ROME WAS AMERICA
All right, we’re in Acts 4, starting in verse 23. If you’ve got a Bible, go there. As we’re studying the book of Acts, it’s history, but it’s history for the purpose of case study. It’s not just looking at how Christianity began and how the early church grew, it’s actually a study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Some will call it the acts of the Apostles. I prefer to call it the acts of the Holy Spirit. It’s an extraordinary God working through ordinary people to accomplish an extraordinary mission. And the way he worked is the way he works, and the way he worked through them is the way that he wants to work through us.
So, as we come to the book of Acts, we’re not just looking at it in a way that is nostalgic—“Oh, look at what it used to be like”—but we look, rather, leaning into the future—“What does the future look like for us together on mission as God’s people?”
And I’m enjoying studying the book. I hope you are as well. One thing I don’t think I’ve made clear to this point is the cultural context that they’re working in. What we examine in Acts 1 is that the church started with 120. Acts 2, 3,000 people are added. Acts 4, 5,000 men, plus women and children, are added. The church is very large. It’s growing very fast. There’s a great need for leadership and generosity and all the stuff we’re always asking you to pray for and give toward.
It happens in the midst of a culture that sounds eerily familiar. It’s in the midst of the Roman Empire. Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar. The Roman Empire was the biggest, most prominent, powerful, prosperous nation in the history of the world. The citizens lived relatively lavish lifestyles. They had multiple religions, multiple spiritualities, multiple gods, multiple goddesses. Their values included tolerance and diversity. They had widespread sexual sin. Homosexuality was very popular. Bisexuality was very popular. Cohabitation before marriage was frequent. Adultery within marriage was common. They also had child sacrifice where if they didn’t like the baby, they would kill it.
Does this sound like anything you have heard of, yes or no? Yeah, they’re Americans, that’s what they are, OK? They’re Americans. And so the church roots and grows in the midst of the culture that is very, very, very, very much like ours, which gives us great hope: if the Holy Spirit could work through people in that day for this kind of great mission, he could do the same through us in our day.
SUFFERING, PERSECUTION, AND OPPOSITION: A CASE STUDY
But, here’s the truth: we’re going to have to suffer. OK, you guys don’t want to start the wave now? Yay, suffering! Because see, here’s what happens: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Have you heard that? It’s true spiritually as well. More people meet Jesus, more critics rise up. More good things happen, more critics rise up. More people are saved, more critics rise up.
The church moves forward in the book of Acts, and the opposition escalates. This is what we’re seeing through the book of Acts. And as you continue to read the book, as the church moves forward, it does so in an increasingly strong headwind of opposition.
See, Christians, are not big fans of suffering, persecution. We don’t like that. We’re not excited about that. In fact, when we share the gospel with someone, we don’t even include that. How many of you were told this: “Jesus loves you. He has a wonderful plan for your life. Confess your sins to Jesus and he will forgive you, and then he’ll take you to heaven to live with him forever. Would you like to become a Christian?” For how many of you, it was presented like that?
What they forgot to tell you was the middle. The time between “Give your life to Jesus” and “Go to heaven to be with Jesus,” that part that we call life, they omitted, right? And in that part, they forgot to tell you, “Some people will hate you. They will say horrible things about you. It may cost you a job. Your parents may turn their back on you. It’s going to be very difficult,” because they knew you wouldn’t sign up. So, it’s their fault—you’re welcome. I just filled you in on the details.
And that’s what we’re going to talk about today: suffering, persecution, opposition. Now, I’ll share a verse with you before we jump into Acts. It’s from the Apostle Paul, 2 Timothy 3:12. And it’s sort of a big principle that’s illustrated with a case study of Acts 4 today. “All”—how many? You are included in the “all.” All right, great, good job, Mars Hill.
“All who desire to live a godly life”—do you desire to live a godly life? OK, one of you is very enthusiastic; the rest of you are thinking about it. OK, good. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus”—you want Jesus as the center of your life, everything connected to and emanating from him? Yes, you do. “Will be”—what?
See, if this was written in America, it would say “blessed” because the prominent teaching today is, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be blessed.” You’re sick? Come to Jesus. You’re poor? Come to Jesus. You’re single? Come to Jesus. You’re married? Come to Jesus. Whatever you want, come to Jesus. He’ll bless you. He’ll give you a job. He’ll give you health. He’ll give you prosperity. He’ll give you a spouse. He’ll give you children. He’ll give you joy. Whatever you want, come to Jesus. All right, he’s the big piñata in the sky. Bring your stick and make your ask, right?
And so then people sign up, and then they get disappointed with God, and then they get frustrated with God, because life gets hard. And then some people even walk away from God. “Well, I signed up for blessing and what I got was persecution. I didn’t sign up for that.” Yes, you did. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Now, you may be blessed as well, but you will be persecuted.
When it comes to persecution, as soon as we start talking about persecution, there are always some religious people, right? And they’re always like, “Well, we’re not really persecuted. It’s not like you’re gonna get stabbed or killed or drawn and quartered. It’s not like they’re throwing us to the lions. It’s not really suffering. You know, around the world, the Christians are really suffering.” And all of a sudden, you’re supposed to feel bad because your suffering isn’t like that. Jesus speaks of two kinds of suffering. In Matthew 5:11, he says it this way: “Blessed are you”—so our blessing is actually our suffering—“when others revile you.” Stuff like, “Christians are idiots.” “Christians believe that God made the world.” “Christians are anti-science.” “Christians are bigots.” “Christians hate women.” “Christians hate sex.” “Christians hate homosexuals.” “Christians supported slavery.” “Christians are a blight on the planet.” “Christians don’t really love the rest of the people in the culture.” “Christians are bigots. They’re intolerant. They’re discriminatory. They’re narrow-minded. And they are a problem.”
Anybody have a TV? Anybody have Internet access or a neighbor? Have you heard these things? It’s reviling. It’s reviling. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” You say, “Well, that’s not true. That’s not what we believe. That’s not what the Bible says. That’s not—wait a minute. This isn’t right.”
WE WILL GET IN TROUBLE FOR SPEAKING
There is overt persecution where you get thrown to the lions. There’s covert persecution where you get thrown to the critics. There’s overt persecution where you die for Christ. There’s covert persecution where you live for Christ. There’s overt persecution where they silence you by killing you, and then there’s covert persecution where they silence you by shaming you. The goal of both kinds of persecution is, “Don’t talk about Jesus. We’ll kill you or shame you. We just want to silence you. Stop talking about him.” And both forms count.
Today, we get into a case study of why Christians suffer and how Christians should suffer. And it’s a story, a case study, with Peter and John, two leaders in the early church. They were loved by Jesus, and they loved Jesus. This story actually started in Acts 3, where after Jesus died for sin, rose from death, ascended into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit, empowering his people to continue his mission, these two men, Peter and John, are going up to the temple to pray at the hour of prayer. It’s like 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
There’s a man who is lame from birth, Acts 3 says. He’s an older man. This has been his condition his entire life. He’s suffering, and he’s begging, and he’s asking God’s people to give him finances to sustain his existence. And they look at him and say, “Silver and gold we do not have, but in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, be healed, arise, walk.”
This guy who’s never, never stood up in his life, his legs are instantaneously healed. He jumps up. He’s totally healed. It’s a public healing. It’s confirmed here by Luke the physician, who’s recording this. And this guy’s leaping, praising God, celebrating, goes into the temple worshiping God.
How many of you think that you shouldn’t get in trouble for that? The lame guy got healed, no deductible, no co-pay, right? Like, we all would say, “Well, that seems like a good—” Like, who’s against healing? Anybody here anti-healing? Like, “I prefer sickness. I’m against healing. You know, what this world needs is less healthy people. That’s just the problem.” No, we all would say, “Healing, yes.” Even the atheists who don’t believe in healing are still for it. It’s that popular, right? It’s that popular.
They get arrested and thrown in jail—Peter and John. Why? Why do they get thrown in jail? Because the guy was healed? Why? Because they started talking about Jesus. “Who healed this guy?” “Jesus did.” “Who’s Jesus?” “Well, he’s God.” “Well, where is he?” “He’s in heaven.” “Well, how did he heal him?” “Well, he can heal from heaven because he’s Sovereign God who rules over all.” “Oh, tell me more about this Jesus.”
Here’s a great case study, friends. We won’t get in trouble for serving. We will get in trouble for speaking. There’s no controversy around serving. All the controversy’s around speaking. If we just go out and feed the hungry, no problem. No problem. We love the hurting, no problem. We give generously to support single moms and kids who don’t have a dad—that’s not a problem. We volunteer in the public schools to be part of the community and to love kids—that’s not a problem. We collect coats for the cold and food for the hungry—not a problem.
But if we say, “Jesus loves us, and he told us to love you,” well, then the problem is what we’ve spoken, what we’ve said. So, a lot of cowards like to turn Christianity into nothing but serving, and to get rid of the speaking because it’s the speaking that causes the suffering. And Jesus served and spoke, and Jesus’ people are to serve and speak, and to do so boldly, not cowardly.
So, we pick up the case study. What happens to these two guys when they get out of jail? And I need you to see this: they went to jail not for anything they did wrong but for what they did right. Sometimes you can get busted for doing the right thing. We’ll read it, Acts 4:23. Here is the case study: “When they were released”—so they get out of jail—“they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them”—these are the religious leaders—“And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God”—so they pray—“and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’”
I mean, now we’re even into controversy, right? If you just get up—let’s say you get up in your science class at the public university and say, “God made the world.” Just quote that verse, and all of a sudden you’re going to find yourself in trouble. “‘Who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?”’”
Here, he’s quoting Psalms 2, written 1,000 years prior by King David. “‘“The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed”’”—there’s Jesus—“‘for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate’”—two political leaders that he’s naming here. That’s very bold. These are the guys who just got out of prison now naming the leaders.
“‘Along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’”—the Jewish people—“‘to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.’” We’ll come back to this. It’s a church prayer meeting with Calvinists, all right? Right there, “Predestined to take place.”
All right, “‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all’”—what? “‘Boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’ And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken”—they get their own local earthquake—“and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
5 RELEVANT QUESTIONS
There is a lot here. I’m going to ask five questions. We’ll unpack them in succession. I want you to consider them and I want you to discuss them in Community Group this week.
1. WHO DO YOU THINK WROTE THE BIBLE?
First one, and this is the issue that really is the foundational issue. Who do you think wrote the Bible? OK, if you’re new, this is the Bible. We have them. Grab one on the way out. They’re free. All right, who do you think wrote this book? Who do you think wrote the Bible?
Mars Hill, this question is really the question. Once this question is answered, the other answers come as a result of what is written in this book. And it’s interesting because in our day, like every day, there is disagreement between Christians and non-Christians on various issues, be it gender, be it sexuality, be it marriage, be it spirituality. There are these conflicts that come over issues.
And here’s the bottom line: Christians believe the Bible; non-Christians don’t. So, it’s not that we just disagree on some issues, it’s that we disagree on the issue under the issues, and that is: is this a book that people wrote about God, or is this a book that God wrote through people?
IT ALONE IS GOD’S WORDS
There’s a big difference there. If it’s a book that people wrote about God, then, well, there’s philosophy, psychology, sociology, other religions, and you know, there are lots of books, and this is one of the books on the shelf with all the other books that claims to have a little perspective on God. If this is the book that God wrote, then it’s above all the other books. It’s the only perfect book. It’s not a word about God; it’s a word from God. It’s not speculation; it’s revelation. It’s not how we perceive God; it’s how God reveals himself to be. That’s entirely, entirely different.
And so, you need to know this. If you’re at Mars Hill Church, we believe that this is the word of God, and it alone is the word of God, and part of the reason is that the Bible keeps telling us that’s exactly what it is.
And I’ll give you an example right here, Acts 4:25. So they’re praying, “Sovereign Lord”—that’s our God. He’s above all the other gods, all the rulers, all the nations, all the tribes, all the tongues, all the languages, all the sexualities, all the spiritualities. He’s the sovereign Lord, seated on a throne—alone. They’re praying to that God.
And then they, from memory, from their heart, are echoing Psalms 2, written 1,000 years prior through David, showing us how important it is to hide God’s word in our heart so that in the moment of need it is on our lips, so that we can remind ourselves of the truth that God has said. “Through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit.” OK, are you ready? Every opportunity I get at Mars Hill, I love to remind you that this is the book that God wrote. It is the only book that God wrote. It is perfect. It is authoritative. It is to be obeyed.
And here is one more occasion to do that. So, they are quoting—Psalms 2, and it says that the words of Psalms 2 came from the mouth of whom? David. So, the words came through David, but they came from whom? The Holy Spirit. David is the messenger; he’s not the author. Big difference, right? He’s the messenger, not the author. The message comes through him, but it doesn’t come from him. The message comes from the Holy Spirit, through the servant David, so it’s God’s word through David’s voice. Do you get that?
And this is so important because what you’ll hear is—even sometimes among those who profess to be Christian—they’ll say, “Oh, well that’s what Moses said,” or “That’s what Paul said,” or “That’s what David said.” No, that’s what God said. You can’t say, “Well, I disagree with Moses” and “I disagree with Paul,” because what you’re saying is, “I disagree with God.”
And what you’re saying is, “I’m god, and the other God needs to submit to me. The other God needs to listen to me. The other God needs to echo me, so when I speak, I want that God to be my servant, and I want my words to go forth as his truth.” It’s deeply spiritual.
Here he says, “David speaks, but it’s God’s words.” Some of you right now, you’re bristling because it’s an issue of authority and lordship. Every time I say something like this, people leave. We don’t want you to leave—we love you. But if you’re going to leave, leave because you’ve decided to reject the word of God.
EDITING THE BIBLE
But ask yourself, “Is what I believe true? Is what I believe true?” Because here’s what frustrates me more than people who reject what the Bible says. What frustrates me more is people who edit what the Bible says. If God says something and you don’t like it, and you reject it, that grieves me, but at least you have integrity. If you try and edit what God says, you have no integrity because you are rejecting God, but in a way that is cowardly and not courageous, in a way that is trying to be God’s editor and not God’s messenger.
And there’s a great history of this. Thomas Jefferson, our deistic president, sat down at the Bible—you’ve heard me tell the story—with a copy of the Bible in the White House in the Oval Office and a pair of scissors, and he cut all the parts of the Bible out he didn’t like or agree with. That’s incredibly cowardly. He ended up with a much shorter version of the New Testament he called The Philosophy of Jesus Christ, which then puts Jesus on the Mount Rushmore. You know, there’s Gandhi, and there’s, you know, Buddha, and there’s Jesus, and Oprah, and there they all are, sort of, you know, giving us wise counsel for better living. It just reduces Jesus down to yet another philosopher.
And the truth is, we all, in varying ways, do the same thing, and sometimes the scissors are scholars. I’m not against scholarship, but there are certain scholars who like to use scissors to edit parts of the Bible that we simply don’t like. I’ll give you an example. So, let’s say you’re in a poor, artsy, hipster, perverted hypothetical place like Seattle or Portland, OK? Hypothetically. You’re like, everybody’s naked and riding a skateboard and reading Kant and, you know, plays guitar and has a tattoo.
And OK, so hypothetically, you’re in a place like that. So, what they’re going to do is they’re going to go the Bible and they’re going to say, “Oh, be generous and love the poor, and care for the hungry.” Are they going to cut that part out? No. “Don’t have sex outside of heterosexual marriage.” Yeah, that’s going to get cut really fast.
Now, let’s say you go to a place like Orange County or Bellevue or Sammamish, and there’s a lot of heterosexuals, maybe even a few closet Republicans, and they’ve got a decent income stream, and they’re trying to reduce their tax burden. Are they going to cut all the parts out about homosexuality, and sex before marriage. Are they going to do that? No, because they got teenage kids and they want them to keep their pants on. OK, so they’re going to keep those parts of the Bible.
But what about the parts—“Be generous and give money to God’s mission and the poor”? Are they going to get their scissors out for that? Yes. We’re all hypocrites: we’re just different kind of hypocrites. We all come to the Bible, and we’re all offended by something, and we all want to edit it out, and we all want it to say something it doesn’t, but we can’t because it’s the book that God wrote. So rather than editing the Bible, we need to study the Bible, and when we disagree with the Bible, we need to change our minds.
VERBAL PLENARY INSPIRATION
And so for us, I’ll give you three big words: verbal plenary inspiration. This is what we believe. I’ve said it before. But “verbal”—the very words of Scripture, not just the ideas, the concepts. The words. All Scripture is God-breathed, right? Jesus says that every i will be dotted, every t crossed. He came to fulfill the whole law. “Verbal”—the very words.
“Plenary”—in the whole Bible. You can’t say, “Well, that’s in the Old Testament,” or “That’s here or there.” It’s still from God, the whole Bible. “Inspiration”—it’s God working through a human personality—so Peter reads like a fisherman, and Luke reads like a doctor—to bring his word to pass perfectly through someone he calls a servant. Sometimes they speak. Sometimes they write. Sometimes they do both, but they’re messengers on behalf of the Lord. That’s what we believe.
OK, here’s my question to you: Who do you think wrote the Bible? You need to be resolved on this fundamental issue, and then you need to be able to articulate it to other people, and you do that, in part, by studying and reading the Bible for yourself.
AMERICAN BIBLE SOCIETY SURVEY
I’ll give you an interesting study that was recently conducted by the American Bible Society. Eighty-eight percent of Americans own a printed Bible. That’s a lot, right? A hundred percent of Americans have access to the Internet, whether it’s at work, on your computer, whether it’s on your smart phone, or you can just go to the library and it’s free, and there are computers and Internet access.
And online, we have more Bible study tools than at any time in the history of the world. It’s unbelievable—Bible translations, study tools, language helps, cultural backgrounds, podcasts, vodcasts, classes. It is an unbelievable amount of resources God has put freely at our disposal, including the YouVersion Bible app, developed by a friend of ours. A hundred million people have downloaded it. You can pick your translation. They’ll set up the Bible study reading plan. It’s free. You use your phone. Unbelievable.
Eighty percent of Americans think that the Bible is sacred. How many of you are surprised by that? They may not hold to what I just taught, verbal plenary inspiration, but it’s a special book, it’s a unique book, it’s in its own category, maybe it is the book that God wrote and it’s something to be listened to. Yet 61 percent of Americans wished they read it.
That is so American. “Hey, God wrote a book and I have access to it. I should really read that sometime.” This is like, “What?” This is like starving to death at the grocery store. Like, that’s on you, right? There’s a whole menu in front of you, and you have availed yourself to none of it. I love teaching you the Bible, but I can’t be your only Bible. You’ve got to study for yourself, read for yourself. It’s why we do study guides. That’s why we give away Bibles. That’s why we want you to be in Community Group. This is why we want you to study the word of God for yourself.
And I just—I tell you this, Mars Hill, because we are in an age where there is greater hostility toward Christian faith, and those who are Christians have lowering biblical knowledge. They don’t really know what the Bible says. We need you to know what the Bible says. We need you to study what the Bible says. We need you to memorize what the Bible says. We need you to believe what the Bible says. We need you to obey what the Bible says. And we need you to share what the Bible says. Amen?
And they get together and that’s where they start, with the Bible. And then, they proceed forward with community.
2. WHICH CHRISTIAN FRIENDS DO YOU GO TO?
So, the next question is: which Christian friends do you go to? It says in Acts 4:23, “They went to their friends.” Which Christian friends do you go to in your time of need, and which friends come to you in their time of need? And when we talk about friendship and community, we do so in the midst of a fractured society. You all know the statistics. The nuclear family is nuclear in that it is exploded, right? And parents are getting divorced, and kids are going off to college, and singles are running off to cities to start their career, and the family’s fragmented and fractured and everybody’s divided and separated and spread. And it’s a lonely day where you may have a lot of online relationships, but you don’t have a lot of face-to-face relationships. You’re not sure who you can trust, who you can confide in, who you can lean on, who you can run to.
Peter and John get out of prison. They run to their friends. And here’s the truth: it was a good thing they had their friends before their tragedy struck. And their tragedy was they just got out of jail. Might I encourage you to have Christian friends before your tragedy comes, before your trial comes, before your troubles come.
What I find at Mars Hill is oftentimes people will ignore Christian community, they won’t get involved in a Community Group, they won’t pursue church membership, they won’t get in relational connection with God’s people, and then something happens. It could be something good. “Hey, we’re getting married. We need premarital counseling,” you know? It could be something bad. “I got cancer.” “We’re getting divorced,” or whatever. “I lost my job.” And then people run into the church, and they want to microwave relationships. “Give me, just, close friends whom I can totally trust and lean on, and they can do the same for me, and I’d like them all today.”
I would just beg you, because I love you and I want good for you, to pursue Christian friendship before it’s seemingly an urgent need. And the question is not just, “Who can you lean on?” but “Who can lean on you?” Who are you a friend to? Who are you inviting, saying, “You know, if you need me, call me. I’m checking in. I’m praying. I love you. I’m concerned for you. I want to be here for you. I’m part of your life. You can depend on me.” And when we think of community, what we often think of is people I can use to make my life better. That’s not the Christian concept. The Christian concept is people I can serve and love because Jesus loves them.
So, when you hear this—and many of you hear this and say, “Yeah, that’s right. I need better friends.” No, you need to be a better friend. All right, the Bible says in Proverbs that he who wants a friend must himself be friendly. So, if you don’t have a lot of friends, it’s because you’re not friendly. Friendly people have friends. People who are friends toward others have others reciprocate friendship toward them. But whom do you run to in your time of need?
3. WHOM DO YOU PRAY WITH?
And let me tell you very clearly: they have to be Christians. It’s great to have non-Christian friendships. Maybe your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers are non-Christians. You love them, you enjoy them, but when trouble comes, and you’re looking for support, and you’re looking for counsel, you need to run to God’s people to hear God’s word and to seek God’s will. And then, what do they do when they get together? What should you do when you get together, Community Groups and friendships? They pray. Whom do you pray with? Acts 4:24, “They lifted their voices together to God.”
Again, this is why Christian friendship is so important. Your non-Christian friends may be able to give you counsel but not prayer. They may say, “Well, based on my experience and based upon my background and based upon my perspective, here’s what I would counsel you to do.” It may or may not be helpful, may or may not be wise. But they can’t pray for you. They can’t ask the Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you. They’re not going to open the Scripture with you as these friends are doing here, right? I mean, trouble comes, right? Trouble comes. Christianity’s exploding, and persecution is rising. The pastors go to jail, not because they did anything wrong but because they were talking about Jesus. They get out, their friends come together, they open the Bible to Psalms 2, and they pray.
Would you please do these things? Open the Bible, seek Christian friendship, and pray together. These three things are like three legs on a stool. If one is missing, it’s falling over. Some of you are like, “I study the Bible,” but without Christian friends and prayer, it’s going to fall over. Some of you say, “I pray and have Christian friends, I just only hear the Bible on Sunday.” It’s going to fall over. “Well, I study the Bible and I pray, but I don’t have a lot of Christian friends.” It’s going to fall over. All right, this is like a three-legged stool. This is in balance. God’s word is open, God’s people are gathered, and then prayer occurs so that God is invited into that community with God’s people and God’s word.
And here’s what I’ve seen in 17 years of being your pastor: people who don’t have these three things in place, eventually they leave the church, eventually they turn their back on Jesus, eventually they wander away from the faith, and they don’t come back until it’s a crisis. “I’m not married; I’m pregnant.” “We were engaged; it fell apart.” “They committed adultery.” “We’re getting divorced.” “The kids have gone apostate. I have cancer. I lost my job. “God’s people, please help.” “God’s word, please counsel.” “God’s Spirit, please comfort.” OK great, welcome back, we love you, but man, this is the hard route. This is the rough way to live life.
And I need you to hear this, not as a condemnation, but an invitation, not something that you have to do but something that you get to do: Study the Bible for yourself. Pursue community with God’s people. We call them Community Groups. This is exactly why we do them. And when you gather together, pray. Pray for one another, and through the week, call, text, e-mail, get together, praying for one another. I always say that the shortest distance between two people is prayer.
The thing that knits God’s people better than anything is prayer. As you’re praying with them and for them, and they’re praying with you and for you, that’s how true friendship is built and God is welcomed in, amen? And it’s the cure for our grumbling. It’s the cure for our gossiping. The cure for grumbling and gossiping is praying. There’s another way to talk about it that’s not destructive, but constructive.
So, they do these three things. They open the Bible, they gather together, they pray. Now, they’re in the midst of a hard season, so my next question for you is: when tough times come, do you trust or doubt the sovereignty of God? The church here in Acts, like our in own day, is facing opposition. Have you guys noticed that? Have you noticed that the culture shifted fairly quickly? How many of you fairly recently put your Christian t-shirts away? You’re not wearing those anymore. You’re not waving the Jesus flag quite as high.
4. WHEN TOUGH TIMES COME, DO YOU TRUST IN OR DOUBT THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD?
See, there’s a thing that happens in sports, and that is when a team starts winning, they get a lot of new fans, right? Everybody jumps on the proverbial bandwagon. Well, right now, anti-Christian sentiment, anti-Christian sexuality, anti-Christian morality, anti-Christian spirituality feels like it’s winning, right? And so there’s the bandwagon. Well, everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon. You know what that means? We get run over by the bandwagon. We’re not on the bandwagon; we’re under the bandwagon. And it’s not like the media—and you know, it’s easy to pick on the media because they’re wrong. And so when it comes to the media, the media’s not pro-Christian right now. It’s not. It’s not pro-heterosexuality. It’s not pro-Bible-believing. It’s just not.
So there’s opposition that comes—criticism, persecution. I mean, you can get up and say things now about Christians you can’t say about any other minority group. And we’re between 7 percent and 8.9 percent of the population. I mean, any other group, can you get up and say, “They’re bigoted. They’re intolerant. They’re hateful. They’re discriminatory. They’re unloving. They’re uneducated.” Can you do that about any other religious group, any other sexual group, any other political group? No. But Christianity right now, it’s very popular. The bandwagon is feeling very victorious, and it’s rolling down the street.
And in those seasons when it seems like the cultural tide is against your team and/or personally in your own life when circumstances make it feel as if you’re losing, it’s not going well, the question is: where is God in all of this? And people go to strange places. They say, “Well, maybe God doesn’t exist,” or “Maybe God exists, but he’s not powerful,” or “Maybe God exists and he is powerful, but he’s not good.” We end up in all kinds of bad places.
How about you? In your past, what’s the toughest season you’ve been in? What’s been the worst day of your life? OK, maybe it’s the place emotionally you don’t even want to go to. You want me to just pick up the sermon and move on very quickly because it’s very painful for you. OK, let’s revisit that place for a moment. Is it a place in your present, like right now—right now’s a really brutal season for you. You’d say, “No, my hard season is now,” whatever the situation and circumstance might be. When those seasons come, how do you view the sovereignty of God?
Let me say this: Christians tend to view the sovereignty of God more easily when things are going more positively, right? “Hey, you got a 4.0,” “You won the lottery,” and “Someone far more interesting than you wants to date you.” “Yay, God’s sovereign!” right? Like, yay, that’s pretty easy. “You flunked, you got fired, they dumped you, and it’s cancer.” “Oh, well, where’s God?” When that day comes, what’s your tendency? The first car I ever had, the front end was out of alignment. Every time you hit the brakes, it’d drift in that direction. What direction do you drift? You say, “My natural tendency is I go there.” Is it to trust or doubt the sovereignty of God?
WHAT SOVEREIGNTY MEANS AND DOESN’T MEAN
Let me explain sovereignty. Sovereignty doesn’t mean that everything that happens is what God wants, all right? There are things that happen that God doesn’t want, like sin. It says in Genesis 6, I believe it is, that God was grieved in his heart that he made man because he knew the inclination of his heart was only wicked all the time. God was grieved in his heart. Sin is not just breaking the laws of God; it’s breaking the heart of God. That’s like foolish children who are out committing suicide and there’s a dad who loves them. That’s not what he wants.
So, to say that God is sovereign is not—and everything that happened is what God wants. That’s not true. But to say that God is sovereign means that he is above all, that he rules over all gods and over all nations and over all kings and over all kingdoms and over all philosophies and over all ideologies, that he rules above all, that he towers above all, and that when he determines to do his will, none can ultimately thwart him because there’s no one that matches him in glory, there’s no one that matches him in power, there’s no one that matches him in majesty.
All right, this is all typified in the Bible by this image of a throne that Jesus sits on, that rules and reigns over all. That’s sovereignty. The sovereign is the one who sits on that throne that is above every other throne. Every CEO sits in a chair. We call those who lead departments at university “department chairs.” At the head of every table is a father or a mother who sits in a chair. Well, there’s a throne above all those thrones, and that’s the throne that Jesus sits on. So, we’re talking about the Sovereign. We’re talking about the one who rules from a throne over all the other thrones.
When we are struggling, when we are suffering, it increases the possibility of our questioning whether or not anyone is on that throne. OK, so for those of you who know me, do I believe in the sovereignty of God? Yes. Do I preach the sovereignty of God? I think I’ve done a pretty good job a few times on that, by God’s grace, humbly, amen, OK? Have I written pages in books and systematic theologies with footnotes on the sovereignty of God? Yes.
Are there seasons where I doubt the sovereignty of God? Yes. Because sometimes what I know theologically I struggle to translate emotionally. And so maybe it’s just me, but in case it’s you as well, I will know that God is sovereign, and then when I am suffering, it feels like the circumstances are sovereign, like this is all not going to work out for my good because it’s big, complicated circumstances.
Or sometimes, I feel like someone else is sovereign. They’re in control, they’re driving the boat, I’m just being drug along behind, and it’s out of control. And sometimes what that’ll cause for me personally is despair, sadness, depression. All right, circumstances are in control; someone else is in control. I’m doomed because that’s not a good sovereign. All right, who or what is sitting on the throne is not loving like Jesus and good like Jesus. I’m in trouble.
Or, usually they go in this order: I then try to figure out how I can get sovereign. I say, “I’ve got to get on top of this thing. I need to be in charge. You know what? I need to get on that throne. And I need to make everything work out according to some plan that I developed.”
Any of you like me or is this just me? Right, you’re like, “Oh, I have a plan. If I could just be sovereign, then I could execute my plan, then it would all be good, because the things that are out of control then would be under my control.” Is this just me? OK, well thanks for just hanging in there with me.
What’s the answer? They’re not in control. It’s not in control. I’m not in control. He’s in control. Back to the book. Acts 4:24, “They pray to the sovereign Lord.” That’s double sovereign. Lord is the one who’s sovereign. They’re really, like, “sovereign,” “Lord,” right? To the “sovereign Lord” they pray. There were gathered together Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
So, they pray to the sovereign Lord, and first they talk about people and things that think they’re sovereign. Herod and Pilate think they’re sovereign. They’re political rulers. They get to decide who lives and dies. The Gentiles are the masses who cried out to Jesus, “Crucify him, crucify him.” They think they’re sovereign because they all voted. People of Israel think they’re sovereign because they come up with a plan to kill Jesus. “Well, we’ll pay Judas 30 pieces of silver, we’ll have him betray Jesus, he’ll hand Jesus to us, and then we’ll hand Jesus to the authorities, like Pontius Pilate and Herod, these guys who rule, and then our plan is that they will kill him, and we will have Jesus killed by our plan.”
Everybody thinks they’re sovereign. The political leaders think they’re sovereign because of their position, the spiritual religious leaders think that they are sovereign because of their plan, and then the Gentiles think that they are sovereign because they constitute the populous.
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY AT THE CROSS
And the one thing they all agree on is, “Let’s kill Jesus.” OK, now, Christians sometimes have gotten a bad rap as being anti-Semitic because we teach that the Jews killed Jesus. Here it tells us everybody killed Jesus. The Romans, the Jews, and the Gentiles, which is the miscellaneous bucket for the rest of us, OK? I’m Irish—I’m in the Gentile bucket. Jesus died for my sin; Jesus died for your sin. His blood is on all of our hands. We all killed Jesus.
And if there was ever a time that it looked like God was not sovereign and things were not going according to plan, it was at the cross of Jesus, amen? “Where’s God?” “He’s right there.” “Which one?” “The bloodied, nearly naked, beaten one who’s dying.” “Oh my gosh, he’s the sovereign one? He doesn’t look very sovereign. It doesn’t look like he’s in control. It doesn’t look like he’s winning; he’s losing. It doesn’t look like his plan is working; it’s failing.” But that was what your hand and plan had predestined to take place. Who’s plan was it that Jesus would die? He tells us it was the Romans’ plan, it was the Jews’ plan, it was the Gentiles’ plan, it was God’s plan.
When was this plan determined? Well, it was predetermined, it was predestined, meaning that this plan was, to quote Ephesians 1, “before the foundations of the earth.” If you’re paying attention, your brain just exploded, OK? Because there’s a big debate in theology between a tribal called the Arminians and the Calvinists. And the Arminians stress human responsibility and the Calvinists stress God’s sovereignty. And so the Arminians will read this and they’ll say, “Do you see? Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Romans, the Gentiles, everybody else, and the Jews, they all made their own freewill choice decision. They made a plan to kill Jesus. They’re morally responsible. This is what they decided to do.” Is that true? Yes.
And then the Calvinists will come around and they’ll read the second half of the verse. They’ll read the first half, you know, quickly, like, “‘Herod and Pilate,’ blah, blah, OK, here we go, right here: ‘planned,’ ‘predestined,’ all right? We’re going to talk about that right now. Here we go, ‘planned,’ ‘predestined.’ God had a plan.” And they’re going to get really excited right about there. The rest is going to be sort of read it fast, right? It’s like an ad for a drug where they list the side effects quickly at the end and hope you don’t pay attention, OK? “Oh, your head may explode, but you won’t have allergies.”
The truth is, here, the Bible lays equal responsibility on the sinful choices of rebellious people and says that it’s all according to God’s predestined plan. So, the Bible here is saying people are responsible and God is sovereign. People do things that God does not want them to do, and God uses them as part of his predestined plan.
Some of you say, “How does this work?” I don’t know, OK? It won’t keep me from talking, but I want to lower your expectations. I don’t know. My brain is 3 pounds, fallen, and went to public school. I don’t know, OK? When the Bible says, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” I’m not raising my hand, all right? I’m going to keep my hand down and say, “I don’t know.”
Here’s what I do know: When you sin, it’s your fault. When I sin, it’s my fault. And God is so big and God is so good that he will use sin for good. You can clap if you like. [Congregation applauds.] I think it’s pretty fantastic. It doesn’t mean that God causes sin. It means that God uses sin because God is both sovereign and good. How do I know?
Look to the cross of Jesus. The murder of Jesus was the most horrific thing that was ever done in the history of the world, and it’s the most wonderful thing that was ever done in the history of the world, because people have a plan, but God has a bigger plan. People have a plan, but God has a better plan. That’s what it means to be the sovereign. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens is what you want, but you use everything that happens for what you want. That’s an amazing God. That’s a majestic God. That’s a wonderful God. That’s a glorious God.
DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY—TWO PEDALS ON A BIKE
But here’s the truth: we only see his predestined plan in the rearview mirror, not in the windshield. How many of you, right now, you’re probably like, “Yes, God, you’re sovereign, you have a plan. Show me!” And he never does. And you’re freaked out, and you’re anxious, and you’re stressed, and you’re worried like your hypocritical pastor. You just—you’re like that . . . “Show me the plan. I don’t know what the plan is. What’s the plan?”
And he says, “The plan is trust me.” “Aww, really? Come on. I was hoping for more detail to the plan.” How many of you, though, if you look in the rearview mirror, back at the circumstances of your life, you realize, “I sinned, they sinned, this was all bad, this was all wrong, and God used it for good. Would you look at that? That actually was a pretty good plan right there.”
The Bible says that “Now we see in part; then we shall see in full, and we will know as we are fully known.” This is the age of faith where we look out the windshield and we say, “I don’t know what the plan is, but I know the one who does. So, I don’t trust the plan; I trust the Sovereign who has the plan.” And in his grace, he allows us sometimes to look back on our life and say, “You know what? The God who was faithful yesterday will be faithful tomorrow. And I see God’s plan, and it’s not the plan I thought that God would have, and it’s not the plan that I would have, but by God’s grace, it’s a glorious plan.”
I’ve said it before: the illustration I like to use is that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are like two pedals on a bike. Some theology’s like, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to give this. You’ve got to give this.” Well, eventually that’s going to get off course. The other is, “God’s sovereign. God has a plan. God does everything. God works it all out. God’s in charge.” Well, that’s going to get off course. God is sovereign and has a plan, and you are part of his sovereign plan, so he will do everything that he promises to do, and he empowers you to do what he is asking you to do so that the two of you are working together. And that’s what it means to be a Christian.
5. WHOM DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT WANT YOU TO SPEAK BOLDLY TO?
And this leads to the last point. We then need the Holy Spirit to empower us so that we can follow God’s plan for our life and speak boldly to others about this sovereign God. So, the last question is: whom does the Holy Spirit want you to speak boldly to? Acts 4:29, “And now, Lord”—they’re praying—“look upon their threats and grant your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.”
So here’s the deal, they’re saying—they’re not praying, “God, get rid of our trial. Get rid of our trouble. Get rid of our tribulation. God, crush our enemies. God, close all the prisons. God, make the media trend in our direction. God, pass some laws that make everybody agree with us. God, give us a safe place to hide our families and our assets. God, make sure that it doesn’t go bad.” They don’t pray any of that. They don’t pray for anything out there to change. They pray for everything in here . . . to change. Don’t get us around the valley of the shadow of death; get us through the valley of the shadow of death. That’s what they’re praying. And what they’re praying for boldness in the face of is threats. And this is it.
Someone will start threatening, and if we listen, we’re letting them seat themselves on the throne of sovereignty. “Don’t give your life to Jesus; your family will disown you. We’ll cut you out of the inheritance. Your spouse will divorce you. Your professor will give you a bad grade. Your boss, if you don’t violate your conscious and Scripture to do something that they want you to do is going to terminate you.” Threat. Threat. Threat. “I love Jesus. I love you. But I can’t do that because that violates Jesus.” “Then we won’t be your friend. You’re out of our group. You can’t hang out with us. We’ll say terrible things about you. We’ll turn our back on you. We’ll abandon you. We’ll betray you. We might even persecute you.” “Oh no, oh no, oh no, not threats. Sit on the throne. Be the sovereign. You’re in charge. Tell me what to do and not do and I’ll obey you as long as you don’t punish me. Just don’t punish me. I’ll make you a deal: if you threaten me, I will worship you and obey you as long as you don’t hurt me.”
So, they pray for boldness. “Let us remember who the Sovereign is and speak to those who are threatening so that they can come to know him and be saved.” Why, there’s a lot of courage there. There’s a lot of courage there.
“While you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Anything miraculous, supernatural, godly, and good that happens is through the living Jesus working here and now. This is why even sometimes faith healers and junk like that I get really frustrated at because the glory doesn’t go to Jesus. It’s like, the holy man showed up. Wrong man—and he’s not that holy. Jesus is the one who heals.
And so they’re praying, “Jesus, on occasion, please show up in a miraculous way so that everybody knows that you’re still alive.” Because it’s not about how powerful the church is or miracles or the supernatural, or somebody was healed, or a demon was cast out, or a person was delivered, or cancer was cured. Ultimately, it’s do they know that Jesus is alive? Do they know who Jesus is? Do they know where Jesus is? Do they know that he’s coming back? Do they know that they’re going to have to give an account to him? And so they’re praying for supernatural, miraculous things to happen.
And friends, I know that they don’t happen a lot. That’s why call them miracles and not Mondays. They’re unusual. They don’t happen all the time. You can’t set your clock by it. But as God’s people are on mission, trying to pray for boldness to invite people to come to know the Lord Jesus, the Lord Jesus will, upon occasion, do something extraordinary, something miraculous, something supernatural so that people know he’s still alive, and he shows up, and we just can’t explain him away.
And then the story continues and concludes. “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken.” They actually got a visible sign. Does God still do stuff like that? He can; he doesn’t have to. Some theologies say he has to do it all the time. No, he doesn’t. Part of being the sovereign is you get to do what you want. It’s like one of perks, all right? Others say, “No, he can’t do that.” Well, sure he can. He’s the sovereign. He kind of—back to my point—gets to do what he wants. That’s one of the perks of being the sovereign. You don’t have to do anything, and you’re not forbidden from doing anything. You can kind of do what you want.
So, God’s sovereign. He gets to do what he wants, and occasionally what he wants to do is show up in a supernatural, miraculous, powerful way to remind everybody that he still exists, and he’s still paying attention, and he’s still present, and he’s still involved.
Here, it’s an earthquake. I’ll give you a quick story. I’m going to start a series in 14 months where I’m looking at the objections and oppositions to Christianity from 18 to 44 year olds. We did all the research, figured out what this is. We had focus groups that then met with the non-Christians and tried to figure out why they didn’t like Jesus and Christianity. And there was one particular group that they were meeting, and the atheists were talking about how they don’t like Jesus and Christianity, and prayer’s a myth, and God’s not real, and miracles aren’t possible, and this is all very outdated and antiquated and silly and ridiculous and nefarious.
And then an earthquake hit during the focus group. I would call it a sovereign earthquake, by the way. So, a sovereign earthquake hit during the focus group while the atheists were talking about how stupid prayer is, and one of the atheists dropped to their knees and prayed that God would spare his life—which is hilarious, OK, because there’s nothing funnier than a praying atheist—and it was captured on video, and they signed a waver so we can actually use it legally. They signed the waver before they cried out to God in prayer, because again, it was a sovereign earthquake. OK, God had a plan. It just goes to show that sometimes God does show up in the ways that he has shown up in the past because he wants somebody to know that he still exists, and “Hey, you need to pay attention,” and “Hey, the circumstances shake.”
Sometimes it’s an actual shaking of the space that we’re in. Sometimes it just feels like our life is uncertain and unstable, and things are out of control, and we’re not sure what’s going on in the world, and we’re not sure what’s going on in us. And it’s God’s way of saying, “Just trying to get your attention.” There’s a sovereign, and he’s here for you, and that’s the only firm footing you will find. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
When God’s people receive the Holy Spirit, they do so at conversion. Ephesians calls it being “sealed with the Spirit.” You’re sealed with the Spirit once upon your salvation, and then there are many fillings that happen throughout the course of your life. And the filling of the Holy Spirit is to empower you for boldness to be on mission with Jesus.
So, in Acts, it says they received the Holy Spirit and they spoke in other tongues, meaning they spoke about Jesus boldly in languages they didn’t know. Sometimes it says it like this, that they received the Holy Spirit and spoke with boldness in a language they did know. In either occasion, it’s the same. If you have the Holy Spirit, there is a love for Jesus in you that you can’t contain within you. It comes out of you as you tell others about Jesus because you love them, and you love him, and you want his love to be made known to them.
How often do you gas up your car? You gas up your car; you go on a journey. You gas up your car to go on another journey. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is like that. Nobody’d ever buy a car and say, “I filled it up. Glad that’s over.” No, there’s fuel for that journey, then there’s fuel for the next journey, fuel for the next journey. We’re like that, all right? We’re on mission with Jesus, the Holy Spirit fills us to go on that journey, and fills us to go on the next journey, then fills us to go on the next journey. Every time you gas up your car, pray. “Holy Spirit, fill me so that I might journey with Jesus on the mission he’s laid before me. And give me boldness on that mission to talk to people about Jesus.”
I need you to pray that prayer. If you do it every time you gas up your car, that’ll be the way to remind you that as you need to fill up your tank, God needs to fill up your tank. As you need fuel for your journey, Jesus needs to fuel you for his journey.
And we live in a day when guys like me are preachers: We yell for a living. We’re supposed to be bold. But the real credibility, quite frankly, is now with you. It’s the moms and the dads and the single men and the single women and the high school kids and the college kids and those who have cancer and those who are elementary school teachers and those who are CEOs in companies. It’s the regular Christian who has an irregular affection for Jesus and an irregular boldness to talk about him that has great credibility because you’re not clergy, and you’re not professional, and it’s not your vocation, and no one is paying you, so you have a listening that is different from that of someone like me.
Some of you are shy. You need to repent of your shyness. Some of you are quiet. You need to repent of your quietness. Some of you don’t like conflict and you need to repent of your cowardice and invite the Holy Spirit to make you bold so that you could share the love of Jesus with others.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND
And so in closing as well, for those of you who are not Christian, do you know Jesus? If you’ve not turned from sin and trusted to him, it may be for two reasons: You want to be God’s editor. You have no right to do that. Or secondly, you know that you will suffer. But Jesus suffered for you and he’ll suffer with you. And as you suffer, you’ll learn to love him more and become more like him, and suffering is part of his good, sovereign plan.
We’re going to collect our tithes and offerings now. This is where we give to the God who gave all for us. We do so generously and gladly. As we partake of our tithes and offerings, I also want to explain Communion. Jesus instituted Communion at the Last Supper where he broke bread with his friends and shared drink with his friends. And he says, “This bread is my body broken for you, and this drink is my blood shed for you. When you partake of it, remember me.”
So at Mars Hill, every week we try to remember Jesus right in the middle of our time together. And this is where, if you’re not a Christian, you give your life to Jesus and you, with boldness, identify yourself with God’s people by standing up and partaking of Communion. It is an act of boldness. It’s standing up publicly, saying, “I don’t just listen to these things. I love Jesus, and I belong to Jesus, and I’m on mission with him by God’s grace.”
And then we will also sing and celebrate. Who are we going to sing to, Mars Hill? Jesus. Where’s he at right now? He’s not the humble, marginalized Galilean peasant. He’s the resurrected, ascended, ruling, reigning King of kings, Lord of lords. As we sing today, I want you, in your imagination, to see him high and exalted and seated upon his throne, not in humility but in glory, surrounded by the angels, being worshiped as the Creator God, what they spoke of here in Acts 4, as that sovereign God who rules and reigns over all. And as we sing we’re joining the angels in the presence of Jesus, doing that which we were made for, the worship of God. And we’re doing so together with gladness, and that’s part of God’s sovereign plan.
And so, Lord Jesus, as we come now to worship you, I pray, Holy Spirit, that you would give faith to those who do not yet know you, that you would give boldness to those who know you. Holy Spirit, we invite you to fill us individually and collectively, that you would empower us to pray and to be bold in proclaiming the message of Jesus. God, I pray right now that you would give to those who have joined us and are listening in a face, a name, of someone that they need to speak boldly to. Maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a neighbor, maybe it’s a classmate, maybe it’s a coworker, maybe it’s a spouse, maybe it’s a child, maybe it’s an enemy. Holy Spirit, whom do you want them to speak to about Jesus? Would you please let them know right now and empower them to go talk to that person about Jesus? And may you go ahead of them and open that person’s understanding, and may they be saved, and may this all work out according to your perfect, predestined plan.
Lord God, help us to not argue about sovereignty but trust in it, not to speculate about it but to cling to it, not to use it as a dividing point to argue with Christians but to use it as a uniting point to gather together as Christians, trusting that when times are tough, you are seated on a throne, and though things are out of our control, they’re certainly under your control. And we thank you for that, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.
The church moves forward against an increasingly strong headwind of suffering, persecution, and opposition, and this text is a case study of why Christians suffer and how they should. It’s important to remember that when Christians and non-Christians disagree, they’re disagreeing on the issue under the issues: whether or not the Bible is the very word of God. Amid persecution, do you have Christian friends to pray with? How do you keep trusting in God’s sovereignty?