A Joyful Death
Text: Acts 5:17-42
The message today is one of those crowd clearing messages. Jesus did this throughout his ministry, so there’s good precedence for it. Anytime the crowds got to big, Jesus would say something offensive, and the crowds would thin out. He would have made a terrible church growth strategist. The crowds get big and Jesus says things like, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you can’t have any part of me.” People left. Poof. They gone.
Today is that kind of message. If you are someone kind of checking out TJC because it’s the cool happening place, or because you it makes you feel good to check that church attendance box this week, you’re not going to like this message. And that’s okay. For the people of God, the sheep who belong to the fold, you will love this message (even if it challenges you). Because you’ll see that what we’re talking about today is straight from the Bible, and calls you to obedience to God. So if you’re not back next week, we’ll all know which one you were. The challenge - repent of arms-length faith today, and throw yourself into the body.
The Heidelberg Catechism--written in 1563--begins with one of the most important questions and answers in all of life. Note that this was written during a time of persecution of the church in Germany.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
I love this catechism. What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I'm not my own, that I belong to Christ. My life is not my own. I don't belong to myself. I don't get the ownership rights over my life, those are in Jesus' hands. This is counter-cultural. This is not a minor theme in the New Testament. It is actually the reoccurring theme and basis of the Christian life. Listen to these words from Jesus:
Luke 9: 23-25 -- And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Luke 14:25-27 -- Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Those who are Christians, who follow Jesus, must answer the call from Christ to lay down our lives. We are no longer our own. We belong to him. We are called to die now, before we ever die physically. Following Jesus is about embracing your death in advance of your actual death. This is why Paul says in Galatians 2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." I'm crucified with Christ. I no longer live. Being a Christian is embracing your willful death.
This is a really important point to grasp as we head further and further into this series about evangelism and missions. As we think about OUR role in fulfilling the Great Commission. It begins with a right theological understanding of our lives: We are not our own. We belong to Christ. And as those who belong to Christ, not to ourselves, the actions of our lives must reflect that of obedience to our Master. Our obedience may bring strife, persecution, and suffering, yet that doesn't keep us from living to do what Jesus has told us, in fact, it is the pathway to joy. This is why our message is entitled: A Joyful Death.
Exegesis: Acts 5:17-42
The context of this passage is after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (to preach the gospel), and he promises the Holy Spirit will come and fill them. Sure enough, after Jesus ascends back to Heaven, the Holy Spirit falls on the church in Acts 2, we see the disciples relentlessly sharing about Jesus to people. But it is starting to land them in trouble.
vs 17-26 -- The apostles John and Peter are arrested for preaching Christ. They were obedient, but arrested. But an angel in the middle of the night breaks them out and tells them to keep preaching. So at daybreak, they go back out, after previously being arrested. So the high priest comes in the next day and has no idea they are out, and summons them. It's quickly discovered they are not in jail, but out preaching again. So they detain them, quietly and not by force, and take them back into custody.
vs 27-32 -- John and Peter are questioned in front of the council, and ridiculed for preaching about Jesus after being told not to. But Peter's answer was that they must obey God rather than men. This is the heart of discipleship - living to obey God and not men. And why is that? Because they belong to God, not men. Jesus is their master, not men.
vs 33-39 -- The religious leaders are ready to snap and have them killed. But Gamaliel gives a little speech after Peter and John are taken out of the room. He reminds the leaders that if it is not of God it will fade. If it is of God, they can't stop it. So they take his advice.
vs 40-42 -- They call Peter and John back in, and they beat them. Take this into your thoughts for a moment and ponder it. They beat them. We read that and quickly keep progressing through the story. But this beating may have been 5, 10, 15 minutes long. They roughed them up. Imagine the strikes and blows to their bodies. Imagine the sounds of fists pounding against flesh. They beat them. And then they charged them not to speak any more in Jesus' name.
They wanted these men to connect their beating to the prohibition of speaking about Jesus. They've already told them not speak about Jesus once, and put them in prison, only to see them get out and keep preaching. So they add the beating to reinforce their message. Quit talking about Jesus.
Let me ask you a question. How would you respond? If you were told not to talk about Jesus, and were put in prison, what would you do? What if you were set free, would you go back out and keep sharing? What if you were beaten and told not to talk about Jesus with others any more, what would you do? Let's be honest. What many would do is pout, complain, and wonder if God was punishing you. Some of us would be so upset because all of our comfort and ease of life would be disrupted.
How did John and Peter respond? It says (vs 41) they left the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. They rejoiced! Can you imagine!?! They leave there, cut up and bleeding. Their faces are swollen. And rather than drooping their heads, kicking the dust and feeling sorry for themselves, they walk out rejoicing. And it says each day, in the temple (in public) and from house to house (in private), they did not stop teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Christ.
They not only take their beating, but it doesn't deter them. Their obedience brought suffering, but their obedience brought joy despite their suffering. And so they kept obeying.
How can we live our lives this boldly? How do we get to a place where our faith brings this kind of obedience? We must see our lives laid down in service to Jesus, not belonging to ourselves.
Paul says it like this in Acts 20:24 -- But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
He doesn't value his life or his comfort as precious. His aim in life is to obey Christ and finish the race laid out for him. That should be each of our desires. There is great joy in living our lives for Christ. That joy is not circumstance dependent, but tied to our obedience. As we obey, our joy increases. But so many of us wrongly think our joy is tied to our comfort or glorifying ourselves. Friends, these things will never bring our joy. Your amount of joy is in direct proportion to your laying down of your life.
Philippians 3:7-9 -- But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
I'm harping on this theme (your life is not your own!) because without seeing this and embracing this as your motto and theme, you will not live a life pleasing to God. You will never live faithful to witness to others or share the gospel, here locally or around the world, unless you embrace a death to self. And here is why: to truly live for Christ and as a witness is going to bring persecution. In our day especially. Being an outspoken Christian, who believes what God says in His Word, and who wants to bring others to faith in Christ, will be persecuted. Just as you see in Acts 5, Christians will be persecuted for speaking boldly about Jesus. Jesus tells us to expect it. It may be physical, it could be social, but it will happen. And Scriptures tell us this.
1 Thessalonians 2:4 -- but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.
Matthew 5:11-12 -- “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Luke 6:26 -- “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
2 Timothy 3:12 -- Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
Do you see how NOT abnormal suffering is? Do see how common this is in Scripture, and how UNCOMMON it is in our American Christian understanding?
William Hendricksen wrote, "Scars are the price which every believer pays for his loyalty to Christ."
Vance Havner said, "If you are under any illusions about the attitude of this world towards Jesus Christ, try really living for him for a week and you will find out!"
When you examine the life of the prophets, look at Jesus, see the apostles, and study church history, persecution is far from the being the exception, it is the RULE! Ask yourself this question: when is the last time you've been persecuted for living a godly life? The famous evangelist, George Whitfield , was used by God to stir the Great Awakening. He believed if he was becoming too liked, and not experiencing enough persecution, then he probably wasn't living a righteous enough life.
John Piper says that a righteous life will be persecuted, and gives some examples:
"If you cherish chastity, your life will be an attack on people’s love for free sex.
If you embrace temperance, your life will be a statement against the love of alcohol. If you pursue self-control, your life will indict excess eating.
If you live simply and happily, you will show the folly of luxury.
If you walk humbly with your God, you will expose the evil of pride.
If you are punctual and thorough in your dealings, you will lay open the inferiority of laziness and negligence.
If you speak with compassion, you will throw callousness into sharp relief.
If you are earnest, you will make the flippant look flippant instead of clever.
if you are spiritually minded, you will expose the worldly-mindedness of those around you."
To be Christians who go and tell means we must embrace discomfort. We must embrace the possibility, even the probability, of being persecuted. We will be maligned, made fun of, and mistreated by others. People may speak ill of you. The day could come where we lose jobs, lose friends and family, or even our lives for the sake of our commitment NOT only to Jesus, but to sharing ABOUT him. As this series goes on, we will continue to press in further and further into taking actions to share the gospel, and encouraging you to embrace faithfulness in this area of our walk with God. But it starts with embracing death to ourselves. And the way we do that is to begin taking actions which purposefully force our own death to self. We need to die mini-deaths each day. Jesus is our example ("for the joy set before Him..."). We are living sacrifices and must die daily. This is why the church in America is in such bad shape - we don't tell people to die. We coddle them and feed them candy for sermons instead of meat.
Call to action this week: EMBRACE INTENTIONAL DISCOMFORT
1. Tell someone you're a Christian. Do you want to take a step toward faithfulness in this area, and feel the tension of not knowing how someone is going to respond? Tell someone in your life, whom may not know, that you are a Christian. Maybe it's a co-worker or a friend. Do people know you're a Christian?
2. Pray for someone. There are so many opportunities in a day and week, if we are in tune to those windows, to pray for someone. When someone shares about their struggles or fears, instead of telling them you'll pray for them, do it right then. It doesn't have to be long and drawn out, but you can lift someone up to God. Most people never hear another person verbally speak to God on their behalf.
3. Serve and Give. Get in the action of serving Christ through kids or students or on our welcome team. Get out of your comfort zone and begin serving to help others know Jesus. Get practice talking about Jesus by teaching kids. You'll not only be given great resources for doing it, but you'll get used to doing it. Don't sit on the sidelines. We have a jail ministry starting on August 31 and will host training on sharing your faith on September 18.
4. Die to something. Find something this week to purposefully deny yourself. Fast food. Cut out TV for a day or multiple days. Do a social media fast for a few days. Purposefully find a way to deny yourself. The reason is to get used to saying no to yourself so you can break your idol of comfort. Starve the flesh so you never let it get in the way of obedience to God.
Peter and John left the council after being beat for sharing about Jesus. Not only did they rejoice, they left there and kept telling people about Jesus. They became even more bold in their faith.
Friends, there is a joy in being involved in God's mission to save His people. The bringing in of God's sheep into the fold is a task given to us, not as a burden, but as a joy. The paradox is that this mission will bring persecution and suffering, yet is the pathway to joy.
How many of you know Karen Watson? Karen Watson (38 years old) worked as a humanitarian aide worker in Iraq in 2003/2004. She died in an ambush of her vehicle. She wrote a letter to her pastors that was only to be opened if something happened to her while there. When they read the letter, one of the things she said was this, "I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory was my reward, His glory is my reward." She closed the letter by saying, "There is no Joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him."
The church in Afghanistan is facing the likelihood of massive persecution by the hands of the Taliban. When it was announced during a church service last week that the Taliban had taken the capitol, they closed with a Martin Luther hymn "A Mighty Fortress." The last line says this: "Let goods and kindred go this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God's truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever."
When we live by faith, embracing obedience despite the costs, it brings joy in our lives, and brings glory to God. We are called to be a church, not filled with professionals who share about Jesus with others, but filled with Christians who embrace this call. But before we can put tools in your hands for doing that, you must first embrace your own death. You must see your only comfort in life and in death to be that you are not your own. But belong to Christ. Only in belonging to Christ, and not yourself, can you fulfill the call to share Christ with others, but experience fullness of joy. Will you embrace the call to die to your self-directing, comfort- seeking life, for the sake of your joy, and for the salvation of the world?