Read Acts 5:17-42 here
Some people say, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Other people say, “If you can’t beat them, beat them,” because they will be expecting you to join them, so you will have the element of surprise.
When we’re following Jesus, life is full of surprises. God is full of surprises. Last week, on Easter, God surprised the women and the disciples with the resurrection and the empty tomb. This week, there’s an empty jail. Today we’ll see in three people’s stories how God’s resurrection work in our lives surprises us, as the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do things we never thought we could do. Life conquers death. Faith conquers fear.
In our story from the book of Acts, we find Peter boldly standing before the religious authorities, no longer afraid to talk about Jesus. To see how surprising this is, we must remember that this is one of the disciples whom Jesus found fishing and said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Peter believed that Jesus was the messiah, but was also rebuked by Jesus for challenging the news that Jesus would have to die and be resurrected. Peter cut off the ear of one of the men who came to arrest Jesus, but then stood in the courtyard later that night and said, “No, I don’t know him.” (Luke 22:54-62). That night, Peter was afraid to admit that he was one of Jesus followers, and by the time the rooster crowed, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times.
Peter saw the empty tomb on Easter morning, but he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, or what to do about it, so he went back to fishing. But Jesus came to the disciples one morning at the lake. They hadn’t caught any fish yet, and they didn’t know who the man was standing on the shore, but when he told them to try putting the nets down again on the other side of the boat, they did and caught more fish than they could haul in, just like had happened when they first met Jesus (Luke 5). They then recognized that the man on the shore was Jesus. Together they had fish for breakfast, and it’s likely that sitting around the fire Peter remembered warming himself by the fire the night he had denied knowing Jesus three times. Likely he wondered if Jesus knew about that. Maybe Peter expected his denial was unforgivable and so was no longer qualified to be a disciple. Then Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” In Peter’s three professions of his love for Jesus, there is forgiveness and a resurrected call, to fish for people and to feed and shepherd Jesus’ followers. (John 21) Love wins.
A few weeks later, at Pentecost, it is Peter who stands up to explain to the crowd what is happening (Acts 2), and ever since then, he and the other disciples have been telling people about Jesus and the resurrection, and healing people. Large crowds are gathering to hear them speak and to be healed. The Jewish leaders are upset that they are teaching that Jesus was raised from the dead, so they put them in jail. When Peter and John are brought before the council, they tell the story of who Jesus is and what happened when he was crucified. The council decides to release them because they’re afraid of the crowds, but they order them not to use Jesus’ name. Peter brazenly replies, “Who should we listen to, God or men? We cannot stop telling about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
They go back to preaching outside the temple and drawing large crowds, so the Jewish leaders arrest them and put them in jail again. Now, just like the tomb was empty last week, this week the jail is empty. An angel has opened the prison doors and sent the apostles back to the temple with a mandate to keep on preaching and healing. The guards come to take the disciples to stand before the council, and find their prisoners are gone. While the guards are still standing there stupefied, some people come and tell them that Peter and John are back at the temple speaking to the crowds again. (Acts 5:25)
The guards go to the temple and bring Peter and John to the angry council. “Didn’t we tell you to stop talking about this Jesus?” But Peter replies, “Didn’t we tell you that we were obeying God and not people?” They’re living out what Paul says in Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.
Peter’s testimony to the council this time was short, and straightforward:
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might 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 5:30-32)
They were eyewitnesses. They’d seen Jesus crucified, they’d seen the empty tomb, and they’d seen Jesus afterwards. Peter had received forgiveness for having denied Jesus the night of the arrest, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit who strengthened him. He’d been transformed into a bold preacher of the gospel. God’s resurrection work is surprisingly strong in Peter.
But the council doesn’t see it. They are blinded by their anger at being held responsible for Jesus death and at being disobeyed. Their solution to the problem is to have Peter and John killed. But there’s another surprise. One of the council members, Gamaliel, speaks up and offers another perspective.
It’s not surprising that Gamaliel has such wisdom about the power of God. He is a respected pharisee, and the grandson of the most respected rabbi of the first century, Hillel. Someone had once asked Hillel to teach them the entire Torah in one sitting. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is is commentary.” It’s likely that Gamaliel had his grandfather’s wisdom and that of the ancient writings in mind:
- There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD. –Proverbs 21:30
- I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ –Isaiah 46:10
- But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. –Psalm 33:1
Gamaliel’s advice probably surprised the council. He reminds them of movements that failed after their leader died, and urges them to reconsider. “Leave these men alone,” he says. “if this is of men, it will fail. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!” –Acts 5:39
Indeed, no human can overthrow God, and who would want to fight against God? Gamaliel’s faith in the power of God prevails, and surprisingly the council follows his advice and acts in faith instead of fear.
Have you ever surprised yourself by acting in faith instead of fear? My daughter Tess is going to tell us her story.
Shortly after graduating high school, I married who I then thought would be my forever. After about a year of ups and downs, and what I deemed to be “normal new couple arguing” that I would later realize was well beyond “normal”, I became pregnant with Raegan. Shortly after learning I was pregnant, things grew increasingly tense around our home and my then husband began to express his anger toward me in more than just angry or hateful words meant purely to hurt me, and began to express his anger also through physical abuse. The abuse started out small, a shove here, a push there, and quickly escalated over the next few months into hitting, restraining, covering my mouth and holding me down while screaming obscene profanity at me.
Throughout the course of my pregnancy I remember being terrified that someone would find out what was going on and that I would be left alone with a new baby. Every time I would go in to the OBGYN for a checkup, it was standard practice for them to ask if you were at risk for abuse in the home, and every time I lied through my teeth, praying they would not see right through me. It is hard to explain all of the thoughts that were running through my head and you might be thinking, why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I take my opportunity to get out safely? To put it simply, I was afraid.
Now as I approached my due date, around 7 months or so, I discovered some unsettling information about my husband. He was having an affair. Once again, you are probably wondering why I did not use this as an exit, but again, the fear of being alone, the fear of the unknown stopped me, held me captive.
Once this information came to light, all of the negative behavior seemed to stop. I thought, maybe things were turning around and we would be able to overcome these speedbumps and move forward.
[Then came the day our daughter] was born. A joyful day to be certain. The next few weeks were blissful as we navigated the waters of parenthood. But the bliss did not last very long. About 8 weeks after [she] was born the violence began again, only this time it was even worse. While [she] was just a tiny newborn, my back was injured in one of his violent episodes to the point where I could not walk for a few days and could barely move or lift my new baby for weeks. The next 18 month would leave me with various bruises, cuts, injuries, more spit in my face then I care to remember, and psychological scars from all of the hate filled words he would scream at me.
This time of my life was filled with darkness and so much fear. I did not sleep much for fear of waking up to violence, or the sound of a gunshot directed toward me, fear again that someone close to me would find out all of this was happening, and fear of so much more.
Fast forward to March 17th, 2013. I was fresh off of a women’s conference, ready to face my reality with a fresh perspective. But that day, when we returned from church, tensions were high. I sat at the table feeding [our daughter] lunch after a verbal argument had taken place, trying to ignore his anger and hoping that we escaped yet one more violent episode and it would just fade away. But as I sat there silently, his anger grew. He began to yell at me, and I continued to ignore him, hoping that if I did not engage, he would just move on. He his anger turned into rage and his rage turned into grabbing my hair, spitting in my face, and biting down on my cheek, clenching until he nearly broke the skin. He screamed some more obscene language and then drug me across the room. At this point [our daughter] began to cry for me and I felt more fear then I ever had. Up until that point this was quite possibly the most anger I had ever seen in him. He wrapped his hands around my neck and began to choke me. I tried to get him off of me or to release his grip but it only grew tighter. I could feel the pressure building in my head and face as my breaths grew more difficult. And then suddenly, like a light switch, he stopped. Let me fall to the ground, stood up, walked over to [our daughter] who was hysterically crying out for me, and picked her up to console her. And it was in that moment that the fear that stopped me and held me back did not matter anymore. I grabbed [her], and I left.
The next nine months were filled with steps of faith filled with fear. I clung to Jesus and let Him guide my every step. I did not know how I was going to support myself, where I was going to live, how I would be able to raise a baby on my own, the list of things I was afraid of was endless, but God provided every step, exactly when we needed it. Some of the scariest decisions I have ever had to make included finding my own place, filing for divorce, moving to Texas, finding jobs, going back to school, moving to Kansas, and making the choice to forgive him and allow him to be a part of [our daughter’s] life. Those decisions were ones in which I absolutely had to lay down my fear and let God handle the situation. And each time, he did.
Now nearly 6 years later, we are safe, we are loved, we are happy, and I am healed –all because we did not let fear stand in the way. To this day I look back on my journey and cannot believe that my story actually happened and I am not even sure how I was able to get through all if it – except for God.
Our Story – God’s mercy, love and grace can surprise us at times. Our own responses can surprise us. Sometimes, like Peter, we’re so filled with the Holy Spirit that we just can’t stop it from spilling out. Other times, our responses are more thoughtful, like Gamaliel’s. Or maybe, like Tess, it’s not until we look back over what’s happened that we realize how much God has enabled us to overcome our fears and walk through difficult times.
What’s your story? How have you been surprised at God’s transforming work in your life?
 Brian Peterson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4032