SERIES ON SPIRITUAL STRONGHOLDS: TAKING GOD'S SOVEREIGNTY SERIOUSLY
Acts 4:23-31, Psalm 2, Ephesians 6:10 - 15
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
The swirling darkness of passion week had passed. Christ died, was buried, three days later he arose again. He appeared again and again to his disciples and many others demonstrating without a doubt that he had conquered the most powerful enemy, death itself. He ascended to the right hand of the Father blessing them and giving them an instruction to wait for divine power from on high. And when that power came, the reality of Christ's victory became incontrovertibly evident, 3000 converted in one day - what a victory. The early church was on a spiritual high.
But more than the early church saw the victory. With the Genius of evil crushed, Satan's hoards fuming and confused were determined to do the impossible, undo what Christ had done, keep death and oppression the victor. Principalities, powers, authorities, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms writhed in the distress of anticipated elimination. Now in a desperate attempt at survival, brute force would be their strategy. Their first counter attack came that day a young crippled man was healed by the caring touch of the early church leaders.
In unexpected ways, Peter and John had paid attention to, touched and healed an untouchable. With joy the young man leaped to his feet praising God and giving God the glory in the temple gate called Beautiful. Principalities and people were amazed at what they saw. And so Peter addressed all who could hear, his piercing words penetrating not only hearts, but the heavenly realms where spiritual kings, powers of the air were determined to silence the message. Peter's message was one of victory, "You thought you had killed the Christ the author of life! You thought you had all God's people abandon the Holy and Righteous One. But God has raised him from the dead! And now by faith in him, people are set free, this man has been healed, the kingdom of God is here now! And if you want to be part of the kingdom, there is only one way in. Repent now and place your trust in Jesus Christ. You must listen today. If you don't you will be completely cut off from the kingdom. Christ was raised to bless you by turning you from your wicked ways!"
Human hearts were opened, secret motivations revealed. 2000 more were added to the church. Victory was obvious. But unseen ears were listening to this victory message. Hideous dark forces writhed in horror at the trumpeted triumphal message. Obscured princes once having ruled saw the end of their kingdoms in sight. Fleeing from converted hearts, shocked be the resurrections reversal, these grim ghosts gathered together to take their stand against the risen Messiah and his people. Their decisions were quick, use brute force, influence people against people.
All the new Christians saw was conflict. The Sanhedrin met, the disturbed Sadducees confronted Peter and John, and since daylight hours were the hours to sit in judgement, they threw them in prison overnight. The next day, the rulers, elders, teachers of the law and the serving high priest with his family was there. They were worried about a new power agitating their precarious power balance with the Roman empire. And once again in front of them, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit trumpeted the triumph message, "Jesus whom you crucified has arisen and that is why this man was healed. Even though you have rejected him, there is no other name under heaven by which you must be saved."
Being mere men, the Sanhedrin did not see the dark spirits motivating their thoughts and blinding them to Peter's message. But some things they could see. They saw some incredibly powerful dumb fishermen disciples called Peter and John. They could see a clearly crippled man healed. And they could see danger is this power thing, this Jesus resurrected thing get out of hand. Debating with one another, they decided to rebuke this foolish healers and their message, maybe a soft confrontation would put an end to this movement. After all, all the people were against them this time.
We now read from Acts 4:23
23 "On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
"‘Why do the
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."
31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly."
Everything was going so right. And suddenly everything went so very wrong. Peter and John thrown in jail. The respected Jewish leaders effectively deposing them from any ministry. Anyone who had any respect for the Jewish institution would have been confused by the healing and the reactions it brought. But his would not be the first time things would go wrong. Again and again, God's people would flourish, the church would grow and then "Wham!" disaster would strike. Stephen was powerful in preaching, people were being deeply influenced by his ministry, he proclaimed that Christ was ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then "Wham!" he was stoned and the entire confused church scattered. And later through the years, as persecutions came, as martyrs died, I am very sure that many Christians at different times wondered whether or not Christ had really won the victory.
We too ought not be surprised when, in the victory that we have in Christ, painful trials come our way, when we feel the "Wham!" of demonic blows and our lives are thrown into a state of confusion. We are in a spiritual battle where evil forces are out to destroy any gain we have in the victory of Christ and there will be casualties along the way. We have to keep this in mind if we are going to understand the suffering that we experience and the trials that we go through. We are in a battle!
But for Christians wounded by the battle, stunned by its severity, this passage that we read, namely the prayer of the disciples has some powerful truths in it that we need to understand together.
The first truth is the title that they give to the Lord. When they start their prayer, they call him "Sovereign Lord." Now the translation in the NIV is very weak - literally what they are saying is "Dear Despot." The word they choose to use has the overtones that we are used to in the word Despot - one who has absolute power and ownership, tyrant, dictator, autocrat, one who rules with an iron fist, one who can and will use that power any way he so chooses, everything in his domain is his slave, in the original language, this word had connotations of capriciousness and abuse, the kind of power that we might associate Saddam Hussein.
Now we have to ask the question - "Why did the disciples use such a negative, easily misunderstood term for God in addressing him in this prayer?" In Christ, they had discovered that God was their Father, kind and gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, nothing like a despot. Normally they used the name Kuryos to call God Lord. Kuryos was the Lord of covenant faithfulness. Why, in this context did they use this name with all its negative overtones?
The answer to that question comes from the Old Testament quote, Psalm 2, which King David prophesied in the Old Testament. I invite you to turn to Psalm 2 with me.
1 Why do the nations conspire and
the peoples plot in vain?
Please take note of the picture that Psalm 2 provides us. It tells us that even though the victorious Son of God has enemies, even though the victorious children of God have spiritual not flesh and blood enemies, the truth about those enemies is that they are the reluctant servant enemies of God. They may plot against this God who is to them the despot, the tyrant, but he who is in heaven just laughs! No matter how hard they try, not only is their defeat ultimate, but every effort they put forward to destroy goodness and God's work in this world will in the end be work against their own devious purposes. Their defeat is sure. Our victory secure. Scripture abounds with illustrations.
Remember the sons of Jacob selling Joseph into slavery. He who sits in heaven laughs. Remember Pharaoh's stubborn refusals to let God's people go - "Ha!" - watch how eager they will be after the 10th plague! I do not have time to list the many many stories of scripture where curses were turned to blessings, the powerful became nothing, the Sovereigns enemies became victims of his laughter and ashes after his anger. Even Satan's most diabolical attempt at thwarting the plan of God became his own disarming and final destruction in the cross of Christ. Judas may have betrayed. The pharisees and teachers of the Law may have started the crowd with chants of "Crucify Him," the powers of evil did their worst, but even though it meant the death of our Saviour, ultimately, it was only for their own destruction. These forces of evil could not but accomplish God's ultimate purposes. Even the principalities and powers, even the rulers of darkness, even kings and tyrants can do no other than contribute to God's ultimate plan.
Given this most basic perspective, let's draw together some conclusions from the fact that being Christians, we are engaged in a spiritual battle in which we are on the side which has won, is winning and will win..
1. If we are in a battle, expect battle dynamics and therefore prepare for battle dynamics. From every part of my experience, Satan and his hosts fight dirty. They go after the weak, they go after the wounded, like the dirty critters they are, their intent is to tempt, discourage, maim, divide, murder and destroy. His tools are law and lies and so often his cunning is to work through people without their knowledge and often without their intent. If we are going to advance for the kingdom, expect flank attacks, rear attacks, frontal brute force (that is why the breastplate of righteousness covers both front and back). But always remember, to them God is "despotaes," the one with ultimate power, and the words of Psalm 2 are to them, "kiss the son lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way." In the end, God wins, we win...
2. If we are in battle, like any other war, there will be casualties. Casualties need care. One of the reasons why the church ought to be a safe place is because it ought to be the place where the casualties of spiritual battle receive healing and strength. Regretfully, the church has a history of shooting its wounded. The church ought to be a safe place, safe enough for hurting people to be loved, in receiving the grace of love, healed. Wounded people are not less successful Christians than the rest of us, they are Christians who have often faced a much more intense battle then we have and they always deserve our love, they often like heros deserve our honour, (how would you fare if you experienced the same spiritual attacks they are faced with, how would you fair in the middle of betrayal, or the sudden loss of a loved one?) Give honour where honour is due. In war, those who are wounded often receive honour because their contribution to the battle is recognized. And secondly, casualties should never represent Satan's victory to us. Satan is finished. Even when we are destroyed, even when we fall apart, even when in the heat of battle we loose those we love, even when we feel like there is nothing left in us to raise the sword of the word of God, nor the strength to take another step of faith, this does not represent Satan's victory, it simply illustrates the intensity of battle. Satan cannot win. He will not win. Everything he does whether he likes it or not will ultimately serve God's end purposes. God will use what looks like defeat for victory. Paul told us to stand our ground on what Christ has accomplished.
3. For all those who are in the battle, we need to remember the last words of Psalm 2 that talk about our relationship with the absolute Sovereign Lord. To those who are his enemies, they had better watch out, destruction is just around the corner. There is nothing more than God's wrath for them and his punishment will be final and ulimate. But for those who are friends of this Sovereign Lord, he is Kuryos, the Lord who is faithful and true, slow to anger, filled with compassion, his tender love for his own will never change. We belong to him, in life and in death, in victory or in defeat. Nothing can change that. "Blessed are those who take refuge in him."
Paul said these truths this way... "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our LORD !"
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.