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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Missing the Point


“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus." Acts 4:13

My plan this morning is to continue to consider the events described in Acts 4. We are presented with two opposing points of view on one particular subject. What is that subject?

We are two weeks away from what we call Easter Sunday. Generally, it is a time of holiday in our culture. Some of us get the previous Friday and following Monday off work as ‘Bank Holidays’. The word holiday is derived from two words – ‘holy’ and ‘day’. Holidays have their origin in times of religious celebration. In our society this has altered considerably over the years. But, still, some Christian churches place a great deal of importance on particular observances during this time of Easter, and at other points in the year as well. Some Christians place less importance on particular calendar days. So, who is correct? What should we do? We should read Romans 14:5-6! Both options, even something in between, is acceptable, if, in faith, we are ‘fully convinced in (our) own mind’ and do, what we do, ‘to the Lord’.

Wherever we sit on this matter, we know that Easter has its origin in the Bible’s accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, outside of the city walls of Jerusalem, and the subsequent supernatural event where he rose again from the dead. Christians, with their love of big words, call this ‘the resurrection’. This is the subject of Acts 4. So, if anyone asks you what the subject of today’s message at church was, you can tell them that it was the resurrection, and they will know that you had a good lead-up-to-Easter message!

In Acts 3 & 4, Peter and John have been telling the crowds about the resurrection, and the implication of that for mankind. They are now opposed by a particular group of religious people, called the Sadducees, who believe that there is no rising again from the dead. They held a very materialistic world-view. They thought that if you obeyed God’s Old Testament rules then he would bless your lives with success – end of. When you died – end of. That was it, according to them. So, when these two disciples of Jesus were teaching that Jesus had risen from the dead and that, by believing in him, people could rise to eternal life when their earthly existence ended, they got very cross indeed. This message undermined their theology. It undermined their position of religious and cultural authority. It undermined them, and their inability to even consider the truth that they were being presented with, was rooted in self-interest and self-preservation. How do they react? Like men do generally in such situations. They attempt to swing the odds of success in this debate in their favour, by fair means or foul – with the emphasis on foul.

This is important for us to understand. I know this account well. I know that, ultimately, Peter and John do well in this encounter and, coupled with my own privileged background and advantage in life, in a society where, for me, the rule of law functions relatively well, it is easy to have skewed vision. We need to get our minds back to the streets of Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, where the mob could rule; where it had, just a short time before, when Peter and John’s Master had been cruelly and unjustly put to death. We need to understand the power that the religious authorities held over Israelite society. If they black-listed you, your life could really suffer. Yes, in those dusty streets, at that time, you would have sensed the smells and sounds of collective human existence; bread being baked, soup being simmered, the smell of ale from the taverns, dogs barking and horses hooves clipperty-clopping, calls and conversations at various volume. But mingled with this would have been the smell of sweat, and cries, from slaves, under Roman rule, forced into arduous work. And the odour of corruption and threat of malice would have been palpable. It is present in this account. This was a place where the rule of law played second fiddle to the rule of power and position and wealth.

Who turns up to an open debate, where the goal of all parties is to get closer to the truth through discussion, with armed guards? No-one does. But that is how these Sadducees behave. They turn up with the priests, whose presence would have been imposing, and the temple guards. They did not want debate. They wanted debate stifled. Peter and John are ‘seized’ and thrown ‘in jail’ overnight. This isn’t a, ‘would you be good enough to accompany us down to the station please, we’ve a couple of questions that we need to ask you to help us with our enquiries’, type of scenario. This was meant to intimidate. They were given the hours of darkness to realise the implication of the situation that they were in. The message is loud and clear. Truth is irrelevant here. Power is everything, and we hold the power.

This understanding is crucial, as we get to the following morning. If you watch fly-on-the-wall police programmes, on TV, you’ll have seen it often. Someone under the influence of alcohol is dragged into the station, all loud and proud, needing six officers to get them into the cell. In the morning this has been replaced by shame. ‘Dutch courage’ has passed through their bodies and the light of dawn has brought the cold light of reality. The Sadducees expect the same. They expect Peter and John to be suitably subdued, their religious fervour and passion washed away with their morning ablution. That’s why they are so confident to ask them the question in verse 7, ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’ It would be impossible to read verses 1 & 2 and not realise that these men knew the answer to this question already. They just want a different answer. They are expecting a different answer. They hold the power - except they don’t. Peter and John have the power. It was given to them by their risen Master, Jesus Christ.

In Acts 1:8-9, Luke records some final words of Jesus before ‘he was taken up before (the) very eyes’, of his followers, into heaven’s glory. He left them with a task, that his followers must continue with; a task of witness to Jesus himself. The first part of that task, was that this witness must take place, specifically, ‘in Jerusalem’. How were they going to do this on their own? They weren’t. Jesus said, ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and (then) you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem (etcetera…)’.

Now, Peter stands to speak. What inherent power did Peter have in this situation? None. This is the man who had recently crumbled under questioning by a slave girl. Now, he is given a very similar task. He is being called to speak up for Jesus. Six words, in Acts 4:8, spell out the difference between then and now – ‘Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit…’ Power! What awesome power is this? And there is more from the Bible’s record that feeds into this event, that is good for us to consider. In reality, this scene is not just playing out in Jerusalem, but in heaven itself.

In Luke 12, Jesus warned his followers about the hardships that following him could involve. He told them not to fear authority, even when the threat of death, or martyrdom, was near but, rather, to fear, or give reverence and credence to, the ultimate authority, God himself. Men may treat you harshly; cast you out of sight and quickly out of their minds, but you won’t be ‘forgotten by God’. In Luke 12:8, there is a statement of cosmic proportions. ‘I tell you’, said Jesus, ‘whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, (I) will also acknowledge before the angels of God’. Then Jesus says this - ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say’ (Luke 12:11-12). This is what happens in Acts 4.

Peter is respectful in his address. This new-found power doesn’t mean that he dismisses societal standing and office. ‘Rulers and elders of the people’, he says. He doesn’t seek to undermine their authority, but neither does he dilute the truth. In effect, his message is that, in this ‘tug of war’, you are not pulling with God, like you think you are, you are pulling in the opposite direction. The resurrection of Jesus is at the centre of this. You are pulling one way – ‘you crucified’ Jesus, and you want him to remain dead and buried. God is pulling the other way – ‘God raised (him) from the dead’ (v.10).

Much to the astonishment of his audience, Peter bases his argument on common ground. He turns to Old Testament scripture. The Sadducees had seriously misjudged these men. They saw them as ‘unschooled, ordinary men’ (v.13). They had little or no education. But, not only had they underestimated Peter’s power, they had underestimated his schooling too.

I have three nieces who spent very few years at school. While they were young their parents took them out of mainstream education. We could assume that, therefore, they would know nothing much. How are they going to progress in life? Well, one of them is now at Bath University. She was accepted there a year early, at age 17. How can this happen? She received her education elsewhere; she was home-schooled. Likewise, Peter and John hadn’t had the privilege of formal education in the Jewish institutions that these Sadducees had. But their privilege was a greater privilege. They weren’t taught by just any old teacher. They had learnt the Bible’s truth from the Head Teacher; the Chief Rabbi, if you like. They had spent the last couple of years or so, listening and learning from the words of God’s Son. Time and time again, they would have been shown the truth about the Old Testament writings. Jesus said, in John 5:39, ‘These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.’ So, when Peter read Psalm 118:22, about a stone that some builders were going to reject, that would then, in some awesome turn of events, become the foundation stone in some building that God was promising to build, what would Peter conclude that this referred to? Jesus, of course. And this is what he argues here. In fact, he argues that these, supposedly religious Jews, were the mistaken builders in God’s past illustration. ‘Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone”’, he informs them.

What is a ‘cornerstone’? I could have asked Dan, or Tim, who are architects. Actually, I asked Wikipedia! This is what it says – ‘The cornerstone (or foundation stone or setting stone) is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.’ That is an awesome description in the context of Peter’s argument. What is this building that is being referred to, that the Heavenly Architect has designed, that is to be built on the foundation stone of Jesus himself?

Like here in Acts 4; like now in our day, when Jesus lived on earth, there were differences of opinion about who he really was. In response to this, Jesus posed a question to his disciples. In Matthew 16:13-20 he asks them, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter’s response was as short as it was profound – ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus responds to Peter’s response with a wonderful play on words. Peter’s name literally means ‘rock’ or ‘stone’. We derive our word ‘Petrified’ from it. When we are so frightened that we cannot move; when we are turned to stone through fear, we become Peter-re-fied, or petrified. Jesus replied, ‘I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock (meaning the rock of Peter’s previous confession that Jesus was the Son of the living God), I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

In 1 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul is writing about the church and the people that were called to lead it. He uses the phrase, ‘God’s building’ in reference to that church and says this, ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ Peter, is his first letter, 1 Peter 2:4-5, uses similar language in his exhorting of the church - ‘As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…’ God is building his true people; his church. ‘God’s building’ is his church. It isn’t a masonry structure made up of dead rocks. It cannot be, because the foundation stone is living. The church, which was in its exploding infancy, when Peter and John faced the Jewish Council in Acts 4, is built upon the foundation of the risen again Jesus! Three days after Calvary, God raised him from the dead. He lives for evermore and so will they. And the Wikipedia definition is so apt - ‘All other stones will be set in reference to this (foundation) stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.’ The church stands or falls with Christ Jesus. Therefore, come what may, the church must stand. That’s the Easter message. To quote Psalm 118:23 – ‘The Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.’

The Sadducees rejected the idea of resurrection. They were astonished by the learning that seemed to have come from nowhere into the mind of this ordinary fisherman, called Peter. But they missed the point. It was staring them in the face, but they held their eyes tight shut. They nearly get there. Verse 13 tells us that ‘they took note that these men had been with Jesus’. They recognised who they were. ‘Yes, we have seen you before’, they realised. ‘We see it all now – It all makes sense. That man Jesus used to walk alongside you and direct you.’ But they didn’t see it all. They were wide of the mark. Jesus didn’t just walk alongside these men in the past. Jesus was still with them.

Do you know how Matthew’s gospel account finishes? The answer is that it doesn’t. Yes, it has some words at the end, but they aren’t just any old words. They are another account of that final commission that Jesus gave to his followers to go out into the world and witness to him. Jesus finishes with this promise – ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ So Matthew’s gospel will not be wrapped up until this world is wrapped up. Jesus lives in his people through his Spirit sent into the world to comfort their hearts and to help them in the way that Peter was so helped to speak in Acts 4.

Daniel 3 contains the account of three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were true followers of God in the Old Testament times. They had a similar experience to Peter and John. Their faith also met with fierce opposition. The Jewish Council tried to coerce Peter and John into not speaking anymore about Jesus. They replied, ‘We cannot’. ‘We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’. Shadrach and his friends were the same. The heat was really, literally, turned up in their case. They refused to bow down and worship a golden image. Their adversary, King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual’. Surely they would now buckle under pressure and bow down, as commanded. Regardless of the consequences, ‘we will not’, they said. So, they were thrown into that furnace but, then, something happened. Like the astonishment of the Jewish Council, when they heard Peter’s words, King Nebuchadnezzar was amazed. ‘Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisors, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ They replied, ‘Certainly, Your Majesty.’ He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’

How similar to Peter and John. The Sadducees only saw two men boldly confronting them in their error but, in reality, there were three. Through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, these men were not alone. The one that stood alongside them that day didn’t just look like ‘a son of the gods’. He was the Son of God. What encouragement there should be, here, for God’s building; his church, now. Because, through his rising from the dead, he is the Son of God. He is, and will always be, that ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’, that we read of in Proverbs 18:24. What does this mean for our lives?

I know that life has been really difficult this week for many people here this morning, with how life has unfolded. Where would we be without the ‘very great and precious promises’ (2 Peter 1:4) of God’s word? One of those promises is found in Isaiah’s prophecy. It is wonderfully illustrated in the Bible’s account of Peter and John, and painted in the most vivid colours in the lives of Shadrach and his friends. Isaiah 43:2-3 says this, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour…

Can we really persevere in the Christian life regardless of what we meet with? Only if the word of God holds true. Its foundation is solid, though. It’s built upon the risen Jesus.

The risen Jesus said this, ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).


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