As the title suggests, this lesson deals with the attitude of today's gospel messengers. The idea for this teaching comes from the Book of Acts chapter 4, where we can see a marked change in attitude of those who had been proclaiming the gospel message to the people of that time. I suppose it would be helpful if we familiarized ourselves with the story taking place in this passage before making any comparisons to today's situation.
We know that the first three chapters in the Book of Acts describe the amazing rise of the early church in Jerusalem. The spectacular events where 3000 people were baptized in one day. The early disciples quickly formed a large group that met daily, eating and worshipping together in the midst of their bewildered neighbors, who may not have yet believed in Christ but were impressed by the zeal, joy, and closeness of this new group in their midst. New and greater things kept happening as the Apostles of Jesus not only provided leadership and teaching for their disciples, but continued to perform miracles that drew still others into the fold.
It is at this point that the local religious leaders decided to slow down, if not stop altogether, this religious movement that threatened to engulf the entire city and nation, and in doing so rob them of whatever power they may have still clung to. And so, after causing a near riot by performing a miracle on the grounds of the temple, the Apostles Peter and John were arrested and brought before these leaders who tried to intimidate them. Their hope was that their threats would force these men to stop this religious rebellion and thus return their city (and by extension) their religion to a familiar status quo. After a sobering night in prison the two Apostles were summoned to face the country's leaders and religious establishment. Their first question revealed what, in their minds at least, this business was all about. It was about power and who wielded it.
On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, "By what power, or in what name, have you done this?"
- Acts 4:5-7
The religious leaders ignored the extraordinary events that had taken place at the hands of these simple men. Their only inquiry was,"Who gave you the authority and power to do these things?" Of course, it was a set up. In their minds, they had not ordained these crude little men to do anything, so nothing they actually did was legitimate, even if it was miraculous! Their sense of entitlement and self-importance was so great, so impenetrable, that they could not conceive of a legitimate power source that did not in some way emanate from their circle. They probably did not expect an actual answer. They probably expected an excuse, some apology, a begging for mercy --- this is what they were accustomed to in these rare instances when they, as a council, met to dispense justice and judgment on those unfortunate enough to violate their authority. But Peter actually answers the question!
He not only acknowledges openly that the things they have seen and done are true, but also offers an explanation for the power that has been manifested in himself and the other Apostles.
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved."
- Acts 4:8-12
Note that Peter not only seizes the opportunity to proclaim Christ as the authority and power by which he performs miracles, he also declares that even the power of the leaders before him is subject to the authority of Christ. In other words, Peter declares that the power of those who are threatening him is null and void. The leaders are impressed with Peter's confidence, and after debating what to do with them they decide to warn them and let them go. Peter continues in the same bold manner, refusing to agree to stop preaching what he has seen and heard. The council would have dearly loved to imprison or kill these two, but the miracle they had performed was causing a great stir among the people. If they did anything to the Apostles it would create a worse situation, which would draw the intervention of the Roman authorities. Again, it was all about power!
If they killed the Apostles they might forfeit power to the Romans who would have to come in and quell the riots this would cause. If they let them go with a warning they risked losing more power to the Apostles as these men gained popularity with the people. But at least with this second strategy they could buy some time in order to see if they could stop them in some other way.
As we read on we see the Apostles returning to their brethren who receive them with great rejoicing and prayer. This was a tremendous psychological victory for the church. Their most dangerous enemy was the cabal of Jewish priests and political leaders who had conspired with the Roman authorities to falsely convict and then execute Jesus, their leader and Lord. Now, their present leaders had been spirited away in the night and brought to face the same group…but had prevailed! They had even preached the gospel to them! They had boldly denounced their authority and proclaimed Christ as the final authority. All of this, and had lived to tell the story!
The outcome was an outpouring of infectious joy, celebration, and thanksgiving. And they did what Christians do when they are exceedingly glad; they prayed.
And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.
- Acts 4:31
The Bible records what must have been an incredible experience. They prayed, thanking God for sparing their leaders' lives after they had the courage and the boldness to declare that Jesus was the only source of true power and that all leaders are in submission to His power. And they proclaimed this truth to those who had the intent of killing them for saying such a thing, and yet they lived, and the church prayed and thanked and rejoiced. Then, that power of God that the Apostles spoke of to the Jewish leaders, and that power of God that the church was praising and thanking, that power of God physically demonstrated itself, as a reward, as a sign, as a confirmation that their prayers and courage were not in vain.
And at that moment, the boldness that the Apostles spoke with spread to all those who were there. As the word says...
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak to the word of God with boldness.
- Acts 4:31
Now what's interesting about this episode is that when describing the "attitude" that the Apostles had when they began speaking to the Jewish leaders the author uses the word "confidence".
Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.
- Acts 4:13
At the end of the story we have the disciples affected by the Holy Spirit and the Bible says they:
Began to speak the word of God with boldness.
- Acts 4:31b
Both of these are the same word in the Greek. The author uses the same word in verses 13 and 31. The word meant "Freedom", or "confidence", or "freedom to speak" or "boldness". If we continue reading the following chapters we will note that it is from this moment forward that the first leaders in the church appear or are raised up with power.
For example, in Acts 4:32-36 the early church begins to take responsibility for itself and the level of giving dramatically increases with Barnabas' gift and the fact that the church begins to care for the needy (and does not leave them to beg, as was the custom). In Acts 5, we read about the increased activity as the Apostles' ministry of miraculous healing grew. From one simple, isolated case of healing one beggar, to great crowds of sick and lame coming to Peter for healing, much as they had come to Jesus. We see the Apostles arrested again and this time tortured, but being released miraculously from prison as the "power" of the Christ overwhelms the "power" of the leaders' jails and rules. Peter even gets to preach to the leaders once again and this time with more detail and precision about the meaning and results of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this to the ones who were responsible for His death.
The "boldness" continues with the increased number of the members of the church, the selection and deployment of those who would serve in the first "office" of the church, and culminates with the calling of Saul and his "bold" mission to bring the Gentiles the message of the gospel. The point in all of this is that there was a moment in the early history of the church when the "boldness" of the Apostles became the "boldness" of the church, and it was at this point when the growth of the church began to be as much the result of what God did through the church, as what He had been doing through the Apostles.
You see, the ministry of the Apostles is what "jumpstarted" the establishment of the christian church but what we read in Acts 4:31 is actually the moment when the church became spiritually equipped to maintain and fuel its own development. The question for us today is how do we "begin to speak the word of God with boldness", and how do we transfer this boldness/confidence to the next generation. I'd like to suggest several ideas in this regard.
In order to speak with boldness:
1. We Have To Know What Separates Us.
The entire product of the Law of Moses was that it completely defined for the Jews why and how they were different than the nations around them. Knowledge of this Law gave them boldness to be who they were called to be despite intense pressure and threats from surrounding nations. The early church recognized that their unique status was brought about by the incredible events surrounding Jesus' death and resurrection. The Apostles articulated these with their teachings and leadership, and when the church truly embraced these they were given the power of separateness from the religious culture in which they had been born. Every "new" religion derives its power to speak by defining and re-defining its uniqueness in regards to its surroundings.
The early Restoration movement leaders found a voice and distinct identity by separating themselves from the sterile and tradition bound christianity of their day. This separation gave them the power to speak, and for nearly two hundred years there were eager listeners for this message. We speak with less boldness today because we have become more like the things we separated from when we began. This weakness and inability to speak with power continues as we are overtaken in our separateness by those who have a clearer (even if it may be unbiblical) message. This is why Mormonism is the fastest growing religious group within Christianity and not the church of Christ.
To return to boldness, we must not only re-discover and practice what separated us from all others religiously; I believe we must also seek God to know what this generation needs to do in order to find its voice in the modern world. Religious pioneers like Campbell and Stone don't only appear once in history, we are overdue for new leaders who can articulate for the present generation why being a member of the church of Christ matters.
If we want to speak with boldness:
2. We Need To Know The Difference Between Power and Empowerment.
God enabled the Apostles to speak with incredible power because He empowered them to do so. He shared His exclusive power with them. They were sinners, they were ignorant and uneducated, they were inexperienced, but He allowed them to exercise Divine power. And this experience made them bold when they spoke the Word of God. If God acted like many leaders in our churches today (who covet and hoard power/who are unwilling to trust others with power) the christian church would have died when Peter and John were put in jail. But it didn't because the Apostles laid hands on others (Acts 8:14-17) and shared the divine power that had been given them with others that, quite frankly, we wouldn't even allow to lead a prayer let alone entrust a miraculous gift.
A church leader has two great powers:
- He can initiate a prerogative. In other words leaders can create things, programs, missions, ministries. They can resolve issues, settle disputes, and decide if the church goes right or left. With the guidance of the Word and the Spirit leaders can make things happen in the church, or stop other things from taking place because they have the authority to do so.
- He can empower the body. Pleading with the church or threatening the church rarely works. But empowering the church gives it the ability to be bold in speaking the Word. Giving others the power and authority to get things done, to seek new horizons, is the leader's major task. Unfortunately, we have many leaders in church today whose only initiatives are those that will guarantee their position, whose only empowerment is of those who cannot aspire to leadership.
Leaders need to "inspire" their followers and they do this in two ways. One is by making bold decisions that challenge the status quo and demonstrate a complete faith in God. The second is by empowering others to become leaders themselves. We cannot speak boldly until we've experienced power, and we will never know power unless we are entrusted with it by those who have it.
Finally, if we are to speak the word of God with boldness …
3. We Have To Know How Far We Are Willing To Go.
The Apostles were willing to be beaten or jailed. Paul was willing to go even to the despised Gentiles. Jesus was willing to go to the cross. Knowing how far you're willing to go determines the degree of power, boldness, or confidence that you have. Muslim extremists talk big - but are willing to die!
I'm not saying that we, in the churches of Christ, are not willing to sacrifice, not willing to go to extremes to proclaim the gospel. I'm saying that our poor results, our tepid efforts may be due to the fact that we haven't sat down (whether we do it collectively or individually), and we haven't really asked ourselves the question, "How far am I prepared to go for my Lord?"
It's not enough to assume what the answer to that question might be. It doesn't do us any good to simply have a rough idea. We need to ask and answer, "How far am I willing to go to hold on to my faith and to proclaim it to others?"
- Am I willing to give up my secret sin?
- Am I willing to give up my life as I know it and go into full time ministry?
- How far?
Only when we ask and answer this question of ourselves as individuals and churches will we break through the growth barrier that we've been stalled at for the last 50 years. You see, how far we're willing to go will largely determine how far God is able to take us.
The book of Acts tells the story of the beginning and early growth of the church against impossible odds, and just as the book of Romans fueled the Reformation era, The Book of Acts was a key text used in shaping and motivating the amazing development of the Restoration movement and churches of Christ in the last two centuries. I pray fervently that it will serve again in giving us new insight and courage to speak boldly the Word of God in the future.