Sunday, September 13, 2020 Brad Barrett
The Unstoppable Church
I have an funny hobby. I like to listen or read advertising for a product or service when someone says, “This product changed my life.” I wish I had written down every time I’ve heard that expression, “This changed my life.”
But from memory, here are a handful of ads where I have heard that:
- Pillows. Yes, a pillow company boasted that their fantastic pillow can change your life.
- Mattresses. Not to be outdone by mere pillows, beds want to be loved, too. Mattresses have changed lives.
- Hair products. Shampoo, coloring.
- Hair growth products. To solve balding problems. (I could use a little of this to change my life.)
- Weight loss programs.
- Self-help books
- Trade schools.
- And a dozen or two other products I’ve seen.
Many products and experiences can, in a sense, change our lives.
But the Scriptures point to a different kind of changed life. A change from within. From deep within the heart and soul.
It is a change brought about by God’s Spirit.
Jesus, in his last words on earth before he ascended into heaven, said to his disciples:
Acts 1:8 ESV “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The disciples to this point had been timid, arrogant, argumentative, and impulsive. And under pressure, they denied in cowardice that they even knew Jesus.
Now Jesus promises they are going to receive power within them when God’s Spirit comes upon them to witness of him.
Ten days later on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, these disciples were transformed from the inside out. They became new creations.
They became bold, humble, and wise. And even under the threat of death, they stood their ground, and proclaimed Jesus to their enemies.
We are in Week 7 of a sermon series going through a book called “Acts.” “ACTS” means, “the acts (or the deeds) of the apostles.” It could also be entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since God’s Spirit is so active and prominent in this book.
Today we are going to read a dramatic story. A confrontation by religious leaders against Jesus’ disciples. The disciples’ courage to continue preaching about Jesus is inspiring.
Let’s start reading in vs. 12.
12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.
Solomon’s Portico was an outer corridor on the east side of the temple in Jerusalem.
13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.
14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,
15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.
16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
These were astonishing days. God through his Spirit was working a revival in the land of Palestine. A remarkable time.
17 But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy
18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.
The Jewish leaders had been jealous of Jesus, so they killed him…. Now they are jealous of the apostles.
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said,
20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
21a And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach…
This is an astonishing miracle. An angel sent from God releases them from prison and tells them to Go back to the temple and keep witnessing about this Life, Jesus. So a few hours later when the sun comes up, they obediently preach Christ again.
The scene gets a bit comical now.
21b… Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.
The court is convening, and they are eager to bring these Jesus followers in.
22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported,
23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.”
24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to.
They are scratching their heads. “What happened?” Perhaps they’re wondering, “Who betrayed us and let them escape?”
But they have little time to consider all this….
25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.”
26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
There is such irony here. The officers want to use force but they’re afraid of force being used against themselves.
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them,
28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
This scene reminds me of a congressional hearing with congressmen seated all around a witness. Here they are grilling Peter and the others with hard questions, disrespect, and anger. What an intimidating scene for the apostles.
Under tremendous pressure like that, most of would quickly fold. We would panic. We would start apologizing for offending them.
Peter—just a short time earlier denied three times knowing Jesus… he was a coward…. But NOW he is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.
30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.
31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
In the face of such intimidation, Peter doesn’t back down. He boldly and clearly tell all the Jewish leaders what Jesus had done for all the people of Israel… to give repentance and forgiveness of sins. And the leaders were enraged, just like they were at Jesus himself.
The leaders are ready to murder the apostles, but now—in an interesting twist to the story— one of their own intervenes.
34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while.
I love this. Let’s read it.
35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men.
36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.
37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
Through ancient historians, we know only a little about these two men. But their efforts at a rebellion failed.
38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail;
39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice,
40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
What a scene. Gamaliel’s speech persuades them. And his one line is most interesting: “If all this is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God.”
Those are some prophetic words, although I don’t think Gamaliel understood the depths of what he said.
What happened then?
41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
They had just been unjustly imprisoned, threatened, and beaten. So what did they do? Give up? Complain? Get angry with God?
They rejoiced that they could follow in Jesus’ footsteps. They were not surprised at the injustice and the hatred, for Jesus had told them that this would happen.
And then they went out and preached about Jesus all the more. They had a mission from God. They were ambassadors for Jesus, and so they kept going. They would not be stopped.
So what do we do with this passage?
Let me give us some things to consider.
First, a question.
Can the church (and all of us) be stopped?
Can anything stop the church from its mission?
It seems the apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were unstoppable. Imprisonment, threats of death, warnings by authorities, and beatings would not stop them from their mission of making disciples.
Are we likewise unstoppable?
We’re not undergoing persecution like they were. But what about COVID? What about war or famine? What about economic downturns? What about government oppression? Can such things stop the church? Can such things thwart us personally and thwart God from his desires and plans for this world to believe in his Son?
Are we unstoppable? The answer is Yes and No.
May I be quite honest with you this morning? For several months after COVID hit beginning in March, I was worried about how this might hurt the people of God. How it would hurt the church.
And I have to admit, I was angry that COVID was even around. I would describe it as a low-grade anger. Like an irritant on my skin. I was angry that we couldn’t meet in person on Sunday mornings. I was angry that it was hindering our campus ministry since students couldn’t even be on campus. I was angry that our Community Groups couldn’t meet normally and we couldn’t do retreats and Bible studies and outreach like we were used to. I was angry we were all stuck at home.
In a foundational way, my anger was directed toward God. “God, don’t you see the plans we have. You’re messing them all up!” It’s a bit alarming to me to even say that, but that’s what I thought.
It was like I thought that God was caught off guard by COVID. That he hadn’t seen it coming. That he didn’t have solutions and plans and understanding. That now we, the people of God, are stuck on our own, adrift at sea with no sail.
What can stop me and what can stop a church like ours is unbelief.
Simply a lack of faith to know who God is, to know his power, to know his will, to appreciate our salvation.
A lack of faith that God is good and will work all things together for good.
A lack of faith that eternity is real and God’s judgment is guaranteed.
Such things will STOP us.
But if we are a people who walk by faith, who join together as the church to build up one another, who remember Jesus Christ and our glorious salvation, who—like Peter—witness to what we have seen and heard… we will not be stopped.
You see, God has always worked and will continue to work through severe suffering.
Yes, definitely persecution and war and COVID and derecho storms and other problems definitely impact us. They hurt us and trouble us and cause all sorts of problems. They might knock us down.
But even then, is God and his church somehow stopped? Is God hindered?
Remember Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… even to the ends of the earth.”
Since Matt’s sermon last week, my wife and I have been talking about how we can live in more power as witnesses of Jesus.
We have obstacles in the way, like many of you do. We have our own health challenges. We have COVID and all the limitations on meeting with people.
So in many ways it feels like we can be STOPPED. But we are praying, “Lord, use us. Empower us through your Spirit. Direct us to people. Open our mouths.”
So can the church be stopped? Can we be stopped? The answer yes and no. It depends how we respond to him. How we lean on him. How we trust him or doubt him.
But God will not be stopped.
We can be stopped. A local church like ours can be stopped.
But God cannot. His plans will not be thwarted. Now, I’m not saying that God’s will is always done. It’s definitely not.
But in the ultimate sense, God’s plans will be accomplished.
We are frail but God is powerful. We are limited, but God is transcendent. We are lacking, but God is sufficient.
His own Son was shamed, murdered, and crushed. This horrific moment of the murder of the Holy Son of God seemed like God’s plan with his Messiah was thwarted. But it was not. God turned that evil on its head when he raised his Son from the dead. And he brought good and glory and life and light to the world through that Ultimate Tragedy.
Eternal life is now ours, if only we will believe in the Son.
Our plans and dreams may be stopped. Our freedoms may be taken away.
But God through the victory of his resurrected Son cannot be stopped. Opposed, yes. Stopped, no.
It’s like Gamaliel’s word.
“If this is from God, you will find yourself fighting against him.”
Ephesians 3:10–11 ESV …through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…
God’s eternal plan has been to save people through his Son and to unite them together as the church under the Son’s headship. From eternity past, God has planned this. And he knew the obstacles and opposition that he would face.
But he will not be stopped.
I appreciate what Job recognized when God humbled him. He prayed,
Job 42:2 ESV I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
And even on a personal level, we can have rock-solid confidence that God will accomplish what he desires in us and through us.
Romans 8:31-37 ESV …If God is for us, who can be against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
God will always be moving in this world.
We need not fear nor grow discouraged about obstacles in our lives. Persecution. COVID. Economic downturn. Strokes. Cancer. He will not stop working through the truth of his Word and the power of the Holy Spirit in us… in us… to proclaim his Son to the world, making disciples of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
So I want to finish up by answering the question, “So what do I do with this?”
Let me offer two simple but important applications.
The first one is,
We need to celebrate what God has done for us.
It is quite tempting to forget what God has brought. It is quite tempting to let the glorious seem like the mundane.
We simply need to remember what we have and rejoice in it.
After many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him, Jesus asked the twelve disciples:
John 6:67-69 ESV
“Do you want to go away as well?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Where else can we go? To whom else could we possibly turn to? Jesus has the words of life! Jesus Christ has given us everything we need for this life and especially for the next.
Paul, in Ephesians 1, blessed God….He praised God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
Even if we are poor financially, we are rich, rich, rich spiritually.
The more we meditate on and celebrate such glorious riches, the more we will be people transformed from the inside out.
We will be just like the disciples, who went from cowardly, fickle men to bold and devoted apostles…all because the Holy Spirit came upon them.
How to celebrate more?
- Take our Sunday morning services seriously. Take every Bible study seriously. Be earnest about breaking bread.
Pray much ahead of time before this service and before any fellowship in the Scriptures. Pray that God would work in power to open our eyes. Pray for a willing and obedient heart. Take notes. Read. Think. Discuss. Remember. Then rejoice.
Sing more. There is something powerful about rich words combined with music that gets deep inside us.
Do all this by the help of God.
- Look for God in the circumstances.
Let us stop our grumbling and discouragement, and instead look for him in the trials and the pain.
Read the Scriptures and ask, “How did the saints of old walk by faith in their circumstances? What did they know and believe?”
God promised he would work all things together for good. We have no promise of WHEN that good will appear. But God will work all things— persecution, disease, and more—for good.
Do NOT expect to have all the answers. We are not omniscient. Yes, seek understanding. Seek wisdom. Yet learn to be content without knowing all things as we look to find God in our circumstances.
So we CELEBRATE.
A second application:
Go and speak. We are ambassadors. Hindrances and obstacles will come. Then what will we do?
In the gospels, Jesus encountered a crazy man. A man possessed by a legion of demons. Jesus set him free. And he was changed. Jesus told him…
Luke 8:39 ESV “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.
As Matt mentioned last week, Who’s your ONE?
Who is just one person… family, friend, coworker, neighbor… who is one person in your lfie? Who is one person whom you can pray for? One person to serve. One person to show love to. One person to speak to about the Word of Life, Jesus.
Pray for that One Person. Pray for an open heart. Pray for boldness and wisdom. Then open your mouth.
Let me wrap up with this.
When I read the Book of Acts, I see the apostles boldness. Their courage. Their love. Their devotion.
And I can wonder, “Can I ever be like them?”
Subconsciously, I can wonder if they’re some sort of Superhero with special powers reserved only for a few.
No, they were normal people like us. And by faith the Holy Spirit came upon them in power, and they were transformed.
This is the same Holy Spirit we have.
God is at work in this world. Since eternity past, God has planned for his Son to enter into this world to save it.
The Son has come. He has died. He has risen. He has ascended into heaven.
And until he returns to earth, God is working in this world through the church. He will not be stopped.
May God give us grace to join him in proclaiming this glorious message of life forever and ever.