We live in a nation with a Christian heritage. For hundreds of years the gospel has been proclaimed and despite waves of persecution and opposition Christianity has been established in the very fabric of our land. There are remnants of the impact that Christianity has had, whether they be chapels, crosses or even statues of historic Christian heroes of history.
Looking at Acts 4
It was not like that for the early believers of whom we read in the book of Acts. Yes, Jesus had made his impact: there were people who had been miraculously fed or healed by him. Thousands had heard his unforgettable teaching and would have talked about it. But Jesus had been crucified. If he had been ‘put to death’ by lethal injection that would have been news enough, but crucifixion was truly horrific. Like Alan Hennings, the social worker murdered by ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in 2014, there would have been a sense of revulsion concerning his death.
Amazing events followed: he was buried but then rose from the dead. Hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit came in power on his early followers, and at least 5000 people believed in him and were baptised.
The establishment, the political and religious hierarchy, were unnerved, so they did what came naturally to them, and protected themselves. They always believed that they knew best, so their hardened heart looked after their own interests. They had authority from Deuteronomy 13:1-2 to scrutinise new teaching, so they authorised the two leaders of the followers of Jesus to be arrested, imprisoned and then put on trial. It wasn’t straightforward for the establishment because a very familiar crippled beggar had just been healed. They were astonished at the courage of Peter and John noting that they had been with Jesus but not realising that Jesus was still with them.
In Acts 4:17-18 we read that the authorities made an impossible demand as they warned Peter and John, and in effect the whole Christian community, not to speak to anyone or teach them about Jesus. The threats fell on deaf ears. A premature death did not frighten them. They had learned already to fear the One who can destroy the soul, not merely the body. They had to obey God rather than man. So they continued to proclaim Jesus to them.
When they were acquitted, they went straight back to the believers and prayed to the God of creation – ‘You made’ (v.24); the God of revelation – ‘You spoke’ (v.25); and the God of salvation – ‘You decided’ (vv.27-28).
They did not pray for the removal of either the threats or the enemies of the gospel but for boldness to speak the word of God in the face of opposition. Their prayer was that God would take note of the threats (v.29a); that they themselves would speak with greater boldness (29b); and that God would miraculously stretch out his hand and do signs and wonders (v.30). And by way of answer, the place – not them – was shaken; they were filled with the Holy Spirit, not with fear; and rather than being silenced, they spoke boldly about Jesus (v.31).
In recent history
The history of the church is the history of persecution and suffering. Jesus, in John 15:18-21, promised his followers that we will be persecuted. But the last 150 years in the UK we have experienced unusual acceptance and respect concerning the gospel. We have prayed for Christians in distant countries who have been persecuted but not experienced it ourselves. Over the last 15 years or so this has begun to change for us and now we are seeing opposition and antagonism to the gospel rapidly increasing.
Concern and the Christian Institute are working overtime. Believers have lost their jobs, been taken to court, intimidated by the authorities and the threats are real. Successive governments have legislated against the Ten Commandments. Christians, especially those working in the public sector, are being intimidated into silence. Christian school children and students are openly vilified for their beliefs. What was said to Peter and John blatantly is being said to us subtly, persistently and effectively.
So what do we do? We know that this is our Father’s world, and no human authority has the right to gag his Word. We are aware that we as God’s children and ambassadors are ‘under marching orders’ to proclaim Christ crucified to a needy world. The love of Christ constrains us, as we see the lost-ness of men and women destined to hell without the Lord Jesus as their Saviour. We feel with C. H. Spurgeon who said, ‘The truest reward of our life’s work is to bring dead souls to life. I long to see souls brought to Jesus – it should break my heart if I did not see it … men are passing into eternity so rapidly that we must have them saved at once … brethren, can we bear to be useless? Can we be barren and yet content?’ And we know we have so great a cloud of witnesses who for 2,000 years have hazarded their lives for the gospel’s sake.
Learning from Acts 4
So, let us learn from Acts 4. For, like Peter and John, we need to pray and we need to be bold. Nobody has the right to say ‘I had no choice …,’ for with God’s help we can choose not to be gagged. The Puritans when facing intimidation used to say, ‘We can die!’ The Cornish tin miner, Billy Bray, said, ‘If they put me in a barrel, I will shout “Glory” out of the bung hole!’
Peter and John responded to the threats by speaking the gospel, by praying with others and then by further boldly proclaiming the gospel. It is an imperative duty of every Christian to pray. If you are not praying, you have forgotten why you became a Christian! Pray individually. Pray before meals. Pray in vacant slots of time. Pray with your spouse, or your parents, or your friends. Pray continuously. And prioritise, at very least, attendance at one prayer meeting each week. When in the company of others, you can praise God and then bring your requests to him.
Pray to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. And pray that God might give you winsome boldness to speak to your friends about the Lord. Personally, I seek to ensure that every day I speak to someone about the Lord. That daily discipline has been one of the major delights and blessings of my Christian life. But I have found that it is when I earnestly pray that God would lead me to the ‘right’ person, that I have the ‘best’ conversations. Ask the Lord to give you fruit for your witness.
It is not accurate to say that ‘prayer works’. But it is true that God works as we pray. Let us proclaim and pray. Let us get the Word out, saturating our proclamation with prayer and if persecution persists, as it did at the end of Acts 5, so be it. That is what Jesus said would happen. It is normal Christianity – but so is praying and proclaiming. We are to obey him and not men. With his power I will not fear what men can do to me, as I preach, pray and plug away.