The cost of commitment


When God uses us to set people free from whatever had previously bound them, Satan’s kingdom is diminished. This is not only because liberated people will not easily be bound again by the same problems; it is also because Satan’s plans are now exposed to their friends and relatives. Losing one person is bad enough for our enemy, but the knock-on effect can mean that the loss runs into hundreds, thousands, or even millions of souls! We just don’t know what effect our work of sharing the gospel with a friend will have over the course of time.

Therefore, Satan and his minions will do all that they can to prevent people being rescued from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13). Of course, the obvious way to do this is to prevent Christian disciples from sharing the good news in the first place. Throughout the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, we shall see how Satan steps up his opposition, from threats to individuals, to all-out attacks on individual Christians and groups of Christians. His goal was to try and stamp out the truth of God from being established in the earth.

The first attack was, therefore, directed at Peter & John and came from the priests, the captain of the temple guard and a religious group known as the "Sadducees". Peter and John were proclaiming - in Jesus - the resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. Sadly, they exemplified the true meaning of the word, "religious", which comes from two possible elements of the Latin language: either "religare" (to bind) or "religio" (meaning obligation, bond or reverence). Where Jesus wants to set people free, religious people often want to bind them up again! It is a sad fact that opposition to spiritual freedom often comes from within churches or denominational movements, where people in authority have established an entrenched and public position. They may be unwilling to lose face, authority or even their job by having a public change of heart about some initiative or project that God is blessing.

In this case, the religious authorities approached Peter and John while they were still speaking to the people. Their plan was a damage-limitation exercise: stop this and stop it now! Because it was already evening, they threw them into prison for the night (Acts 4:1-3). Some people might have been frightened by this misplaced and misguided demonstration of authority; they might have backed down, stopped "rocking the boat" and submitted to the authorities; but not Peter and John. These two men had been with Jesus for three years. They had seen the miracles He had done, had been taught by Him and knew that they had His authority as they used His name. As a result, one formerly crippled beggar had been healed and a whole host of people were eager to know how and why it had happened and to place their trust in Jesus by becoming disciples as well. Satan's kingdom had been diminished. The new believers would go home and, in turn, affect their own family and friends (Acts 4:4).

Prison is never a good place to be. It is certainly not a good place to be when you are there for doing good to people and for having had their welfare at heart, but Peter and John had seen worse. They had seen the shameful, mock trial and rejection of the person they now knew beyond doubt to be the Messiah: the one who had come from God Himself to provide the way for human beings to return to God; the one who had endured the worst death that humans could inflict on another humans. They knew what these people in authority were capable of and how destructive they could be. They were aware that, when the morning came, they could be subjected to horrific treatment. But they also knew that Jesus had broken the bonds of death and that, though they themselves might die, they would never be separated from God again because of what had been done for them on that Roman cross. They knew that death had lost its sting and that the fear that the grave had maintained over humanity had been removed for ever for those who become Christians (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

A day in court

Instead of being cowed and broken, they began praising God for the opportunities that the morning might offer them. Sure enough, they were not disappointed! They were dragged before the supreme religious court. All those considered important in the Jewish nation were there: rulers, elders, teachers of the law. Even Annas, the High Priest Emeritus, was there with his family, especially his son-in-law, Joseph ben Caiaphas, the ruling High Priest and great friend of the Romans. It was Caiaphas who had prophesied, following the raising of Lazarus from the dead, that Jesus would die not only for Israel, but for all the children of God scattered around the world (John 11:47-53).

Against this array of the "great and the good" stood Peter who, at Jesus' trial, just a few short weeks earlier, had denied three times that he even knew Jesus. He now stood up, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to answer for his actions. He delivered a forceful but reasoned argument as to why and how the crippled beggar had been healed and who had done it. He was not afraid to lay the blame for Jesus’ death fairly and squarely where it belonged: at the feet of the authorities, the very people ranged before him that day. It was they who had crucified Jesus, said Peter, but God had overruled their motives and had raised Jesus from the dead. That was why this formerly crippled man, who could do nothing but beg for a living, had been healed. It is also why you and I can become disciples today.

Of course, as the apostle Paul later pointed out in his letters, it was ultimately Satan, who had the religious people and the great men of the world in his pocket. He had been behind the plan to prevent humanity from turning back to God by having Jesus executed and discredited – but he had no idea what he was doing! "None of the rulers of this age understood [this plan]" wrote Paul; "if they had, they never would have crucified the Lord of Glory" (1 Corinthians 2:8). The plan to have Jesus crucified was designed to put an end, once and for all, to the "kingdom of heaven" on earth. It would mean the end of all hope; an ignominious death that would teach the disciples a lesson they would never forget and consign them to unbelief for ever.

God’s plan, by contrast, was that through the crucifixion itself - Jesus' death - all sin would be taken away for those that put their trust in Jesus; the way would be made open for all human beings to have a vibrant relationship with their loving Creator restored. One of the most obvious signs of the arrival of God's kingdom was the way in which Jesus healed people from all sorts of physical and mental illness. Through His death and, following His resurrection, through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the kingdom of God was set free throughout the world to bring physical and spiritual healing to all humanity.

Christ the cornerstone

Isaiah, writing hundreds of years before Jesus was born, prophesied about someone called "messiah", which comes from a Hebrew word meaning, "the anointed one" or "the chosen one". He said: "Yet it was our grief He bore, our sorrows that weighed Him down. We thought His troubles were a punishment from God - for His own sins - but He was wounded and bruised for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace; He was lashed - and we were healed! We - every one of us - have strayed away like sheep! We left God's paths to follow our own. Yet God laid on Him the guilt and sins of every one of us. He bore the sins of many and He pleaded with God for sinners". (Isaiah 53:1-12)

As the good news about the kingdom of God coming through Jesus' death and resurrection began to spread through Jerusalem, the disciples began to see that Isaiah's prophecy (and similar prophecies about a "messiah" found elsewhere in the Jewish scriptures) clearly related to Jesus Himself. He was the promised "messiah" who had taken on Himself the burden and penalty of our rebellion and wrongdoing.

What do we believe about Jesus today? Do we recognise that there is nothing good that we can do to make up for our sinfulness? Do we recognise and feel Jesus' love for us? Do we see that Christian faith is not about paying off our spiritual debts by living "a good life" and doing good things? Do we realise that being a follower of Jesus today has to start with a simple acceptance on our part of the fact that Jesus has paid our debt and asks in return only that we acknowledge God as our Father and are willing to live our lives for Him each day, under the direction of the Holy Spirit?

Peter told the Jewish leaders that the nation had rejected the "cornerstone": that part of the foundation of a building that keeps the rest of the structure straight and true when a builder builds a wall of any sort. Those early disciples recognised Jesus as being the "cornerstone" of God's new building: the "church". (See 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.) We cannot build any sort of life for ourselves without Jesus as the "foundation" of our own lives. All our efforts will be tested when we face Jesus Christ on Judgment Day. The extent of our own contribution to God's building will be made clear on that day. It will be "tested" in the same way that metals are tested for purity. If Jesus has been the "cornerstone" of our lives, what we have done with our lives will be accepted and rewarded.

The Christian faith is unique in not requiring people to do something in order to "find God". Peter told the Jewish leaders: "Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). He based this on what Jesus Himself had said: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

Christianity relies on the finished work of Jesus Christ. ("Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "messiah" meaning "anointed one".) The "way" to God is through a person; that is the person: Jesus Christ. We need to lay the right foundation in our lives, setting the "cornerstone" in place, before we start building into our lives things that will stand the fire of God’s judgment. The apostle Paul used the illustration of things that people have in their houses to encourage Christian disciples to become "holy instruments": tools that are set apart for specific purposes - specialist instruments that can be used for skilled, creative work. (See 2 Timothy 2:20-21.)

Peter and John knew what it meant to be Christian disciples. They were entirely committed to what they had seen and heard during their time with Jesus. They were prepared to "put to death" their own ambitions and desires in order to do what Jesus asked of them. They were prepared to let Jesus take the credit for the miracle of healing that had just been performed through them. They faced the Jewish leaders in court without fear of what that court might do to them, because they believed that Jesus had conquered death and would be waiting to receive them on the other side of it. For them, death was merely a transition between time and eternity and that is how it will be for us if we are following Jesus. We need never again fear death. Jesus has overcome it on our behalf (Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:46-58).

The religious leaders were astonished at the courage and boldness of these ordinary, uneducated men and they took note of the fact that they had been disciples of Jesus (Acts 4:13). They also found themselves powerless to inflict any punishment on Peter & John because the man who had been healed was standing right there among them. This man had never been able to stand on his own two feet throughout his entire life and he was now more than forty years old. (See Acts 3:2 and Acts 4:22.) Here was irrefutable proof of the power of Jesus to heal! Furthermore, everybody living in Jerusalem had heard what had happened, so there was no use in denying it (Acts 4:16).

The Jewish leaders were frightened and we can understand why. If people were to start following this new "way" instead of giving their allegiance (and money!) to the temple, they would soon begin to lose their power and authority. There was probably also some genuine concern that such a situation would upset the delicate balance in the nation as a whole. This was an occupied country and the Romans had the ultimate power and authority. If the Jewish leaders could no longer exercise proper influence and control over the people, it could prove disastrous for the entire nation. So much time had passed since the major events in the nation's history of the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah (the religious law of Moses) and the events of King David's reign, that the leaders no longer had any sense of God being in charge of things. They had given up all hope and expectation of God intervening on His people's behalf as He had done hundreds of years earlier. It was no wonder that Jesus had described them as being: "the blind leading the blind" (Luke 6:39).

In an attempt to shore up the situation, they warned Peter and John not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. But how could the disciples possibly comply? Jesus had changed their own lives and they had seen Him change many others’ lives too. They had discovered that God was indeed ready to intervene in the lives of His people once again; in fact, that was precisely what He had done in Jesus Christ. So, Peter and John responded: "Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20).

Listening to God

Peter & John had spent three years in the company of Jesus and had learned to "listen to God". We may think that we would be at something of a disadvantage if put into a situation where we had to choose between obeying God and obeying human authorities. However, we have sixty-six books of the Bible to help us in learning how to listen to God for ourselves. If we're prepared to spend ten or fifteen minutes a day, we can easily cover a chapter or two at a time and read the entire Bible in the space of three years. This is not the same as learning "proof texts" that we can quote to people. It involves a process of getting to know God in the same way that we get to know other people. Over time, we learn how they think and the kind of things that they say - or don't say. Then, when faced with a difficult choice to make, we can ask ourselves: how would Jesus deal with this situation?

Our God is a God of love. Jesus didn't throw Peter and John into awkward situations until they'd had a chance to spend time with Him and get to know Him. In the same way, when we first make our decision to start following Him, He invites us to join His family. Churches can be fantastic places for learning how to relate to and to deal with people. None of us are perfect and none of us get things right all the time but, in a church founded on the loving principles taught by Jesus and where people acknowledge Him as the boss, there is room for people to get things wrong. We can learn to forgive and be forgiven.

Talking to God

The first thing that Peter & John did, once they'd been released, was to report back to their church - their family. The response of this family is instructive as well. Their first instinct was to pray. Reading God's word (the Bible) is a kind of "listening" process, but we can also talk to God - even argue with Him! As always, it's good to remember that we have two ears but only one mouth. If we spend twice as much time listening to God as we do in talking to Him, we'll probably have the balance about right. It's also worth noticing that they didn't spend their time talking to each other; having heard what Peter and John had to say, they wanted to talk to God!

How did they pray?

They began by recognising God's position as sovereign creator. Then they acknowledged that God is a planner. Way back in King David's time, God had been planning for a time when "the kings of the earth and the rulers" would "band together against His anointed (chosen) one" (Acts 4:25-26). They understood that the events that had just taken place marked a significant moment in history and asked for God's help in seeing this moment through. They had received God's Holy Spirit and saw that this was the time for this gift to be put to good use, so they prayed for God to continue the demonstration of His power and presence through healing and miraculous wonders.

Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven

When God begins to work, foundations are shaken. The physical shaking of the building in which they were met represented the very tip of an enormous iceberg. The spiritual foundations of God's people (the nation of Israel) were being shaken as a new kingdom (the kingdom of heaven) started to appear. Wherever people offer their lives to Jesus and allow Him to fill them with His Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God begins to take shape and existing foundations are shaken.

It has been hundreds of years since these events in the book of Acts. Have we, like the Jewish leaders in Jesus' day, given up all hope and expectation of God intervening today on His peoples' behalf? The apostle Peter later wrote letters to Christian disciples to remind them of things written earlier in the Bible by various prophets and commands given by Jesus Himself. In 2 Peter 3:8-14, he pointed out that God does not forget His promises; He simply works to a different time-scale. He does not want human beings to perish and is very patient with them, but a day of judgment is coming and Jesus' followers need to live as though it could arrive at any moment.

Like Peter and John, we need to be alive and alert to whatever opportunities God may set before us each day. Have we given over control of our lives to Jesus? Have we allowed Him to fill us with His Spirit? Are we able to recognise spiritual need when we see it and respond to it with love? Are we willing to allow God to use us in pointing others to His kingdom? Are we ready to pay the cost of commitment?

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