RPM, Volume 17, Number 11, March 8 to March 14, 2015

To the End of the Earth (11): Prison Break!

Acts 5:12-32

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me to The Acts of the Apostles; and we come this evening to chapter five, and beginning at the twelfth verse—Acts 5:12.

This is God's word. This is not like reading our favorite book. These are God's words breathed out by God, given by inspiration of God, and "profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work." Before we read these words together, let's ask for God's blessing.

Our Father, we thank You again for the Bible. We thank You for this astonishing gift; that over 1500 years, over 40 different authors were used by You, by Your Spirit, to enscripture it— all that we needed to know about You, about this world, about ourselves, about the way of salvation. Our Father, we pray now as we read this passage together, come, Holy Spirit, enable us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. For Jesus' sake we ask it. Amen.

This is God's word:

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles, and they were all together in Solomon's portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, so that as Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all healed.
But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the part of the Sadducees); and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, "Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life." And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak, and began to teach. Now when the high priest came and those who were with him, they called together the Council, and all the Senate of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came they did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported, "We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside." Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. And someone came and told them, "Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!" Then the captain with the officers went and brought them (but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people). And when they had brought them, they set them before the Council, and the high priest questioned them, saying, "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." But Peter and the apostles answered, "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."

Amen. May the Lord add His blessing.

This is the second wave of persecution that comes upon this early church, this effectively 'house church' in Jerusalem. We've already seen at the beginning of chapter 4 how Peter and John have spent the night in a prison cell, perhaps part of the very temple structure itself. And you remember, on the next morning they were strictly told not to teach or speak at all in the name of Jesus Christ. And you remember the response that "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."

And now as we turn to this section, the death of Ananias and Sapphira has now taken place. Great fear has come upon the church as a consequence; something of the immensity and significance of the holiness and the righteousness of God, the seriousness of what it means to worship God and to be a follower of Jesus Christ has come upon this community.

And I think we're meant to understand that perhaps some time now has elapsed—it wouldn't be all that clear just how much time—we get the impression in verse 12 that there were things now occurring on a regular basis. They were meeting, the apostles especially…meeting at Solomon's portico (or Solomon's colonnade), the section of the temple that ran around the outside walls of Herod's temple — a thoroughfare, more or less, where all kinds of people would come. It wasn't technically part of the temple proper. And there they are, doing precisely what they have been doing, namely, teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus Christ.

And there are those coming into Jerusalem from neighboring towns and villages. It appears that perhaps some of the believers who have already been converted, who have come there from distant parts, perhaps even some of the diaspora, are still in Jerusalem. So the numbers are considerable; they're great. And yet, now we see that God is still adding to their numbers.

This is church growth, and it seems to me that Luke is concerned about church growth; church growth, that is to say, by conversion, by the sovereign outpouring of God's Spirit as men and women are coming to embrace Jesus Christ as Messiah, as Lord, as Savior, as Prophet, Priest, and King. This astonishing work is being done in this city of Jerusalem. We're given a cameo portrait, I think, a little glimpse of New Testament evangelism, New Testament church growth—church growth, New Testament style! There are no buildings here. There certainly isn't a building as fine as First Presbyterian Church (not as it now looks, although it looks splendid now, but what it will look like). But there were no buildings. There was no choir. There was nothing to attract them from an external point of view. There was just the blandness of the apostles and other men and women talking about Jesus. That's all there was. There was no movie, there were no books, there were no pamphlets or tracts; there were no radio stations. As far as we know, there weren't any great preachers, although Peter seems now to be turning into a great preacher. It's all of God, you see. It's all of God. This is the Lord's doing. There are no formulas here; there is no methodology of evangelism that you can discern. They're engaging in witnessing to Jesus, to His life and death and resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God. It's all about Jesus Christ, and they're talking about Him! And men and women are being drawn to Him!

It's amazing, isn't it? In verse 20, this angel who lets them out of prison (the apostles)… "Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people…" Look at these words! "…All the words of this Life." All the words of this Life…they were to go and speak words. They were to speak all the words. You can't reduce that to a little formula. It's all the words! It's from Genesis all the way through to Malachi, and now some extra things that they can recall of the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ. 'And I want you to go to the temple, and I want you to explain all those words.'

And notice, "…all the words of this Life." Because it is a life. Their lives have been changed. They will never be the same again. Some of them have left their homes and their communities up in Galilee. Peter, for example, has left his fishing business. He will never be back there as a fisherman again. His life has been changed. They've discovered in Jesus Christ a new life, just as you and I have discovered a new life. That's why we're here this evening. The world thinks we're crazy. There are all kinds of things you could be doing on a Sunday evening, and here we are in this place gathered around the Scriptures, reading a Bible, studying it, asking the Holy Spirit (whom we can't see!) to illuminate these words to us that we might read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, because our lives have been changed.

Some of you…you spoke this evening of your life having been changed because you went to Africa, but it wasn't just Africa; it was what you saw of what God was doing in Africa. And if there's one thing that comes now, bubbles up to the surface, and I think Luke wants us to see it…it's the resolution, it's the resolve of these men and women, and particularly the apostles. They're resolved; they're determined; they're obsessed, if you like, obsessed with Christ. They want to obey Him, they want to follow Him, they want to give themselves to Him. That's what they say, isn't it? "We must obey God, not men." We must obey God. There's no debating it. There's no choice about it. They can't barter about it. We must obey God. This is the life that has descended upon us. That's what it is: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

And I want us to think about it along two lines of thought: the resolve that they have in ministry, and the resolve that they have in their message.?

The resolve, first of all, in their ministry: It begins yet again in Solomon's portico, Solomon's colonnade.

This is the part of the temple where Jesus Himself had taught, back in the tenth chapter of John's Gospel. And they're there regularly, and they're performing extraordinary miracles of healing and of exorcism. They were of one accord. They were united in their view of things. And then, in your Scriptures there's a problem in verse 13. It's not clear how to take it. Commentators are all over the map on it: "None of the rest dared join them." Who are these rest? None of the rest dared join the ones who are in Solomon's portico… Now, some commentators think that the rest are unbelievers, and there are some fine commentators who think that. [Our senior minister may well think that; I didn't ask him beforehand.]

The problem with it is that verse 14 goes on to say "…And more than ever, believers were added to the Lord." So there seems to be a conflict, if the rest are unbelievers. So there are other commentators who say, no, the rest here are other believers. There are those in Solomon's colonnade, and they're out and out for Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost, no matter what the consequences. They're performing these miracles; and then there are others, and perhaps they're a little timid, and they're a little shy, and they're a little afraid. We know, for example, of Joseph of Arimathea; we know of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night. They were secret disciples, and maybe Luke is suggesting that the church, this infant church, this infant house church, has already got something of a little tension in it. There were those who were prepared to put their lives on the line for Jesus Christ, and then there were others perhaps who wanted to stand back just a little. Well, whatever the exact interpretation of that, God is blessing in an extraordinary way, in such a way that even Peter's shadow is having an effect.

Now, there's a very famous painting from the Italian Renaissance by Tommaso Masaccio of this incident of Peter's shadow…it depicts Peter pompous looking with a papal sort of hat on, and there are about six people in the painting, and Peter is looking straight forward and not looking at this cripple who's down by his feet. Well, that's not the picture that Luke is drawing here. Luke is drawing a picture here of so many people out in the streets coming in from the towns and villages that you can hardly move, and that it wasn't possible for them to get anywhere near to Peter, and so the shadow of Peter might fall upon them. It's an extraordinary thing. And God is adding to the church.

No, do you notice the language? He's adding "to the Lord." They're being added to the Lord. They're being added to Him in union and communion with Him. God is pouring out His Spirit in Jerusalem, and the church is growing by leaps and bounds, and these signs and wonders are being done. Yes! They're wonders! The English word miracle comes from the Latin word miraculum, which means something that causes us to wonder, and these extraordinary healings and exorcisms caused the people to stand back in awe and in wonder at the majesty and power and sovereignty of God, the Holy Spirit, as He manifested Himself in the lives of these apostles. God was in this place!

And they were signs, of course. Luke wants us to see that they were signs, because the work of redemption is more than just the forgiveness of sins; the work of redemption has in view our translation ultimately to a new heavens and a new earth, in which there will be no disease, and all the ravages and effects of fallen humanity from Adam onward will be undone by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There's a resolution in their ministry, and such a resolution! Do you notice in verse 17, Luke says it "arose jealousy amongst the high priest and the Sadducees." The Sadducees, of course, didn't believe in the resurrection. The high priest and the party of the Sadducees were filled with jealousy.

Gustav Mahler, one of the greatest composers of the last 120 years or so, when he got married he married a woman called Alma. Alma was herself quite a proficient composer. She may well have become an even more proficient composer of her own right. The day he married her, he said to her in a letter, "There will only be my music now." An extraordinary thing! And biographers say how jealous he was of her abilities. (It was a marriage that was never going to last.) Jealousy…and here the Sanhedrin, and especially the high priest, are jealous now of the attention that these apostles are receiving, and so they're put in prison and they spend the night in prison.

And then, an angel comes and opens the gate of the prison, and charges them to go back to where they had been, in Solomon's colonnade, in the portico, and to "speak all the words of this Life." Now, it raises an issue, doesn't it, because this was an act in one sense of civil disobedience. (We were being exhorted this morning about civil obedience!)

Well, this is an act of civil disobedience, in some ways, to escape from prison. Now, granted it was an angel who opened the gates, and you might justify that that is not therefore an act of civil disobedience, but in the eyes of the Sanhedrin it certainly was an act of civil disobedience, and in the eyes of the Roman authorities it probably would have been an act of civil disobedience, too, although I think the Roman authorities at this stage are standing well clear of what they see as an internal strife amongst the Jews.

I remember in Northern Ireland, a place given go civil disobedience, this text was often used, and others like it, to justify civil disobedience, along with texts like the Hebrew midwives disobeying the edict of Pharaoh and saving the little boy children; or, Daniel, in chapter 6, the edict not to pray to any god except to King Darius; or, Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego being thrown into the lions' den because of their refusal to bow down to the image of Nebuchadnezzar; or, Queen Esther approaching King Ahasuerus, which was in itself a violation of the law. It raises all kinds of issues, but you see what's at stake here. These apostles, as they walk out of this prison, they're not doing it for any personal gain, they're not doing it for personal self-interest, they're not doing it for personal advancement. They're certainly not engaging in any violence in doing it. They weren't verbally abusive. They weren't burning copies of the Jewish Midrash in the temple. They weren't advocating a political point of view. This was gospel, and the motivation was gospel motivation: We must speak about Jesus Christ, because obedience to Jesus Christ comes above every other consideration of obedience, and we must obey God, no matter what the consequences might be.

You get a sense, don't you, of their resolve and their determination, and their courage, because you understand what may well be coming down the line; and indeed, it is coming down the line in a few chapters. We'll read the story of Stephen, angelic Stephen, who will give his life as the first Christian martyr, because that's where this resolution is heading: We must obey God rather than men.

I want us to see in the second place in the way this resolution worked out in the form and content of the message that they now preach, and in verses 30 and 31, you see a little cameo of the gospel of the New Testament.

"We must obey God rather than men," Peter says, together with the rest of the apostles in verse 29. And then he goes on to say:

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.

It's a little cameo sketch of the gospel. And you scratch your head, and you say 'Yes, but it's the same old message.' It's what you've already heard Peter preach on on the Day of Pentecost in chapter 2; it's what you heard Peter preach after the healing of the cripple in chapter 3; it's what you heard Peter preach again in chapter 4. This is the fourth time that Peter is preaching a sermon, and it's the same old sermon. There's very little new about it. It's as though he's stuck in a groove. It's all about Jesus, it's all about Christ.

I wonder tonight as we look at this—and I want to look at it in some detail in the few minutes that I have—I wonder, have you got tired of the gospel? Have you got tired of that old message? That old, old message of Jesus and His love? You want something new? You want something to titillate you? You want something that's more flashy, and something more modern, and something that's more hip?

And here is Peter, and he's stuck in this groove. It's the gospel in less than 35 words. That would be a challenge, wouldn't it? Write down the gospel for me in less than 35 words, and give it to Ligon and see if it passes muster. It's not as easy as you think. I think even now our seminary students would find that a very difficult task to do in under 35 words.

What is the gospel? What are the chief components of the gospel? What are the essential elements of the Christian gospel? What is it that for Peter he must obey God about, rather than men? Well, notice with me these five things.

It's an obsession about Jesus. It's an obsession about Jesus. You remember on the Day of Pentecost: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth…" and on he goes. It's about Jesus. You remember what he said to the cripple? "Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give unto you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk."

And here it is again:

"The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed…"

It's all about Jesus Christ. It's in the name of Jesus. This is the name, of course, that they have been forbidden to talk about or teach about. This was the edict that was given to them, that they were forbidden to preach or teach in the name of Jesus, and now what is Peter doing? He and his companions have spent a night in prison, and what is he doing? Well, he's obeying, of course, the edict of the angel! He's obeying God! And what is he doing? Doing the very thing that the state has told him not to do—or at least, the Jewish authorities have told him not to do. He's talking about Jesus Christ.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer's ear;
It calms his sorrows,
Heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It's an obsession about Jesus Christ.

Secondly, he's preaching Jesus as part of God's redemptive plan.

Now, the New American Standard renders this "The God of our fathers raised Jesus…the God of our fathers raised Jesus." It's not, I think, a reference to the resurrection so much as a reference to the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament with regard to the Messiah. He has been raised up as a consequence of what God had spoken in the Garden of Eden, that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. He's God's answer. He is God's answer to the problem of mankind.

Look around you, my friends. Listen to the news, if you can bear it. Read the headlines in the newspapers…and this world is in a mess, and it's trying to find an answer, and it's looking to this and that, and here is Peter saying the answer to man's problem lies in what God has provided. God has raised Him up. Jesus is no Johnny-come-lately. He's not just another Palestinian prophet and preacher. He's the One that God has raised up: the God of Abraham, the God of your fathers; He's the One that had been spoken of all the way through the pages of the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of the plan of God.

Notice, in the third place, the emphasis he gives to the death and the exaltation, resurrection exaltation of Jesus Christ.

You notice again he says, "You killed Him." That's astonishing, isn't it? This is the fourth time that Peter has said this in Jerusalem to the Jewish authorities who had put Him to death, who had crucified Him: "You killed Him."

There's no sense here of being anti-Semitic, you understand, as the fear now is of saying those very words. This is Peter! Peter is a Jew! This isn't anti-Semitism, this is fact! This is reality. He's pointing them to the reality of what they'd done, because they must be accountable for what they have done if they are going to find forgiveness. If they're going to be reconciled to God, they must first of all acknowledge their sin. They had put Him to death. They'd crucified Him, the Lord of glory. God raised Him, and God exalted Him to His right hand.

And exalted Him, you notice in the fourth place, to become a Leader, or a Prince.

It's a very distinctive word. It's the Greek word archegos. It's used in Hebrews 2; it's used again in Hebrews 12. It's already been used in Acts 3. It's the idea of a trailblazer. It's the idea of someone who goes before us and blazes a trail for others to follow in his wake. He's that kind of Prince; He's that kind of Leader; He's one upon whose shoulders is the government, and the authority and the power. He's a mighty Prince, but He's also a Savior…a Savior. And do you notice the language?

"…A Savior to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins."

There's no way to heaven apart from the gateway of repentance. You cannot get to heaven without repentance. You may talk about being converted, and you may talk about professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but unless you have repented of your sins, there is nothing to it.

But you know the dilemma that we have, you and I. God commands us to repent, but we cannot repent. That's the dilemma. We are commanded to repent. Jesus' first words were, "Repent, and believe the gospel." They were John the Baptist's first words, to "repent, and believe the gospel." But I cannot repent. I'm unable to repent. I'm dead in trespasses and in sins. I don't have the ability to repent. And if I am going to repent of my sins, God must give that to me. He must do it; He must enable me; it must be by His sovereign power.

Isn't it marvelous that Peter says in the close of this little cameo sermon that we have a Savior? We have a Savior who gives us repentance and forgiveness of sins! He not only points the way to forgiveness, He enables us to walk in that way.

"Nothing in my hands I bring…"

You see, the gospel isn't about morals. It's not about ethics. It's not about do good, or do this, or do the other, or lead a better life, or turn over a new leaf. It's about repentance, and it's about the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone.

That's the gospel, my friends. That's their resolve, that's their determination. Peter is saying:

Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.
Naked…naked!…look to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly:
Wash me, Savior, or I die."
It's all about one thing: It's about Jesus.

I was reading to the staff on Friday morning a letter that I'd come across in Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I want to read it to you. He's talking about the American naturalist, Audubon, and you may well know he's an ornithologist…birds, and so on:

You may perhaps have read the life of Audubon, the celebrated American naturalist. He spent the major part of his life in preparing a very valuable work on the birds of America. He tracked these birds into their remotest haunts, painted them from nature, lived in the cane breaks, swamps and prairies, even among the Red Men, exposed to all kinds of dangers; and all simply to become a complete ornithologist.
When he was in Paris collecting subscriptions for his new work, his diary was full of wretchedness. There was nothing in Paris for him, and the only bright dream that he had was when he saw the stock pigeons building their nests in the Garden of the Triere. The broad streets, the magnificent palaces, the pictures of the Louvre, they were all nothing to him: stock pigeons, everything.
He came to London, and he was equally dull there. Not a single incident shows a comfortable frame of mind, until he sees one day a flock of wild geese passing over the city. He wrote in a London paper on birds, and he says, "While I was writing, I think I hear the rustle of wings of pigeons in the back woods of America." The man's soul was full of birds, nothing but birds. And of course he became a great naturalist. He lived and was willing to die for birds.
We need to muster a band of ministers who live only for Christ, and desire nothing but opportunities for promoting His glory, opportunities for spreading His truth, opportunities for winning by power those whom Jesus has redeemed by His precious blood, men of one idea. These are they that shall do exploits in the camp of Israel.

Well, may God give us such men and women to be obsessed with Christ. Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. It convicts us of how little we love the Lord Jesus Christ. Help us, help us, to love Him more. For Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

Some of you asked if I'd put this quote of Spurgeon's about the naturalist, John James Audubon (1785 - 1851).

You may, perhaps, have read the life of Audubon, the celebrated American naturalist. He spent the major part of his life in preparing a very valuable work on the birds of America. He tracked these birds into their remotest haunts, painted them from nature, lived in the cane-brakes, swamps, and prairies — even among the red men, exposed to all kinds of dangers — and all simply to become a complete ornithologist. When he was in Paris, collecting subscriptions for his new work, his diary was full of wretchedness — there was nothing in Paris for him' and the only bright dream that he had was when he saw the stock-pigeons building their nests in garden of the Tuileries. The broad streets, the magnificent palaces, the pictures of the Louvre, these were all nothing to him — the stock-pigeons everything. He came to London, and he was equally dull there. Not a single incident shows a comfortable frame of mind, till he sees one day a flock of wild geese passing over the city. He wrote in London a paper on birds; and he says "While I am writing I think I hear the rustle of the wings of pigeons in the backwoods of America." The man's soul was full of birds, nothing but birds; and of course he became a great naturalist. He lived and he was willing to die for birds. We need to muster a band of ministers who live only for Christ, and desire nothing but opportunities for promoting His glory — opportunities for spreading His truth — opportunities for winning by power those whom Jesus has redeemed by His precious blood. Men of one idea — these are they that shall do exploits in the camp of Israel.
Cited in G. Holden Pike, Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 2:352
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