Persecution and Preaching

Persecution and Preaching

Persecution rides on the wings of the clear proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel makes such an offense that whenever this Gospel is told clearly, boldly, and publicly persecution against the Message stands never far away. This makes the work of the church difficult because the church’s primary objective in this realm is to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ boldly and broadly, so the church’s history is littered with threats, beatings, imprisonments, and even deaths for Jesus’ sake.
I have been reading the biography of an early 19th Century Welch preacher by the name of Christmas Evans. In that book, a description from that time of the religious authority’s response to the public preaching of Jesus Christ is given. This is written in the mid-1700’s, about the mid-1700’s. Listen to what this author writes: “The inoffensive worshippers were abused most mercilessly. Pelted with stones, wounded with swords and knives, shot at, men and women were stripped naked in the presence of the crowd. Able-bodied men were pressed for the army or navy and driven away from their families and friends like cattle to different parts of England.” You can imagine to going to church in such a setting.

As you examine the long history of the church that is faithful to the Gospel, you discover how rare it is for believers to gather together around the Word of God in safety and security. We live in a very privileged era and we ought not to forget it. Throughout much of the world the church still suffers for her love of this Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the county of Columbia, 400 churches have been closed and over 100 pastors have been killed in the last seven years all because the gorillas hate the Gospel message so. Believers in Columbia live in daily fear for their lives; there is a very real threat to the brothers and sisters in the faith.

On July 18, 2004, during a Sunday evening church service in Paolo, Indonesia, radical Muslims burst through the door and started firing automatic weapons at the 300 people who had gathered to worship that evening. Pastor Cesianta Tululua was shot in the head and instantly died. He was twenty-nine years old. Two girls in attendance, 17 year old, Desiriani Tikendi, and her friend, Listiani Empo, were frightened when the shots began. They tried to escape through the church’s back door which was located to the right of the pulpit. However, two gunmen shot the girls at close range as they tried to get away. Desiriani clasped her Bible tightly in her hands and in terror brought it up to her face for protection. A bullet penetrated the Bible and then through her left eye and this covered her Bible in blood. She was in a coma. Fortunately, the Voice of the Martyrs missions organization was there to help medically. Though she is blind in her left eye and badly scared, she is alive and today she is seeking to forgive her attackers. She wants of love for those who did this to her.

These brothers and sisters of ours teach us about the preciousness of the Gospel itself; that the Gospel is worth such a price. They teach us of the high cost of following Jesus; that we are called to be willing and to be ready to bear suffering for the name of Jesus. That is who we are. That is the identity of Jesus’ church. In our study of the Book of Acts, we observe the first round of attacks against the church in Acts 4. Peter and John were jailed in Acts 4 and they were told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and yet they went on in Verse 12 by bolding proclaiming that “salvation is found in no one else for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”. Though the religious leaders were astonished at the boldness, they none-the-less pressed harder and harder against them.

In Acts 5, round two of the persecution begins and this time the persecution broadens. It is not only Peter and John who are jailed, but it is the whole of the apostles, all twelve of them, and this persecution begins to intensify.

It is interesting, in the year 1888, Charles Spurgeon writes these words of this passage: “The second persecution of the church in which all of the apostles were put into the common prison was mainly brought about by the sect of the Sadducees. These, as you know, were the broad school, the liberals, the advanced thinkers, the modern-thought people of the day. If you want a bitter sneer, a biting sarcasm, or a cruel action, I commend you to these large-minded gentlemen. They are liberal to everybody except to those who hold the Truth, and to those they have a reserve of concentrated bitterness which far exceeds wormwood and gall. They are so liberal to their brother errorists, that they have no tolerance to spare for the evangelicals.” That is in 1888 and it is interesting, isn’t it, how times, in many ways, do not change.

In Acts 5:17-42, God teaches us that if we boldly proclaim the Gospel we will be hated and opposed by this world. This study examines the relationship between the proclamation of the Gospel and the persecution of the church, and there is a direct relationship. There are two principles that specifically emerge as we observe this relationship. This first principle is simply, this: proclamation invites persecution. The second principle we will observe is that persecution advances proclamation.

As we study the first point, proclamation invites persecution. In Acts 4:29, we read that the apostles’ response to the threats and to the imprisonment was a prayer:

Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.

They understood that their proclamation was what caused the persecution, and in Verse 31 we see an answer to that prayer:

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

They spoke the Word of God broadly. If the apostles would have just kept quiet, or at least been less bold and more private in their faith, they would have been left alone. They would not have been imprisoned. They would have not have been harmed and beaten with thirty-nine lashes, but these men, in this church, refused to quiet themselves. The first question we need to ask, as we observe this principle is: why didn’t the apostles quiet down just a little bit? This does not seem to us, in our day, to be an unreasonable request. The Sadducees probably would not have minded if these apostles spoke of Jesus in their closed meetings and in their private upper rooms. They resented them going into the synagogues and temple courts and the public streets. They did have some legitimate security fears. They feared that these apostles would stir up the crowd so that they would become a mob and riot and this would have caused Rome to remove much of the freedom that she had given to that Jewish culture in Israel. Couldn’t these Christians have at least compromised a little bit? That does not seem so unreasonable to ask. The answer to that question is, no, they could not have compromised one little bit. They couldn’t and they did not, for God had given them a clear mandate. In Acts 1:8, God said:

“…will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That is God’s mandate – go into all the world and preach the Gospel. This proclamation of this message was a matter of obedience to God. That is why Peter will respond in Acts 5:27-29 in this way:

27Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!

For them, the proclamation of the Gospel was not a whim. The proclamation of the Gospel was a sacred charge. The apostles didn’t view this call to proclaim the Gospel as some reluctant obligation that they had to do because they were commanded to do it. They gladly received this command and they joyfully proclaimed the message because they knew what this message about Jesus Christ did for them; they knew the reality of the resurrected Lord in their life, and so they gladly proclaimed this very vital message. At the same time, they understood that is was not their right to go against secular authority simply because they wanted to do something. It was the command of God that authorized them to stand up in the face of the religious authorities and in the face of Rome herself, later, to proclaim the Gospel for Jesus and authorized their witness, and so He does today. Even though they knew that proclamation invited persecution they resolved to continue.

Please understand, God commands you, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, to proclaim this message faithfully and fully. I urge you, let us obey God and let us not be intimidated by this world and let us not cower in fear, but let us proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the joy that it brings to our hearts and to those who would hear it and receive it.

Another question that we have to ask, as we observe this principle that proclamation invites persecution, is: why does proclaiming the Gospel invite persecution? They are mere words. Why does this invite such a strong response from people of this world?

There are two reasons that we can observe. The first is that this world is jealous of Jesus. That clearly was a problem with the Sadducees, was it not? We see that as we look at Verse 17:

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.

Why were the Sadducees so jealous of Jesus and of this message? They were jealous of Jesus’ power. They were jealous of the loyalty that Jesus accumulated amongst His followers. They were jealous of the adoration that was given Him by His followers. These religious leaders wanted to be considered as “the authority” on life and on God and they wanted everyone to look to them for the answers on life and the answers to the most important questions that man faces. They were filled with jealously that people stopped coming to them because they had no answers and the people started going to Jesus and this sect of untrained and uneducated guys. Today, this world still hates the Gospel to be proclaimed because they are jealous that Jesus controls the hearts of men and women. They are jealous that Jesus is getting all the attention of these souls and that if people believe Jesus, and that they believe this Gospel, then this world and all of its power sources, its education and its politics, loses the ability to tell people what to think, what to value, and how to behave. They can’t stand that because they recognize that those who come to Jesus are completely transformed and that Jesus is the One the followers of Christ, Christians, listen to regardless of what the institutions of the day or the nations of the day may say and assert. So, the Gospel brings such a strong response.

Proclaiming the Gospel is to proclaim a message that is so deeply offensive to the heart of natural man and is so deeply offensive to the heart that rejects this message. To the heart that is hard to God, this Gospel could not be worse.

There is much about this Gospel that is pleasing and that is pleasant to any person. For instance, this Gospel tells us of a God who loves us. This is great news for any person. This Gospel tells us of a Jesus that is a Savior and is willing to save anyone and is willing to forgive every person. This Gospel tells us that there is a heaven and that heaven is available to all, but this is not the whole story of the Gospel.

This Gospel of Jesus indicts every human heart as exceedingly wicked and deceitful. This Gospel indicts your soul and my soul as deserving of the eternal wrath of God Himself. This Gospel tells us that Jesus is “the way”, in fact, the only way, to God and no other religion, no other faith, and no other name can possibly save a person and possibly give a person hope and heaven. This Gospel tells us that we must be saved and if we do not repent and believe in Jesus we will die in our sins and we will be eternally condemned by God and that is forever, and ever, and ever. This Gospel tells us that this Jesus, uniquely raised from the dead, is uniquely King of kings and Lord of lords. This Gospel tells us that the greatest sin is the rejection of Jesus. That is why these religious leaders were so mad and so upset. Look at what they say in Verse 28:

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Why were they so strongly opposed to the Gospel? The Gospel made them guilty of the blood of Jesus Christ. Remember at the crucifixion of Jesus these very same people, when Pilot said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” and he washed his hands in the laver, and he said, “It is your responsibility,” what did these very people say? They said, as Matthew records, in Matthew 27:25,

“Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

They didn’t care and they were willing to take the guilt for it. Now, in Acts, that it is pressed home and pressed publicly, they countered, “That was not our responsibility. Why are you laying the guilt at our door?”

The truth of the matter is that, today, we still bear the guilt of the blood of Jesus because we are just like these Jewish rulers. We set our face against His Lordship because we want an independent rule; we want to be able to make our decisions in our own lives. If Jesus were here, physically, today, let us not be deceived. We would have the exact same response towards Him and every time we turn our backs on Him and turn away from Him and refuse to submit our lives to Him, we are repudiating His rule and we are guilty of His blood. That is the Gospel message.

There has never been a period in the history of the world when the majority of the world would accept these things. If we preach a Gospel that does not offend the heart of the natural man then we are not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is just that simple because this Gospel always invites persecution. This is why Paul will tell Timothy (2 Timothy 3:12),

“Indeed, all who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

The idea is this: if you desire to live a Godly life you will proclaim the message of Jesus Christ and if you proclaim the message of Jesus Christ, you will be persecuted. It is impossible to live a Godly life and not proclaim the Gospel message. Evangelism is not, first and foremost, a matter of one’s personal security or one’s ability to speak or a matter of their fears overcoming their decisions. Evangelism is, first and foremost, a matter of Godliness. If you are not proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Scripture tells us that you are not living a Godly life, a God-like life. What does God do? God proclaims His message. He is not ashamed of His Son. He proclaims it broadly. Evangelism is, first and foremost, an issue of Godliness within the church.

Do you desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus? I know that many hearts will say, “Yes, I do desire to live a Godly life.” You need the grace of God to live a Godly life and you have to put on the full armor of God everyday. It is possible for you to live a Godly life, but understand, as you do so, that the assumption for the Christian is that hard times will come in your life because of the Gospel. You cannot expect that this some unusual thing, but this will be a normal thing for the Christian.

Tertullian, an early Christian, addressing the rulers of the Roman Empire, cried out, “Kill us! Torture us! Condemn us! Grind us to dust! The more you mow us down the more we grow. The seed is the blood of the Christians.”

This leads us to the second principle: persecution advances proclamation. “The seed is the blood of the Christians,” Tertullian said. In other words, the more persecution the church faces the more emboldened she becomes, the more convicted she becomes, the more committed she becomes, and the greater the platform she has to tell the Truth.

In Acts 5:18, we read,

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.

Here it is all of the apostles because the persecution is growing in its breadth. Then in Verse 19,

But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.

There is rich irony here because the Sadducees were the ones who were initiating this persecution. The Sadducees were the ones who rejected the existence of angels. That was one of their tenets in their doctrine so they put the apostles in prison, and we can only imagine God looking down upon the Sadducees and saying, “I think I will mess with their heads now.” God could have released the apostles anyway He chose. He didn’t need to send an angel, but He chose to just to mess with them. We see that He does this constantly through the Book of Acts. He sends an angel who opens the doors, and this is miraculous because the doors were still shut and the guards were still there, but they all got outside of the prison, and then the angel gives the apostles this message (Verse 20):

“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

The angel wanted this message to be made public; “Yes, you were arrested in the temple courts, but go back, take the fight to them. Don’t shy away and don’t back away. Go right to the temple courts.”

The New King James Version of the last part of this verse reads, “Tell all the words…”

The angel encourages them not to let the persecution silence their witness. Their encouragement is that God can deliver His own people anytime and anyplace and the angel is there to reveal that.

In Verse 21, we read that at daybreak they wasted no time, they didn’t delay in their obedience, and went out into the temple courts and began proclaiming this message. If there ever was a time that I would be tempted to sleep in it would be the day that God told me to go back to the place where I was arrested. Please understand, beloved, delay is the death of obedience to Christ. I wonder how many of us have had the kind attention to tell our brothers and sisters, or our moms and dads, or our neighbors and coworkers, or some friend about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We decide that we are going to do it but we just delay. We haven’t gotten up at daybreak, or we say that we will do it tomorrow or next week, which may be a better opportunity, or next month. We find that it is possible to go all of our lives delaying, delaying, delaying and never deliver the Message.

These disciples heard: “Go to the temple courts. Tell the whole message,” and at day break they got up and said, “Okay, we are going to do it.” Let us follow their example and we will receive their joy.

We come now to a humorous part of this section. The high priests think that they have really taught the apostles a lesson and they send someone to the jail to bring them to the temple and they are going to give the apostles a talking to. When they arrive at the jail, they find that they are not there, so the word gets back that no one knows where the apostles have gone and they are wondering what will become of all of this. Then someone comes along, as they are wondering what happened to the apostles, and in Verse 25, we read:

“Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.”

The apostles are right back where they began! Then in Verse 28 and 29,

27Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Their teaching was “filling Jerusalem” the text says. Everyone is becoming curious about what it is these apostles are saying because the authorities, obviously, don’t like them and they have put them into prison. Persecution advances proclamation. The apostles understood that they were God’s ambassadors, not God’s diplomats. An ambassador is given the responsibility to proclaim the message that he was given clearly. A diplomat is given the responsibility to try and iron out the wrinkles and settle any conflict. These apostles were not given the responsibility to be diplomats in this world, because the world in its natural state is in enmity, it is at war with God. There is no diplomacy. Rather they are to be ambassadors, telling the truth. That is the reason why the apostle Paul would say, in 2 Corinthians 5:20,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Persecution is not to be a sign that the apostles needed to change their message and methods for ministry. In fact, the angel was very explicit in his instructions in Verse 20:

“Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

This is to say that this message is something fuzzy, vague, or philosophical. It is not something carelessly defined by God. It is objective Truth; Truth put into words, words put into sentences. These words did not come as a result of the apostles’ healthy imaginations or deep musings. This message is given to them by God Himself. This is the reason why the apostle Paul will say, “This message has come to us by revelation from God. It has been made known to us, this mystery. This mystery was previously unknown; it was covered up, but now we are stewards of the mystery that God has given to us.”

We have no rights to make changes in this message. We have no rights to dilute it, to alter it, to soften it, or to mute parts of it. The angel said, “Deliver all the words! Leave none of them out.”
Beloved, there is nothing wrong with this Gospel message. This Gospel message is not filled with superficial fluff that would allow it to have the same identity. This Gospel message is filled with truth from first to last, and everything is essential that is in it, otherwise God would not have put it there.

It is dangerous to leave out any of the truth about Jesus, His person, His deity, His substitutionary death, His resurrection from the dead, and He soon and coming return. The failure of the heart of man to meet the divine standards of God, the reality of an eternal Hell, the call of God for repentance in faith, all of these things are absolutely essential if we are to proclaim faithfully the Gospel message.

I believe that the modern, evangelical church needs to hear the voice of this angel more now than ever before. Why? I believe there are three reasons. First, the modern church grows bashful about the name of Jesus. This message is Jesus. It is about Jesus. It centers on Jesus, and yet we have grown very comfortable, even as believers in talking in terms of deity and God and Creator, but Jesus sticks in the teeth like caramel. It is hard to get it out in public. We hardly ever hear the name of Jesus except as a curse word, and believers have even backed off from even using it.

I remember, four years ago, Franklin Graham received much criticism for praying in Jesus’ name at George Bush’s inauguration. I listened very intently about the prayers this year. The first guy prayed a wonderful prayer but there was no name of Jesus mentioned. The second guy did pray in Jesus’ name, but he had a little caveat respecting the persons of all faith. I have no problem with that specifically, although many people say, “respecting all faiths”, as thought Jesus Christ is One who set aside other gods. Now we respect people and we love people who are deceived by false gods, but Jesus says, “They are false gods and there is no respect for false gods in the Gospel.” That is why the Gospel is so offensive. We are reluctant, aren’t we? You know that. Use the name of Jesus in your workplace by saying, “I thank Jesus Christ for this good day and for this food”. We need to hear this angel’s encouragement to tell all the words of life because we have grown bashful over the name of Jesus.

Also, we need to hear this angle’s words because we have become embarrassed by biblical doctrines; the depravity of man, the reality of an eternal Hell, the atonement of the cross. I am told by many of my friends in ministry that we need to shape our methods and our message to suit the needs of today’s complex, post-modern person. I am told by evangelical friends that we need to tell stories, not specific facts. We need to talk about a relationship with the living Jesus and not get hung up on doctrine or theology.

All of this, understand, is fancy talk for saying that we need to tone down the truth concerning the meaning and the necessity of the cross of Jesus Christ; to tell the story of Jesus’ death, but don’t get too specific, is the Christian, modern, evangelical methodology. Don’t’ get too specific as to why Jesus died. There is not need to go into the wrath of God against all unrighteousness. There is no need to elaborate on the threat of eternal judgment or the need to turn from idols, to repent of sin, to believe in Jesus exclusively. There is no need to get into the great doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Pastors are urged to just tell stories and be relevant. This is what the post-modern mind understands. There is no sense in giving them Truth that they would not understand, so don’t give it.

In the midst of all this confusion, God sent His angel, His messenger, and this angel says, “Tell all the words of this message of life. Don’t just tell 80% or 90% of the words. That is being unfaithful.” Today, the “Amputated Bible” is the translation of choice in the evangelical church. I believe this threat, the lure of telling most of the words but not all of the words, is the greatest threat to the modern, evangelical church. There is no spiritual power in an amputated bible and an amputated message.

Peter didn’t cut his message either as we look at Verses 29 through 33:

29Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! 30The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. 32We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

As an aside, young people who love God’s Word ought to be outraged by the way forty-, fifty-, and sixty-year old spiritual leaders are treating you. In their foolishness, and arrogance, they have decided that you cannot handle the whole Truth, so they offer you a “Christianity-lite”: tastes great/ less filling. “You have no taste for the Truth so we are not going to give it to you,” they say. “We are going to tell you stories and we are going to make church ‘interesting’ for you,” as though you are children and not young adults. Young people who love God and who love God’s Word, you ought to be outraged by these spiritual leaders who act as though you have not the spirit of the living God living inside of you, creating a love and a thirst for the Truth of God, the whole Truth of God, and all the Truth of God. Don’t let them get away with it.

The third reason: the modern church is embarrassed by exclusivism. It is not popular to teach that Jesus is the Way, the Only Way, the One Way. Inclusivism teaches us that the way to heaven is broad and only a few don’t find it. There are only a few really, really bad people, the Hitler’s, the Saddam Hussein’s of this world, that don’t find the Way, but the way is broad and when Jesus and the Gospel message says that it is just the opposite, that the Way is narrow that leads to life and there will be only a few who find it. The invitation is open to everyone. The invitation is inclusive; it says, “Whosoever will, may come. No one needs to be left out of this Way that Jesus has offered. But, there is a Way.”

John McArthur writes: “If the Gospel we preach is not convicting enough to make some men angry, it is convicting enough to bring salvation?” That is a great question, isn’t it?

At the end of this story, we read of the apostle’s response. They are beaten and flogged, Verse 40 says; that is to say that they are given thirty-nine stripes, a horrible, horrible punishment. Then they are ordered not to speak anymore in the name of Jesus. Verse 41 says,

41The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

Physically, you can imagine their condition, that their flesh is laid open, they are bleeding, they are so weaken undoubtedly by the condition that they are left in as a result of this beating that brings a person near to the point of death, such is the horror of the beating, and yet the apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

May these apostle’s faith be ours and may the Grace of God that is at work in these men’s and women’s lives in this 1st Century, and in the 2nd and 3rd and on throughout church history, find a place here, today in Peoria Illinois. May this faith and may this Grace find a place in your heart and in mine.