|The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome.|
One of the oldest hymns of the church is called the Te Deum, or the Ambrosian hymn. There’s an interesting stanza in the Te Deum that says,
The glorious company of the Apostles praise you.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise you.
The noble army of Martyrs praise you.
The words of this hymn, probably dating back to the fourth century, show us the high regard the church had for those who had shed their blood in their witness to Christ. The first several centuries of the church saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of martyrdoms, and church tradition tells us that each one of the apostles, except the Apostle John, died a martyrs death. Perhaps you’ve read some of these stories in books like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
That so many of the early Christians died for their faith is just one of several lines of evidence pointing to the remarkable beginning of the Christian movement. And one of the amazing things about these stories of persecution is that the more the Christians were imprisoned, or crucified, or thrown to the lions in the Roman arenas, the more the church grew. That’s why the church father Tertullian, in his book Apologeticus, said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Though we rarely experience this kind of intensity of persecution in the West, the fact remains that thousands of Christians in the world today continue to suffer for their faith. And this reminds us that courage is one of the most essential Christian virtues we need to cultivate in our own lives.
The first outbreak of persecution against the church is described in Acts 4. This is the first time we see the church come under fire. It’s an important passage that gives us a portrait of gospel courage in the face of threatening opposition. The key word, “boldness,” shows up three times in verses 13, 29, and 31. In verse 13 we see a display of courage, in the boldness of Peter. Then in verse 29, there is a prayer for boldness or courage, while verse 31 tells us that the church, having received a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, continues to speak the word of God with boldness. This passage shows us the courage we need, how to cultivate it, and where it comes from.
The Courage We Need
We get a picture of the kind of courage we need in the response of Peter, John, and the growing community of believers to the opposition, arrest, and threats from the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees.
This story shows us the beginning of persecution against believers. The church is coming under fire. The pressure is mounting. In response to the healing of the lame man and Peter’s evangelistic preaching in Acts chapter three, the leaders of the current religious establishment are annoyed (v. 2) and decide to arrest Peter and John (v. 3). They stand on trial the next day (v. 7), but released because of social pressure from the people. But not without stern warnings and threats to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name (v. 17-19, 21). The response of Peter and John under this pressure shows us the kind of courage we need: both the courage to speak and the courage to suffer.
The courage to speak
In his commentary on Acts, David Peterson points out that words used to describe their boldness were, in the original, “used to highlight the freedom of speech of those empowered by the Spirit to speak the word of God” (p. 194). Courage to speak is therefore an essential part of their courage. You see it on display several times – Peter and John “speaking to the people” (v. 1); “teaching the people” (v. 2); and “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (v. 2). Then, we see Peter’s courageous defense before the council in verses 8-12.
The courage to suffer
We see this courage in Peter and John in verses 18-20., where the authorities called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (v. 18). But look at their response in verses 19-20: But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
As the story of the church unfolds in Luke’s narrative, these seeds of animosity will bloom into violence and even death. Peter and John will be beaten in chapter 5 and Stephen will be stoned to death in chapter 7. The persecution has begun.
This is just as Jesus said it would be. "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you,” he told his disciples in John 15. “Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15: 18, 20). In fact, Jesus taught that suffering persecution was one of the defining characteristics of citizens of his kingdom. Remember his words in the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12). And the Apostle Paul said, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
This tells us that being persecuted for the faith is to be expected. However, we do have to balance this with everything Luke tells us about the church in Acts. On one hand, we certainly have these descriptions of persecution. But on the other hand, the church continued to have favor with the people and grow. Look at verse 4: But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. And then verse 21 tells us that the people were all were praising God for what had happened.
This shows us that the church enjoyed growing popularity and support from the people, even as they endured the heat of intensifying persecution. So while some were attracted to the church, others attacked the church. The church was both hated and loved. And, as Tim Keller points out in his bible study on Acts,
This description of the early church cuts us two ways. If on the one hand, we experience no attacks or persecution for our faith, it means we simply are being cowards. We are not taking risks in our witness, we are not being bold. On the other hand, if we experience attacks without a concomitant fruitfulness and attractiveness (i.e. if we get lots of persecution and no affirmation), it may mean that we are being persecuted for being harsh or insensitive or strident. Jesus said we would only be blessed if we were persecuted “for righteousness’ sake”. It is quite possible (indeed, it is very normal) for Christians to be persecuted not for their faith, but for their discourtesy, insensitivity, and lack of warmth and respect in their dealings with others. Insensitive, harsh Christians will have persecution but not praise. Cowardly Christians will have praise but not persecution. Most Christians (whose walk with God is weak) actually get neither! But Christians who are closest to Jesus will get both, as he did.”
So, we need courage: the courage to speak, the courage to suffer, and yet courage that is winsome and attractive and respectful to others. We should take risks, but not be harsh. We should be bold, but not brash. We should be courageous, but not needlessly offensive.
Perhaps we can describe this best with two words: humble courage. That’s the kind of courage we need. So, how do we cultivate it? That leads to the second point:
How to Cultivate this Courage
Verses 23-31 are especially helpful in showing us how to cultivate this kind of courage. These verses show us the church at prayer. It’s probably the richest record of the praying church found in the book of Acts. When we remember the occasion (that this was on the brink of persecution and suffering) these verses become especially instructive. They show us three ways to cultivate humble courage.
Develop Gospel Friendships
The first way to cultivate humble courage is to develop deep, honest gospel friendships. You see this in verses 23-24: “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together…” Isn’t that significant? The first thing Peter and John do when they are released is go to their friends. And then they lift up their voices in prayer – not alone, all by themselves, but together.
I even think that it’s significant that when this whole story begins, Peter and John are in the temple together. They weren’t doing ministry alone, but with others. And when persecution started, we find the church praying together. And later on, when the apostle Paul goes on his three missionary journeys, he takes people with him – whether Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, or Luke himself.
Christian mission isn’t an individual, solitary endeavor; it’s a community project. Perhaps one reason our courage sometimes fails in evangelism is because we try to do it alone, as individuals Christians, instead of with others, as part of a larger community.
So here’s a practical suggestion. Think about a situation in your life right now, where you need to exercise humble courage. Maybe it is having a spiritual conversation with a roommate or an unbelieving family member or coworker. Maybe it’s just building a relationship with someone in your neighborhood. Or maybe it’s something more confrontational – like reaching out to someone in the grip of an alcohol or drug addiction and offering both the hope of the gospel and some tangible help. Now, instead of trying to handle that on your own, why not share it with one other person from your small group. Sit down and talk about it, and then spend some time praying about it together.
Bathe Your Mind in Scripture
The second way to cultivate courage is to bathe your mind in Scripture. We see this in verses 24-28, where the church prays the Scriptures together. There are two quotations from the Psalms in these verses, the first from Psalm 146 (which was our call to worship this morning) and the second from Psalm 2. And their words show us both their doctrine of Scripture and how to apply the Scriptures to the real-life situations of our lives.
First, we see their doctrine of Scripture. In a sentence, they viewed Scripture as the Word of the Spirit, through the words of men that reveal the fulfillment of God’s sovereign purpose in Jesus Christ. Thus we see the nature of Scripture, the theme of Scripture, and the fulfillment of Scripture.
· The nature of Scripture is in verse 25a: “who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit.” This shows us that they viewed Scripture as both human and divine, the Word of the Spirit through the words of men.
· The theme of Scripture is the sovereign plan and purpose of God. We see this in verses 25-28. These verses show us that God of creation is also the God of history and that with inscrutable wisdom he works out his mysterious plan through the whims and wills of man. Look especially at verses 27-28: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
· And you can already see that the fulfillment of Scripture is in Jesus Christ. Over and again, the prayers and sermons and speeches in Acts emphasis this. The Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus. His life and death, his crucifixion and resurrection, his humiliation and exaltation stand at the very center and apex of God’s redemptive plan.
But it’s not sufficient for us to have a right doctrine of Scripture, if we don’t use Scripture on our hearts in the concrete, real-life situations of our lives. So, think for a minute about how they used Scripture to infuse their hearts with courage. Here they are facing persecution and threats. The natural response of their hearts would, of course, be timidity and fear. What’s going to happen to us? What’s coming next? What might we have to suffer?
And what do they do? They bathe themselves in passages of Scripture that direct them to the greatness of God: his providence, his power, his wisdom, his sovereign control over every thing. They don’t just ask for boldness and courage, though they do that. But they don’t just do that. They also let the Scriptures work directly on the fear and weakness of their hearts by bathing themselves in passages about the attributes of God that they most needed to count on and believe.
This shows us something really important about how to use Scripture in our lives. Our goal isn’t just to accumulate lots of information about the Bible. Our goal is to let the Scripture heal the deepest needs of our hearts. So, when we’re sorrowful and full of grief, we bathe ourselves in the comfort of his steadfast love. When we’re anxious and worried, we meditate on his goodness and wisdom. When we lack of self-control, we bathe ourselves in his purity, holiness, and grace. When we’re fearful and afraid, we bathe ourselves in his power and sovereignty, until the fear begins to wash away. Tim Keller puts it this way: “We are to heal our hearts by praying his specific attributes into ourselves.”
Pray Kingdom-Centered Prayers
The third way to cultivate courage is seen in the specific things they pray for. Look at verses 29-30: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Notice that they don’t pray for safety. They don’t pray for protection from persecution. They don’t pray for vindication or judgment on their enemies. But they do pray for three things: (i) boldness to speak the word of God; (ii) for God to stretch out his hand to heal; (iii) for signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus. In other words, they’re praying for the continuation of the mission. These are kingdom-centered prayers, not self-centered prayers.
And God answered in verse 31: And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
Here then is a prescription for cultivating humble courage. Develop gospel friendships, bathe your heart in Scripture, and pray big, kingdom-centered, mission-oriented prayers. I can’t help but wonder, how would it change us as a church, if this was more true of us?
What if our small groups were characterized by these kinds of friendships? What if we were devoted not just to expository preaching and bible study, as important as those things are, but to this kind of deep meditation on Scripture that heals our hearts of anxiety, fear, and worry? What if we prayed, not just for one another’s illnesses and travel plans, but for the advance of the gospel, the spread of the kingdom, and the courage to speak in the name of Jesus with humble boldness?
So, we’ve seen the kind of courage we need. And we’ve thought about how to cultivate this courage. But where does it come from? What is the source of courage? What’s the deep root from which this courage grows?
Where this courage comes from
This is important for us to see, because when we read stories like this, it’s all too easy for us to think, “Oh, the apostles were extraordinary men of God; I’m just an ordinary person. I could never have that kind of boldness or courage.” Or, “the early church – well, of course, they were bold and courageous. I mean, they had experienced the Day of Pentecost. They saw the signs and wonders. They had the apostles, the very eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, right there with them. But that’s not me.”
But one of the striking things about this account is that the apostles were not impressive in and of themselves. That’s what struck their original audience. Look at verse 13: Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.
And remember, Peter’s courage had crumbled into a heap of fears and denials, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, just a couple of months before (Luke 22).
So, where did this courage come from? The short answer is it came from Jesus himself. Their personal encounter with the living Christ infused them with courage. Again, look at verse 13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
They had been with Jesus. That’s where the courage came from. It came from Jesus. This is also what we need. And I think the text shows us two ways that we can experience this for ourselves.
We need to be shaped by the story of Jesus
We see this in verse 11, where Peter describes Jesus as the rejected cornerstone. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” This is a quotation from Psalm 118 that Jesus himself had used in his own confrontation with unbelieving religious leaders of the temple.
It’s the image of a stone that the builders of a temple disregard. They think it’s useless. It’s not worthy of being included in the temple. But it turns out to be the most important stone of all – the capstone, or the cornerstone. The stone that holds all the others together. And there’s a pattern here: rejected, then exalted. This is the pattern of suffering, followed by triumph, was true of Jesus himself and is true for all who follow Jesus as well.
And Peter was tremendously shaped by this pattern in the story of Jesus. He saw the suffering of Jesus as a paradigm for understanding all Christian suffering. One reason we know this is because Peter quoted that same passage in another place – in one of his letters. It is in 1 Peter chapter 2. And then, a few verses later, he says this: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).
Peter’s courage in the face of suffering was shaped by the story of Jesus’ suffering and exaltation.
There’s a great illustration of this in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There’s a place where a fearful hobbit named Merry sees the brave Eowyn stand between a terrible monster and his prey, with sword drawn, with the “face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope.” And Tolkien says that when Merry saw this, “Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke.” In other words, seeing the self-sacrificial courage of Eowyn kindled a like courage in him.
And that’s what happens to us when the story of Jesus’ suffering and exaltation sinks deep into our hearts. His example in suffering becomes our pattern to follow. His sacrifice for us emboldens us. His courage kindles ours.
We also need to be filled by the Spirit of Jesus
When we read that these men “had been with Jesus” (v. 13), we might think, “Yes, of course. If I could only have what they had, I would be that courageous too. If I could see Jesus in person, if I could I have walked with him for three years, as his student, his disciple. If I could have been an eyewitness to his resurrection and ascension, of course, I’d have this kind of courage.”
And, of course, none of us have that.
But, get this, in John 16, Jesus said something really stunning to his disciples. He said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7a). How could it have been to their advantage that Jesus went away? The rest of the verse tells us: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
And this is actually what made the real difference for the disciples!
Because even after three years of walking with Jesus, they had been afraid! They deserted him on the night of his betrayal. They denied him. And even after his resurrection, they were dispirited and dejected. As vital as it was, they still needed something more than the incarnate, resurrected Jesus before their eyes. What did they need? They needed not just the presence of Jesus with them; they needed the Spirit of Jesus within them.
And that’s what happened to Peter in verse 8 that made him some bold. That’s what the church received when they prayed in verse 31. And you and I can experience that. The Spirit is given to the church. And when we are filled with the Spirit, that’s also when we get boldness, courage, confidence to speak and act in Jesus’ name.