Acts 5:17-21, 26-31
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What holds you back when it comes to witnessing about Jesus? Considering that most Christians don’t witness very often, the list of things that hold us back, restrain us, is probably quite long.
People often mention fear. They are afraid that they might say the wrong thing and do more harm than good. So, they decide it’s best to leave witnessing up to the professionals, you know the pastors or those who might serve on the outreach committee. It’s true, not everyone is an evangelist, but it is also true that every Christian is a witness who Peter says, is always to be prepared to give an answer about the hope they have in Jesus.
People are often afraid of the social consequences of witnessing about Jesus. They don’t want people to think that they are weird, or part of a cult of some kind. Or people are afraid of losing friends or being canceled. Those are not unfounded fears. Such things can happen when you give witness about the hope you have in Jesus.
There are lots of things, fears we have, possible threats from others, that Satan uses to try to restrain the proclamation of God’s word and keep us silent about the hope we have in Jesus. In the book of Acts, we see him pulling out all the stops to try to restrain the Apostles from giving witness to what they had seen and heard from Jesus. But we also see many instances of witness being victorious over restraint.
The Apostles were pretty restrained, pretty silent for the first fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Part of their silence was due to their fear of persecution, but it was also due to the fact that Jesus had instructed them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit he had promised to send them. After Pentecost they were very unrestrained in their witness. They boldly spoke before thousands of people on the Day of Pentecost. They witnessed the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in bringing 3000 people to repentance, faith, and baptism on just that one day.
Like us, they had been filled with fears, but when the Holy Spirit helped them focus on Jesus instead of themselves and when they experienced the joy of seeing others brought from the darkness of unbelief to the light of faith, witness broke through the restraint of fear. They confessed that they couldn’t help telling others about what they had seen and heard.
We all know that feeling. When you have good news, you want to share it. You feel like you might burst if you don’t. Jeremiah said that God’s word was like a fire inside him. He tried to hold it in but eventually it had to burst out. There is no better news in the world than the fact that Jesus came into the world to save sinners including me. There is no better news in the world than the fact that this life is not all there is. Because Jesus died and rose again, we will all be raised to live forever.
Witness is victorious over restraint when you realize that Jesus lived and died for you and rose again so that you could live with him forever in glory.
But sometimes things happen that dampen our enthusiasm and restrain our witnessing. The apostles knew what that was like better than we do. The Chief Priests and Sanhedrin, the same people who were successful in having Jesus executed, had warned them to stop witnessing, to stop teaching on the basis of the name of Jesus. When they didn’t stop, the Jewish leaders had them thrown in jail intending to bring them to trial the next morning.
Being thrown in Jail is something that has a tendency to restrain your witness. It brings home the question, “how much are you willing to lose for witnessing about Jesus, your freedom, your livelihood, your life? A little silence, a little restraint wouldn’t hurt, would it? Maybe take witnessing and teaching underground for a while, not be so public about it? You can’t be a very good witness if you are in jail or dead, right?” That’s how our minds work.
What happened when the Apostles were put in Prison? During the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, brought them out, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and keep on telling the people the whole message about this life.”
Should they take their witnessing and teaching underground? No, was God’s clear answer. The angel told them to go and to take a stand in the most public place of all, the courts of God’s temple, and to keep on witnessing about Jesus in public.
When it seems that we are being restrained by the rules of social media and the attitudes of our neighbors we need to be reminded of what Jesus has said. He didn’t make witnessing optional. He didn’t tell us to witness only if it was safe or convenient. He simply said, GO. Take a stand. Keep teaching everything I have commanded you.
The Apostles did what the angel told them to do in spite of the fact that they knew what would happen. The Jewish leaders would be furious, and they would be brought before them to answer for why they were continuing to do what they had been ordered with threats not to do. What the Jewish leaders tried to use to restrain their witness the apostles saw as an opportunity to witness.
Their first response to the questions and threats of the Sanhedrin was to state a clear and eternal truth. When faced with a choice between obeying human authority, even authority which God has established, or obeying God himself, it’s always necessary to obey God rather than men, even when those men seem to have the ability to kill you. As Jesus pointed out, we are not to fear those who can only kill the body. The one we are to fear, to respect and obey above all things, is God who alone has the power over our eternal destiny. By focusing on this truth, the apostles’ witness was victorious over restraint.
When the High Priest revealed his true reason for attempting to restrain their witness – it was making them feel guilty- the apostles made use of the opportunity. They didn’t hold back. They proclaimed the law in all its force. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you arrested and killed by hanging him on a cross. We aren’t bringing Jesus’ blood down on you. You did that yourselves. You falsely accused him and condemned him for telling the truth. You told Pilate to let his blood be on you and your children. Your guilt is real and deserved. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.
God raised Jesus from the dead. Remember the Chief Priests were Sadducees who did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. But Jesus did rise. No doubt they had been looking for his body to prove that he didn’t rise but they would never find it. Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he would. The seal on the tomb and the guards couldn’t stop him. Now God has exalted Jesus to his right hand. Did they remember what he said at his trial? He told them that they would see him at the right hand of the father coming in the clouds of heaven. He is prince and savior. He is the promised Messiah. And because of his life, death, and resurrection, despite what you did to him, he wants you to have repentance and forgiveness of sins. Admit what you have done. Admit that you were wrong. He won’t hold it against you. He already had the father punish him in your place.
The restraint others try to put on us today comes from the same place as the restraint the Jewish leaders tried to put on the apostles. Guilt. When we witness about what God’s word says it makes people feel their guilt. Whether it’s what some would consider a big sin – adultery, abortion, divorce; or a little sin – failure to witness about Jesus, foul language, discontent; God’s law points out sin and causes guilt. In response, people either lash out and try to silence the one they think is causing them to feel guilt, or, like the people on Pentecost, they are cut to the heart and ask how they can be saved. It’s the latter who bring great joy to our hearts because we get to witness to them, to tell them that Jesus won forgiveness for them just as he has for us. When we see the Holy Spirit work through our witness, through our sharing of the good news about Jesus, it helps us be victorious over restraint in the future.
Satan tries to use personal insecurity, intimidation from others, whatever he can to keep us from witnessing. He wants to restrain us and keep us silent because he knows how powerful God’s word is when we share it. But as the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith through the word and sacrament and keeps us focused on Jesus instead of ourselves, when he lets us see the joy and peace someone has because of what we have told them about Jesus, witness is victorious over whatever Satan uses to try to restrain us.