Sunday, October 7, 2018

Worthy to Suffer

Are you worthy to suffer? 

That sounds weird, huh? I mean, my knee-jerk reaction to suffering is, “Lord, why me? What wrong did I do to deserve this?” But (apparently) the opposite is true. When suffering, we should rather ask, “What good thing have I done to be so fortunate?”

You’re not convinced, I can tell.

In our study of Acts, we’ve witnessed an exciting start to this new Jesus movement called the church. Even after the first scandal—the deaths of hypocrites Ananias and Sapphira—the purified and passionate church is growing wildly. Luke tells us, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). Because of the love they showed to one another, the care for others’ physical needs, and the good news of God’s grace, “the people held them in high esteem” (v. 13). Times were good. But the devil was not going to stand by and let this growing movement go unopposed. Satan knows his end is coming, and the sooner the church accomplishes her mission to take the Good News to all nations, the sooner his time is over. 

Having failed to establish hypocrisy in the church, Satan went to his favorite friends, the hypocritical leaders of Judaism at that time, the Sanhedrin. 

But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and [they were] filled with jealousy (v. 17).

We know from the Gospels that these leaders, most of whom were Sadducees, were liberal (they didn’t believe much of the Bible was inspired, and didn’t believe in miracles, or resurrection, or heaven), and they were corrupt, having twisted the religious system to enrich themselves. Jesus had called them out—and they killed him for it. Now Jesus’ followers are the biggest thing in Jerusalem! If someone wants to be vehemently hated, just take the spotlight away from the who’s who. What’s worse? They accused these establishment elitists of killing Jesus! How dare they! So the leaders “arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison” (Acts 5:18). 

The devil is behind all this. He is turning up the heat on these apostles who just a couple of months earlier had fled in fear when Jesus was arrested. “This will scare them and stop their enthusiasm,” he must have thought.

Where God is at work, Satan gets to work. But God is greater. As Luther said, “The devil is still God’s devil.”
The Apostles Delivered from Prison by an Angel. 
An engraving by Philip Galle and Maerten van Heemskerck 
in the 1560s. National Gallery of Art.

What happens next is great. “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out” (v. 19) There’s nothing God can’t do. He sets captives free. Literally and figuratively. Bars and chains can’t stop him. Neither can drugs and sex (or whatever holds you captive). The angel said, Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (v. 20). "What?!" I can sense them thinking, "you want us to go right back into the lion’s den?" I think it is so awesome. I think God wants us to do the same. Persecution shouldn’t stop us. It should steel our resolve. And that’s what they did: Verse 21, “And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.” I love this! Meanwhile, the pompous Sanhedrin convenes that very morning and called to have the apostles brought before them, expecting them to be humbled. Imagine the shock when they were told the disciples weren’t there! Right after getting that news, someone else yelled, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people” (v. 25). They were brought in and grilled: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us” (v.28). The apostles were unwavering. “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.” (Acts 5:29-32)

This enraged the elitists and they wanted to kill them. But a respected member of the Sanhedrin warned that they should let them alone. He told them that if this movement “is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

As you may know, it WAS of God. 

After agreeing to let them go, the Sanhedrin called them in and blessed them and bid them a kind farewell. Umm...not quite. "When they had called in the apostles, they beat them” (v. 40). Think about this for a second! What did that entail? Did they let the temple guards stand around them with sticks and cane them? Did they chain them to a post and whip them? Did they ask some Roman soldiers to punch them and slap them around? All of those scenarios are real possibilities. It's hard for us to picture because not many American Christians have experienced literal blows because of their faith.

After beating them Luke says the Sanhedrin “charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (v.40).

I've had the privilege to meet people who face violent
persecution every day for Jesus. This is a group of
Christians forced to flee China. When I took this picture,
they were singing, "This is the day that the Lord has made
let us rejoice and be glad in it." Not a sad face among them.
The apostles' reaction? “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (v. 41). Wow, it’s true. Suffering dishonor is honor. 

Jesus said it like this (in Matthew 5:10-12), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” That's relatable even to us American Christians. We do know insults and all kinds of evil being said falsely about us. 

Is it relatable to you?

As crazy as it seems, it’s true. When you suffer persecution for Jesus’ sake, you’re doing something right. You can count it all joy. So rejoice! You were counted worthy to suffer.

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