"The Uses of Adversity"

11 July 1999

Text: Acts 5: 41-42

Thomas Brooks wrote in Precious remedies against Satan’s devices: "Adversity has slain her thousand, prosperity her ten thousand." Some will, no doubt, recognize in this an allusion to the conflict between Saul and David as the military success and blessing of the latter outshone the fading glory of the king God cast off for disobedience. But more to the point here is the use to which Peter and John put the adversity inflicted upon them by the Jewish leadership, the Sanhedrin. They had just received forty lashes, minus one for the crimes of:

    1. teaching in the name of Jesus
    2. filling Jerusalem with their doctrine
    3. bringing the blood of this man upon us

We read all of this in verse 28. Let’s understand the charges. They are first charged with teaching in the Name of Jesus, that is, under His authority. This is implicitly a rejection of their authority. We already know from Acts 5: 17 that the leadership was filled with indignation, or jealousy because of what the apostles were accomplishing: people were being saved, truth was being expounded and healings and miracles were publicly performed. Peter didn’t take people aside, and in a hushed voice, tell them privately that Jesus was Lord, or that they might, if they had faith, be healed. No. The streets were lined with people so eager for a touch from God that they laid the sick out in the streets in their beds and on their couches. God was turning the streets into hospitals! Even those with demons from the surrounding cities came to Jerusalem to find their deliverance and "they all were healed." The powerful, authoritative and public character of this ministry made a collision inevitable. The leaders of the Jews understood that if this went on unchallenged, the whole city might be converted.

Furthermore they were jealous of the effectiveness of Christian ministry in stark contrast to the lifelessness of Judaism at that time. This relates to the second complaint, effectiveness: you are filling Jerusalem with your doctrine. That doctrine would be the Lordship of Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins through His shed blood and the promise of resurrection life. Remember, there were no "Good News" bibles, or even tracts to be handed out. It was oral history, eye witness accounts, first hand information, we read, being taught daily in the temple and by evening, house to house. People couldn’t learn enough about Jesus, and they couldn’t get enough of Jesus! Yes, there was private instruction along with the public instruction; but it was the public character of this movement that brought Christians into conflict with the authorities. The wealthy Sadducees were particularly galled by the doctrine related to resurrection life, especially when it was presented as a witnessed fact, and not as some abstract theory. The Sadducees were the most worldly of the ruling parties in Jerusalem—well-educated and wealthy, they were spiritually complacent and self-reliant. They lived as practical atheists.

Thirdly, we have the fear of the ruling parties that they might lose their position of power and influence in their world of raw politics, caught as they were between the stones of the crowd and the legions of Rome. More specifically, they knew that the execution of Jesus was an injustice and that the trial was a fraudulent process. They knew that they were guilty, on some level, of shedding of innocent blood, regardless of their peace-faking rationale:

"What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation." And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us (or you) that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish." John 11: 47b-50

Furthermore, they had certainly been apprised of Peter’s preaching which, even though he spoke of Jesus crucifixion as being predetermined, foreknown and purposed by God, still required lawless hands, their hands, to do the dirty work. Those who heard that sermon were convicted, "pierced to the heart," in acknowledgment of their complicity in crucifying Him who is Lord and Christ. These things were, again, pieces of public knowledge.

Now there is an important reason why I have continually emphasized the public character of the early church’s ministry. Much has been written, and theorized, about the so-called primitive community, or early church. And some of that scholarship, written from the perspective of higher criticism, finds its way, uncritically, into commentaries that a serious student of scripture might turn to in order to gain a further understanding. That scholarship is helpful in dealing with some of the intricacies of koine Greek, the language of the earliest manuscripts, scholars as imminent as Dibelius and Haenchen miss the mark when they characterize the life of the early church as quiet and private—traits, no doubt, more palatable to their cultural sensibilities. Luke’s account suggests quite otherwise and that account, being the Word itself, is what we must lean towards in forming our opinions. But I have also pressed this public issue because that makes sense of the ugly confrontation recorded in today’s passage.

The apostles were stripped and publicly flogged. It was a gruesome, humiliating punishment. It was also deadly, many victims of flogging did not survive the thirty-nine lashes. The apostles were treated in a manner analogous to the treatment of Jesus—and they recognized that. They measured their impact, or success, not by the large crowds of converts; rather they knew they were being effective when they were considered worthy of adversity. So they returned rejoicing that they had been deemed worthy of humiliation and public shaming! Well, now, that’s different. How do you terrorize into submission persons who can turn your public intentions so completely on their head?! They didn’t complain about the violation of their rights. They didn’t get hung up on their rights, or get angry and vengeful. No. What they did do is they kept on keeping on. "They did not cease teaching and preaching." They defied the unjust law, which forbade their ministry, but refused to even try and escape the consequences. They would rather die obeying God, than to live in disobedience. What do you do with people like that?

You get out of their way!

And you know, some things never change. The world still wants Christians to privatize their faith, to be nice and quiet. And the Lord is still looking for those who dare to be rowdy! Christians need to operate wisely. They should remember who it is that owns the world—that would be Satan. You should recall that it was Satan who offered Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" (Matthew 4:8). He baits the hook: be prosperous, be happy, privatize your faith, minimize the significance of your faith. . . that way you will win friends, and influence people! You’ll be popular and safe! The world still says, "We won’t persecute you if you’ll hold back and hinder the influence of Christ. Don’t get too radical," the world says, "sure you have bibles, but there’s more to life that learning the word of God. Don’t bother to memorize Scripture. Devotions. . .there’ll be time enough later." But there isn’t. And, worse, when adversity does come, as it must, we’ve forgotten what to do with it!