You have heard often there are two kinds of people in the world. There are a million ways we can be divided into two camps. Huskies and Cougars. Ford and Chevy. Red States and Blue States. Coke and Pepsi. iPhone and Android. Those who eat the crust and those who don’t. Toilet paper over front or down the back. Morning people and those who want to shot morning people. Our text sets side by side a great contrast between Stephen and the Sanhedrin, a difference created by the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, by one filled with the Spirit and those resisting the Holy Spirit. We see those that look around and one who looks up. Those filled with rage and one filled with peace. Those who show no mercy and the one who prays for mercy. Those ready to kill and one ready to die. Those who hate and one who loves. Those who are acting according to the flesh and one who sees and says and does things the flesh never could.
Last week we heard about the powerful ministry of Stephen, one of the seven men set apart as a deacon. Some of the Jews charged him with speaking blasphemously against Moses and God. Acts 6:13-14 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” Stephen has been charged with two very serious charges of blasphemy, blasphemy the law and the Temple, the most sacred things in the mind of any Jew.
How many of you have been impacted or influenced or greatly helped by a person who was in your life for a very short time? Someone who in the span of a few months or weeks or maybe even hours left a positive lasting mark? Who knows maybe you have been touched by an angel unawares? Some brief encounters can be as profound and life changing as a lifelong friendship. This reminds us not to take for granted how God might use us in some stranger’s life, how a word or action could make a lasting impression. Being salt and light, bringing a cup of cold water, lifting a broken spirit, doesn’t have to take a long time. Don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit of God can do through you if you are open and available and paying attention to what He is doing around you. Stephen comes on the stage of Biblical history in Acts 6 and by the end of chapter seven he is dead and gone, but not forgotten. He has left a powerful example in his brief appearance. It is obvious Luke wants us to know him because he tells us a lot about him and he included his speech which is the longest speech in Acts.
In our reading of Acts, we have heard stories about how the church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, how they gathered together in homes, practiced hospitality and sold their possessions to help those in need. We heard stories of bringing money and laying it at the feet of the apostles’ to be distributed to the poor. Several times Luke has mentioned how much the church grew even in the face of opposition. We have heard about the church together in bold prayer and the Spirit filling them. It is good for us to hear about the growth of the church in the world, it encourages us that God is at work, His Spirit is still as always powerfully transforming lives and gathering worshipers from every tongue, tribe and people. Now Luke tells us about a problem in this growing church and how the Spirit led them to solve the problem. And it’s good for us to hear that all churches have problems and issues.
We are before the Sanhedrin, the senate and Supreme Court, the rulers, elders, scribes, lawyers, and chief priests. These are the most important people in Israel. These are the most educated, the wealthiest, the people with the best upbringing and most advantages in life. These are the people who have the positions of power and influence, people who are looked up to, respected. These are the people the media listens to and looks to for answers. These are the people whose opinion matters. These are the people who are supposed to have the solutions to our world’s problems. Peter has just boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, he refused to submit to the court order to stop, and he had cut them to the heart with the charge that they had murdered the Messiah. The apostles had thrown down the gauntlet and defied the Sanhedrin’s authority. Not exactly your “how to win friends and influence enemies” kind of speech. Things are escalating. It started with theological annoyance then envy and jealousy and now we are at rage with murderous intent. They have moved from a verbal warning to a violent warning. Two things are driving this escalating conflict and response. The incredible growth of the church and the boldness of the apostles as they fill Jerusalem with their teaching. By boldness we mean courage, conviction and clarity about sin and Jesus. Remember this as we move to consider the wisdom of Gamaliel and whether it really is wisdom.
Last week Luke told us how the infant Christian church was flourishing, it was growing in numbers, people were coming to salvation, they were together in worship and prayer, gifts were being used to the glory of God, people were being generous, loving, caring, the apostles were preaching with great power and authority, God was doing miracles every day, Christ was being proclaimed and exalted. It was a glorious season of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. But. That’s how our text begins. But. Why does it seem like in the midst of good times there has to be a but? Such is life on this side of heaven, life where there is an enemy of all that is good. Luke is an honest writer and an honest historian. He doesn’t just paint a rosy picture for his friend Theophilus. Luke’s history is filled with troubles, trials and prisons. In some ways the book of Acts reads like a police blotter of arrests, beatings, torture and harassment. There is a price to be paid for bearing witness to Jesus Christ, the price is suffering. The servant is not above the master. Jesus suffered for doing good, so will His followers. Everywhere the apostles and followers of Jesus went they stirred up trouble. Just their presence incited reactionary anger and protests from the ungodly. There will be reactions in an increasingly hostile and ungodly culture. Those with bad consciences will always try to silence whatever or whoever pricks their conscience. Luke isn’t just writing to Theophilus, he is writing to 21st century American Christians, preparing us for the trials and storms ahead. Luke wants to show us how to navigate those waters. Whether it’s baking cakes or selling flowers, whether it’s students wanting to host a Christian group on campus or sponsor a Christian speaker, whether it’s Bibles in hotel rooms, whether it’s churches wanting to worship in a country where there are hostile governments, whether it’s Christians protesting killing babies or exercising their freedom of speech, whether it’s Facebook and Twitter censoring Christians who post what Scripture teaches about certain ethical and moral issues, whether it’s subtle digs or discrimination from co-workers, relatives or friends.
How many of you remember the Miracle on Ice in 1980 when the US men’s Olympic hockey team beat the four-time gold medalist Russians at the Lake Placid Winter games? In the final seconds of the game Al Michaels for ABC declared: “Do you believe in miracles?! How about the Miracle on the Hudson when Captain Sullenberger landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. Maybe you have watched the 1947 movie classic about a Macy’s Santa Claus, Miracle of 34th Street. We use the word miracle pretty loosely and broadly. Finding a parking place close to the door at Costco is no small miracle. How often do we call the birth of a baby a miracle, or being spared from a tragic accident? As we come to our text for this morning we come to miracles of a very different kind than we encountered last week in the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. These sign and wonders are more in keeping with the kind Jesus did in the Gospels
How many of you learned this story as kids back in Sunday School? Was it one of those flannelgraph stories along with Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath and Zacchaeus. “Kids, what did you learn in SS this morning?” “We learned this really cool story about this guy Ananias who told a lie and God zapped him, sort of like in Star Wars.” This is one of the scary, hard stories in the Bible. This highlights the pros and cons of preaching week after week through a book of the Bible. The pastor doesn’t get to cherry pick favorite passages, and we are forced to hear the whole counsel of God’s true and inspired Word. This story more than many in the Bible stirs up all kinds of questions. It is especially difficult for us modern readers. We get visions of Peter with super powers getting the Holy Spirit to zap people on the spot, without any chance to repent. Some commentators say this is a legend made up to explain a couple of sudden deaths in the church. Some people go so far as to say this is a tyrannical God having a temper tantrum.
The book of Acts was written by Luke. Dr. Luke, a physician. There is the possibility he was the richest among the inner circle of apostles and those close to the apostles. Matthew was a tax collector but he gave that job up to follow Jesus. It’s interesting Dr. Luke includes many stories about rich people in his Gospel and Acts. The rich fool, the rich young ruler, Joseph of Arimathea, John Mark’s mother Mary who owned a big house, Lydia a dealer in purple. Remember the wonderful story about that wee little man Zacchaeus. Remember he was very rich, a much despised tax collector. Then Jesus came to his house and into his heart and there was a sudden and very noticeable transformation, a total change of heart. Suddenly he was giving half his possessions to the poor and he paid back four times whatever he had defrauded. That’s radical generosity. The heart that is transformed by Jesus loves people more than it loves stuff. The heart of a believer in the Gospel uses their stuff in order to love people. Faith toward God produces a freedom toward possessions, a lack of fear about our provisions. The story of Zacchaeus is the story of what happens when a person’s life is totally turned around by Jesus, when the love of Jesus takes over. The story in Acts 4 is a story of the transformation of a whole group of people, of the early church some 10,000 strong. It follows after what happened in the previous text.
We have before us a model of what to do and how to pray. This is the longest recorded prayer in the book of Acts, and it serves as a model, an example for us, to help us in how to pray, especially in times of trouble. Let’s consider how a prayer prayed two thousand years ago still speaks into our lives today in twenty-first century post-modern America.