We arrive today at Acts chapter 4 – a pivotal one in the whole power dynamic between the old guard (the Temple rulers) and the new (the apostles). But first, we need a little background.
The truth will shine
How confident are you in the truth of the gospel? That it makes rational sense? Are you confident that despite all of the other enticing belief systems on display in the great smorgasbord of faith – that the Christian gospel will stand out as the truth?
John Dickson is. When he wrote his book 10 years ago called A spectator’s guide to world religions, he took a courageous approach. He didn’t do what you might expect a Christian to do when writing about other religions. He didn’t focus on what’s wrong with all the others, and then present Christianity in its best light. He didn’t use Jenny Craig, grainy black-and-white before photos of the other religions in their track pants standing at an unflattering angle looking miserable – and then compare it with a smiling, full-colour after photo of Christianity posing, one hand on hip in its brand new dress with matching lipstick. No, he was determined to present each religion sympathetically – in its best possible light.
Why? Because he was confident in the gospel. He says:“If Christianity is uniquely true, its beauty will be best seen only when viewed amidst a full and fair account of the alternatives.” (Dickson, p6.)
Using the analogy of an art gallery, he continues:“I am more than ever convinced that each of the world’s religions is a ‘work of art’, worthy of a public showing in the best light. At the same time, I am also more than ever confident of the unique character of the Christian faith. I can think of no better way to help readers see that quality than to turn all the gallery lights on full and let you view the whole collection for yourself.” (Dickson, p6-7.)
In other words, he’s confident that the truth will shine.
Which of course reminds me of the famous trial of Socrates, back in 399BC. I know what you’re thinking – how does he keep his stories so current with what everyone’s talking about around the water cooler? But in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 24 centuries – and for much of that time that was a legitimate housing choice – let me catch you up on the trial of… that century.
Back in 399BC, the Greek philosopher Socrates found himself in trouble with the political elite in Athens. He was put on trial for his religious teachings. He dared to advocate a more rational view of religion and philosophy, rather than superstition. But so did a number of other people at the time.
What got him into trouble was the second part of the charge: leading the youth of Athens astray. Which really meant that he got the youth to think rationally. So that they started disagreeing with the ruling elite. They started challenging the elders who were used to calling the shots. Making waves. And this was not on.
At the trial, Socrates defended himself in his characteristically eloquent way. He made his accusers sound pretty foolish. But it didn’t get him anywhere, because he refused to compromise. Refused to make any concessions. He believed he’d been called by the gods to proclaim his teaching, and nothing would stop him – not even death. He famously said:“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.” (Plato, Apologia.)
Socrates was confident that the truth would eventually vindicate him – prove he was right. And it did. Unfortunately for him, not before he was condemned to death and executed. But still: future philosophers venerated him and his rational approach to philosophy. Plato and others wrote versions of his defence speech, portraying his refusal to back down as honourable until the end.
Socrates went to his death confident that the truth would shine. And ultimately, it did.
Now there’s a reason I told this story, and it’s not that I’m a history nerd who’s out of touch with normal people. No, it’s because there’s a very strong parallel with the trial of Socrates, and what’s going on in Acts 4 and 5. A strong parallel that seems to have occurred to Luke, the author of Acts, in the way he tells the story. And he draws out that parallel for a particular reason. Let’s see if we can spot it as we work through these two chapters of Acts over the coming few days.
The story so far…
But let’s do a quick recap of the story so far. You might remember that Luke’s writing to a guy named Theophilus – probably a wealthy, educated man. But a recent convert who needs reassurance about his new faith. Luke tells Theophilus he writes:Luke 1:4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
So in his gospel, Luke told the story of Jesus – how Jesus won all of his verbal battles with the Jewish leaders. How he was vindicated by God through his resurrection. Then in the sequel – in Acts chapter 1 – we see how Jesus has passed that authority on to his apostles. They are commissioned to be his witnesses with God’s power:Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In chapter 2 Luke then gives us an example of how that played out. At Pentecost, the apostles are given supernatural power to be witnesses in other languages – and this results in three thousand converts.
In chapter 3 (see yesterday) we find another example: a miraculous healing of a lame man in the name of Jesus. The crowd goes wild. And Peter stands up and gives an important speech. In it, he accuses the Jewish leaders of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, and killing him. But God raised him from the dead, so now, Jesus is the way to God. Not the temple. And Peter and the other apostles are his messengers. The Jewish leaders are no longer the “gatekeepers” who control access to God.
As a result, it’s not the youth of Athens who are stirred up against their elders, like in Socrates’ day. But the population of Jerusalem. A challenge that sets the scene for the showdown in Acts 4.
Read Acts 4 in preparation.