It’s been some weeks since the last time we were looking at the book of Acts together, so let me try to summarise what we’ve seen already. First of all, the book was written by Luke for this man, Theophilus, and it’s a sequel to Luke’s gospel. Luke’s gospel was all about what the Lord Jesus began to do and to teach right up until his ascension to heaven. The book of Acts is then the sequel, describing what the Lord Jesus continued to do afterwards. And that’s important. This book is all about the Lord Jesus and how, from his throne in heaven, he was working through the Apostles and by his Spirit to build his church here on earth. So, while the normal title of this book is the Acts of the Apostles, and while some Christians have suggested it should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, we could argue that it ought to be called the Acts of the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus. The focus remains on him and in what he was doing through his Apostles and by his Spirit.
In chapter 1 we read how the Lord ascended to heaven, and angels announced that one day he will return. The Apostles then selected someone to replace Judas Iscariot to bring the number of Apostles back up to 12. And the task of the Apostles is to bear witness to the Lord Jesus: that he died, but that he rose again afterwards. That was the work they were called to do. And so, chapter 1 ended with the appointment of Matthias.
Chapters 2 and 3 follow the same pattern. First of all, something remarkable happened. In chapter 2, it’s the way the Holy Spirit came down on them on the Day of Pentecost and enableed the believers in Jerusalem to speak in foreign languages. In chapter 3, it was the healing of a lame man. Then, in both chapters, a crowd gathered to see this remarkable thing that has happened. And then, in both chapters, Peter stood up to explain to the crowd what had happened. And, having explained what had happened, he goes on to teach the people about faith in Christ. And so, in chapter 2, once the crowd had gathered on the Day of Pentecost, Peter explained to them that the Lord Jesus had poured out his Spirit in fulfilment of the promise in Joel 2. And this demonstrates that the Lord Jesus is risen and ascended. And therefore, you ought to repent of your sins and to be baptised in his name. And, in chapter 3, once the crowd had gathered to see the lame man who had been healed, Peter explained that the man had been healed in the name of the Lord Jesus. You rejected him. But God has exalted him. And therefore you ought to repent and turn back to God.
A dark cloud descends in chapter 4. The religious authorities are greatly disturbed because the Apostles are teaching the people about the Lord Jesus. And so they had Peter and John seized and imprisoned. And the next day, the Sanhedrin assembled to question Peter and John about what they had done. And Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke to them plainly about the Lord Jesus. You crucified him. But God raised him. And in his name, this man was healed. And, Peter adds, salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
Verses 13 to 22
That’s where we got to before Christmas. In verse 13 Luke tells us that the members of the Sanhedrin noticed Peter and John’s courage. They were struck by their boldness and confidence and fearlessness. They weren’t intimidated by the Sanhedrin and they weren’t afraid to speak up about the Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s remarkable, because not long before this Peter had been intimidated and he had been fearful and he’d crumbled before a slave girl who happened to ask him if he knew the Lord Jesus. And three times he denied knowing the Lord Jesus. But here he is now, in front of the Sanhedrin, the same court which condemned the Lord Jesus to death, and he’s not afraid. What’s the reason for the change in him? What accounts for the difference in him? Well, the explanation must be found in what Luke says in verse 8: Peter was now filled with the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus has sent his Spirit to help him to speak up without being afraid. And isn’t that just what the Lord had promised to do for them? Listen to what the Lord said to them in Luke 12:
And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.
The Lord warned them that this would happen. But he also promised them that his Spirit would help them. And the Lord Jesus continues to give us his Spirit to help his people to bear witness to the truth about the Lord Jesus and how he died for our sins, but rose again, and is coming back one day.
So, they noticed their courage. They also noticed that Peter and John were unschooled, ordinary men. This merely means they were lay men and not trained clergy. The Pharisees and scribes, for instance, were schooled in biblical interpretation and in the rabbinic tradition. Paul, in Acts 22, refers to how he had been trained at the feet of Gamaliel, who was a well-known teacher of the law. So, unlike other teachers, they hadn’t been to one of the normal theological colleges. But they had been with the Lord Jesus. And that’s the next thing they noted, and presumably the point is that the Lord Jesus had instructed them and had shared with them something of his wisdom and insight into the meaning of the Scriptures and how they spoke of him. After all, Peter has just quoted from Psalm 118 to say that the Lord Jesus is the stone the people have rejected, but who had risen to become the most important part of the building. And that’s precisely the same way the Lord Jesus interpreted that Psalm in Luke 20 when he told the parable of the wicked tenants who killed the landowner’s son. He knew the people would reject him and kill him. And he knew that Psalm 118 was all about him. And he taught Peter and John the same things. Peter and John, though they hadn’t been to college, had been with the Master and they had learned from him.
The Sanhedrin noted their boldness; they noted they had been educated in one of the normal training schools; they noted they had been with the Lord Jesus. And they also noted that the lame man was standing there, standing there! And there was no denying that he was now healed. They couldn’t deny it. I was talking to someone recently who was telling me about Christians who thought they had been healed, but who clearly hadn’t. They thought they could get rid of their glasses, but they couldn’t. They thought they could throw away their medicine, but they couldn’t. But there was no doubting that this man had been healed.
So, what could they do? Well, they asked Peter and John to withdraw while they conferred together. Verse 16:
What are we going to do with these men? Everyone knows what has happened and we can’t deny it.
The NIV actually obscures what they said and it obscures their guilt, because what they really said was that it’s clear to everyone that a notable sign has happened. That is, the healing of the lame man was a sign. And a sign always points to something. And this sign pointed to the truth of the Lord’s resurrection, because the man had been healed by the power of the Risen Lord Jesus. But the members of the Sanhedrin weren’t prepared to accept what the sign was clearly pointing to. And so we should note their stubborn unbelief. They couldn’t deny that a miracle had taken place. They couldn’t deny it had to do with the Lord Jesus. But they weren’t prepared to believe what Peter was telling them about the Lord Jesus. Well, this also shows us that miracles by themselves are not enough to convince people to believe. People say that they would believe, if only God would do something.
I’ll believe, if only God demonstrates that he’s real.
I’ll believe, if only God will make himself known to me.
Give me a sign, and I’ll believe.
And Christians sometimes pray that God will perform great signs and wonders in our day in order to convince men and women to believe.
If only God did today what he did in those days, then thousands would be convinced and converted and added to the church.
But what do we have here? People are given a sign. But they still refuse to believe. Signs by themselves will not convince anyone. No, it takes the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven, to convince men and women and boys and girls to believe in the Saviour, which is why we must continue to pray for God to work by his Spirit to convince and convert people to faith in Christ.
So, the members of the Sanhedrin would not believe. And they don’t want anyone else to believe in the Saviour. So they order Peter and John to stop speaking about him. Well, Peter and John’s reply is simple:
We can’t stop speaking about the Saviour.
They can’t stop, because the Lord Jesus has commanded them to be his witnesses. To stop would be to disobey him. And they can’t stop, because, they say in verse 20, they just can’t help it. Think of what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5 about the love of Christ compelling them to preach. Something inside is compelling them. Or think of what happened when you shake a fizzy drink in a bottle and then take off the cap. And it just shoots out. They can’t keep the message in. It has to come out. And nothing will stop them, no matter what the cost.
What can the Sanhedrin do? Verse 21: they can’t punish them because the people were on their side. So, all they can do is make some threats and send them away. And Luke adds the final detail that the lame man, who had been lame from birth, was over 40 years old. Lame for over 40 years, but healed in an instant.
Verses 23 to 31
The next section is a marvellous encouragement to us when we pray. Peter and John leave the Sanhedrin and they go and join the other believers. And they report what’s happened and the threats that have been made. And, what’s their response? It’s not despair. It’s faith and prayer. You see, because they believe in God and his mighty power and in his willingness to help them, they turn to him in prayer. And look how they pray.
First of all, they focus on who God is. He’s the Sovereign Lord. In other words, he’s the King who rules over all. The Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes are not in charge. They’re not the rulers. God is. And he made the heavens and the earth and the sea. And everything in them. He made all things and he therefore he rules over all things.
And isn’t that what we need to do when we begin to pray? Instead of beginning with our requests, and our concerns, instead of focussing first on whatever problems we have, we should first stop and focus our thoughts on God and his sovereignty and his power. In order to encourage ourselves and to strengthen our faith we should remember that there is nothing too hard for our God and there is nothing beyond his control.
Isn’t that how the Lord’s Prayer begins? We say:
Our Father in heaven….
Since he’s our Father, we know we can come to him and we’re encourage to bring our requests to him. But since he’s in heaven, we know that he’s mighty and rules over all things and he’s able to help. So, the Apostles, when they prayed, reminded themselves who God is.
And then they reminded themselves of what he had already said. They quote from Psalm 2. And notice once again, as an aside, how they understand the Scriptures: David wrote it. But he wrote what he wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that what David wrote was God’s word to us. And in that Psalm, God spoke of the nations gathering together to oppose the Lord and his Anointed One, by which is meant the Lord Jesus Christ. So, long before Herod and Pilate and the Jews and the Gentiles joined together to crucify the Lord Jesus, God had announced that it would happen. And the reason God knew it would happen is because it was all planned out by God. Look at verse 27: They conspired against the Lord Jesus. And then verse 28: They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Well now, once again, the nations were standing in opposition to the Lord Jesus and his servants, the Apostles. Before, when they crucified the Lord, they didn’t succeed, because the Lord rose from the dead. And so now they pray that they will not succeed again:
Once you raised the Lord Jesus by your mighty power. Now help us by your mighty power.
And what do they ask for? Relief from their enemies? For their enemies to be removed? No, they pray for boldness to carry on preaching despite the opposition. There will always be those who oppose the Lord Jesus and the preaching of his gospel. Preaching will never be easy. Evangelism will always be hard. Trouble will always come.
But help us to persevere and not to give up, and to keep preaching the good news.
They ask for help to preach. And they ask God to perform signs through the name of Christ. And almost immediately, the place is shaken. They’re filled once more with the Holy Spirit, who is all they need to help them. And they were able to preach with boldness. God had heard and answered their prayer. And so, the church of Jesus Christ continued to grow.
Verses 32 to 37
Let me rush on to the next section which is how I want to link this with the Lord’s Supper. Luke tells us once again what it was like in those days. They were one in heart and mind. And so they were prepared to help one another in practical and costly ways, sharing what they had with one another. When necessary, those with property sold some of what they had and shared the proceeds with the rest. And Joseph, or Barnabas, is one person who did precisely that.
Now, later we’ll read about churches meeting in people’s houses, so we mustn’t think that every believer sold everything they owned. Private property was not forbidden. But, they loved and cared for one another so much that they were prepared to share what they had with one another.
What has this to do with the Lord’s Supper? Well, at the Supper we’re reminded once more in a visible way of how much the Lord Jesus loved each one of us and what he gave up for us and our salvation. He loved us so much that he was prepared to give up his life for us so that we might have the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life. And since Christ has loved us, then we ought to love one another. Listen to how Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
How has Christ loved us? He gave himself up for us. And how should we love one another? Well, here in Acts 4 we see how the early believers loved one another. And they loved one another so much that they were prepared to give up what they had in order to help those who had nothing. That’s how we’re to love one another.
Our church’s Larger Catechism asks: ‘How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?’ And this is the answer:
They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and needs, of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance, love to God and the brethren….
So, think about this. Have there been occasions since we last celebrated the Lord’s Supper when you had the opportunity to do good to your fellow Christians, but you didn’t take the opportunity to do so? There was something someone needed from you, but you turned them down? Someone needed your help, but you didn’t give it? Instead of loving them as Christ loved us, you acted selfishly? Well, if that’s the case, then before you come to the Lord’s Table, you ought to seek God’s forgiveness for your lack of love; and you ought to give thanks to God for the greatness of Christ’s love to you that he was prepared to die to pay for your sins; and you should seek the help of his Spirit to renew you throughout in Christ’s image so that you can love others as he has loved you.