The high priest and the sect of the Sadducees were filled with indignation against Peter and the apostles for preaching Christ, a crime against the judgement of their lawful council. The officials of government converged on Peter and the apostles throwing them in prison to wait till the morning when they should be questioned according to the laws they had broken. But before the night was over, God opened up the doors of the prison by means of an angel, instructing the men to return to the temple, and again proclaim the words of Christ boldly.
After doing so the officers came to the prison to find it empty and discover the men had not fled, but have returned to “the scene of the crime” preaching the name of Christ Jesus. Being brought again before the council their accusers question them, “Did we not straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name?” Peter’s response to the authorities would forever set in motion a principle for the ministry of the Church, saying, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
“We Ought to Obey God Rather Than Men”
Throughout the history of Christians in the face of persecution, Peter’s example has been a pattern for all to follow. It concerns us to avoid using Peter’s words in the wrong attitude but in the manner as a harmless dove. But what is more concerning in modern trends of missions is to deny this principle altogether; to turn it on its head and say in effect, “We ought to obey men rather than God.” Somehow either because of fear or ignorance of where man’s authority comes from, we stop proclaiming Christ when its “against the rules”.
In Acts 4 and 5 we see both the command and the approval of God to preach Christ in places where it is illegal. “Go and speak in the temple” God said to the disciples as He divinely opened the prison doors for them. Where human government in their earthly authority closes doors to the proclaiming of the Gospel, God’s authority remains superior to keeping them propped open. Christians have to decide who they will obey, and who’s wrath will they suffer, God’s or man’s. May we be reminded where authority of men ultimately comes from (John 19:11). Men do overstep their God given authority when they forbid the preaching of Christ. There is no decree of men, king, or emperor that may overrule the absolute authority given to Christ Jesus, and therefore Christ’s people have all authority to proclaim its message anywhere and everywhere.
Because we are so far culturally removed from the early church, lets unpack the scene a little more. Backing up to chapter four, the thing that impressed the rulers was the boldness of the apostles proclaimation. The rulers then devised a plan to directly threaten them that the Gospel would “spread no further”. In spite of the threat, the apostles returned with the same message and same boldness they were warned to cease preaching. The result led to their arrest, incarceration, and beating, but is that all? It wasn’t the end for these missionaries. Before their lives would be taken from them, the church multiplied and so did their boldness in their converts. Bold Stephen preached, bold Philip evangelized, James slain for boldly preaching Christ, persecutor Saul became the persecuted Paul boldly preaching in council after council appealing to Caesar himself.
These men hazarded their lives for Christ not with mousy voices but with bold proclaimations. Certainly these men knew precautions could have been taken to avoid persecution, but the goal isn’t do all that you can to avoid persecution, there is plenty of scripture that teach the inevitability of persecution for anyone living godly in Christ Jesus.
“Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
I’ve often heard this verse misquoted by a few to somehow defend a more cautious preaching of the Gospel–as though wisdom somehow means for us to be less bold with the Gospel, so we cave into man’s rules not wanting to offend the beast. Nay, the wisdom alluded to is the same that disciples exhibited while boldly taking the Gospel into often hostile territory. The wisdom the Lord Jesus referred to is not to avoid persecution so as to preserve one’s life a little longer, but to preach the Gospel in the most effective way possible. We are to use wisdom to broaden the scope of our preaching to the most hearers as possible. Sometimes this meant for Paul to get back up after being stoned and returned into the very same city, or other times claim Roman citizenship, a move which made certain his death, but brought the Gospel to heart of Rome.
Falling under the “wise as serpents” category we consider the modern tent making ministry. I can imagine some situations where business and the gospel might be joined together so my comments here have to be carefully chosen. Too often in my opinion is tent making chosen as the primary form of missions strategy. The strategies we utilize should exhibit the wisdom Jesus spoke about, and so whatever is the most effective way to preach the Gospel is valued as viable strategy.
With that being established, there is no substitution for the straightforward full-time ministry in the word, prayer, disciple making missionary. This is the model of Acts first demonstrated by Jerusalem and again by Antioch. The church agreed that “serving tables” was not the best use of time for the apostles who had the responsibility of getting the Gospel to the world. Their main objectives and greatest strengths rested in the preaching of the word and prayer. In action produced disciples, spending hours privately together reproducing strong Christ like leaders for the multitudes to follow. This isn’t to say serving tables is beneath full time Christian workers, as I am sure the foot washing Christ did for them made lasting impressions on their future work.
There can be no substitute for the ministry of starting churches to train disciples of Christ that will reach future generations, far beyond the life-span of the missionary who began it all. So often tent-making becomes exactly that, a substitute. I’ve spoken to a number of future missionaries in seminary whom present to me a grand plan of starting a career in a foreign field doing some professional service for the people there. Like these young hopefuls I have done the same things planning my service into China far in the future with grand schemes of English teaching, Martial arts, and Karate for Christ tournaments. I intended to be loved by Chinese students and families far and wide all for the Gospels sake.
But the method of missions does not have to be re-invented, and I found within my own schemes a certain amount of sinful pride which perverted the message of the Gospel. Just as we submit to Christ in everything, we need to submit to His way of doing missions. I needed a Paul to come and tell me my hypocritical way of living did not coincide with the Gospel given to me. While no missionary admits a job is more important than the gospel we begin to live hypocritically, sacrificing a bold witness for Christ to protect the career we’ve built in the name of missions. For example as an English teacher in China we would refrain speaking Christ’s name and preaching Him to students because it was against the rules as an English teacher–church planting was simply out of the question, as I couldn’t risk my teaching job, or my visa being revoked. Missions is not an accessory to a prospering career. If indeed the tent making becomes more important than proclaiming the Gospel itself, then missionaries often take measures to protect the tent making at the expense of bold Gospel proclamation.
The question isn’t whether or not the New Testament believers possessed boldness while proclaiming the Gospel, but do we? Boldness comes from inside the soul that has a fierce love for the Savior, grateful for His goodness and ready to avenge against all former disobedience. Zealous for the name of God, bold proclaimers are ready to charge into foreign nations or when our actions do not coincide with the Gospel, make seasoned judgements within the camp, all for the sake of God’s great glory. Don’t let somebody tell you can’t go and preach Christ boldly, directly, effectively. And if they do simply say, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye”. Just know there may be a high price to pay, so count the cost.
“For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus and being made right with God we escape the eternal wrath of God. Shall we not endure the temporal wrath of the beast for Christ’s name sake? Being completely converted by the Gospel that ensures our salvation no matter what men do to us, how can we do anything beside proclaiming it? We do not fear the one who has the power to kill the body, but the One who has power of the body and soul.
Paul says, “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.” When you are consumed and converted by the Gospel, then boldness comes naturally as an outpouring charismata of the Holy Spirit in times of need. Your converts will need to you be an example of boldness when its their turn to face the wrath of the beast.