Abortion: Shall We Listen to Men or God?
Sanctity of Life Sunday
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred with one another, saying, "What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may be spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to any one in this name." So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 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; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people; for all men praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
Forty years the man had been unable to walk. We know this because Acts 3:2 tells us he was lame from birth and Acts 4:22 says he was over forty years old. Yet now he was leaping and running and praising God, because Peter had said (in 3:6), "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, walk." A great crowd had gathered. Peter had preached a powerful sermon. About 2,000 people were converted, and Peter and John were arrested and put in jail over night. The next morning they appeared before the court. Last week we saw how Peter moved from the local to the global in his message and brought it to a climax in verse 12 with the words, "There is salvation in no one else. For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
Three Observations from the Text
Now in today's text we see three things that are amazingly relevant for our life in a secular world, especially our relation to the issue of abortion.
- The first thing we see is a description of Peter and John—the kind of people they were to stand up to the authorities.
- The second thing we see is the way people often respond when the evidence for truth mounts against them.
- And the third thing we see is how the disciples respond publicly to the unbelieving rulers of Jerusalem.
Let's look at these one at a time in the biblical context, and then apply what we learn to our situation today.
1. The Description of Peter and John
The rulers and elders and scribes were astounded at Peter and John. Verse 13 says they "wondered." Literally, they were amazed, boggled, stumped, astonished. They saw two things that didn't fit together. Then they saw the real explanation. What didn't fit together were Peter and John's public boldness and their lack of education.
On the one hand Peter and John were speaking with straight-forwardness, and confidence and courage and clarity. And they were doing this in the presence of people with power and esteem and scholarship—the rulers and the elders and the scribes. It simply stunned the authorities. These men spoke as though they had the authority on their side. But what made this boldness so incredible was that Peter and John were not formally educated; and they didn't have the refinement of skill that comes from courses in rhetoric. That's the point of verse 13: "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered"—they were amazed.
Then they remembered that this Jesus, whom they had tried to get rid of was just like that. John 7:15 says, "The Jews marveled [or: were amazed; same word] at [the teaching of Jesus], saying, How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" It was just the same with Jesus as with Peter and John. They were all bold and straightforward and clear. And they had insight into the things of God, even though they had never had the rabbinic education the scribes had.
So verse 13 says at the end: "They recognized that they had been with Jesus." This is the way he was. They must have gotten it from him. A disciple, when he is taught, will be like his master (Luke 6:40).
2. The Response of the Rulers
Then we see the response of the rulers. Verses 16–17: "What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to any one in this name."
Here is something really amazing, and yet very common in the world. How would you describe the connection between what they say in verse 16 and what they say in verse 17? Verse 16: a great and undeniable sign of love and power has been done by these courageous men in the name of Jesus. All Jerusalem knows this. Verse 17: Let's threaten them with harm and try to keep them quiet about this Jesus.
Verse 16 states reasons to seriously consider the truth of what Peter and John say. Verse 17 describes the behavior of a people who are not interested in the truth, but only in the benefit that they get from falsehood. It's like saying: "O look, there's smoke billowing up the stairway from the basement; quick let's close the door and have dinner." Or: "Look, people with cancer are being healed by this new drug; quick let's ban it from the world."
When people are getting some benefit from a wrong, they turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the mounting evidence that they should change. That's the second thing we learn.
3. The Response of Peter and John to the Threat
Verse 19 tells us how Peter and John respond to this blind threat. "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
This must have been an utterly exasperating and maddening response to the rulers. Why is that? Because it assumes something that the rulers refuse to assume. Peter assumes that he has to choose between listening to God and listening to the rulers. This assumes that the rulers are not speaking on God's side. Peter doesn't express any apology for this assumption at all. He just says it. And with a kind of disarming simplicity he speaks as if they must operate on his assumption: The issue, he says, is whether we listen to you or to God. Now you judge for yourselves what we should do. Go ahead tell us: God or you! It's a question they could not answer without admitting they were not on God's side.
The basis for Peter's response is the utter assurance that Peter has that Jesus is alive, that he is Lord of the universe, that he healed the man, and that obeying him comes before obeying any human ruler. Peter and John know, because they have seen and heard. They have an experience of the living Jesus that has made them utterly unstoppable. So they do not suggest that maybe the rulers speak a little for God, and maybe the apostles do. No. The rulers are anti-God in telling them to be quiet about Jesus. And the apostles are in touch with the living God through knowing Jesus.
Three Lessons for Today
How is this all relevant for us today? Let's take each of the three things we have seen and state them as lessons for ourselves.
1. What You Need to Be Bold and Clear
In order to be bold and forthright and clear in what you say for Christ in public, you do not need to be formally educated or unusually skilled. What you need is real fellowship with Jesus—real experience with Jesus, the kind of experience that enables you to say: "I cannot but speak what I have seen and heard."
The Limits of Education
One thing I have learned from following the educational route as far as it goes in my field and then reading what the most educated write. Namely: there is nothing in advanced education that makes a person a courageous and clear spokesman for the truth. I believe in education. I believe some of our brightest young people should make scholarship a career for the glory of God. But let us get the idea out of our head that scholarship makes a man or a woman bold, courageous, straightforward, and clear. There is no positive correlation between advanced education and courageous clarity.
The Path to Boldness
What makes a person bold for the truth is being utterly sure that he has seen God's truth. What makes a person clear and forthright is a good heart that has no desire to slip anything in under the fog of ambiguity. Or another way to say it is that boldness and clarity come from spending time with Jesus. Jesus is the truth we need to see, and Jesus is good—radically good. The more you have real dealings with him, the more confident you become in the truth, and the more good you become in not wanting to exalt yourself or protect yourself with impressive words.
You just want to speak the truth for his sake and speak it with boldness and clarity—no fog, no haze, no bluffs, no evasions, no runarounds, no clever camouflaging of indecisiveness. I love what James Denney said about preaching. It applies to all clear, bold communication for Christ: "No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save." That becomes clearer and clearer with the more time you spend with Jesus.
So the first lesson for today is that you don't have to be formally educated or unusually skilled in order to be bold and forthright and clear in what you say for Christ in public. What you need is real fellowship with Jesus.
2. Those Who Benefit from Wrongdoing
It is still true today that those who benefit from wrongdoing and wrong-thinking will usually turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to contrary evidence for what is right and what is true.
Justifying the Desires of Our Hearts
This disease affects every one of us more or less. The mind perceives reality selectively in order to justify what the heart desires. Complete objectivity—whatever side you are on—is a myth.
If showing pictures of mutilated babies threatens your desire for abortion on demand, then the pictures are emotionally manipulative or in bad taste or irrelevant. But if showing dead sea otters or oil slicked cranes or mutilated seals helps your cause, then this is simply telling it like it is and forcing people to come to terms with what is really happening.
A booklet distributed to students at South High recently in connection with sex education says, "Medically, it is best to have an abortion after the sixth week and before the 12th week of pregnancy." But abortion defenders turn a deaf ear to the question: "Medically best for whom; baby or mother; or neither?"
The evidence mounts on all hands that the unborn are persons and patients alongside their mothers. But abortion providers turn a deaf ear to observations like Dr. Steve Calvin's in a letter a few years ago to the Arizona Daily Star: "There is inescapable schizophrenia in aborting a perfectly normal 22 week fetus while at the same hospital, performing intra-uterine surgery on its cousin."
Turning a Deaf Ear to the Bible
Many Christians involved in abortion turn a deaf ear to the Bible when it says that the growing life in the womb is the unique creative work of God knitting together a being in his own image (Psalm 139:13; Job 31:13–15); or when it speaks of babies in the womb with the very same words as babies out of the womb (Genesis 25:22; Luke 1:41; cf. 2:12, 16; 18:15); or when it warns repeatedly against shedding innocent blood (Psalm 106:38); or when it calls again and again for the protection of the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community (Psalm 82:3–4); or when it says that God alone has the right to give and to take human life (Job 1:21).
So the second lesson for today—and it applies directly to the issue of abortion—is that when people benefit from wrongdoing or wrong-thinking, they will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the mounting evidence for what is right and what is true. The mind selectively sees what will justify the desires of the heart. In the end that is what must be changed.
3. The Duty to Speak God's Truth
The final lesson from this text for today is this: Christians—people who bank their hopes on Jesus and spend time with Jesus and obey Jesus—should stand up in public and tell God's truth as they see it without worrying that secular listeners may not even agree with our most basic assumptions.
Isn't it amazing how Peter and John respond to the rulers! The rulers tell them to get out and not to speak in the name of Jesus any more. Then in verse 19–20 they say, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
One of the great obstacles to our speaking out in public about the truth as we see it with Jesus is that we think we have to win. Or we think we have to operate with the assumptions of secular leaders. But Peter shows us that this is emphatically not what we have to do. Our calling is not to win or to borrow the assumptions of the world. Our calling is to stand up and tell it like it is in the eyes of God.
Imagine how the rulers might have responded to Peter and John when they said, "You decide if we should listen to you or God." "Who do think you are! Telling us the choice is between what we say and what GOD says! How do you know WE don't speak for God?"
All Peter says is, "We must speak what we have seen and heard." He is a witness. Now don't get me wrong. Some people are especially gifted and called to enter more extended debate and to try to find some common ground and labor to persuade. But the point here is simpler: all Christians should stand up and tell it like they see it. Let the chips fall where they will. Don't worry if the public doesn't even agree with your most basic assumptions. Your job is not to win. Your job is not to control this society. Your job is to say what God wants said.
The Bible says that the law of God is written on the heart of every person (Romans 1:32, 2:15). It says that everyone is created in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There is reason to believe, then, that your witness to the truth—about abortion, or any other issue—will trigger something deep inside of people. It will have the ring of truth in their heart of hearts, though it may be temporarily suppressed in unrighteousness. And who knows what God may be pleased to do if his truth is spoken boldly and clearly by tens of thousands of evangelical Christians?
Not Called to Win, but to Witness
The parent group at Roosevelt High School where my son Benjamin goes, had a forum to discuss fundraising efforts for the school. Their proposal was that they install pull-tab gambling machines in the local bowling alley. Noël went to the meeting and stood up all alone and said, "There is already a problem in this state with young gamblers. Schools are to build character as well as give information. How can we help kids be responsible if we set an example as adults that gambling is a good way to raise money? Aren't we just encouraging something that promotes greed, and lures the poor, and discourages the path of rewarding labor?"
They didn't withdraw the plan. But that is not Noël's responsibility. She said what God wanted said. God's truth was heard in public and that is what she and you and I are responsible for—on the abortion issue and every important issue. We are not called to win; we are called to witness.