Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Busted! Acts 4

What would you expect if you raised a lame man in the midst of a crowd of people? Most likely, you’d expect what Peter and John have at the end of Acts 3, which is a nice big crowd listening to what they have to say. A group of people wondering at the source of the power that has been demonstrated. A crowd willing to consider those claims you have to present.

You probably do not expect this:

Or, at the very least, the Second Temple Judaism form of it. But that’s what Peter and John get in Acts 4 (link) as we go through the whole Bible. The authorities lay hands on them and lead them away to put them in prison overnight. The next day, they are questioned, threatened, and released.

In the midst of all this, though, they confront the religious leaders and speak the truth about Jesus to these leaders. Keep in mind, these are many of the same religious powers-that-be who turned Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion. It’s a hostile crowd to start with, and Peter pointing to these elders that the miracle was done “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified” (Acts 4:10) was not going to win them any brownie points.

This does not stifle their commitment. We see them challenge the elders that they cannot give heed to men rather than to God and declare that they cannot stop speaking about what they have seen and heard. Further, after their release, they gather with the church and praise God for His goodness and mercy. They do not even truly praise God that they were delivered: the focus of praise from Acts 4:24-27 is more on God and redemption through Christ rather than on their escape. The only self-noting portion? Praying that they would have confidence in speaking the Word. That’s it.

How do we come closer to this? Rare among the believers in Christ will be one who does not long to see thousands come to Jesus and begin life as disciples. Rare among the believers is one who would not want to see the earth shaken by the power of God. Rare among the believers is one who would not want to see the unity discussed at the end of the chapter, where the needs of all are met by the generosity and efforts of all.

If we want this, what do we do?

I would tell you that it’s not as much about what we do. In truth, very few things in following Jesus are about what you do. Life as a disciple of Christ is about who you are. Now, who you are becomes evident in what you do. The growth of a disciple, though, is not behavior modification but life transformation. Never forget that if we are growing into the right person, one who seeks God in all things, focuses on the truth, lives in grace, and trusts in God’s love, if we are growing into that person then we will do what we ought to do.

What do we become is the better question than what do we do?

First, we become people so satisfied in God that we are unimpressed by success. As Peter and John are being led away, Luke records that more are added to the church, such that the church reaches 5,000 men. The narrative reads compactly, but it seems that very little time has elapsed since Pentecost. This is rapid growth for beliefs that are contrary to both religious power and political power in the time. It is not a likely time for church growth.

And as it happens, Peter and John are not distracted by it. Too often, we are quick to be drawn to our own success and stop and celebrate it. Yet our satisfaction about life needs to come out of God’s care for us, His unmistakable grace in our lives. Our success or failure is about whether or not we are drawn to Him and faithful to Him. It is not about how big of a splash we have made in this world. That’s like admiring the hole in the water after your best cannonball: it’s fleeting and we’ll drown if we don’t move on.

Second, we become people so committed to God that we cannot imagine obeying any other voice. The Sadducees give commands not to preach or teach in the name of Christ, yet Peter and John refuse to heed the voice of men over the voice of God. Are we that committed? Or is our hope in more than one place?

Third, we become people so connected to God’s presence that anyone can tell it. This is the passage, in Acts 4:13, where we have that great line about how the elders recognized Peter and John as those who had “been with Jesus.” What about us? Is our life spent seeking after the presence of God strongly enough that it shows to anyone?

Finally, we become people so concerned for each other that even our own heritage is given. We often make a big deal about Barnabas’ sale of land at the end and his contribution to the body. We can see him as the named example of what was going on here—and it’s good to note. It is also important to note that selling the land likely meant a separation from the family heritage that he (and others who did likewise) had long held dear. It was a big loss. Yet it was done for the sake of the body of Christ.

Let us put our efforts into becoming who we ought to be.

Today’s Nerd Note: Acts 4 and Communism. Okay, let’s take this one down very quickly: Acts 4:32 is occasionally cited as Biblical grounds for communism. After all, if the early church did it, it must have been godly, right?

First, I’ll give you that: the behavior of the early church in Acts 4:32 is both godly and commendable. It is worthy of replication and emulation within the church, even to this day.

Yet this was not the same thing as some of the modern programs that attempt to cite it as justification. Why? For starters, this was entirely voluntary. Not even the apostles seem to have commanded this behavior. Rather, it appears to be the response of love for one another within the body.

Why the need? Many of the newly converted would have lost social standing or employment due to their allegiance to the questionable sect of Christians (not even called Christians yet!). Some would have still retained means and wealth, but others had lost it all. Many who still had material wealth gave it up to provide for their fellow believers. Yet it was still their private property, and one can see later evidences that certain things were still retained as “their own” even after these times.

This is quite different from the idea that a government entity ought to come and forcefully take from an individual that which is theirs to give it to someone else. It is not a duty in Acts 4, it is joyous provision. It is not, though, joyous provision for the world writ large, either. It is internal to the body.

This is another difference between what you see here and armed confiscation that is advocated in communist ideas: the church certainly has a responsibility to take care of its own, but ought not take from outside to deal with its needs. Likewise, a system that takes from everyone will not hold up—the differences between those everyones will cause the system to rupture.

There are other differences worth mentioning if only to point out that there is no simple parallel here between Peter and Marx: the church has a common morality that answers to Almighty God while communism answers only to whomever holds state power; we do not see the longevity of this system, for all we can tell it was a temporary measure that lasted only a short time and communism claims to be a durable system; these were people that were both unified in faith and understanding of a sin nature while typical communism assumes everyone will be okey-dokey with equal stuff. Which they won’t: the fundamental Biblical response to communism is that communism tends to deny the basic human problem of sin.

The assumption becomes that if everyone has the same stuff, then everyone will get along and there will be no problems. Yet the problem is not the stuff. Stuff-seeking is only a symptom of human depravity. Some people do not exhibit that symptom. Their symptom is violence or rage or sexual excess or racism or any of a host of other issues. Yet the cause remains the same: we are all born bent hard toward sinful behavior and without being made new in Christ, we can never change ourselves.

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