“Witnesses Worthy of the Name” (Acts 5:29-42)
Today we begin a series of sermons based on readings from the Book of Acts. Recently many of you went through a several-month-long Bible study on the Book of Acts, and hopefully that will still be somewhat fresh in your mind. In any case, I think it will be timely and helpful for us to reflect on these glimpses of life in the early church, for in many ways the time of the early church, the conditions they faced, parallels the situation of the church in our day. They lived in a world that was either hostile toward, or ignorant of, the Christian faith. And so do we. Most importantly, the church in the first century and the church in the twenty-first also have this in common: We have the same mighty Lord, the same Savior, the same power and blessing from on high, to give us life and to guide our mission.
We will gather these sermons under the theme, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.” If those words sound familiar, that is because they are an emphasis for the church that is being raised by our synod’s president. But “Witness, Mercy, Life Together”–those words are not merely a catchy slogan or a slick program. No, rather, witness, mercy and life together are living realities for the church in any century, in any place. These are perennially relevant aspects of the church’s life and work, because the church is connected to Christ, and thus these truths will never change. Witness, Mercy, Life Together–we will see these themes emerge throughout this whole series on the Book of Acts.
In today’s text, the aspect of “Witness” comes out the strongest: the apostles bearing witness to the name of Christ, even in the face of strong opposition and hostility. And so our theme this morning: “Witnesses Worthy of the Name.”
“Witnesses.” What is a “witness,” exactly? A witness is called upon to testify to what he has seen and heard. And that is what the apostles were called to do. They had been with Jesus during his ministry, they had heard his teaching, they had seen his miracles–they had seen Jesus himself risen from the dead. And their risen Lord told them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” So that is what they have been doing when we encounter them in our text. They have been testifying in Jerusalem, speaking the words of life, teaching in the name of Jesus.
But for this, they get in trouble with the Sanhedrin–the Jewish ruling council, the same bunch that had gotten Jesus killed. They get in trouble with them again–this is not the first time. Previously the chief priests had ordered the apostles not to teach in Jesus’ name. And now they get called on the carpet for violating that order.
Peter, the leading apostle, answers for the group: “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
But notice how the apostles continue to bear witness, even as they are standing there under the threat of punishment. This is instructive for us, both as to the content and as to the courage of their witness.
The content is consistent with the message of the apostles in the Book of Acts. It always focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in his name. Christ crucified, Christ risen, exalted now to God’s right hand, the position of highest authority and honor. Jesus Christ, “Leader and Savior,” calling all men now to repent of their sins and to turn to him in faith to have those sins forgiven. That is the content of the apostolic witness.
And see also the courage of that witness. Like I say, this Sanhedrin, the council–these are the same guys who had had Jesus beaten and put to death on the cross, the same Sanhedrin that had had Peter and John arrested in Acts 4, that had all the apostles arrested earlier here in chapter 5, warning them to cease and desist, and that now has had them arrested again. But they can’t get the apostles to stop, they can’t intimidate them. In Peter’s response, you can hear the courage in his voice, when he says, “Jesus, whom you killed, God exalted.”
The content and courage of the apostles’ witness sets the pattern for our own. The content does not change. We too preach Christ crucified, the Savior of the world, dying on that cross for your sins and mine. We too preach Christ raised from the dead, victorious over death and the grave. And we too call all people everywhere to repent, that is, to give up on themselves as their own god and their own savior–that will not work–and instead to trust in the only true God and Savior there is. Turn in faith to the one true God and receive forgiveness for all your sins. This message still applies today. There is nothing irrelevant or out-of-date in it. This is what all people to this day need to hear. We speak the same message as the apostles.
And we share the same courage, because we share the same Lord. When you know your sins are forgiven, and you’re going to heaven, and God is on your side, watching over you, no matter what may happen to you–why, this gives you some fair amount of courage, I dare say! If God is for us, who can be against us?
“If this undertaking is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” That’s what Rabbi Gamaliel advised the council, and he turned out to be right. No one has been able to stop the church, for 2,000 years now. Jewish priests, Roman emperors, pagan chieftains, Communist rulers, cultural critics–all have tried, and all have failed. As Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This thing is indeed of God, old Gamaliel. Your prediction proved to be true. Your boys couldn’t stop it; no one ever will.
Friends, it may look like the church is on the ropes. But be encouraged today: God’s word will not return unto him void, but will accomplish the thing for which he sends it. Whether that is to confirm judgment upon those who reject his word, or to bring salvation to hungry and thirsty souls, our gospel witness is never in vain.
Peter and the rest of the apostles were witnesses worthy of the name. They testified truly and faithfully to what they knew to be true, and their testimony lifted up the Name, the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Content and courage connected to Christ, they could not but speak of that which filled their heart. And the same will be true for us.
The apostles were witnesses worthy of the name–worthy of suffering dishonor for the name. When once again they were beaten and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, they left, our text says, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Now that may strike us as strange. We would think you would rejoice to be counted worthy of receiving honor. But they rejoiced to receive dishonor! Because to be persecuted for the sake of the name of Christ is really, from God’s perspective, a badge of honor. God’s vote outweighs the vote of any council or the weight of popular opinion. I’d rather have God’s approval than all the applause of the world. We Christians may be out of fashion with the world, but who cares?
The world’s frowning attempts to shut us up–and this disapproval is coming at us from every direction these days–this will not stop us, when we stop and consider who Christ is. He is our Leader, he is the Savior of the world. And he is with us and for us. Disapproval and intimidation certainly did not keep the apostles from continuing to bear witness to the faith: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”
How will you bear witness to Christ this week? Your witness may be to friendly and receptive ears–God grant that it be so! But even if you run into unreceptive, unresponsive, even hostile hearers, your witness to Christ will not be for naught. Faith speaks what the heart is full of, and there is nothing more powerful, more wonderful, to have in your heart and on your lips than the sweet and saving name of Jesus Christ!
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together”: That is where we are going this Easter season, as we make our way through these readings in Acts. And to serve as a companion along our journey, I’ve composed this hymn that you see on your insert. It’s called, not surprisingly, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.” Let me read it for you today, and then we’ll learn to sing it over the coming weeks:
Witness, Mercy, Life Together,
Life in Christ, for Church and world;
Witness, Mercy, Life Together–
This shall be our flag unfurled!
Gathered, going, speaking, serving,
New life flowing from our Lord;
He shall feed us, onward lead us,
By His own life-giving Word.
Christ came down and dwelt among us,
Law and Prophets to fulfill;
Sent to save a world of sinners,
Jesus did the Father’s will.
Dying, rising, then ascending,
Christ is making all things new;
Pouring out His Spirit on us,
Christ now gives us work to do.
Witness bearing, Martyria,
Bold proclaiming of the truth;
Tongues of fire on each believer,
Now as in the Church’s youth.
Preaching, teaching, faith confessing,
Gospel reaching far and near;
Lord, we pray that You would open
Mouths to speak and ears to hear.
Mercy works, Diakonia,
Service done in Jesus’ name;
Hearts so moved with His compassion
For the poor, the weak, the lame.
Giving, caring, helping, healing,
Love that takes the lower place;
May our lives of humble service
Show the riches of God’s grace.
Life Together, Koinonia,
Sharing in a common birth;
Fellowship, with Christ the center,
We His body here on earth.
Growing, bearing fruit, forgiving,
Brothers living all as one;
Breaking bread, the Lord’s Communion,
Life eternal now begun.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Triune God, whom we adore,
Source of all the Church’s blessings,
Praise to You forevermore!
Guarding, guiding, still providing,
For our mission is Your own:
Witness, Mercy, Life Together–
Glory be to You alone!