In February of last year the world got a picture of just how brutal ISIS actually is. The terrorist group released what was intended to be a promotional video. It featured a group of masked ISIS militants standing on a beach in Libya with 21 men dressed in orange jumpsuits kneeling in front of them. The kneeling men were nearly all Egyptian Christians. One by one the ISIS executioners asked them if they would reject Christ and embrace Islam. One by one the men refused and were decapitated for their efforts. Now, you may have noticed that I said the men were nearly all Egyptian Christians. There was a lone exception. When the other 20 were kidnapped by ISIS he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mathew Ayairga, a Ghanaian, was neither Egyptian nor Christian. And yet, when he was presented with the same question that all the others were asked he took a page out of the playbook of the thief on the cross. After watching his companions one-by-one declare with unfathomable courage their faithfulness to this Jesus the terrorists so obviously feared and hated, when his turn came he courageously declared: “Their God is my God.”
Without any fanfare the terrorist behind him cut off Mathew’s head and moved on to the next man. And perhaps to many this seemed a senseless waste of life. But the reality is just the opposite. This courageous embrace of the name of Christ in the face of grotesque opposition has served as an inspiration to millions around the world to boldly declare their own intentions to be faithful to Christ regardless of the cost. A whole movement has grown out of similar atrocities committed by ISIS. In their Middle Eastern territories they mark all the homes and businesses of suspected Christians with the Arabic symbol for “N,” which is short for the Arabic word for Nazarene, a title for Christians intended to be derogatory. It looks like this: ﻥ. Far from letting this be a mark of shame, however, it has become a badge of honor much like the title “Christians” was originally intended to be an insult, but was claimed with pride by Jesus’ earliest followers. Around the world, Christians are declaring: “I am N” as a way of standing in solidarity with their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East and other places. The sum of all the vicious persecution of Christians by ISIS and in other places in the world has not been the retreat of the church, but rather its explosive growth. As the 3rd century church father, Tertullian, once proclaimed: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is as true today as it has ever been.
This morning we are in the fifth part of our series, Unstoppable Gospel. I don’t know about you, but this has been a really powerful journey for me that has gotten more and more powerful the further into it we have traveled together. The big idea for this series has been that as followers of Jesus we are part of a movement that has been growing in strength and momentum for 2,000 years. The Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Christ and freedom from sin and death is an unstoppable force in this world. If you are interested in seeing how we got to the place we are at this morning you can go to the church’s website where you can find both the transcripts and the audio of the previous four sermons in this series. Suffice to say now, as Christians we have an unstoppable mission fueled by an unstoppable message that exists in the context of God’s unstoppable love with which we are presented innumerable unstoppable opportunities to share with people who need to hear it.
We focused on those unstoppable opportunities last week as we looked at the story of Peter and John’s “chance” encounter with a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple as they were going in to worship. This seemingly random encounter turned into an incredible opportunity to share the Gospel with the crowd who gathered to stare in amazement at the man many of them recognized as the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate leaping and dancing around the Temple courtyard. We talked about the fact that in our own lives we have seemingly random encounters like this all the time. We intersect daily with people who need Christ. But, if we are going to take advantage of these God-directed encounters, there is yet another ingredient we need. This ingredient is courage. If we are going to make the most of our unstoppable opportunities to share the message of Christ with people who need to hear it, we are going to have to walk into them with an equally unstoppable courage. When we do, the results will be nothing short of amazing.
But, if we are going to talk about courage, we need to define it to make sure we are all thinking about it in the same terms. The Oxford Dictionary definition tells us that courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one.” That’s not necessarily a bad definition, but I think it leaves open the possibility of having to label someone like a suicide bomber courageous. The men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 were no doubt at least somewhat frightened at the prospect of what they were doing. Should we say, though, that their willingness to push on with their evil deeds in spite of their fear makes them courageous? Surely not! They were cowards of the highest order. So what is courage? I think a better definition is this: Doing what’s right regardless of the consequences. This, of course, leads to a second question: Who defines what’s right? As followers of Jesus we believe God’s character as revealed in His word does. Thus we can refine our definition even a bit further: Courage is doing what God commands regardless of the consequences.
Yet it seems to me that there is still another question we need to answer: Why? Why is courage such an essential element in achieving our unstoppable mission that we would focus a whole morning on talking about it? I mean, if our mission is unstoppable, what role does courage really play? It actually plays a central role precisely because our mission is unstoppable. Think about it like this: What does it mean for something to be unstoppable? Well, it means it never stops. Okay, but just because something doesn’t stop doesn’t mean it’s unstoppable. It could be that no one has tried to stop it. For instance, in the vacuum of space once something has started moving it’s not going to stop. You could throw a feather in space and it will go on forever. We can hardly describe a feather as being unstoppable, though. When something is described as unstoppable, that means there have been attempts to stop it that have failed. And not just a few either. It has faced repeated attempts to slow or halt it that have uniformly failed. Thus it is unstoppable.
Well, if we are going to hitch ourselves to this unstoppable mission, we are going to bear the brunt of that opposition from time to time. Think about it like this: If you tied yourself to the front of an unstoppable train, you would get to bear the brunt of the opposition standing in its way from time to time. In fact, some of you may remember what Paul promised to his protégé Timothy and which we looked at a few weeks ago in 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Got that? It’s not a matter of whether, but when. If we are walking faithfully with Christ we are eventually going to face persecution. It could come from anywhere—even a family member. But it will come. Paul makes as much a promise. Continuing to walk with Christ, continuing to roll forward with our unstoppable mission, then, will require courage.
Helpfully, Luke doesn’t finish telling the story of Peter and John’s encounter with the lame man at the Temple gate with a summary of Peter’s sermon. He goes on to tell us about what happened next. And what happens next is a great picture for us of the kind of courage we’re talking about this morning. Check this out with me starting in Acts 4:1: “And as [Peter and John] were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”
Let me pause here for a bit of context. There were several major political parties in first century Jerusalem. One of the most important parties was the Sadducees. These guys were the wealthy elite of the Jews. They thought they had figured out a way to maintain the fragile peace that existed with Rome by compromising with them a lot and in ways that weren’t all that popular with the more religiously observant Jews. On a more theological level, they only accepted the first five books of our Bibles as legitimate Scriptures and didn’t believe in any kind of a resurrection. They were kind of like theologically liberal folks today who are living pretty comfortably and who believe that the best way to keep the government from messing too much with religion is to keep the whole thing reasonably secular. For Peter and John to be proclaiming a resurrection through Jesus and that He was the Messiah left the Sadducees “greatly annoyed” for two reasons. One, it gave props to their theological opponents, the Pharisees. And two, they knew the whole of Jerusalem and the broader Judean countryside was a tinderbox because of the people’s hope for the coming of the Messiah. Furthermore, the common belief about the Messiah held by most of the folks in the area was that he was going to lead the Jews in vanquishing their enemies, namely Rome. They knew well that a fight with Rome would end badly for the Jews and wanted to avoid this at pretty much all costs. As a result, they couldn’t have folks like Peter and John proclaiming something that would get everybody all worked up and ready to rebel.
Because of this—verse three now—“they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” If you included the women and children, the number of followers of Jesus in the city was growing rapidly.
The next morning Peter and John were brought before the ruling council—mostly composed of Sadducees, but with some Pharisees and lawyers in there as well. These were the guys who had condemned Jesus to death just a few months before this was all happening. They were not friends of this message or its heralds. What happened next, though, was amazing. Check this out starting at v. 7: “And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to [this group of men who had condemned His Lord to death], ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’”
Wow! What a testimony! What courage! It was one thing to give this kind of testimony to a mostly friendly or at least curious audience as he had done at Pentecost and the day before in the Temple. It was another thing entirely to do it before a group of men who could have him put to death just as they had Jesus put to death weeks before. Believe me: The members of the council were shocked as well. Look at v. 13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Would that the same could be said of us, yes?
But here’s the catch, they really couldn’t dispute what the apostles were saying because the formerly lame man was standing there before them as well. This had all happened publicly. The council couldn’t dispute that a miracle had happened. They couldn’t even dispute Peter’s insistence that Jesus was the source of the miracle. There were no doubt witnesses who had heard Peter say to the man, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” So they may not have liked what Peter had to say, but his boldness put them in a place where they really couldn’t do anything about it. Listen to this at v. 16: “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they did. But look how Peter and John respond: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Finally, after more threats, the council sent them away. But this would not be the last time they would appear before this council and subsequent appearances wouldn’t go this smoothly.
It would not be their last time before the council because they did just what they told them they would do: They obeyed God rather than the council. God had told them to make disciples of all nations and that was exactly what they were going to do. But think about this with me for a minute. Peter and John had essentially touched a stove and gotten burned. For many folks, this would be the moment at which they would advise caution. We wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear that when they got back home the rest of the body said, “Okay guys, you came away unscathed here, but next time you may not be so lucky. Let’s dial it back in a bit and stick with quieter meetings in homes. Sure, the Gospel might not spread quite as quickly, but perhaps that way we can hit a critical mass of supporters before the religious leaders know what’s going on. Just go along with what they’ve told you for the time being and we’ll wait to move more aggressively when things are more in our favor.”
Can’t you hear that advice being given? Come on, that’s the kind of advice we’d be thinking to give them today. You pushed too far. Think about ___________. Your kids. Your wife. Your job. Your reputation. Your finances. Your life. Whatever. Be careful! Just give in this time. Battle this one out another day. There’ll be more chances later. Remember, God wins in the end, so if we lose a few along the way we don’t have to sweat it. Just compromise here for the sake of peace. It’ll be okay. Look, it takes a lot of wisdom to know when and which battles to fight as Christians. It takes a lot of wisdom to clarify which principles are matters of opinion and which are fundamental truths worth going to the ground to defend. And, we live in a culture that on the whole is challenging us more and more every day when it comes to which principles are foundational and which aren’t. But, if we are going to err, let us err on the side of courage.
Look at how the church actually did respond to what happened to Peter and John. Check this out with me starting at v. 23: “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priest and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed”—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, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants…’” to be really careful so we don’t get in this kind of trouble anymore. No! It doesn’t say that. Listen to this. This is just amazing: “…grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Wow! What is that? That’s courage. That’s committing to do what God has commanded regardless of the consequences. They could have prayed for a lot of things here. They could have prayed for safety. They could have prayed for security. They could have prayed for the plans of their enemies to fail. They could have prayed for their hearts to be changed. They could have prayed for all kinds of other things. But what did they pray for? Boldness. They prayed for courage. They could have turned inward and said, “You know what? Let’s focus on building up ourselves. Let’s not worry about the world around us right now as much as making sure we know everything we need to know and have everything we need to have. Let’s plan really great worship services and outreach events and hope that folks will hear about them and come by to check out what we have going on. After all, it’s better to strengthen the church than to get in fights with the world, isn’t it?” Do you see how seamlessly truths and lies can be blended together to create an outright lie that sounds so good? That may sound like wisdom, but it’s cowardice dressed in armor.
These believers prayed for courage and boldness in the face of serious challenges from the world, and look what happened starting in v. 31 now: “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.” In other words, God answered their prayer. And as a result, what do you think happened to their community? Was is weak and fractured from their refusal to better care for themselves and protect their ranks? Just the opposite: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” In other words in turning out with boldness, in standing with courage to speak the truth about Jesus to the culture around them, the church was strengthened exponentially. It is when the church looks in that it fractures. The strongest churches are those that put their interests and expectations to the side in order to more courageously engage the world around them with Gospel. When we are willing to receive it, God gives us courage to speak boldly for Christ.
Can we be honest with each other for a minute. Given the state and direction of our culture, there has never been a time in any of our lives when what we are talking about this morning was more directly relevant and applicable than it is right now. For a long time—most of our history as a nation, frankly—it didn’t take a lot of courage to be a Christian in this culture. It didn’t. In fact it was expected. We still haven’t elected a President who hasn’t at least confessed to being a church-going follower of Jesus. That is changing. Quickly. Sure there have been headline grabbing stories like that of Cassie Bernall, the young girl murdered in the Columbine Massacre in 1999 after she confessed to being a follower of Christ, but those were always the exception. Those days are increasingly behind us. More and more now we hear stories like that of Aaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon bakers who politely declined to bake a cake for a wedding because of their historically orthodox Christian convictions about the nature of marriage and not because of the sexual identity of the customers. They were told to pay $135,000 in fines to the customers, told by the state that they cannot publicly talk about the case, had the state raid their bank accounts in order to get the money, and have faced numerous threats against their lives. There are many, many more stories like this one. God has given them courage to speak boldly for Christ, but it is a costly boldness—just as it was for Peter and John and the other first century Christians.
In the same way, God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ if we are willing to receive it. He will give us the moral backbone to take the lifestyle Jesus demonstrated for us and live it out publicly. He will give us intestinal fortitude to stand on the bold truth claims of the Christian worldview in a culture where the pure relevance of truth is the only accepted position and dissenters to this new orthodoxy are hated with a ferocity usually reserved for likes of Hitler or Stalin. God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ. Here’s what we need to do. First, we’ve got to do the necessary prep work. Sometimes we will find ourselves in situations like Mathew Ayairga did, and God will equip us with a special filling of His Holy Spirit in those times, but those are the exception to the rule. We need to make sure we understand what we believe, why we believe, and some basic defenses of it. Without this foundation when the forces of life begin pushing in on us we will not stand, we will compromise and fold. Our witness will crumble. As I said last week, God’s not in the business of putting knowledge into our heads that isn’t there already.
Second, we need to learn when to speak and when to remain silent. A big part of this wisdom comes from learning to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. I suspect you, like me, have experienced times when you felt an undeniable prompting from the Holy Spirit to speak up in a certain situation. Unfortunately, I suspect you, like me, have resisted that call. There are situations in which it is better to love with actions than offer a profusion of words. But there are also times when we need to be willing to courageously speak up for the truth. God will give us the courage to speak boldly for Christ.
Third, being bold will almost always have a cost attached to it. Listen to 2 Timothy 3:12 again: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Jesus Himself told us to count the cost. He said anyone unwilling to take up their own cross and follow Him will be unworthy of being His disciples. As a result, we need to be ready and willing to face the consequences of our courage. Sometimes those consequences will be small—the loss of social capital for instance. Sometimes they will be much larger—like what Aaron and Melissa Klein have faced. We are not likely to face threats to our lives yet in this nation, but there are many other forms of persecution—both unofficial and officially sanctioned—that we can yet face. God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ, but we need to be prepared to pay the price now knowing that our reward in heaven will be great.
Fourth, and this is perhaps the most important. Our courage must always be paired with gentleness and love. This was the unfailing pattern of Jesus. This is what Peter and John did. They spoke truth to the Sanhedrin, but they were respectful of the men sitting on that council. We can refuse to submit to ungodly and unrighteous commands and expectations with great gentleness. Courage and gentleness are natural partners. Without both courage becomes mere unhelpful obstinance. God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ, but if we are going to speak about Christ we have to do it like Christ or we will never lead people to Christ. God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ. When we do, the Gospel will spread. The kingdom will come. Our witness will expand. And lives will be transformed by the power of our unstoppable Gospel. The results? Come back next week as we wrap things up.