Here’s the question: Have Jon and Hannah just done something marvellous, or something mad, in having Eben baptised?
He will grow up in a very different world from the one I grew up in. Christians are less welcome in modern Britain than they used to be. Well, it’s fine to be a Christian, provided you keep your views to yourself. But insist on speaking about Jesus — even more, if you insist on seeking to influence society based on the teaching of Jesus — you’ll find you’re less and less welcome.
All of which is tiny compared to some other countries in the world. There are countries where you could be killed for being a public follower of Jesus. There are countries where baptism is like signing your own death warrant.
We’ve just signed Eben up to be publicly identified with Jesus. If he follows through on that as he grows up, it may cost him a great deal. Have we done him a kindness, or a disservice?
Our Bible reading is looking at the hostility that the earliest Christians experienced. Up to this point in the book of Acts, things have been slowly getting better. Jesus returned to heaven, poured out his Spirit on all his people, and people have been becoming Christians in their thousands.
But suddenly the opposition begins. Peter and John, two followers of Jesus, healed a man who had never walked. This drew a crowd. They began to teach them. They taught about Jesus. They taught about Jesus rising from the dead. They taught about Jesus being the Messiah, that one day would come back to this world and fix everything. Who would bring all his followers back from the dead, who would restore all things. He isn’t just the risen one. He’s the one who will bring this dying and decaying world back from the dead.
The religious authorities didn’t like it. They didn’t like the fact that Peter and John were teaching the people. The authorities should be the experts who get to set the agenda. These new upstart Christians were upstaging them, usurping them. They didn’t like the fact that Peter and John were teaching, in Jesus, the resurrection. These were people who wanted to see life get better in the here and now, and who weren’t that interested in what comes afterwards.
So they want them to stop. Stop teaching. Stop spreading the good news of Jesus. Get behind their social improvement programme, by all means, but stop teaching that Jesus is alive and is the way to be part of God’s plan to restore all things in the fulness of time. And they had them arrested.
So the early church meets its first opposition. It has met much more since. But as in any relationship, any job, any new situation – the first time you hit opposition is a scary moment. Will we survive this? Will the early church survive this opposition.
The authorities had had Jesus put to death. He came back to life, but what if they now finish off all his followers as well? What if the opposition wins? What if early Christianity is killed off before it’s started?
If Eben is to grow up into the faith into which he’s been baptised, he’ll meet opposition. How will he keep living for Jesus, speaking for Jesus, in a world that would like to see Jesus silenced?
And is it worth his while to do so, if life gets more difficult as a result? Is Jesus worth any of us backing and speaking up for?
The overall message of our Bible reading it this: When Christians are persecuted, two things remain solid. Jesus remains king, and we must keep speaking.
Jesus remains king
First, then: Jesus remains king. Jesus remains king.
If you’ve been with us as we’ve looked at these early chapters of Acts, we’ve seen that time and again the early Christians turned to the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. The Psalms are a book of prayers and hymns, many of which were written by King David who lived 1000 years before Christ. Jesus Christ is more than anything a new David. After Jesus rose from the dead, he spent time opening up the psalms with his disciples to teach them about what it means for him to be the new king.
Once again, they turn to the psalms. This time, it’s Psalm 2. Look down at verses 25 and 26. You’ll see that David wrote Psalm 2, but through his words we’re hearing the Holy Spirit speak. As I read it, please know that the phrase “anointed one” means the king, that is Jesus. Verse 25: “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’”
It’s worth reading Psalm 2 some time. It goes on to describe how God in heaven laughs at the attempts of the nations to throw off the rule of his chosen king. He’s chosen his king. He’s installed him on his throne. The wise path through life is not to plot how to overthrow him. It’s to respect him, to fear him, to make sure you’re on the right side of him. Because those who remain opposed to him will be dashed to pieces like pottery.
That’s what the early Christians remind themselves of. Jesus remains king. People oppose his rule, but resistance is futile. You can object to reality, you can wish things were otherwise, you can live as though things were otherwise, but you cannot change reality.
Democracy is a good thing. We have to have an election every five years, which means that if we don’t think the government is doing a good job, we get to replace them. That’s a good thing. The system is not perfect, but when you look at some other countries it’s a good system.
But we can get too used to democracy. We start to think that part of what legitimises someone’s authority and rule over us is that we approve of it. Or at least, a majority of those affected approve. A ruler without popular approval has no right to rule.
If we’re not careful, we think that Jesus Christ’s rule over the nations is like that. It isn’t. You can disapprove all you like. But if you think you can overthrow him, God is roaring with laughter. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard of.
Jesus remains king.
That would be a terrifying prospect. The idea that Jesus is king even when we resist his rule. The idea that he will crush to dust all those who persist in opposing him. It would be terrifying, because we all oppose him.
So here’s when we need to remember what Peter has said to the crowd on three occasions now. Acts chapter 2, verses 37 and 38: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
Acts chapter 3, verses 19 to 21: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
Acts chapter 4, verse 12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Amazingly, Jesus is a very different kind of king. The modern day dictator quickly deposes of their enemies once they have a grip on power. It’s rare that a leader of a political party keeps their leadership challengers in the cabinet. But Jesus is a very different kind of king. He came so that his enemies, his opponents can be forgiven. He came so that we can be forgiven.
But we do have to respond to him in this life in order to be forgiven. There is no other way to find forgiveness in the eyes of God than to turn to Jesus Christ in humble trust, seeking in him a new direction for our lives. But if we do that, he totally forgives us. Wipes the slate clean.
This is why it’s good news that Jesus is king. But we mustn’t think we can resist his rule forever. Because even when he’s opposed, Jesus remains king.
We must keep speaking
There’s a second thing that stays the same even when Christians are persecuted. That is that we must keep speaking. We must keep speaking.
Peter and John know this. Jesus is good news for everyone, but people do need to hear of him. So they turn to God for help. Verse 29: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.”
It’s not automatic. We may want to keep speaking, but it can be hard. If we want to keep speaking about Jesus, but there are people in authority intimidating us, trying to silence us, it can be hard to keep talking about Jesus.
We may have found the courage to speak of him in the past. But there’s no guarantee we won’t crumple in the face of that fresh challenge.
We, too, must ask for God’s help if we wish to keep speaking about Jesus.
It’s striking that this is what they pray for. They could have prayed for the threats to go away, for their enemies to be removed from office. But they don’t. Whether their teaching is welcomed or pushed away, they’ve got one wish: For God to enable them to speak his word with great boldness.
And God answers their prayer. He’s gracious – he gives them an earthquake to reassure them that he’s heard. But that’s just a sign. Crucially, God gave them the boldness they asked for. With a fresh dose of the Holy Spirit, they found the strength to keep speaking. Verse 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.”
On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami devastated every coastline facing the Sumatran epicentre. It was the third largest earthquake ever recorded. A quarter of a million lives were lost. In a few islands, people escaped to the hills and survived. Mostly, there was no warning.
Imagine by some miracle you’d known this would happen. You’d warn people. But imagine your warning was ignored. Imagine the authorities tried to stop you from warning others. What do you do? The answer is: You keep speaking. You may be making yourself unpopular, but the tsunami is still coming, and you know the way to avoid disaster.
Jesus remains king. He promises to crush all those who remain opposed to him, and he promises to forgive all those who turn back to him. If you knew that to be true, people must be told.
And because they did, a vibrant and healthy church continued to grow. The last part of our reading is a little cameo picture of the early church. We had another picture like this in chapter 2. It was a church that worshipped together, that looked after each other like an extended family.
But right at the heart of that beautiful description comes verse 33: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” This is why the relationships within the church were so healthy, so attractive. Because they kept speaking of him, the early Christian community flourished and was healthy. It’s a most attractive picture. It’s the kind of community we’d all love to belong to.
We must keep speaking.
So, are we doing Eben a kindness to bring him up as a Christian? Is it wisdom or folly to stand on the side of the Lord Jesus Christ in modern Britain.
Make no mistake: If you do that, you will be opposed. Especially if you speak up for Jesus. Especially if you pin your hopes on his purposes for the world to come.
But that doesn’t mean it’s folly to follow him. Quite the reverse. Jesus is king, remains king, no matter how much others may oppose that. If you live with him as king, you’re living in step with reality.
And he’s a gracious king, a king who delights to forgive his people.
When people gather around him as king, the community that forms is the kind of attractive community that we all long for.
So, yes: Live with Jesus as your king. And keep speaking of him to others.