Editor’s note: This is the first post in a two-part series from the China Partnership’s Executive Director. The content was originally delivered as a sermon to an American congregation during their annual missions conference. All names and locations have been withheld in this written version for security purposes. Read Part 2 to finish the series.
"On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. 'Sovereign Lord,' they said, 'you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.'
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly."
The NIV translates Acts 4:23 to say that after Peter and John were released, they went to their “own people” and reported what happened. The gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ separated the Jews, formerly one people, into two peoples. John and Peter’s own people were those that belonged to Christ, the new people in Christ. For the same reason you and I, formerly Gentiles, are now one people with all the saints in Christ. I am privileged and honored to come to you and be with you tonight, my own people. Because of our Lord, we are no longer only Americans and Chinese, but one heavenly people in Christ. I am very thankful and pleased to share with you this passage of scripture and report to you how stories similar to the early church in Acts are happening in China.
There have been amazing developments in the Chinese church in the past three years. I find that the most important question concerning these developments is whether they are from the Spirit and long-lasting or whether they are just a short-term phenomenon. If it is the former, this is worthy ministry; otherwise, it is useless. This question has led me to study the early church in order to discern the marks of true revival. Next time, I will report to you stories of the gospel in China, but now I want to discuss the above passage from Acts.
This paragraph that we just read constitutes the last part of a larger passage comprising of Acts 3-4. Chapters 3 and 4 record the first encounter between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God after Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and the Holy Spirit’s coming and residing in the church. This encounter was directly caused by Peter and John’s ministry of the word accompanied by their merciful deed healing a man lame from birth. The very battlefield and focal point between the two kingdoms is the name of Jesus, nothing more and nothing less. The Jewish authorities strictly forbade the apostles from proclaiming the resurrected Jesus and from performing any deeds in his name. Acts 4:23-31 teaches us about the first Christian church’s collective response to that order and threat from the earthly kingdom.
The passage we are studying contains the only corporate prayer that has been recorded in the entire New Testament. There are other places that talk about corporate prayers and there are recorded personal prayers; however, this is the only place that we hear a corporate prayer, giving us a glimpse into their genuine faith and way of life. People often profess a faith different from what their lives reveal. During life’s difficult times, the way people pray tends to tell us what they truly believe. This prayer, a spontaneous practice of faith, vividly depicts a new world order that controls their behavior.
There are many ways to approach this particular paragraph. Today, I want to share three important marks of the kingdom of the gospel from this passage. The reason these three marks are so important is that from them you can recognize Christ’s kingdom, or in other words, the features of the true church in this worldly culture. The three marks consist of true personal knowledge of Jesus Christ in understanding the gospel; continuous, voluntary, and active suffering in union with Christ (being missional); and resolutely following Christ in word and deed.
1) True personal knowledge of Jesus Christ
The most amazing fact shown in this prayer is that the entire church now has a distinctive personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, controlled and shaped by his gospel. Jesus explicitly told the disciples three times about his anticipated suffering as the Messiah in the synoptic gospels; however, they did not get it. A suffering Messiah had not existed in their vocabulary and had never emerged in their religious faith. The anticipation of a glorious Messiah crushed the disciple’s faith at the cross. But the politically and socially triumphant Messiah hoped for by first century Judaism disappeared from the horizon of the disciples’ prayers. For the New Testament church, the Messiah predicted by the prophet-king David and by the Holy Spirit is the suffering servant prosecuted and opposed by the worldly kingdoms of both Gentiles and Jews.
The resurrection utterly crushes the devil’s plot and the world’s opposition. It bears a clear mark in the church’s prayer confessing that the Messiah must be persecuted and opposed by this world according to the scripture. The prayer cites Psalm 2:1-2, a royal psalm in its genre. The psalm looks to a future when the Gentile kingdoms will be under the rule of the Davidic Messiah and in it find their joy no matter how they might oppose it and try to throw it off. Within this context, the kings and rulers of the earth in the first two verses are really pointing to the nations and people outside of Israel. With the backdrop of first century Judaism, this would have been interpreted as opposition to the coming Messiah’s glorious restoration and reign over the new nation of Israel. Surprisingly, instead of the disciples identifying Pilate as the Gentiles and rulers, they identify Herod and the people of Israel as the “kings” and “peoples” of Psalm 2 who are opposed to Israel and its Messiah.
This prayer and its use of Psalm 2 shows a hermeneutical departure from first century Judaism. The disciples are now recognizing Jesus as the suffering Messiah according to scripture. Persecution from both the Jews and Gentiles and the suffering of the Messiah were both preordained by the sovereign Lord to whom they pray. It is necessary and inevitable according to Isaiah 46:10 which states, “…whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Here the triumphant Messiah has become the suffering Christ, the holy servant of God.
2) Continuous suffering in union with Christ
This new personal knowledge of Jesus Christ controlled by the gospel is not limited to past, historical events. The prayer further shows that the disciples’ understanding has far reaching theological and eschatological significance. Right after recognizing what Jesus fulfilled in his suffering, the prayer immediately brings the current incident before the throne of the sovereign God. They say, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” The conjunction “and” paired with the adverb “now” provides an uninterruptible connection and continuity between Christ's suffering, persecution, and the disciples’ immediate experience.
They see what they are going through - threats, persecution, and suffering – as an organic continuation of Christ’s suffering. The suffering of the Messiah from the opposing authorities and culture is now naturally extended to his body, the church. Just like their Lord, threats and persecution from the world is the norm of every day life for the disciples; it is the ordained form of the new life that they are called into. As the result of this understanding and faith, they never pray for the removal or even reduction of the persecution; rather, they just pray that they will be strengthened with boldness to preach Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
Suffering is no fun for any human being. Our first personal and cultural inclinations are to escape suffering. Why are the disciples so willing to suffer? How did their understanding of who Christ is and their personal knowledge of Jesus totally change from that of Luke 1 to Luke 23? To answer this question, we have to ponder and ask what connects the passion of Christ with the suffering of the disciples?
Luke 24 and Acts 1-2 show us that the resurrection of Jesus, Christ’s teaching of God’s salvific plan in the Old Testament, and the indwelling of the Spirit in the church have turned the metanarrative of human history and culture upside down. God’s redemptive plan, the event of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Spirit’s empowerment of the church all created a new people out of the old Israel. This new people is called and saved into union with Christ, and this union and identification with Christ necessarily imposes Christ’s mission and suffering on the church. In other words, this mission and suffering is an inevitable feature of the Great Commission.
3) Resolute following of Christ in word and deed
The gospel of Jesus Christ terminated all other gospel narratives in this world. Jesus did not come to satisfy Jewish pride, but to fulfill the Father’s saving purpose through his death. Jesus did not come to satisfy Judaism’s political-cultural ambition, but to inaugurate a new counter-culture in his resurrection. Jesus did not come to help realize our American or Chinese dreams, but to bring our every day reality into the heavenly realms through his ascension.
The disciples did not ask for “…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” These are all good, but temporary things. The disciples knew they were called into an eternal kingdom and the hope of life. They prayed that in the face of death, imprisonment, and misery, they would only “…continue to speak God’s word with all boldness.” For the disciples, speaking God’s word is the proclamation of the gospel. Out of this confidence, they prayed that God would accompany their gospel proclamation with mighty deeds to witness to Jesus’s name.
Why did the Holy Spirit inspire Luke to write out the full discourse of this prayer? Because this passage is not simply to recount a prayer made by the early church for historical interest. This Spirit-filled and powerful prayer was made by the disciples on behalf of the entire New Testament church. This is every church’s prayer - this is your prayer and my prayer! This is an eternal prayer that reaches to the heavenly throne and shakes the earthly realm. Just as the Father responded to Jesus’s deeds and prayers in the gospels, so the Holy Spirit responded to this prayer and answered their pleas by filling them and enabling them to boldly speak the word of God for gospel proclamation. In response to the threat from the earthly authorities, they responded with prayer and more resolute following of Christ. This following of Christ is in order to give witness to his name to the world and to reach out by word and deed.
These three marks of the New Testament kingdom of the gospel build upon each other. The foundation is the personal knowledge of Christ according to the gospel. Out of it comes union with Christ in his mission and his suffering. This is further reflected in the resolution to follow Christ in word and deed. These three marks can be unmistakably found in all true churches.