The First Sunday after Easter April 12, 2015
1 Peter 1:3-9
210, 208(1-3,8-10), 193, 201(1,4-5)
“To those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2-3 ESV). Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
“Why?” is something of a staple of the human condition. We tend to be curious creatures. We want to know not only how something works but why—even if knowing “why” doesn’t help us one bit. We want to know reasons as though understanding the reason might help us somehow to deal with the reality. I remember my own parents wanting to know the “why” of some of the really dumb, inexplicable things I did: “Why did you punch your sister?” Answer: “I don’t know—because she was there.” “Why did you tell your brother that his haircut makes him look like a monkey?” Answer: “I don’t know—because that’s what brothers do…and it kinda does.”
I can actually remember thinking as a young sprout in need of all kinds of parenting, “Why do you keep asking me ‘Why?’? You’ve been asking me that same question for how many years and I have yet to come up with a good reason, so we may as well just move on to the spanking part and get it over with.” Understand that I never actually voiced such thoughts. There was a limit to my foolishness. But I do find it interesting that I was curious. It’s interesting to me that even then I wanted to know why my parents asked “why?”.
It’s probably not much more complex than human beings wanting to understand all that we can understand. The problem—the frustration—in all of this is that there is infinitely more that we can never understand than there is that we can. Our curiosity is never, therefore, fully slaked in large part because there is often no discernible rhyme or reason as to why people do what they do, or why things happen as they do.
Even when there is some sort of master plan, that plan is most often denied to us. Why do good young people die when bad old people live on? We don’t know. Why do some people get sick and recover, while others get sick and die? We don’t know. Why did God allow a couple of fanatics to drive jumbo jets into the side of the Twin Towers, why did a ferry capsize in South Korea, why did that mudslide kill all those people in Washington? We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
Yet, once in a great while, we do get to see behind the curtain and we do get to know and understand why. Why, for example, was Jesus put to death for His teachings while His disciples were arrested and then released? We know that Jesus died because that’s what He came to do. That’s what all of mankind needed. But why then were His disciples spared—one of them for many decades? The answer is that they hadn’t yet completed the work God had given them to do. More to the point, Peter and John were released from prison so that they could deliver to mankind, among other things, the message that forms our text today—God‘s Word recorded in the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them. Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
These are the verbally inspired words of our God—the very words through which eternal life is both given and sustained. Mindful of the great value of these words from our God, we petition that same God: “Set us apart for holy purposes by your truth, O Lord, Your word is truth.” Amen.
One of the big “why’s?” that Christians routinely ask today is why Christianity—the only true religion and the one path to eternal life—seems to be fading while so many other false, hollow religions seem to be thriving? Why do light and truth seem to be on the decrease while darkness and falsehood seem to be on the increase?
The first answer is that there is no possible way to demonstrate that Christianity is on the decrease. While it is obviously true that our American society seems to be crumbling from within, Christianity is advancing powerfully around the world. God alone knows those who are His. It has always been so. God alone knows who, in their hearts, believes that Jesus Christ has provided the full payment for all sin by His perfect life, offered in innocent death on the cross of Calvary. God alone knows who are looking not to themselves or their own works, but to Christ and His goodness as their acceptable sin payment. Those are the souls that make up the Holy Christian Church, and God alone knows its members. Human beings can never know such things.
The second answer is that it is not so much that Christianity is fading as it is the world itself is fading. The earth’s demise is certain. God has declared it. “For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isaiah 34:2-4).
Again from the same man who wrote our text: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10).
John wrote: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
The third answer is that, for whatever reason, God allows trends or fads to come and go. He allows the darkness to rise and fall. He alone knows why. There is nothing new here. Gamaliel —the man who instructed the Apostle Paul when he was still a Pharisee and his name was Saul— spoke of the phenomenon in today’s text: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.” [vv.35-37]
You and I could add to Gamaliel’s list from our own times. Each generation has popular religious or cult leaders who come and go—wildly popular one day and gone the next. All of these have two things in common: 1) their following is built on a culture not of God but of man; and 2) they rise, and then, inexorably, they fall and fade.
Gamaliel offered a bit of counsel in our text that still holds great value today: “…keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” [vv.38-39]
There is wisdom here on a number of different levels. First is the demonstrable truth that just as false prophets will continue to rise up, so also they will continue to fade away. It has always been so and it will always be so. God can and does accomplish His good pleasure through them, but the false teachers themselves always, in the end, self-destruct. They fade away as did the men Gamaliel mentioned in our text.
The greater truth for Christians is learning just how we can avoid being carried away by a passing fad or novelty. Peter set the tone already in the opening words of our text when he said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” [v.29] While he spoke these words in response to those Jewish religious leaders who had commanded the disciples to stop talking about Jesus, these words are really foundational to everything that the Christian thinks, says, or does. The basis of life itself is not so much about our relationship with other human beings as it is about our relationship with our God. To put it another way, if our relationship with our God is not good, nothing else in life can be—nothing else in life even matters.
Against this truth, this backdrop, consider all the different pastimes and pursuits that occupy man’s time and talent and it all takes on a different perspective, a different meaning or character. Jesus’ disciples finally got it after His death and resurrection—they were different men especially after they were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. They no longer argued with each other about who was to be the greatest when Jesus established what they thought would be an earthly kingdom. They no longer made special requests for positions that would gain them the praise and envy of men. They never bragged about how rock-solid or steadfast they would remain in the face of adversity. Suddenly they recognized “privilege” where they would never have thought to look for it. You heard it in our text, but did you actually process the words when you heard them? The words are fairly stunning, not only in their simplicity but in the profound change of heart that they indicate: “So [the disciples] departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.” [v. 41]
We can begin to grasp the amazing transformation that had taken place in these men. By the events of Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost these men had been transformed into something truly different, truly special. The difference, however, was not so much in the men themselves as it was in the God to whom they remained connected and devoted. While they certainly didn’t search out pain and persecution, they now recognized such things as that which they truly were and are: examples of divine privilege and honor.
It’s important that we too not only recognize the nature of such things, but just how and why Christians can and should expect nothing less. God does not instruct his children to go out and seek to inflame or irritate unbelievers. He has, however, commanded us to obey—“we must obey God rather than men.” The reality of life in a sinful world is that obedience to God will most often result in difficult times of one sort or another. Our Savior is the most obvious example.
You will recall Satan’s first temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Satan has now seduced mankind with a variation on that theme: “You yourself will be God, determining good and evil.” The sheer prideful blasphemy and arrogance is breathtaking in its audacity.
If then the basis of our lives is boiled down to Peter’s simple statement that “we must obey God rather than men” what then is it that God has called us to do? Our text did not leave us without an answer: “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” [v.42]
You and I are called to be teachers. More than that, we are privileged to be teachers in the service of our God. That religion, that faith, will never fade or fail because it is ordained, commanded, and blessed by God Himself.
That can be a tall and intimidating order unless we break it down a bit—quantify and clarify just what it is that our God expects of us. In a nutshell, God has called us to remove ignorance whenever and wherever possible. That means that your specific calling is that not one soul in your circle of life should ever be able to stand before his or her Maker on Judgment Day and be able to use as his or her excuse: “No one ever told me the truth about Jesus Christ. No one ever explained to me that I am saved not by what I do but by faith in what Jesus Christ has done for me.”
Understand that this does not mean that you can convert anyone. You can’t. But God the Holy Spirit can. To do so, however, a human being has to hear the truth. That’s exactly why Jesus left the disciples with the simple instruction to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel.” (cf. Matthew 28:19). That’s why the disciples, just prior to our text, were miraculously released from prison and why they immediately went back to teaching. That’s why Peter said what he did to the Jewish rulers: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” [vv.30-31] No longer could the Jews claim ignorance as to the true meaning of Jesus Christ. Were any of them converted? We’ll find out in Heaven just how man. Until then, our calling is simply to do what those first disciples did.
Will it be easy? Of course not. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Just as you and I would consider it “worth it” that someone shared the message of the Gospel with us.
God grant us such a love for our fellow human beings as well as a clear and abiding appreciation for the incomparable value of our calling and purpose and for the incomparable privilege of working in his service. That’s the sort of work that will never fail. That’s the truth that will never fade. Amen.
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