Acts 5:29-42 After our Lord was betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was led away by soldiers to appear before Caiaphas and Annas and the Jewish Council. As Jesus was being interrogated and mistreated, Peter made his way into the outer courts where he was questioned by those who gathered there. Each time when he was identified as a disciple of Jesus he denied it—again and again and again.
After the third denial, he heard the rooster crow—just as the Lord had prophesied—and when he heard that, the Bible says that he went outside and wept bitterly. All of his big talk about remaining faithful to the Lord—his pride in his strength—his SELF-confidence—it all came crashing down when he saw just how weak and frail and cowardly he really was.
It is not until early in the morning, on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath rest, that we encounter him again as the faithful women rush into the room where he was staying, bearing the Good News that the Lord had been raised from the dead.
From the voice of judgment in the rooster’s crow-- to the voice of forgiveness in the Easter morning Good News--Peter was a changed man—his cowardice was replaced with courage.
That is the power of the resurrection in a believer’s life—not just in giving us a new, eternal life that death cannot end—but changing us for the better right here and now. What we are going to see today from God’s Word is that Easter Christians are courageous witnesses to Jesus Christ. The Bible says that:
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.”
These words were spoken to the same people who tried Jesus and condemned him to death—the same people who struck such fear in Peter’s heart that he denied Jesus again and again—it was to these same people that Peter and the apostles bore courageous witness. That is the difference the resurrection made in their lives.
In the days and weeks after the resurrection Peter and the apostles and the other disciples and the faithful women could not stop talking about what they had seen and heard from the resurrected Lord. Every place they went—every person they talked to—they saw as an opportunity to bear witness about Jesus. Every day new believers were being added to their number. The entire population of Jerusalem held them in high regard.
And the response of the council to Peter and disciples was the same as it was towards Jesus: they were jealous of their popularity and they persecuted them.
When the disciples were brought before the council and told to keep quiet, this is how Peter responded: We must obey God rather than men. And then they proceeded to tell the story of Jesus: how their sins were responsible for his death, how God raised him from the dead, how Jesus was the Savior of the world, and how the Holy Spirit wanted this Good News preached for the salvation of many. That was their courageous witness.
So it is in the lives of all of those who are Easter Christians. We live in a time and place that is just as antagonistic to the truth of God’s Word and just as opposed to Jesus as was Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
More and more across the world (and even in our own nation) there is concerted opposition to the message of the church regarding sin and grace. From the Gospel being forbidden in Muslim nations, to the preaching of the law regarding marriage and sexuality being outlawed in more and more western nations, to Christians being ridiculed for their beliefs and forced to go out of business rather than participate in sin and having their prayers silenced in public in our own nation, the message of Christ and the church is opposed by the powers that be.
But the rallying cry of Christians when it comes to bearing witness to Christ is still the same: We must obey God rather than men. We must tell the truth about God’s will so that men can know their sins. We must tell the truth about Jesus so that men can be saved.
As Easter Christians we must courageously bear witness to the truth because the opposition of the world will only grow. The Bible says that: When they [the Council] heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them [Peter and the apostles].
And so why was there this rage? Why are Christians so violently persecuted around the world? Why is there an ever-increasing contempt for Christians in our own country?
Part of the answer is that Easter Christians do not recognize a greater authority than the risen Christ. “Jesus is Lord”—that was the proclamation of the church and those simple words led to wholesale persecution. Early Christians would not stop talking about Jesus no matter how much the Jews wanted them to. Neither would they engage in pagan ceremonies no matter how much the Romans wanted them to. And so there was persecution on every side.
So it still is today. The government is not our Lord. Popular culture is not our Lord. The opinion of others is not our Lord. Jesus is the King of kings. He is the Lord of lords. He is not an idea or a philosophy that we can take or leave or adapt to the day. He is our living, breathing sovereign and we owe him our allegiance above all else and above everyone else.
The second reason that the world is enraged against Easter Christians is that when we speak God’s Word we speak the truth. The world despises the fact that we tell the truth about sin. When Peter stood before the Council, he looked them dead in the eye and said: You killed Jesus by hanging him on a tree. That was the truth and it infuriated them. The unbelieving world cannot bear to have its sins pointed out and people today are no different than they were then which is why there is such antagonism to the message of the church about God’s will.
But they are also violently opposed to the Gospel. The message of the cross (that there is salvation in Jesus but only in Jesus) is an offense to modern religious ideas about many paths leading to God and the futility of our own good works earning our way to heaven.
It takes courage to be an Easter Christian and bear witness to Jesus. To refuse to go along with friends and family members—to refuse to acknowledge any authority who calls us to go against God’s Word—to face the powers that be and speak out—this takes courage.
It takes courage to tell the truth about sin—especially the sin that the culture refuses to acknowledge. It takes courage to call upon people to make a radical change in their life. It takes courage to say that there is salvation in Jesus Christ alone and that every other religion and every other idea about life with God is wrong and leads only to hell. It takes courage to witness.
The world around us today despises that witness as much as it did back then and the temptation in the face of opposition is to simply withdraw behind the walls of the church and remain silent. Peter and the apostles faced this temptation too.
But what gave them courage to speak was the power of the resurrected Christ who changed their lives and had the power to change the lives of those to whom they bore witness. The Bible says that after Peter and the Apostles spoke to the council:
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. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men…and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking 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!”
The very thing that changed Peter from cowardly to courageous was the same thing that gave him confidence to witness in the face of incredible odds that said the world would reject his message: the resurrection of Jesus. When the resurrected Christ appeared to Peter and the other disciples they knew that the world was changed forever. Death was a conquered enemy and Jesus was the victor. What was the opposition of mere men compared to that?
Already Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea had become disciples. More and more the Jewish priests were becoming disciples. Jesus’ brothers who had opposed him had become leaders in the church. That is the power of the resurrection!
With every conversion--with every changed heart--the disciples’ courage and confidence grew. They faced the Jewish Council—these same men who had condemned Jesus—and thought: why not? Why shouldn’t we bear witness to them too? Why can’t they be converted? Are they more powerful than the risen Christ? Paul had the same attitude towards the Romans.
Even though the church was being persecuted—even though the disciples would be martyred—even though Rome was the greatest empire that had ever existed—the apostles weren’t intimidated or afraid to witness. Paul wanted to go to Rome and plead his case. He knew that Christ had conquered death and that gave him the courage and confidence to bear witness to him to the powers of the day.
So it must be for us. We live in a culture with very little regard for the values of the Gospel. We live in a time where even the last few vestiges of a Christian culture are vanishing. We live in a country where our government has become increasingly antagonistic to the Faith. Far too many Christians view the situation as hopeless and retreat behind the closed doors of churches while those around us go to hell.
It is our mission to bear witness to Jesus despite the opposition of the world and trust God with the results. Peter and the Apostles didn’t know what the outcome would be that day to their witness—whether any of the Council would come to faith or not. But at least some of them were willing to listen and the disciples were courageous enough to face opposition so that others might know Jesus as Lord and Savior. The Bible says that:
They [the council] took his [Gamaliel’s] advice, 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.
We should get it settled in our hearts and minds right now that there are consequences—sometimes painful ones—to being a Christian.
It’s only because we have been particularly blessed to live in this country that we forget that for the vast majority of the world’s Christians, for the vast majority of time that the church has existed—there have been painful consequences to being a Christian.
What gives us the courage to face a cross-filled life of witness is the empty tomb. Jesus went to the cross, suffered, and died. But he rose again. There is victory in his resurrection and the courage to face our crosses because no matter how dark and difficult and dangerous they are, the empty tomb is a promise of better things to come. The Bible says that:
They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
Every day, in every place, to every person the disciples courageously bore witness to Jesus Christ. It was not easy! Already they had suffered persecution and pain and imprisonment for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But rather than shrink back. Rather than complain about how unjust it all was—they rejoiced. They rejoiced!
Jesus had promised that this is the way it would be for those who were his disciples and what they suffered as they bore witness to him was also a testimony about who they were—that they really were his faithful people.
The resurrection is what made all the difference! They knew what Jesus suffered on the cross. But there was more! There was much more! In the empty tomb there was victory and life for Jesus and there was victory of life for all of God’s people. May we know the same in Jesus Christ and may his resurrection make us courageous witnesses to him in all that we say and do! Amen.