The disciples, Peter and John in particular, had been jailed over night, hauled before the authorities, ordered not to preach in the name of Jesus, and threatened with further reprisal if they did. Their response to this intimidation is a wonderful lesson for us, who, far too often, betray our Lord by cowardice.
We have already noted that “boldness” or “courage” was a characteristic of these disciples following Pentecost. Peter is the prime exemplar, getting up to speak on Jesus’ behalf before a great crowd on the day of Pentecost, the same Peter who had cowered before a slave girl the night of the Lord’s arrest. This was a boldness, a courage, an indifference to the considerations of safety and security and acceptance that everyone noticed, even the enemies of the gospel, as we read in 4:13, an indifference all the more noteworthy because these were men with certain public disadvantages — they hadn’t the schooling or the background that would have given them any standing with large crowds of people. But, to the unending depression of the Sanhedrin, it was obvious that these men were the ones who had been with Jesus during his ministry and their boldness came from that!
This boldness, this courage, is to be the mark of the followers of Christ in the Book of Acts. Indeed, the very last verse of the book brings it up again: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Now there is nothing new or unusual in this. Courage or boldness is a prominent virtue of the godly character in the Bible.
- It is commanded and commended to us often:
- Josh. 1:6-9: “Be strong and courageous…” three times in those few verses, with once, “Do not be terrified…”
- Isa. 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you…”
- 1 Cor. 16:13: “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be men of courage (lit. “play the man”), be strong.”
- Or negatively: Rev. 21:8 includes the cowardly among those whose place will be in the lake of fire, along with the unbelieving, the vile, the sexually immoral, murderers, liars, etc.
- Further, a great many examples of courage are given us in Holy Scripture:
- David vs. Goliath
- Elijah contra mundum
- And the apostles here in Acts
- And a number of illustrations of cowardice that demonstrate both its evil and its reward:
- Abraham in Egypt or before Abimilech
- Israel at Kadesh Barnea or before Goliath
- Peter at the Lord’s arrest
- John Mark on the first missionary journey
Church History is littered with sterling examples of both courage and cowardice among the saints and very often, as in the Bible, the battle between the two in the same heart and life:
- Quo Vadis
- The martyrs (Every Christian should know many of these stories: they set the bar for us all.)
- The missionaries.
- Many unsung heroes.
One I love is the nobleman, John of Chlum, who publicly held out his hand to John Hus as he was being led away after his condemnation at the Council of Constance; and, then, at one last conference called to persuade Hus to recant, told Hus that as a layman he would not presume to advise him theologically, but that if he were sure of the rightness of his position he should not recant, indeed, should die rather than lie against God. [Schaff, vi, 378, 380]
But, much cowardice too.
- Several heated controversies in the early church (Novatian; Donatist) were spawned by the question of what to do with Christians who had betrayed the faith under threat of persecution or torture but who, afterward, were sorry and wished to be readmitted to the church.
- Or take this remarkably candid diary of one Alexander Brodie, a Scot during the covenanting times who wanted to be a faithful covenanter, but whose knees turned to water at the thought of what might befall him if he were. This is the diary itself with Alexander Whyte’s commentary on it.
“Jan. 20, 1662.–My perplexity continues as to whether I shall move now or not, stay or return, hold by Lauderdale [the Presbyterian], or make use of the Bishop. I desired to reflect on giving titles, speaking fair, and complying. I found Lauderdale changed to me, and I desired to spread this out before God. I went to Sir George Mushet’s funeral, where I was looked at, as I thought, like a speckled bird. I apprehend much trouble to myself, my family, and my affairs, from the ill-will of those who govern. May God keep me under the shadow of his wings. Oct. 16.– Did see the Bishop, and in my discourse with him did go far in fair words and the like. The 31.– James Urquhart was with me. Oh that I could attain to his steadfastness and firmness! But, alas! I am soon overcome; I soon yield to the least difficulty. The 26.– Duncan Cuming was here, and I desired him to tell the honest men in the south that though I did not come up their length, I hoped they would not stumble me.” [Now Whyte] In other words, tell the prisoners in the Bass and in Blackness, and the martyrs of the Grassmarket and the Tolbooth, that Lord Brodie is a Presbyterian at heart, and ought to be a Covenanter and a sufferer with his fellows; but that he loves Brodie Castle and a whole skin better than he loves the Covenant and the Covenanters, or even the Surety of the better covenant.” And having despatched [sic] his sympathetic message to the honest men in the South, he takes up his pen again to carry on his diary, which he carries on in these actual terms. Believe me, I copy literally and scrupulously from the humiliating book. Die Dom.– I find great averseness in myself to suffering. I am afraid to lose life or estate. I hold it a duty not to abandon these honest ministers that have stuck to the Reformation. And if the Lord would strengthen me, I would desire to confess the truth like them. … I question whether I might not safely use means to decline the cross and ward off the wrath of the Lords and the Magistrates. Shall I begin to hear Mr. William Falconer? Shall I write to Seaforth and Argyll to ask them to clear and vindicate me? Shall I forbear to hear that honest minister, James Urquhart, for a time, seeing the storm is like to fall on me if I do so? What counsel shall I give my son? Shall I expose myself and my family to danger at this time? What is Thy will? What is my duty?” [Whyte again] And then this able and honest hypocrite has the grace to add: “A grain of sound faith would easily answer all these questions.” [Samuel Rutherford…Correspondents, pp. 197-198.]
Brodie was in the same position as Peter and John, but how differently he handled the matter, while he equivocated in fear, the disciples turned to the Lord and expressed the faith that lay behind that courage and boldness.
BUT YOU WILL SAY, OF COURSE, THE BUILDING SHOOK FOR THEM, OF COURSE THEY WERE BOLD AND COURAGEOUS. They were performing miracles, the city was in a tumult because of what they were doing every day. The Spirit was filling their hearts, the gospel was forcefully advancing. It was easy for them to have this courage and boldness. So we are inclined to think.
But, that is not right. First, we will soon see that there were cowards in the church even in these heady days. Later we hear the Apostle Paul himself urge the Ephesians to pray for him that he might be bold and fearless in his preaching of the gospel. He didn’t think that living in such a time as he did made courage natural and automatic.
But, much more, throughout the Bible we see courageous men and women acting boldly and precisely because they believed the very same things that these Christians confessed in their prayer here in vv. 24-30 and throughout church history God’s people will display the same courage — sometimes in what seems to us an almost unbelievable measure — precisely because they believed as these Christians here in Acts believed. It is the faith of the ages, not the miraculous phenomena of this remarkable and unique period in history, that gave these men and women their boldness and will give it to us as well.
What was that faith?
- It begins in v. 24 with a confession of God, the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. If that God is for us, who can be against us. That is the idea. When I am his servant and doing his work and speaking his word, what can man do to me? If only we always had the eyes of faith to see Him, our God! (2 Kgs 6: Elisha and Gehazi at Dothan. But, Elisha didn’t have to have his eyes open or to see the angels — he knew already!)
David says in Psalm 16:8 that he “set the Lord always before him.” He lived, in other words, with an active consciousness of being in the presence of the great God who loved him and ruled over all. And what was the result of that?
“I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
It doesn’t take much thought to realize how differently we would live if we always did this ourselves and lived in that active consciousness of the great God before us and over us as we walk through this world. What can man do to me?
And, how is that done? The same way they did it here in Acts 4: by confessing it, bringing the truth to mind, making it the foundation of our prayer, asking God to make that the burning conviction of our hearts so that we might live as we believe and know. Set the Lord before yourself as you go to bed tonight and when you rise in the morning, set the Lord before yourself again, and then when you leave for work or begin the daily round of your responsibilities set him before you again — get some sight of the Maker of Heaven and Earth there before you. And when you begin to speak to another person, do it once more.
- And then the faith has this article in vv. 24-27: the opposition we encounter in the world, even the active hostility, is only what the Scripture says and has always said we would face. A known, predicted enemy is so much less frightful.
What is more, that opposition is not really against us at all — it is against the Lord Christ and it falls on us only because they cannot express their hostility to him in any other way than directing it against those who are identified with him in the world. “If they hated me, they will hate you,” our Savior told us before he left the world, “but lo, I am with you always.”
But that turns this opposition into an opportunity to suffer for Christ’s sake, or as we will read in the next chapter of Acts, “to be counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” In suffering this opposition we can share in the sufferings of Christ. This makes it altogether more important and sacred.
- And then the faith has this further article in v. 28. The opposition we face in the world, either the scorn or the dismissive indifference, is utterly at God’s command, merely an instrument of his will, and thus utterly futile. Those we are so inclined to fear in this world, those whose better opinion of us we are often so desperate to protect, those before whom we remain silent when we should speak for fear of what they might think of us, have no power whatsoever to do us any harm and are, in fact, railing away at a God who has them and all their lives entirely in his hands. So completely futile is their opposition to Christ and to Christ’s people that even their rebellion only accomplishes his will — in both the larger sense (e.g. by executing Jesus they had a hand in accomplishing the salvation of the church) and in the smaller sense (by persecuting the apostles they gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their faith to the world and treasure up reward in heaven).
- And, finally, this faith has this article, vv. 29-30: however weak and incapable we may be in ourselves, God’s resources are available to us if we but ask.
The early disciples knew this and counted on it and so turned the world upside down. They didn’t imagine that they had to take on the world by themselves or that this was their fight alone. They believed, they knew that God was ready to work through them and give his power and help to them. The Church is his body, the apple of his eye:
“God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day…. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Ps. 46:5-8
And how wonderfully he comes to the aid of those who set him before themselves and walk with him day by day. Not necessarily miracles, but deliverance no less wonderful.
I love this illustration from the annals of the Scottish covenanters [Lloyd-Jones, Depression, pp. 104-105]: A girl was going into the country to attend a covenanter communion service on a Sunday afternoon. Such services, of course, were against the law, those found at them or proved to have attended them were punished very severely — jail or worse, and the countryside in those days was being scoured by the king’s troops looking for just such services in order to arrest those attending them. Well, this girl came suddenly face to face with just such a band of dragoons. She was momentarily dumbstruck, wondering how she could explain her presence out in the country. But upon being questioned, she found herself thinking to say, “My elder brother has died and they are going to read his will this afternoon, and he has done something for me and left something for me, and I want too hear them read the will.” The soldiers who through the ages have persecuted the church of God have not, as a rule, been a terribly sharp crowd, and this answer satisfied them and they let the girl go on.
But, what was that but this: “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him” and this: “he watching over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
Young people, have you recently done something that took courage for you to do? Especially, have you spoken like Peter and John to someone of Christ and his Word and his Gospel, someone before whom you might otherwise be silent? Put this faith, such faith as we have seen expressed in this wonderful prayer in vv. 24-30, put this faith to the test in these next few days, in this next week. Do something for Christ you fear to do. Set the Lord before you and then speak those who are no friends of God or his church — at least not yet!
Do this now and do it again, before it becomes your habit to take the safe and secure road — the road of silence — always, or to spend your days and nights equivocating away your opportunities as Lord Brodie did. Believe me, I have seen young people be courageous for the Lord’s sake in their teenage years, and I will tell you something about them: they tend to become adults who have that same courage all their lives. The habit of cowardice is too easily formed and too hard to break. Be strong now; put the Lord and your faith to the test now, and find, as so many have before you, that it is not so hard when experience has proved to you over and over again that the Lord will be with you and that anything suffered for Christ is sweeter than anything enjoyed without him.
At the same time that Lord Brodie was conniving somehow to avoid suffering for Christ’s cause in Scotland, another layman, John Campbell, Earl of Loudon, was losing everything for his loyalty to the Reformation. Samuel Rutherford wrote him to encourage him, a letter in which the great theologian and preacher and man of great courage himself says this to his friend:
“You are many ways blessed of God, who have taken upon you to come out to the streets with Christ on your forehead, when so many are ashamed of him, and hide him (as it were) under their cloak… [CXVI, p. 235]
What a wonderful thought: “come out to the streets with Christ on your forehead…” Surely that is what you want to do; I know it is what I want to do and I believe it is what most of us here want to do.
And here is one more reason for us to do it, for us not to fear to do it. Our Savior knows what it is to be afraid — no man was ever more afraid than he in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal — and so he has a true sympathy for his people in their fears and, he above all others, our faithful high priest, knows how to deliver us from our fears, if we will turn to him in our time of need.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.