2. Understanding the sovereignty of God
“The first element that was an essential part of the mind of the disciples was their clear understanding of the sovereignty of God. This is the key to a disciple’s faithfulness in times of persecution.” This lesson is drawn from the prayer of the believers after John and Peter were interrogated and threatened for preaching and healing in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:24-30).
Ton (:114-116) highlights that “throughout their prayer, the disciples emphasized the fact that God was in absolute control over the events of history”. God is addressed as despota, absolute ruler (4:24), a name almost unique to the New Testament. They begin by quoting the second Psalm, which portrays God mocking and laughing at his enemies, as they plot against his son, the Messiah. With this picture in mind, they interpret what had just happened to Jesus. Ultimately what the enemies could do “would surely turn out to be simply a part of the fulfilment of [God’s] ultimate plan, which is the triumph of the Messiah and of His people”. Therefore their prayer was neither a fearful prayer begging God for protection, nor an angry prayer railing against evil aggressors. According to Ton there “were only two things for which the church could rightly pray”: for boldness to continue preaching the gospel and for signs and wonders to accompany their preaching, so that the name of Jesus may be lifted up. Ton concludes: “a deep understanding of the sovereignty of God is so vitally important. God’s children must know that He is in absolute command, that He works even through His enemies, and that He is consistently accomplishing His purposes even through adversities.”
3. Regarding suffering for Christ as a privilege and honour
“The second element in the thinking of the disciples that kept them going strong through constant adversities was their view of suffering as a privilege and honor”.
Ton explains (:116-117): The humiliating and savage beating which Peter and John were submitted to like criminals in front of the country’s top leaders was meant to dishonour them. But they received it as a very special treatment (5:41). “One had to be found ‘worthy’ of it! Suffering was not for everybody. Since it was only given to a select number of people chosen by God, being among the people especially honored by God to suffer for His Name was a reason for great rejoicing indeed!” Therefore the apostles did not return complaining and soliciting pity, but reported the joyful news, that they had been counted worthy by their Lord to suffer indignity for his name.
Ton sees the same attitude illustrated later on when Paul and Silas are found in a Philippian jail, beaten and their feet placed in the stocks, singing hymns to God, “giving a concert to all the prisoners around them” (16:22-25). While the concept that suffering for Christ is a privilege and honour “has been central to the thinking of suffering Christians over the centuries”, Ton also places it in perspective by reminding that “a certain amount of suffering is the lot of all Christians” and that “the eyes of Christians should be fixed upon the final goal of the journey: their entrance into the kingdom of God.” He draws this lesson from Paul, who shortly after almost being stoned to death in Lystra, returns to the believers there, encouraging them to continue in the faith, saying ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (14:22).
4. Trusting the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit
According to Ton, “the third component constituting the mind of the disciples was their perception of the glory of martyrdom.” And indeed Like gives a very elaborate presentation of the first Christian martyrdom, namely that of Stephen, and Ton (117-123) devotes half of his chapter on Acts to it. The most important element in the martyrdom of Stephen is identified by Ton as the leading and empowering role of the Holy Spirit. I therefore use this point as a heading.
Ton notes that Luke’s account on Stephen’s death follows the pattern of the trial and death of Jesus (deeds of power, accusation of speaking against Temple, Son of Man at the right hand of God, prayer for forgiveness, committing of spirit to God). Luke had the express intention of presenting Stephen as a fully trained pupil of Jesus, who is like his teacher (Lk 6:40).
Ton highlights four features of the martyrdom of Stephen. The first was Stephen’s courage to tell his audience that their faith was misplaced and that the Son of Man, seated at the right hand of God was the true object of saving faith (Acts 7:51-52). The second important feature in Stephen’s martyrdom is his vision of heaven. Ton interprets Luke 9:27 as a promise of Jesus to his disciples, “that before they will die for his sake, they will receive a vision of [Gods’] glorious kingdom.” The unusual reference to the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God is explained as legal terminology of the Old Testament, where the judge is described as sitting, and the vindicating witness is described as standing to his right side. The purpose of the vision of heaven given to a person on the threshold of martyrdom is twofold: The first purpose is to be a witness for the people who are standing by, watching the execution. The second purpose is for the martyr himself. “It has a transforming impact upon that person. The glory is so great that the tortures are no longer worthy of being taken into consideration after one has seen it. The third feature in Stephens martyrdom highlighted by Ton is Stephen’s prayer for the forgiveness of his enemies and killers, thus not only preaching the love of God manifested in His Son Jesus Christ, but also living it out in his own suffering. I would regard all three features of the martyrdom of Stephen mentioned above, the courage, the vision of heaven and the willingness to forgive, as a work of the Holy Spirit.
The feature Ton considers most important in the martyrdom of Stephen is – as noted before – the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Stephen is presented as a person full of the Holy Spirit, performing wonders and signs in the power of the Holy Spirit, and being full of the Holy Spirit at the climax of his address to the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:5; 6:8; 7:55). Ton comments: “The prominence of the Holy Spirit in the action of witnessing to Christ and His gospel is visible in the entire Book of Acts to such and extend that the book has been commonly surnamed ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit.’ … The power of the Holy Spirit was manifested in the boldness of the Apostle Peter (Acts 2; 4:8) … [and] in Stephen and in the Apostle Paul (e.g., 9:27; 19:8; 28:31).” Ton sees these accounts as a series of cases that illustrate the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise given to his witnesses: “When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20).
What can we learn about being a ‘missional church’ from reading the book of Acts with a minority Christian experiencing God’s acts in the face of hostility?
- In reading the book of Acts we can learn that God is making people so passionate about Jesus, that they are willing to die for his name and his gospel. This has the potential to rekindle our own love for Jesus.
- In reading the book of Acts we can learn that suffering for Christ, persecution and martyrdom have been the lot of Christ’s witnesses from the outset, as modelled and predicted by Jesus. As he was rejected, his followers will equally face rejection because of him. Persecution because of Jesus is not a phenomenon restricted to the Early Church only. We can also learn from fellow Christians nowadays who are facing more suffering for Christ, than we do. From the Book of Acts we can learn that a ‘missional church’ is likely to face opposition and persecution because of attracting people to Christ which leads them to abandon previous loyalties and unethical practices. We need to develop a theological understanding of persecution as resistance to the gospel, which is not narrowed down to physical violence only but also includes ridicule. It will help to define persecution of Christians theologically as “any unjust action of mild to intense levels of hostility directed at Christians resulting in various levels of harm which may not necessarily prevent or limit these Christians’ ability to practice their faith or appropriately propagate their faith” (Tieszen 2008:48).
- In reading the book of Acts we can learn the importance of having a full understanding of the sovereignty of God. He reigns, even if the opposite seems to be the case to the human eye. He reigns, whether the political climate is friendly to Christians or not. In his sovereignty he chooses to allow the suffering, persecution and martyrdom of some of his followers and miraculously liberates others from prison and preserves them in order to continue being his witnesses, and he does both in order to glorify his name and to build his kingdom. Our grasp of the sovereignty of God will shape our prayers and reactions to hostility into a manner conforming to Christ. From the Book of Acts we can learn that a ‘missional church’ should not count on a Constantinian scenario, where the church has the sympathy of those in power, or even has entered into an alliance or symbiosis with those in worldly power. The use of worldly means for advancing church and mission have proven unfruitful and even detrimental in the history of the church. A missional church should start to learn thinking “pre-Constantinian” again, as it has been originally designed that way.
- In reading the book of Acts we can learn that suffering for Christ is to be considered a privilege and an honour over which we can rejoice. When we see the rejoicing of the believers in Acts in the face of hostility, as well as of contemporary believers, this could have a contagious effect. A reading of the rest of the New Testament and ethical considerations will lead to complementing the readiness to suffer for Christ with active advocacy for the persecuted.
- In reading the book of Acts we can learn to trust the leading and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. With the mandate to be his witnesses (missio dei) God has also equipped us with his power. As reflected in the Book of Acts and taught more explicitly by Jesus and the apostles in other books of the New Testament, God is suffering in and with those he has sent on his mission (compassio dei). He is safeguarding his church “against the gates of hell” in the midst of hostility and persecution and is enabling it to continue its mission of witnessing to Christ in the midst of suffering and martyrdom. In reading the book of Acts we can learn that a ‘missional church’ is not primarily driven by ideas, programmes or structures but by the Holy Spirit.
With God’s help a ‘missional church’, also in South Africa, will to be able to face the wind of post-Christian ideology and pluralism, not trusting in a position of power or majority, but in the living God who is with his church in mission.
Cunningham, Scott 1997. ‘Through many tribulations’. The theology of persecution in Luke-Acts. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Lee, Young Kee 1999. God’s mission in suffering and martyrdom. PhD Fuller Theological Seminary, SWM.
Penner, Glenn M 2004. In the shadow of the cross: a biblical theology of persecution and discipleship. Bartlesville: Living Sacrifice Books.
Sauer, Christof 2008.Between advocacy and readiness to suffer: Religious liberty and persecution of Christians as topics at the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly and its Mission Commission Consultation 2008. Submitted to Missionalia.
Tieszen, Charles L 2008. Re-examining religious persecution: constructing a theological framework for understanding persecution. Kempton Park: AcadSA Publishing.
Ton, Josef 2007 . Suffering, martyrdom and rewards in heaven. Second edition, Oradea: Cartea Crestina.
Trites, Allsion A 1977. The New Testament concept of witness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wespetal, Thomas J 2005. Martyrdom and the furtherance of God’s plan: The value of dying for the Christian faith. PhD TEDS.
Texts (New Living Translation)
23 As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. 24 When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—25 you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, saying,
‘Why were the nations so angry?
Why did they waste their time with futile plans?
26 The kings of the earth prepared for battle;
the rulers gathered together
against the Lord
and against his Messiah.’
27 “In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. 28 But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will. 29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.
40 … They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. 41 The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus.
22 A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. 23 They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. 24 So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks. 25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. ///
40 When Paul and Silas left the prison, they returned to the home of Lydia. There they met with the believers and encouraged them once more. Then they left town.
19 Then some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowds to their side. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. 20 But as the believers[c] gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. 21 After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, 22 where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.
Acts 6 +7 Stephen arrested, before the council, and martyred
6:8 Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. 9 But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia.10 None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
11 So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.”12 This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.*
13 The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses.14 We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.
7:51 “You stubborn people! You are heathen* at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you!52 Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered.53 You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”
54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage.*55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand.56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”
57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.