Acts 4:5-13 recounts a fascinating series of events. The Sanhedrin summons Peter and John, a couple of uneducated Galilean fishermen, and demands that they give an account of themselves. However, rather than trembling before the majesty of the high court, Peter delivers one of the most impressive counterpunches in the Bible. He points out that a) he and John are being treated as criminals for the “crime” of healing a lame man, b) and they healed him by the authority of Jesus Christ, c) whom this same Sanhedrin had crucified.
Ouch. In about three sentences, the Jewish leaders go from being in control of the situation to looking like villains and fools. They reached out to poke the bunny and drew back a bloody stump.
V. 13 offers a fascinating insight into their reaction. They are first of all appalled at Peter and John’s boldness. Then, they recognize both of them as having been with Jesus.
It’s possible that this recognition was based on purely physical characteristics. More likely, though, the leaders recognized them because they acted like Jesus. They had learned from Him to speak with wisdom and confidence that the enemies of the gospel could not refute. Only the Master could have taught them that!
Today, do the people we talk to recognize that we have been with Jesus? The difference between us and worldly people should be conspicuous. We live in a time when people are corrupt, contentious, selfish, hateful, and foul-mouthed. Someone who has sat at the feet of the Teacher will be none of those things. The disciple of Jesus is holy, peacemaking, selfless, loving, and gracious in speech. If we have been with Jesus, when we walk away from the checkout line at Wal-Mart, the cashier will be smiling.
Does our online presence make it obvious that we have been with Jesus? Heaven knows that all the worst characteristics of human speech are distilled by social media! Sadly, I know far too many Christians who are gracious and kind in person but rancorous and contemptuous on Facebook. If we have been with Jesus, we will recognize the temptation that these platforms offer and govern our speech accordingly. Rather than fanning the flames of controversy, we will give a blessing, even to others thousands of miles away.
Finally, does our boldness in the proclamation of the gospel show that we have been with Jesus? Often, we don’t take the opportunities that are before us because we are afraid. Peter and John were literally on trial. They had every reason to be afraid, but they had been with Jesus. His spirit in their hearts drove away fear and emboldened them to tell the truth that needed to be heard.
We ought to be all these things, but if we aren’t, the solution is obvious. Be with Jesus! Spend time learning about His will, both in and outside of the assembly. Seek Him in prayer. The more we are with Him, the more evident He will become in every aspect of our lives.
For much of the past year, many Christians (myself included) have sneered at the Orwellian reporting on the racial unrest following the death of George Floyd. Journalists have repeatedly described the demonstrations as “mostly peaceful”, despite the devastation of entire city blocks. With contemptuous precision, we pointed to the rubble and described the proceedings as “riots”. We declared ourselves unsatisfied with progressive leaders’ apparently lukewarm condemnations of lawlessness.
These days, it seems the shoe is on the other foot. The same journalists who described the protests last summer as “mostly peaceful” do not hesitate to declare the disturbance last Wednesday an insurrection. Now, it is conservative politicians whose condemnations are insufficiently vituperative.
Conversely, I saw on Facebook the other day a report on the events by a brother and friend who was in attendance. He saw tens of thousands of people assembling without violence, and even though he participated in the march to the Capitol, he was not aware that anyone had forced their way inside until he saw it on the news. Though he condemned the violence, he deeply resented the depiction of himself and other innocent attendees as participants in a coup.
All of us, it seems, are mostly peaceful.
This is a difficult truth to acknowledge. In addition to all the other symmetries described above, both sides have attributed the worst behavior of their allies to false-flag enemies. The news last summer was rife with rumors that those who instigated the looting were right-wing extremists. This time around, brethren have continually claimed that the people who broke into the Capitol were antifa pretending to be Trump supporters. Unsurprisingly, the identity of any of these shadowy provocateurs has proven elusive.
The moral of the story is, apparently, that any group of people has bad people in it, and none of us like to admit that about our people. This is true with respect to Democrats and Republicans, and it’s true with respect to the Lord’s church too.
Most of us have had conversations with church-haters (either former members or members on their way out the door) who depict a very different church than the one we know and love. To them, people in churches of Christ are hardhearted, unloving, gossipy, mean-spirited, hypocritical, legalistic, more concerned with politics than Christ, and uninterested in grace. In response, we tend to either a) deny that we see such things, or b) claim that the people who act like that aren’t really Christians.
It is a hard thing to listen humbly to one’s enemies. It’s an even harder thing to separate the fiction that they wish were truth from the truth that we wish were fiction. However, if we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, we need a mirror like that.
I believe that most Christians are godly most of the time. However, I also believe that there is evil among us and evil within us, and the words of even the most hateful church critic contain an echo of something that is both ugly and true. Despite our salvation, we remain all too human. Only if we are willing to confront our imperfections honestly can we rise above ourselves.
If there is any verse in the Bible that is of particular significance to brethren, it is Acts 2:38. It says in so many words that the purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, a truth clearly taught in Scripture but rejected by much of the wider religious world. However, the rest of the verse causes us more perplexity. Peter says that those who are baptized for the forgiveness of sins will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What is that? Does this mean that everyone who is baptized will receive miraculous spiritual gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues the apostles displayed earlier in the chapter? Does it mean that all Christians will have the Holy Spirit personally indwell them? Or is something else going on here?
In order to understand the text, we first must acknowledge that the phrase “the gift of the Holy Spirit” does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit is the gift. For instance, when Jesus refer to “the gift of God” in John 4:10, He means a gift given by God (living water), not God given as a gift.
Second, we must recognize that Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 does not exist in a vacuum. It is the answer to a question, the solution to a problem. The problem and question appear in the two preceding verses. Peter’s sermon has convicted his audience that they have crucified the Messiah, and they want to know how they can escape punishment.
In reply, Peter tells them that they can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Two verses later, he exclaims, “Be saved!” Thus, there is a strong textual presumption that the gift of the Holy Spirit has to do with salvation.
This presumption is borne out by the rest of the chapter, particularly Peter’s citation of the Joel 2 prophecy in Acts 2:17-21. There, Joel (speaking by the Holy Spirit, of course) predicts the advent of the miraculous gifts. He says these gifts will be a twofold sign: that the day of the Lord is coming, and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
In 2:39, Peter affirms that this promise is not merely for his audience on the day of Pentecost or even for their descendants, but for everyone whom God calls to Himself. Today, 2000 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a generation no less corrupt than that one. If we want to be saved from the wrath to come, we too must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins. If we are, we will receive the same salvation promised on that day—the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Just as we do today, the righteous men and women of the Bible struggled with temptation. Sometimes, these struggles are well known, as with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. At other times, though, they can escape our notice. For most of us, this is the case with Paul’s spiritual battle with covetousness.
Consider, for instance, his description of his own sin in Romans 7:7-8. It may be that covetousness was the first sin that Paul remembered committing. At the least, it’s clear from this that covetousness was a sin that he struggled with. By his own admission, sin produced in him coveting of every kind.
However, Romans 7 isn’t the last thing Paul has to say about covetousness. In fact, his relationship with money is a theme that runs through many of his letters. In his discussion of the subject, we learn how he fought back against covetousness and eventually overcame it.
This is both heartening and instructive. From it, we learn not only that overcoming our strongest temptations is possible, but also some strategies on how to do it. With this in mind, let’s consider the way that Paul dealt with covetousness.
First, we see that Paul PUT UP GUARDRAILS. Consider his words in 2 Corinthians 8:18-21. Contextually, this passage is about the collection and protection of the contribution for the needy saints in Jerusalem. Paul didn’t put all that money in his own wallet and go sailing off toward Antioch by himself. Instead, he asked churches who contributed to appoint men they trusted to travel with him and see that the money reached its destination safely.
Much of the time, we use this passage to show the importance of being above-board in the way we handle church finances. That way, people can know that somebody isn’t siphoning off their donations. However, there’s more to it than that. Notice that Paul says that he’s concerned not only with what is honorable in the sight of men, but also with what is honorable in the sight of the Lord. He wants everybody to see that he’s doing right, but he also wants to prevent himself from doing wrong.
If we know that there’s a sin that we struggle with, we ought to make practicing that sin as difficult as possible. Consider, for instance, the famous Pence Rule. Throughout his political career, Mike Pence has refused to meet alone with a woman who is not his wife. He’s caught a lot of flak for that, but you know what? If you’re never alone with a woman who is not your wife, you are never going to cheat on your wife with another woman.
I think that’s very wise, and throughout my preaching work, I’ve tried to follow a similar rule myself. Through the years, how many preachers have met their downfall over a woman? I do not want to add my name to that list! Whatever our weakness may be, one of the best ways to defeat temptation is to leave no room for it.
Second, Paul is willing to SURRENDER LIBERTIES in order to defend himself from sin. Look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 9:13-18, 24-27. A few weeks ago, Clay cited vs. 24-27 in one of his sermons, and in passing, he mentioned that he was using the passage outside of its context. That got me to wondering what the context was. How exactly was Paul disciplining his body to make sure he didn’t lose his soul?
I believe the answer lies in vs. 13-18. He sets out the principle that men who preach the gospel have the right to get their living from the gospel. However, he himself does not do that. It would be 100 percent lawful for him to seek support from the church in Corinth, but instead, he preaches the gospel for free.
Contextually, he gives two reasons for this. First, so that he doesn’t hinder the gospel. Second, so that he isn’t overcome by sin himself. To put things another way, Paul doesn’t want to establish a financial relationship with the church in Corinth because he is worried that such a relationship will open the door for covetousness. He would rather reject the money he can claim than give sin an opening.
In the same way, brethren, we need to be honest with ourselves about whether surrendering some of our liberties will help us in our struggle against sin. For instance, there is nothing wrong with a Christian having a smartphone or having a computer in a private location. I myself have both.
However, if you’ve got a porn problem, then it’s probably true that your smartphone or private computer (or both) are the gateways for your temptation. Which is better, to forfeit a liberty we enjoy or to lose our souls because the liberty led us into sin?
Finally, Paul was able to TRIUMPH THROUGH CHRIST. Let’s read Philippians 4:10-13. This is a famous text, and it’s a famously misused text. There are lots of people out there who think that doing all things through Christ means closing business deals or scoring touchdowns.
In the light of everything we’ve already studied this evening, though, it’s obvious that Paul is saying something completely different and much more powerful. He’s saying that through the strength of Christ, he is able to win his battle against covetousness. When he doesn’t have anything, no problem. Through Christ’s strength, he can be content and not be greedy. Likewise, when he’s fully provided for, no problem. Through Christ’s strength, he’s able to defeat materialism.
As we saw back in Romans 7, Paul had been haunted by the temptation to be covetous all his life. By the time of Philippians 4, though, he has learned the secret. Through Jesus, he can defeat any temptation.
Brethren, let’s pause for a moment to think about how encouraging this is! This isn’t just about Paul and him overcoming his temptations. This is about us and overcoming our temptations. No, we aren’t strong enough on our own, but we will be strong enough if we seek the strength that Christ is eager to give.
Sometime this week, then, why don’t we all carve out some time to pray for that strength? I don’t know what your greatest temptation is. Maybe it’s covetousness, or sexual immorality, or porn, or drunkenness, or gossip. I do know, though, that whatever it is, you can beat it through Jesus. Work to get rid of it, but above all, pray to get rid of it, and He will bless you.
Hallelujah! Praise His name!
Praise Him, servants of the Lord!
All who stand within His courts,
Let your praises be outpoured!
Praise the Lord, for He is good;
Glorify His lovely name;
Jacob is His chosen race,
Israel is His own to claim.
For I know that He is great;
High above all gods, He reigns;
As He pleases, so He does,
Ruling all as His domains.
From the distant ends of earth,
Clouds arise as He decrees;
He makes lightning for the rain;
Winds come from His treasuries.
Strong in Egypt, He destroyed
All the firstborn, man and beast;
In her midst, He sent His signs
On the greatest and the least.
Striking nations, killing kings,
To His own He gave the land;
Now recall His timeless deeds,
For His judgment is at hand.
Idols wear a human form,
But they cannot see or speak;
Those who trust the gods they made
Like them will be mute and weak.
All of Israel, bless the Lord,
Dwelling in Jerusalem;
All who fear Him, bless His name;
Hallelujah! Honor Him!
Suggested tune: MENDELSSOHN
(“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”)