When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while.35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. – Acts 5:33-42

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Hibiscus Blossom | Back Yard Photo | 2015

Three dynamics combine in these few verses to support the continued spread of the gospel on this occasion. The first is the dedication of Jesus’ followers – even in the face of fierce opposition, threat of death, and physical violence, all of which were designed to put a stop to their preaching. While there are times when opposition and threat will impede the message of the gospel. But sometimes God uses such opposition to embolden his witnesses. Such was the case here.

Then comes the wise counsel of Gamaliel. Past performance is never a guarantee of future returns. But past experience ought to teach us something. And in the case of failed movements of the past, Gamaliel’s advise is right: if this is from man, it will fail. If it is of God, it ought not be opposed – unless you want to oppose God himself.

His counsel is remarkable in that he opens the door to the possibility that Peter and the others are actually serving the cause of God. He is allowing the possibility that Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and that he is the Savior, the Christ of God. Such an allowance opens up a channel for the Holy Spirit’s work – even in the hearts of those who are opposed to the message of Jesus.

Add to all that the influence of the Holy Spirit who inspires these witnesses to rejoice that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Jesus’ name. This attitude is not from man. It will not go away. It is from God and will sustain these followers of Jesus through their ministry.

So much of this applies to the specific situation and challenges Peter and the others were facing at this time. But perhaps we can take note of these lessons and seek in every way possible to align ourselves with God’s purposes, and plans. His plans are most often discovered only in retrospect. But his purposes are clear: the bring the Good News of Jesus to all people everywhere, with the call for us all to repent and believe in Christ who is Jesus.

 

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 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.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” – Acts 5:27-32

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One of the many beautiful cactus blossoms growing at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo taken March 2017.

A  couple of years ago I was invited to pray at the beginning of the Harris County Commissioners Court. I was given few guidelines and allowed to offer my prayer as I saw fit. Before going, however, I very politely informed the person through the request had come that I would be praying in the name of Jesus. “I hope that’s OK,” I said. Her reply was refreshing and encouraging: “It certainly it. I’m glad to hear that.”

When the time came, I offered the prayer as seemed appropriate, and ended by saying, “This I ask in Jesus’ name.” I didn’t presume to say, “we ask in Jesus’ name,” though I’m certain that others there would likely agree to invoking Jesus’ name.

Sadly, however, such political incorrectness is not welcome everywhere. A colleague was invited to pray for a Boy Scouts of America event, and was told he could not invoke Jesus’ name. US military chaplains are being challenged in their public performance – outside of regular church services – to refrain from calling on Jesus’ name.

It’s not necessarily true that such prohibitions pit us in a must obey God rather than man situation. We can in good conscience decline any invitation that would limit our freedom to call on Jesus’ name. But any time we are told we cannot pray in Jesus’ name is for me a “we must obey God rather than man” moment if we have been invited to pray.

Of course the issues are bigger than that; it’s not just a matter of prayer. What of holding to traditional understandings of marriage, sexuality, decency, or morality? What of those times when we are invited or even tempted to go along with the crowd on a path of sin and ungodliness? Gossip. Sexual immorality. Embezzlement. All these offer opportunities to obey the whims of man rather than follow the ways of God.

This is not just a matter of obedience, or doing the right thing. It is an outgrowth of what God has done for us in Jesus. As Peter tells us: Jesus has been raised from the dead, exalted to God’s right hand, and offers the opportunity for us to repent and be forgiven of our sins. He has given us the Holy Spirit so that we may follow Jesus’ ways and not give in to the temptations of man.

But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy 18 they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 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, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 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. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. – Acts 5:17-26

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Some of the flowers at The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, CA | Photo taken March 2017

You know you’re making an impact when people try to silence you. If you’re sounding the alarm at work and people are trying to shush you up, you can be sure that there is something alarming going on. When you are trying to make an unpopular point and people loudly dismiss you, it might be that your point is hitting closer to home than you had thought. Perhaps that is what was going on at Notre Dame earlier this week when a number of students walked out on Vice President Mike Pence as he began his commencement speech.

Certainly the attempts of the Jewish leaders to silence Peter and the other disciples indicate that they were making quite an impact in their teaching, miracles, and by preaching the resurrection of Jesus.

They will not, however, be stopped. These men were powerfully-touched and shaped by ministry with Jesus for three years. They were deeply-impacted by Jesus’ death on the cross, and delightfully-relieved by Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. They had been commissioned by the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth, and empowered by the work and presence of the Holy Spirit. They were not going to give up. They were wholly given to the mission of God and would not demure.

I’m wondering if there are things to which I am similarly committed. Politics? I have my thoughts and ideals, but am not willing to be all in on any particular political party or philosophy. I don’t have a hobby horse to ride or a windmill at which I feel compelled to tilt. But the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ is something to which I am fully committed. I hope I never have to be freed from jail by an angel in the middle of the night. I hope I am never warned not to speak in Jesus’ name. But should it come to that, I pray that I would have the same boldness that the disciples show on this and many other occasions. Because of their boldness the Word of the Lord has grown and continues to change lives and save souls.

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, 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. – Acts 5:12-16

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Some of the many beautiful cactus blossoms growing at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo taken March 2017.

I tend toward a fairly moderate approach to mission and ministry. By that I mean, I’m not way out there in dramatic, leading-edge, new and innovative ministry and mission efforts. Some may disagree, and indeed some have accused me of a much-too-radical and aggressive approach to mission and ministry. But I’m certainly not one of those who would specialize in signs and wonders, or extraordinary attention-getting efforts. I am very content to let God do his work through me at a pace and in a manner that takes the long view. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is that we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term and way underestimate what God can do through us in the long term.

Sometimes, however, God does color outside the lines – even with me. In 1990 I was at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. I was working on a Doctor of Ministry degree, taking classes led by C. Peter Wagner. During a break time Dr. Wagner was offering to pray for the sick, and I asked for prayers. I was suffering from laryngitis, and what proved to be a severe sinus infection.

When I asked for prayer, however, he looked at the way I walked and offered to pray for my hip. At one point he held my legs in front of me as I sat on a chair, my feet on his hands and said, “In Jesus’ name, I command this leg to lengthen.” I immediately felt something happen in my thigh and my leg moved in his hands. I cannot explain it. I don’t understand it. But it happened. My final take-away: don’t tell God what he can or cannot do. His power and involvement in our lives crosses all kinds of lines.

I’m not certain how it works when Peter’s shadow would fall on someone and he or she would be healed. I don’t know how these signs and wonders were performed. But I do know that God doesn’t require our permission or understanding in order to do his work. He does not depend on our understanding of what or how he works in order to do his works. But perhaps that is just the point. God’s work is his prerogative. He does what he does when and where he wills. Sometimes that is remarkable, incomprehensible, and even strange.

Whatever the case, however, when God does extraordinary things, it serves to keep us humble. Either we realize we cannot do what God alone does, or we cannot understand why he does what he does. When he does his amazing work, our call is to recognize him as God, and rejoice in his work in our lives.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. – Acts 5:7-11

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Some of the desert flowers growing at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo taken March 2017.

I do not have “NO FEAR” tee shirts. I don’t proclaim that I have no fears. But to be honest, I don’t make my fears as well known as perhaps I should. Perhaps I should let people know that I fear God, and want to avoid his displeasure or discipline. This is true even though I know my sins have been forgiven, that God loves me unconditionally, and that nothing I have done or will do will change that.

I am secure in my faith. But sometimes security in faith becomes nonchalance in life. We act so cool – as though we are ever unfazed by even the most tumultuous turn of events. “Never let them see you sweat” is a byword for many today.

This is likely because we know that evil people will take advantage of weak and fearful people. Those who desire to dominate, harm, or take advance of us are quick to smell the fear in the air, and like sharks sensing blood in the water they are quick to hone in on those who let their fears be known.

Except when it comes to the fear of God. If someone truly fears God he is strong and – to a great degree – invulnerable. She who fears God in the face of efforts of a co-worker to coerce her into unethical or illegal activity has a great strength. When it comes to the fear of God; fear is not only a good thing. It is a thing of power, clarity, and peace.

Sapphira had no such fear of God. She feared her husband’s disapproval. She feared not having enough money. She feared not being seen as one of the more generous members of the church. But she did not fear God. When it came time to confront the truth she turned aside. Rather than fearing God she feared getting caught in her deception. So she payed God, seeking to create a world that did not exist by using words that were not true.

When she had paid the ultimate price, people’s hearts were brought to fear. Perhaps we need to take hold of that same fear of God, holding to his ways, seeking his honor, and embracing his truth each day.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” says Hebrews 10:31. But it is a good place to fall. A place of ultimate rescue, grace, and salvation. Honing our hearts to fear, love and trust in God above all things we become more and more like Jesus who did that perfectly. He is our righteousness, hope and salvation.

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. – Acts 5:1-6

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Blossoms growing at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo taken March 2017.

When I was 9 or 10 years old I bought my sister a Christmas gift: a set of checkers! She wasn’t really a fan of the game, but I loved it. The gift wasn’t really a gift for her. It was a thinly-veiled gift for me!

Ananias’ motives were not quite as tame as mine (though my sister might not have thought so at the time). Clearly, he (and his wife) had in mind quite the scam – though there was absolutely no reason to pursue it. The trouble with this scheme was not the amount of money given or withheld by Ananias and Sapphira. The problem was not that they wanted to follow the example of Barnabas. The problem was that they conspired to deceive the Holy Spirit by claiming a greater sacrifice than they had given.

This is the danger of wealth’s appeal and greed’s allure. When we have thousands of dollars to give, we can more easily project a greater sacrifice than if we have tens of dollars. The larger amounts also make it possible to project a greater gift: half of $100,000 is still $50,000. How impressive!

The greater danger, however, isn’t just trying to impress God; that cannot be done after all. The greater danger is substituting man’s awe for God’s approval. In other words, if we are more worried or given to a desire for man’s accolades than we are for God’s favor, we have substituted mortals for the immortal, eternal, almighty God.

It is striking to me that the punishment in this case is so swift and severe. Couldn’t these two simply have been given a warning? Why did they have to die? I’m not certain I know the answer to this question, but it certainly is obvious that God acts swiftly and decisively on this occasion. Perhaps that’s because for most Christians money is the chief rival god.

God is a jealous God and will strip away any pretense we might attempt to offer. If all that remains is the righteousness of Christ all is well. If, however, God’s stripping reveals a heart given to the praise of man or the refusal to honor God, death and condemnation await us.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. – Acts 4:32-37

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Water lily at The Flower Fields | Carlsbad, CA | Photo take April 2017

Some people say that all the church ever talks about is money. Perhaps that is the case in some instances. Truly, however, the Bible is full of references to and teachings about money. Treasure in a field. Silver coins lost and found. Servants entrusted with various amounts of money. Instructions on giving. Jesus himself says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

There are also plenty of other issues the Bible addresses: greed, lust, sin, fear, love, faith, prayer – to name just a few. On this occasion, however, Luke sets up a story (Acts 5)  about money and greed with this beautiful example of generosity and encouragement on the part of Barnabas – whose name means Son of Encouragement. He sells a field and brings the money to the disciples who are able then to distribute it to those who had needs.

In those days, moreover, the needs were often very real. The fledgling church actually did have it’s share of affluent and influential persons. But there were also people who had nothing, and who – because of their faith and confession – were outside of the realm of the rich and famous. They would need help in difficult times.

When Barnabas comes along and puts a large amount of money at the disposal of the disciples he was not only setting a good example. He was providing real aid in the face of people’s needs. His act of generosity will trigger two quite different responses. Some will be encouraged to be generous, thankful, and deeply touched by Barnabas’ act. Others, however, will try to offer a counterfeit copy of this act of genuine generosity.

The question for us is how we might respond to someone’s act of kindness, generosity, sacrifice, or love. Will we try to gain attention and fame by showboating a similar act of our own? Or will we thank God for such a person, and simply look for the opportunity to give a gift God puts at our disposal? It may be that our gift will never be as spectacular, outwardly generous or remarkable as anyone else’s. But we all give only what we have received. If we have been given the opportunity to do good and be generous, may we do so to God’s glory and other’s good.