of the free market to position themselves. Once they got into positions of power in the universities, these same people who shouted freedom of thought are now the worst thought police. Well, here are some Jewish leaders who are trying to be thought police because they know the power that ideas can have. So these Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection; and the resurrection of Jesus??!! Man! That's a dangerous doctrine! Perhaps another time we can look at why they considered this dangerous and why China has often restricted the TSPM churches from teaching on resurrection, judgment, the Second Coming, Creationism, the gifts of the Spirit, the book of Daniel or the book of Revelation. They know that ideas have consequences. And Reformed/Reconstructionist ideas?! Man! That's like nuclear weapons. That's why you guys need to be in prayer when I go there. I'm serious.
But there's more. Look at verse 21. "So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way of punishing them, because of the people, since they all glorified God for what had been done." They are fearful of public opinion. Now that's interesting. Even tyrants are afraid of doing things publically, because they are fearful of opinions of certain blocks of individuals. When you are working in missions that is a fear that can work against you, but often (as here) it works to your advantage.
But there's more. Look at verse 26: "Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned." They actually fear for their lives. When a country is ruled by force and not by wisdom, the leaders know that there is no deep love and affection between citizens and government. If the unbelieving citizens of a tyrannical country had their way, they would stone all the leaders. They just feel helpless in doing much about it. But given the right opportunity, it might just happen. This is what overthrew the dictator of Romania. People got to the point where they said enough is enough. That is what happened recently in Kyrgyzstan. And we don't usually think of tyrants as being afraid. But it is often fear that drives tyrants to kill opponents. It is often fear that drives them to spy on citizens. It is often fear that drives them to control commerce, education, religion and everything else. And this fear speaks of their enormous vulnerability to the spread of the right ideas. I'm encouraged by their fear. It makes me realize that they know that they cannot compete in the free market of ideas. So if we can effectively get our message out, we will win the debates, and hopefully we will eventually win the country.
Listen to a few examples from the Gospels of similar fears recorded earlier. And this is just a small sampling.
Matthew 21:46 But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.
Matthew 26:5 But they said, "Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people."
They fear things being out of control.
Luke 19:47-48 And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him.
Tyrants can only do so much. They are hampered if there is sufficient public sentiment.
Luke 20:3-6 [Jesus] answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me: the baptism of John – was it from heaven or from men? And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, "From heaven" He will say, "Why then did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet."
They recognized that there is a point at which citizens will say "Enough is enough" and they will rise up in revolution. Now we don't believe in revolution. We believe in lawful war. But the leaders in China think otherwise. They are fearful for their lives and for their positions.
Luke 20:19 And the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him, but they feared the people—for they knew He had spoken this parable against them.
Luke 20:26 But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.
This is why they did a lot of their persecution in secret. And this is why communists of today are so expert at secrecy. They fear public opinion. It gives you a little bit of insight into the way tyrants think.
Luke 22:2 And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people.
Earlier it says that fear of the people kept them from arresting Jesus publically. But here it says that fear of the people led them to try to kill Him (secretly of course). That fear can manifest itself in either direction. They knew the influence that one man could have in transforming the nation.
Luke 23:5 But they were the more fierce, saying, "He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place."
That's an interesting phrase: "He stirs up the people." They were claiming that Jesus was fomenting rebellion. That's what Nero claimed. Christians were not revolutionaries, but their ideas are revolutionary ideas.
Mark 11:18 And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.
This next passage shows that they despised the masses. It was this kind of attitude that led to Stalin's, and Pol Pots massacre of people.
John 7:47 Then the Pharisees answered them, "Are you also deceived? John 7:48 Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? John 7:49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed."
[Utter despisement. And they also despised anyone who would side with the people.. The next verse says,]
John 7:50 Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, John 7:51 "Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?" John 7:52 They answered and said to him, "Are you also from Galilee? [In other words: "Do you want us to lump you in with them? You're treading on dangerous ground Nicodemus!" They knew Nicodemus wasn't from Galilee. They knew exactly where he lived. He was a prominent man. But this was a veiled threat. "Are you also from Galilee?] "Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee."
They used guilt by association to intimidate anyone who felt sorry for the Christians.
And so, back to Acts 4: it was fear that made them upset. They were upset because these people had the gall to come on their property (the temple) and to preach doctrines which they didn't believe, and they were upset secondly because they taught the people rather than going through the proper channels of filing for the proper permits. And if the revolutionary, Jesus was hated, these people could expect that they will be hated as well. That's exactly what Jesus had promised in John 15:20. "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you."
And I read that long list of Scriptures so that you can see that this was not an isolated event, and also so that you could get a bit of a feel for what is driving these leaders in their frustrations that we will begin to look at next week. If you don't see this background, their hatred for the Christians doesn't make sense. And of course, there is the demonic behind it as well. But you can explain chapter 4 simply in terms of their sinful worldview. True Christianity throughout the Bible has always come into conflict with humanistic authorities because true Christianity has antithesis (black and white; right and wrong; clear-cut jurisdictions – you can go this far and no further, etc). It confronts idolatry, does not compromise. It looks to God's glory more than man's. True Christianity is not cowed into silence by threats because they fear God more than man. True Christianity is not intimidated into silence on controversial issues because Christians see themselves as ambassadors of God, not good-will ambassadors for the powers that be. And if American Christianity would take on these characteristics, it would make a powerful difference. But it would also mean immediate backlash.
Verse 3: "And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening." In short, they went to jail. They were thrown in the clink. This is how the book of Acts begins and this is how it ends. The last chapter of Acts shows Paul in prison, but not even prison could stop him from proclaiming the message of the kingdom. I love the title of Randall Terry's book, "Why Does a Nice Guy Like Me keep Getting Thrown in Jail. Now I know that he has fallen out of ministry because of a bad divorce and remarriage. But being thrown in jail should not be a reason to be upset with him.
This is an uncomfortable fact for American Christians to come to grips with. They think that you have automatically sinned if you are in jail. Sin has been confused with shame. Yet they are utterly different things. Americans are uncomfortable with the Biblical theology of jail-birds despite the fact that America started with every signer of the Declaration of Independence breaking the law, and the Declaration itself being considered an act of treason by King George. Of course, our forefathers retorted that it was King George who broke the law, and they pointed out that kings are limited in their jurisdiction and are themselves subject to God's law. It is this understanding of law that factors into why the underground church in China is willing to go to jail rather than to compromise. But for now, whatever the limits of disobedience are (and there is room for disagreement on that, and I tentatively disagree on one point with Randall Terry on that), I want you to notice that Acts shows absolutely no embarrassment about the fact that its leaders were all in jail. Instead, it assumes that the kingdom being preached will be so counter-cultural that conflict will be unavoidable. Americans have had a 200 year reprieve from such persecution, but we need to recognize that it was only because of the profound impact (the multigenerational impact) that the Puritan worldview had upon our nation's institutions. We have lost those Puritan foundations, which means that we can once again expect to see jail, fines, bureaucratic harassment and intimidation if our Christianity even remotely resembles the Christianity in Acts. Actually, some of those bureaucratic harrassments have begun already.
We still have a lot of relative freedoms in this country. Things aren't nearly as bad as they are in other countries. But we may get backlash from time to time. There may be some backlash that we will receive from the bold ad that Pastor Glenn got placed into the escort services section of the phone book. You'll have to ask him the story some time. It was a wild meeting that he had with the advertisements manager. He was being confrontational about this wicked advertising for prostitution. And in exchange for our continued church ad, he got them to concede a free ad in the escort services page that creatively counters what they are doing and offers hope to sexual addicts. It was marvelous! Like I say, there may be backlash. But it is a Christianity that is willing to go over the barbed wire that Satan erects that will see positive results as well.
Verse 4 says, "However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand." I love that word "however." This is a small hint of the irresistible increase of Christ's kingdom to those who put their feet on Satan's territory. Despite opposition and intimidation, the church was growing. Certainly there will be Christians who will be scared into silence and compromise. Certainly there will be non-Christians who are fearful of joining. But Luke interrupts his account of the arrest and trial with this small nugget of information to encourage us that even in the midst of pressure and conflict, Christ's kingdom grows. Amen? This is not a theology of escapism. This is a theology of conquest.
Secondly, this conquest is a conquest of ideas, not a conquest with the sword. They heard the Word of God and they believed the Word. It was God's communication of the Word which proved irresistible. And it is imperative that we get the Word out. Pray for our attempts at radio outreach. Pray for our attempts to bring conferences, training seminars, literature, emails and counseling. We don't know who the elect are, but we do know that God's Word must be spoken, and when it is, there will be those who will believe. So pray for our staff, that God would make us effective.
Verse 4 ends by saying, "and the number of the men came to be about five thousand." This phrase should remind us of three things: First, mass conversions are a part of God's process of growing His kingdom. And the fact that he mentions only heads of households, even though there are women who were converted as well, shows household conversions. Here, the church has grown from 120 to somewhere in the realm of 15,000 or more people if you count one wife and one child per man, which I think is a very conservative estimate. Read D. James Kennedy's first chapter to The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail book, and you will be encouraged by the exponential growth of Christianity. And it is especially remarkable in the last 50 years.
Second, God counts the church by households. Throughout this book you find that the church is family-based, not counted by individuals.
Third, this gives every reason for the authorities to be concerned. Why? Because it is covenantal. And covenantalism is never content with pietism – in other words, with a "just Jesus and I" type of Christianity. No. The Christianity in Acts was aggressively competing in the market place of ideas, and like Walmart, it planned to dominate the market. It was not content with its current customer base. They knew that Christ wanted it all – every square inch of planet earth. Now do you see why the competitors don't want fair competition? They can't compete! Now you you see why there is persecution? They feared the ideas that the apostles are marketing. Now do you see why they want the government to step into the market place and shut down this supposed threat to the free market? It's because they can't compete with the truth. And so they have to resort to force.
In the next weeks as we go over the trial, the refusal to submit and the preaching of the apostles, I think you will be encouraged with the nature of the Christianity that is being portrayed. It looks nothing like the Christianity that we saw in that TSPM church, or the modern American church, but very much like the Christianity in the underground church. It is my prayer that our church would have the reputation of being empowered by God's grace, consumed for His glory, bold for His cause and anointed with His Spirit. May it be so. Amen. Let's pray.