PERSECUTION’S FIRST PUNCH
1 And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
5 On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
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. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 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.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
— Acts 4:1-22, ESV
A lot of new things are happening in the book of Acts. A new covenant is being offered by God to mankind, to the Jews first, then to the whole world. A new gospel is being preached in all of its fulness, for the Lord Jesus Christ has come, died, rose again, ascended into Heaven, and promised to return. A new visible expression of the kingdom of God, the ecclesia or the church, is gathering to worship God and scattering to witness the gospel of Jesus Christ. New believers are being added to the church daily. There is a new joy in the hearts of five-thousand-plus Christian people.
Then something else new, but not so pleasant, comes along. There is a new persecution instigated against Christ’s church. Persecution is not new, it is as old as sin. The Jews were persecuted for centuries. Jesus Christ was persecuted all the way to the cross. But this is persecution’s first punch delivered to the church, and it won’t be the last.
The Perpetrators of Persecution
The people who threw the first punch at the church were “the priests, and the captains of the temple, and the Sadducees.” Luke lists the worst last. It was the Sadducees who controlled the priesthood and the militia, who had sold Israel’s soul to the Romans for a modicum of power, who had used that power to crush the Lord Jesus Christ (note the reappearance of Annas and Caiaphas), and who were now beginning to persecute Christ’s fledgling church. We booed the Pharisees in our studies of the Gospels, we would do well to show the same disdain for the Sadducees in the book of Acts.
What makes a person or persons persecute another person or persons? What gives rise to a bully? What made the Jewish Sadducees go after the early Christians? It is the sinful and sinister combination of pride, power, and unbelief.
The Sadducees obviously perceived themselves as intellectually and otherwise superior to the first Christians. They were the Ivy League elite of their day, having come from all the right families and gone to all the right schools. Luke summarized their summation of Peter, John, and the other believers, writing they “perceived that they were uneducated, common men.” In the original language, “perceived” means overreached, “uneducated” means illiterate, and “common” is the Greek word “idiotai” (the English connection is obvious). Pride artificially inflates self-esteem and looks upon others wrongly with low esteem. Prejudice and persecution often ensue.
The Sadducees held the most political clout of any of the sects of Judaism in Israel. Such political power was the utmost priority in their eyes, as it is in the eyes of many today. Christ and Christianity were perceived by them to be a threat to their delicate balance of power, and as they indelicately dealt with Jesus, so now they were beginning an unvarnished power play against His church. Pride craves power over others, and persecution is one way to get it and keep it.
The Sadducees worst problem, however, was not their lack of humility, nor their lack of democratic sensibilities, but their sheer lack of faith. They were quite religious, yet they did not believe in revelation, resurrection, nor redemption. God’s word was not inspired to them, especially anything that smacked of the miraculous or providential. They rejected most of the Old Testament and were at this moment trying to squelch the preaching and teaching that would form the New Testament. They refused to believe in an afterlife; therefore, they had no concept of redemption in Heaven nor punishment in Hell.
The Sadducees were a religious sect without religion, God’s people without God, Jews against Jesus. They were only concerned with their pride, power, and position in the here and now. You can obviously see how the Sadducees had a great conflict with Christianity.
The Christian gospel demands humility, admission of sin, repentance and faith. It models Jesus Christ, the Lord who lived the life of a servant, not a power broker. It stresses the vaporous nature of this present world, and promises an eternity in Heaven for the redeemed and Hell for unbelievers.
So, feeling pretty good about themselves, fearing the Christians might upset their apple cart, and not believing anything about the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel, the Sadducees took a punch at the church. Let’s see where it landed.
The Persons They Persecute
Principally Peter and his partner, John, were the persons who had to put up with this present persecution. The punches thrown by the Sadducees, belittlement and arrest and threats, landed up against their doctrine, their core group, and ultimately their leader and Lord. Such punches would persist after these events, intensifying in nature, and they will not stop until our champion, the Lord Jesus Christ, returns to the ring of earth.
Persecution attacks Christianity, generally. Prideful, powerful, worldly entities like the Sadducees really didn’t mind Christians doing good, like helping a crippled man, they just don’t want it done in Jesus’ name. They don’t want all the baggage that comes with it, namely the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of God’s word. They don’t like to see themselves as sinners who need to be saved, they don’t want the ethical and moral boundaries that come with the saved life, and they sure as h-e-double hockey sticks don’t want to be told that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.
Persecution attacks Christians, particularly. Peter and John were punched with an arrest warrant, photographed and fingerprinted (or the first century equivalent), and put in jail. This they did not deserve, which is the bitter pill of persecution. The early Christians did not deserve the beatings, tortures, and executions they received. The same can be said through the centuries as the gloves of the Sadducees have been picked up and used by Roman Caesars, mediaeval Goths, Catholic Popes, and Communist dictators to persecute Christians.
Persecution attacks Christ, ultimately. Jesus had told His disciples before He left, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (ref. John 15:20). But when they persecute us, they are ultimately persecuting Him. A little later on in Acts we will see this same scenario, but this time the Sadducees will be joined by our old friends the Pharisees. One of the Pharisees is named Gamaliel. Gamaliel’s most famous disciple is Saul of Tarsus. And when we find Saul of Tarsus doing his dead level best to destroy Christianity and Christians, he is confronted by Christ Himself who says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” (ref. Acts 9:4)?
Our doctrine they have slandered and our books they have burned. Our people they have arrested, imprisoned, killed. But persecution’s punch cannot topple our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. He will prevail, along with His gospel, and His people, the church.
The Lessons of Persecution
The Sadducees have long faded from the scene, although you still catch a glimpse of them in the elite academy, liberal media, left-wing politics, and progressive religion of our day. But the punch they threw against Christianity, Christians, and Christ was the first of many. It has continued throughout history and won’t stop until Christ comes again. God allows it, even ordains it. So what does persecution prove?
Persecution proves the free agency of man combined with inherit depravity can produce some horrific choices. The Sadducees could have left well enough alone. So could the persecutors and executioners through the ages. But those who choose to reject the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ can come to hate the truth, then hate the truth tellers, then do them harm. Persecution proves that lost people are just lost.
Persecution proves that saved people are saved. A faith that cannot be tested cannot be trusted, and nothing tests our faith like persecution. Nothing multiplies the faith like persecution. A slight here, an arrest there, a martyrdom everywhere helped push Christianity around the globe. It took persecution to make it clear that Peter and John “had been with Jesus,” which is perhaps the greatest compliment paid to anyone. Like them we must refuse to stand down, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Touché!
Let us never be like the prideful and prejudiced Sadducees. Let us have the faith and courage of Peter and John. Let persecution run its course, it only serves to eternally separate the lost and the saved, the lost without Jesus and the saved who can only be saved by grace though faith in Christ. And when persecution for being a Christian raises its ugly head and comes you way, quote Tom Petty,
Well, I won't back down, no won't back down,
You can stand me up at the gates of Hell but I won't back down.
No, I'll stand my ground, won’t be turned around,
And I'll keep this world from dragging me down, gonna stand my ground.
Well I know what's right, I got just one life;
In a world that keeps on pushing me around, I will stand my ground,
and I won’t back down.