Today’s sermon is about the urgent task that we face to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Our task isn’t so different from the one facing Peter and John in today’s scripture, who use the opportunities the Holy Spirit provides them to share the good news. What’s stopping us? As Brent makes clear in this sermon, all believers have access to the same power to which Peter and John have access—the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sermon Text: Acts 4:1-22
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Today’s scripture begins in the temple in Jerusalem. That temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. You can see what it looked like in this scale model. but you can still visit what’s called the Temple Mount today. I visited it last year and got to walk around in the place where Peter and John healed a crippled beggar in Acts 3, and where they were preaching the gospel in verse 1 of today’s scripture. You can see that there is now a Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount called the Dome of the Rock. It’s the gold-domed structure you see here. In Jesus day, the temple stood there.
It’s a strange political situation today. Out of respect for Islam, we Christian pilgrims aren’t allowed to bring Bibles to the Temple Mount. Oddly, this law is enforced by Israeli soldiers who patrol the Temple Mount. They carry big Uzis, and if you bring a Bible with you, these soldiers will confiscate them at gunpoint! Needless to say, I didn’t bring a Bible. I have great respect for 18-year-old kids carrying Uzis, believe me! Of course, if you stood up to preach the gospel on the Temple Mount, that wouldn’t be well-received, either!
Think about that image… armed soldiers coming to arrest you at the temple for practicing your Christian faith in public, and you’ll get an idea of what Peter and John are up against in today’s scripture. In the previous chapter, they heal a crippled beggar who had been paralyzed for 40 years. The crowd of people who saw the miracle were amazed, so Peter used the opportunity to share the gospel—and as a result, thousands become believers. Temple guards come and arrest them, put them in jail overnight, and put them on trial before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.
Does this seem familiar? Well, I’m sure it did to Peter and John, who just a few months earlier had seen the same thing happen to Jesus. They must have known that their lives were on the line in the same way. After all, Jesus ended up getting executed in circumstances just like theirs. Except notice the difference in the way they behaved this time compared to when Jesus was arrested. When the council asks them, “By what power or in what name did you do this?” the two of them do not cower in fear. Peter does not deny Jesus. Instead, he stands before them and preaches the gospel to them.
Where does this newfound courage and power and wisdom and eloquence come from?
It comes from is the Holy Spirit. What does it say in verse 8? “Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit…” Next to Jesus’ resurrection, the most important event that’s happened in the lives of Jesus’ disciples is that they have received the gift of the Holy Spirit—which was poured out on all of the believers in Acts chapter 2. Long before then, in Luke chapter 21, Jesus predicted that his disciples would be arrested and put on trial and made to testify in front of powerful people. And he told them that through the power of the Holy Spirit he would give them the words to speak and the wisdom necessary to do the very things that we see Peter and John doing in today’s scripture. Which is why, in verse 13, the chief priests and the elders were “caught by surprise by the confidence with which Peter and John spoke.” They had never gone to seminary. They were laypeople. They were “uneducated and inexperienced,” Luke says. So this power to speak and act with confidence came from somewhere else: it came from the Holy Spirit.
When I was in high school, I bagged groceries at Kroger. I made friends with a young man there named Elbert who was a Pentecostal Christian. I had never met a Pentecostal before, but I could tell that Elbert, like me, was a deeply committed Christian. So we had that in common, and we talked about our faith, and we talked about church a lot. One day Elbert asked me if I’d ever spoken in tongues, and I said no.
Do you know about speaking in tongues?
We see the gift of tongues throughout the Book of Acts. Sometimes it’s a miraculous ability to speak in a foreign language that you yourself never learned, as in Acts chapter 2. It’s a way of translating the gospel so that people will hear the gospel in their own language. Sometimes a person may may not be speaking in a human language at all—it’s more like a private prayer language that goes beyond words. Some people find that praying in tongues helps them pray and grow closer to God. I have known or read about very credible Christians who speak in tongues, and I have no doubt that some people have that gift. Pentecostal Christians, however, as I learned from my friend Elbert, believe that unless you speak in tongues, you haven’t yet received the gift of the Spirit. You may be saved—but you haven’t yet received the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit, they believe, is a secondary gift that comes some time after saving grace.
Anyway, the day after I told Elbert that I didn’t speak in tongues, he gave me a booklet entitled The Bible Way to Receive the Holy Spirit. And the booklet recommended doing things to “help” you receive the Holy Spirit. “You need to assume the correct posture for receiving the Holy Spirit and kneel, and then do this, this, and that.”
It was weird, I’ll be honest. Even at the time, long before I’d gone to seminary and learned more about theology, something about it didn’t seem right to me. If the Holy Spirit is something that God gives to us as a gift, why does receiving the Spirit have to be so much work? The people who receive the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts don’t have to read a book to figure out how to do it! It just happens. Moreover, Jesus promises to give the Spirit to everyone who places their faith in him, without condition. You can read all about this in John chapters 14 through 17. Besides, in 1 Corinthians, one of the big conflicts facing the church is between those Corinthians who had the gift of tongues and those who didn’t. The Corinthians who spoke in tongues thought they were more spiritual than the Corinthians who didn’t. Paul says no. They obviously weren’t more spiritual because they weren’t loving one another with Christ-like love. The main reason Paul wrote his beautiful love poem in 1 Corinthians 13, the most famous chapter in the Bible, was to address this problem of some Christians thinking that they were better than others because they had more extravagant spiritual gifts.
No, while our Pentecostal brothers and sisters can teach us a lot when it comes to prayer, and believing in miracles, and being on fire for the Lord, their theology about who receives the Spirit stinks. All of us who have placed our faith in Jesus and received justification and new birth have received the Holy Spirit! Did you know that? We all have the Spirit! Just yesterday, I had the privilege of baptizing a young woman by immersion, in a creek. One thing that her baptism symbolized is that she now has the Holy Spirit working in her life. And I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone there when I say that we felt the power of the Holy Spirit! My point is, the Holy Spirit is not a gift for the chosen few. It’s for all of us who place our faith in Jesus!
Maybe this is a threatening idea to some of us. Maybe we’d prefer for the Holy Spirit to be a gift that’s given to other Christians, and not to us… That way, we’d be off the hook. Less would be expected of us. We wouldn’t have to worry about doing all those bold things that we see Peter and John doing in today’s scripture. That stuff is for other Christians, not for us. We’re just Methodists after all. We’re not quite the “frozen chosen,” but we’re only slightly more thawed out than the Presbyterians. You know?
But suppose that’s wrong. Suppose we, too, have access to the exact same power to which Peter and John have access in today’s scripture? Suppose that just as Peter and John were filled with the Spirit, we, too, can be filled with the Spirit? Suppose that just as Peter and John testified boldly to their faith in Christ, we, too, can testify boldly. Suppose that instead of just “stealing sheep” from other churches, there are actually thousands of non-Christiansout there in Alpharetta who are just waiting to hear and respond to the gospel, if only—if only—faithful Christians from our church would enable them hear it. That means we don’t simply wait around for North Point or Stone Creek or First Baptist to reach them first, but that we Methodist Christians here at Alpharetta First also have a role to play in God’s mission to reach the lost for Jesus!
When I was in Kenya a few weeks ago, I heard testimonies from United Methodist pastors there… If you saw that video I showed a couple of weeks ago, you saw their infectious faith. You saw their enthusiasm. You saw their zeal. These pastors were talking about the Holy Spirit working among them. They were talking about people being saved by the dozen—churches overflowing. They were talking about people being miraculously healed and delivered and set free. Gosh, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that we Methodistsdon’t do that sort of thing! All the church growth that our denomination is experiencing is taking place in Africa and the southern hemisphere. I can’t wait for the African churches to send missionaries over here to save us United Methodists! Because God knows we need it!
Brothers and sisters, I’m talking to myself here, too. One evangelism expert says that one life-changing prayer that we can pray every day is, “Lord, show me opportunities for ministry today. Show me what I can do today to demonstrate the life-changing love of Jesus Christ. Give me words to say to someone who needs to hear the good news.” Good things happen when I pray that prayer, but in the busy-ness of my life and routine, I don’t always think about it. Once when Jesus was ministering to the multitudes, the Bible says that Jesus had compassion on them—because they were “troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Even if you say, “I don’t how to be a witness. I don’t know what to say to people. I’m too afraid to share my faith.” Can you do me a favor? Can you pray? Can you ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers from our church? Even if you don’t think that you yourself are one of those laborers. Pray for them to be sent! Let’s pray and see what happens.
I’m leading an Alpha Group, which I love. I’m going to have our group pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out laborers. I hope you’ll join me in that prayer, because we need it. I honestly don’t believe that people living in Alpharetta, Georgia, are somehow in less need of a savior than people living in East Africa, or people living in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. The fields are white for the harvest right here, right now.
Earlier this month, a pastor in Iran named Youcef Nadarkhani, whom I’ve mentioned before, was released from prison after spending three years there because he was a Christian. He was accused of a capital crime, apostasy, which means he was guilty of abandoning Islam. He was arrested and hauled before one secret tribunal after another, time and again. He was given one opportunity after another to renounce his Christian faith. All he had to do was say, “I’m not a Christian,” and the authorities would set him free. I mean, this guy had young children at home! Who could have blamed him if he had told the Iranian authorities what they wanted to hear? He could have renounced his Christian faith while crossing his fingers behind his back. Then he could have gone back home, and gone back to his church, and gone back to his family and explained to them that he lied to the authorities—because he didn’t want his children growing up without a father, because he wanted to continue his ministry, because he could do more good for God’s kingdom alive than he could if he were dead.
I’m sure that if I were in his shoes, I would be tempted in that way. I wonder if I would give in to this temptation, or if, like Pastor Nadarkhani, I would stand strong. I would stand strong even after spending three years of prison. I would stand strong even though it meant being away from the wife and family that I loved. I would stand strong even though a firing squad was facing me.
I want that courage to stand strong. Don’t you?
It’s funny… Like Peter and John in today’s scripture, Pastor Nadarkhani lives in a place where he’s prohibited from speaking about Jesus, and guess what? He can’t stop speaking. We American Christians, by contrast, are completely free to speak about Jesus, and guess what? Too often we never even start speaking! Honestly, that’s got to be one of the devil’s biggest victories, pulling that off, don’t you think?
If we don’t start speaking and acting and praying and inviting, don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love will miss out on the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might die without having given their lives to Christ? Don’t we think it’s possible that people we know and love might be eternally separated from God in hell.
Our mission is urgent. Each one of us has a role to play in that mission. Almighty God, Lord of the harvest, please send laborers into the field. And if I’m one of those laborers that you’re calling to go out into that field, please give me the courage by the power of your Spirit, to go. Amen.