But the high priest rose up and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, "Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life." And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and taught.
The Theme of the Book of Acts
If I had to pick one sentence out of the book of Acts that would state the theme of the book, I think it would be Acts 1:8. Just before Jesus returns to heaven to take his place at the right hand of God, he gives the disciples this word that echoes through the whole book of Acts, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth."
As we move through the book of Acts in these messages, what we are seeing is the fulfillment of this promise. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples again and again with unusual fullness, the result is supernatural power leading to courageous, life-giving witness. Spirit . . . power . . . witness . . . new life—that's what we see unfolding in the history of the early church.
And the power is not merely the quiet power of preaching that looks natural, but really is supernatural (and we thank God for that!). Again and again, the power that comes with the witness, and helps make it life-changing, is something extraordinary, something manifestly supernatural—tongues of fire, sound of wind (2:2–3), shaking building (4:31). Or, as we saw in last week's text, remarkable healings and deliverance, in Acts 5:16, "The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed." The effect of this demonstration of power is described in verse 14, "And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women." This is the playing out of Acts 1:8. The Spirit comes upon the church in an unusual way; extraordinary power is manifested; and life-giving testimony brings people into the kingdom.
So this is why we keep talking about power in these messages on the book of Acts—because Acts 1:8 is the theme of the book. The book is about Spirit and power and witness and the new life gathered into churches spreading out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. And the reason that this is so relevant for us is that you and I still live in Acts 1:8—the witness to Jesus Christ has not yet been completed at the ends of the earth. And therefore the story of the book of Acts—the coming-upon of the Holy Spirit and the receiving of power and the bearing of life-giving witness—is still happening where people open themselves to it and ask for it and wait in faith to be "clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49).
What I see in today's text is a lesson concerning the price and the preciousness of this spiritual power.
1. The Price of Spiritual Power
Verse 16 describes extraordinary power flowing through the hands of the apostles (cf. v. 12). All who came were being healed. The next two verses describe the price they had to pay for this power in three ways: "The high priest rose up and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles, and put them in the common prison." The price of spiritual power is suffering. Three kinds: jealousy; accusation of false teaching; and what we might call carnal counter-power.
First, there was jealousy. Verse 17b: "filled with jealousy they arrested them." Power is a very dangerous thing both for those who have it, and for those who don't but wish they did. The danger if you have it is pride and the danger if you don't is jealousy. And both are based on bad mistakes.
Pride is based on the mistake that the power is ours or that we in our own strength fulfilled the conditions to get it. But in fact the power is God's, and if we fulfilled any conditions to get it—like faith or prayer or purity—it was not we but the grace of God in us (1 Corinthians 15:1). This is why a strong commitment to the sovereignty of grace is so crucial in this whole matter of power. Arminian theology, with its affirmation of man's self-determination, is ill-equipped to protect us from the temptations of power. What we need in this matter are strong doses of conviction about the inability of sinful man and the all-sufficiency of sovereign grace. This is the antidote to pride.
And it's the antidote to jealousy too. Jealousy is not just the passion to have the power that someone else has. In itself there may be nothing wrong with that—to want God's power in your life that you see in the life of another. Jealousy is the anger and the resentment that they have it and you don't. Jealousy doesn't just want to have what another has; it wants them to not have it.
What is the root of this jealousy? Three things. First, lovelessness (1 Corinthians 13:4): if you love another person, you will rejoice if God gives them power, even if he doesn't give it to you. Second, faithlessness: if you have faith in the sovereign grace of God to give power according to his own divine wisdom, then you will praise him for the times and ways of his outpouring, not question him and resent his choices. Again it is the strong dose of God's sovereignty that would keep us back from the sin of jealousy. God knows what he is doing, and he is wise and good in giving the Spirit in power wherever he pleases. Faith may cry for it to come; but faith does not criticize God for when and where it comes.
But there is a third root of jealousy. Not just lovelessness and faithlessness, but also false doctrine—false teaching. Take the Sadducees for example (here in v. 17). They would have said: "The issue is not love and faith, the issue is doctrine: these Christians are teaching the resurrection of Jesus and of his followers and this is false. There is no resurrection (Acts 23:6–8). The reason we are angry that these Christians are doing works of power is that they are deceiving the people to believe what is not true. There is no resurrection and these magic tricks (or whatever it is they are doing) are only leading the people astray."
1.2. Accusations of False Doctrine
The second kind of suffering you will pay if God gives you spiritual power is accusations of false doctrine. You can see the reason the Sadducees are so worked up about the power of the Christians by looking at Acts 4:1–2: "The priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead."
The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6–8). So when the Christians not only taught it, but did signs and wonders to back it up, you can imagine the opposition. This does not mean that charges of false doctrine are unimportant. It just means that even if your doctrine is right, you will probably be charged with false teaching, because this is one way of discrediting your experience of power. It is part of the price you will pay: jealousy and accusations of false doctrine.
1.3. Carnal Counter-Power
You will suffer what we can call carnal counter-power. I see this in the fact that they were thrown in jail. The high priest and the Sadducees did not use spiritual counter-power to demonstrate that God was truly on their side; they used carnal counter-power—the power of politics and the power of the sword. It may take all kinds of forms. Short of violence, the two most common forms are probably ostracism and slander. If I am threatened by another person's experience of God's power, and yet I have no true experience of that power myself to counter with, one great temptation is to try to vindicate myself by holding the other person at a distance and slandering him with half-truths and exaggerations and innuendos and sarcasm and falsehoods.
So you can count on it: if the Spirit comes upon you, and you receive power to minister blessing and healing in these extraordinary ways, there will be a price to pay: the suffering of jealousy and accusations of false doctrine and carnal counter-power.
2. The Preciousness of Spiritual Power
But it will be worth it, because spiritual power not only has its price, it also has its preciousness.
Preciousness Not Solely Because of Deliverance
Here we could focus on the apostles' escape from prison in verse 19—the angel of the Lord lets them out during the night. But I don't want to focus on the preciousness of such wonderful deliverances by itself, because they are not promised for every trouble (cf. Luke 21:12–16), and we could fall into a triumphalist way of thinking about power that would be very harmful—in Acts 7:58 Stephen is stoned to death even though he is filled with the Spirit and spoke with power. In Acts 12:1 James, the apostle, is killed by Herod. No angel came to rescue them. It is precious when he comes. But it is also precious when he doesn't.
Precious Because It Is God's Power Not Ours
That's what I want you to see. The preciousness of spiritual power is that it is God's power and not ours. The preciousness of spiritual power is that it is finally in God's control, not ours. It comes—or does not come—according to God's sovereign will. The angel of the Lord came to rescue the apostles—this time. But he did not come for Stephen. He did not come for James. He came again and again for Paul and for Peter. But there were many times when he did not stop the beatings and lashings and stoning and shipwrecks. And there was one last time when he did not stop the sword. The extraordinary spiritual power of God is precious because it is God's and it comes—or does not come—according to his free choice. It is a precious thing for such great power to be in the hands of an all-wise, loving God.
Giving Life and Living Life
When it comes and we are empowered to serve others, the purpose is that we give LIFE. And when it does not come and we are left in our suffering, the purpose is that we might live LIFE. Do you see this wonderful word LIFE in verse 20? "Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life." If you are delivered from distress by the power of God, the purpose of God is that you give life to other people—true life, eternal life, the forgiveness of sins and personal relationship with the ever-living God. And that is precious. It is a precious thing to be empowered to give life to others.
But if you are not delivered, if the angel does not come to open the door, what then? Well, then the time may have come to simply live the "Life." There may be nobody else to give it to. The days of giving may be over. They will be over for each of us sooner or later. But this too is precious: When God withholds delivering power, he gives dying power.
Peter said, in his first letter, that when you suffer for the name of Christ, "the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (1 Peter 4:14). That's what happens to Stephen when he is stoned to death. No angel comes to rescue him. But Acts 7:55 says, "Full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." When God withholds delivering power, he gives dying power. And that too is precious beyond words.
Jesus said in Luke 21, "They will lay their hands on you and deliver you to prisons . . . and some of you they will put to death . . . but not a hair of your head will perish" (vv. 12–18). Why? Because you will enter into Life. You will be raised with new resurrection bodies (no matter what the Sadducees say). In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Humbly Seek the Power of the Holy Spirit
So I call you to humbly seek the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. But do it with your eyes open. There will be a price: jealousy and accusation of false doctrine and carnal counter-power. But it will be worth it. Because the power of God is precious. It is a precious thing to know that the angel of the Lord comes—or does not come—according to the sovereign grace and wisdom of God. And if he comes, then we go on giving the Life of God to others. And if he does not, then we go on living that Life right into heaven as the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us.
So with your eyes open to the price and the preciousness of spiritual power, I invite you to seek its fullness from the Lord.