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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

New Life in the Name


“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. ‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people all about this new life.’"

Acts 5:19-20

We have some really dramatic events in Acts 5. Last time we considered Ananias and Sapphira. They were spoken to by a man named Peter about their very serious sin of deception, which threatened to undermine the church in its infancy. They had ‘conspire(d) to test the Spirit of the Lord’ (v.9). They heard Peter’s words then dropped dead on the spot. That is dramatic! Ananias and Sapphira wanted the praise of their fellow men. At the end of the previous chapter we saw the respect that was given to a man named Joseph by the church and its leaders - the apostles. They had renamed Joseph, in effect, ‘Mr Encouragement’. What Joseph, now to be known by his new, Greek name of Barnabas, had done had gained him approval. Barnabas hadn’t done what he had done for approval. He had done it out of love for his fellow believers, because he recognised that there was need, and that he had the means to deal with that need. In doing this, Barnabas looked very much like someone else. He looked like the man who he now followed, his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Because of his faith in Jesus, Barnabas had a new heart motive and a new life; a changed way of living. Ananias was different.

In verse 3, ‘Peter said, ‘Ananias… Satan has… filled your heart’. His motive appeared to be to help others, but really he wanted to help himself. He wanted the approval rating that Barnabas had gained. His motive was jealousy; self-love. If these events had taken place in 2022, it may have happened like this – Barnabas sells a field, probably for housing development, and donates all the money to the church. Peter puts a post on the church’s Instagram account to let people know. That post gets 5000 ‘likes’. Sapphira sees it and decides with Ananias that they want 5000 ‘likes’, so they pretend to do what Barnabas has done. We would probably look on and approve, because we are people. In 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT), the Lord spoke to the Old Testament prophet, Samuel. He said this about us. ‘People judge by outward appearance’. We do. God does not. ‘People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ 5000 ‘likes’ may seem good to us, but there is only one ‘like’ that really matters. God did not ‘like’ what he saw in Ananias and Sapphira, and he dealt with them ever so severely, in order to protect his infant church. Why? Because he loved it and had given himself for it.

I love planting seeds in March and April. I never cease to be amazed at the growth over the following months of spring and summer. It reminds me of that parable which Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 13:31. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’ This is a parable which predicted this growth of the church that we find in Acts.

I think that there is general rule about seeds (my experience is limited though!) – the smaller the seed, the smaller, and slower, the initial growth. I plant runner beans – those seeds are really big. You plant them and turn your back and next time you look there is a small shrub. It’s so sturdy that, if I decided to play football with the plant pot, I’m convinced the plant would carry on growing. Tomato seeds are the opposite. They are small, like mustard seeds are. When the shoots eventually decide to appear above the surface of the compost, they are so fragile. When I water them I don’t use the watering can initially, I use a little fine mist sprayer. In fact, when I am watering them, if I feel a sneeze coming on, I turn away, for fear that I’ll blow them over.

The church in these early chapters of Acts, unlike my tomato plants, had rapid growth but, like them, it was really fragile. In today’s chapter we have the speech of a Jewish leader called Gamaliel. He suggests that this new movement was just a ‘flash in the pan’ – it may have looked impressive, but it would probably soon die out, like other similar movements had done in the past. It should have done – it would have done – had it been only a movement of like-minded men and women. But it wasn’t. These people were not just like-minded with each other. They had been re-made; their lives remodelled with the mind of God. Now they truly ‘feared’ (which is the Bible’s way of saying ‘reverenced correctly’) their God. And what Psalm 34:7 declares, was found to be true in their collective life – ‘The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.’ He does, and so he did.

These happenings, with Ananias and Sapphira, have an effect. Verse 11 tells us that, ‘great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.’ Verse 13 then says, ‘No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.’ People realised how serious it was to claim to be a Christian; a follower of Christ Jesus. Would the church’s growth now be stunted by this act of discipline? No. Because, although faith in Jesus is a serious claim, not to have faith is also serious, with an eternal consequence. And so, despite this event, or to use the (three-word) word in verse 14, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number’; the number of true believers.

Then we have more dramatic events, and even a visible appearance of an ‘angel of the Lord’. This follows further success for the early church. Verse 12 tells us that, ‘The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people’. Really dramatic healing is described in those subsequent verses. The evidence that God’s Spirit is powerfully working through these church leaders is almost unparalleled. We might ask the question of why God would back up the gospel message in those days, with such miraculous displays, but not do so now? Why is this?

Later in this chapter, Peter is, once again, called to defend his actions in front of the Jewish council. Once again Peter repeats his message of forgiveness of sins through the obedience of faith in Jesus. He then says (v.32) ‘We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’ This ties in with Hebrews 2:3-4, where this witness of those who had been with Jesus is touched upon. It says, ‘This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.’ It was God’s will. It was in God’s plan. At this time the church did not yet have the New Testament record which we have. Instead, God ‘testified’ to the truth of what the apostles were saying about spiritual healing, by these outward signs of physical healing. It was needed - to break through this people’s old Jewish mind-set, that they too might possess a new ‘attitude of mind’ (Romans 15:5).

I think there is also another answer that our Bible record now gives us as to why God chose to do this – and it should be really encouraging to us as we pray. Do you remember when we looked at the prayer of the church in Acts 4, after they first met with outward opposition to the gospel message? They prayed for ‘great boldness’. That is in Acts 4:29. In verse 30 they pray this, ‘Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ Why would God do this? - Because our God hears prayer that is aligned with his will, and our God answers such prayer.

So, back to Acts 5 – when these miracles are performed, many people are filled with awe. Sadly, this isn’t true of everyone. The Jewish council, who had already opposed Peter and John are ‘filled with jealousy’. They have exactly the same self-love as Sapphira; the same heart motive as Ananias. What are they jealous about? That so many people were following Peter and the others.

People claim that the Bible is out of date but how current is this?! It’s as though they have looked at the Facebook page of Peter, and his crew, and said, ‘look at how many followers these people have – they’ve got more than us – this isn’t fair – we are the ones that people should be following – what are we going to do?’ And so they take steps to ‘close down’ the apostle’s very visible presence by arresting them and putting them in prison. What will happen now? ‘The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them’ – that is what happens. When the angel frees them, he gives them an instruction.

What would usually be the best advice to give someone on their release from prison? Probably, it’s this – whatever got put you in here, don’t do it again! That was my advice to my children, in previous years, when I released them from their ‘time of reflection’ at the bottom of the stairs! ‘Try not to do that again’, I might say. Imagine their glee if I had told them that I had taken time to reflect and wanted them to carry on doing what they had done before, ‘only do it better; more effectively…’ They would have thought that I had gone mad… but I doubt they would have waited for a second opinion from their mum! This is the message that the apostles get. They are told, in effect, ‘as you were – that message that you were telling people about; that got you in so much trouble; go back and tell it again’ – ‘Go, stand in the temple courts… and tell the people all about this new life’ (Acts 5:20). Yes, this ‘new’ message; about ‘new life’ is going to upset people. There will be those who want to stop this message being spoken, and to stop it being heard, but the ‘power’ behind it means it’s unstoppable, and therefore you must not stop.

The apostles did ‘as they had been told’ (v.21). In their eagerness they arrive ‘at daybreak’. Then there is a description of the commotion that is taking place in the background. The Jewish council, led by ‘the party of the Sadducees’ (v.17), sends for these Jesus followers. The jail is still there (v.23); the locks are in place; the guards are on duty; but the prisoners seem to have vanished into thin air. Verse 24 has a wonderful statement. ‘On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.’ They were ‘at a loss’. Of course they were. These Sadducees worldview clouded their judgement. Acts 23:8 tells us this about them – ‘The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits…’ So, when the only possible explanation was that an ‘angel of the Lord’ had delivered these men, the Sadducees cannot explain it; they were ‘at a loss’.

If they had been more open-minded; more ready to challenge their pre-conceptions and prejudices, how different this could have been. There’s a lesson here for us? This is not the first time that the chief priests and Jewish elders had received a report from guards. Matthew 28:11-15 describes the report that they were brought of an empty tomb, where three days earlier Jesus had been buried. Their response? - ‘They devised a plan’. Jesus had risen from the dead, and their response was to bury the truth. Now, they have witnessed the healing miracles of ‘these men (who) had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13) - and their subsequent, supernatural escape from prison, and still their minds remain closed to God’s appeal. They continue in their fight against this group and they end up, as Gamaliel, perhaps unwittingly, points out in verse 39, ‘fighting against God’. How sad? How very, very solemn?

The ‘apostles were brought in’ (v.27) and criticised in a wonderful way. It’s meant to be an accusation but it ends up being a five-star review of how God’s people had obeyed the commission of their Lord and Master (as Acts 1:8) - ‘You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching’ (v.28). Can you imagine our response, if in the future, someone criticises Riverside Baptist Church by saying that ‘these people have filled Horbury Bridge with their teaching’? I think our response would be ‘Alleluia’ – ‘Praise the Lord’, and rightly so.

Then these Sadducees show how far adrift they are from the reality of the gospel message. ‘You… are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood’. ‘Peter and the other apostles’ (v.29) weren’t trying to make them guilty. They were already guilty. ‘Embrace the reality’, is Peter’s cry, in effect. ‘The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross’ (v.30). But the gospel solution to their predicament, is not far behind. ‘God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins’ (v.31). Wow! What a reach this message has – ‘Israel’. Jesus used the name of that nation’s capital city, in Matthew 23:37, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.’ This was the people that throughout their own history, despite God’s very special favour towards them, had, time and again, rejected God’s call to them. Jesus said, ‘you were not willing’.

‘Israel’, who Jesus was addressing in his ‘parable of the tenants’ in Matthew 21. How can we be sure of this? Because verse 45 tells us about these same ‘chief priests’. ‘When the chief priests… heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.’ In the parable, God is represented as a ‘landowner’ and Israel as ‘the tenants’. The prophets, which God sent to Israel throughout its sordid history are portrayed as ‘servants’. Jesus says, ‘the tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third’ (v.35). This happens repeatedly until, ‘last of all, he sent his son to them’ (v.37). What happened? ‘They took him and threw him out… and killed him’ (v.39). Yet, now, Peter addresses these chief men; these of the Jewish elite, with the good news of forgiveness of all sin, through repentance and faith. And I ask the question – if those that actually, physically took part in crucifying the Saviour are welcome to come and receive forgiveness, then who can possibly be excluded? The apostles didn’t continue preaching this message because they were ‘determined to make (these people) guilty of this man’s blood’. No. Their message was the solution. The gospel message is the solution to all our past shortcoming and failure, whatever that might be. It is a message, not that we remain guilty, but that we are made not guilty. How? Through ‘the Name’ (v.41); ‘the Name’ of Jesus, we are proclaimed not guilty through ‘this man’s blood’ shed on Calvary’s cross, in full payment of the vast debt that we owed to God.

In 2 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul speaks of the great responsibility that proclaiming the gospel should be. The great apostle Paul, himself, actually asks this question, ‘who is equal to such a task?’ (v.16). Paul also outlines a great divide among people who hear the message. Not all will respond in the same way. In the NLT it is translated in this way, ‘Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.’ When the message of Jesus as Saviour is truly received, people smell the resurrection; they understand the reality ‘about this new life’. When it is rejected, it is the opposite.

The Sadducees reject the message and (v.33) are filled with deadly intent. They just want this talk to stop; they want to bury the truth again, along with those that brought it to them. They are stopped by Gamaliel’s words of persuasion. Actually, he appeals to their self-interest. Their ‘acts’ are subdued by the measure of wisdom that is contained in his appeal. Instead of murder, ‘they called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go’ (v.40). Did they stop speaking ‘in the name of Jesus’? Would they obey? They did obey, but only in the sense of Peter’s words, in verse 29, ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!

As Gamaliel summarised in verse 39, about the ‘acts’ of these apostles, and about the message that they brought to people, ‘if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men’.

Why is it that, nearly two thousand years later, we are gathered on a Sunday morning in May, to listen to that same message of forgiveness of all sin in Jesus Christ the Saviour? Because ‘it is from God’ and because it is unstoppable.

These men were ‘flogged’ but they could not be beaten. Their message was one of victory already won. In this chapter full of drama, their response in verse 41 is no less astonishing. What a lesson is here for us? ‘The apostles left… rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’ The chapter finishes with these words, ‘Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah’ (v.42).

How should I stop this morning? - With an appeal to those who want to embrace the truth of Jesus for themselves. I’ve quoted Psalm 34 this morning, about the ‘angel of the Lord’ entrusted with deliverance of God’s believing people. The subsequent verse, verse 8, is one of my favourites in the whole of God’s word. May this word of God speak to every seeking heart this morning.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8).


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