Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome to the Second Sunday of Easter, more informally known as “Beat Up Doubting Thomas Sunday.” But we’ll refrain today, attempting for an hour to keep the 8th Commandment and steer clear of at least a little hypocrisy. Instead, let’s consider the witness of Peter and the other apostles—Thomas among them—to the Jewish ruling council: “We must obey God, rather than men.” In these words, there are two contrasting ideas. There is captivity and there is freedom.
Just prior to the text of today’s first lesson, the apostles and Peter had been put into jail. In the Spirit, though, they were always free. On the other hand, we see the chief priest and the Pharisees and Sadducees who seem to be free in the physical sense, but are very much held captive. They are held by their own ignorance and blindness to the power of God through Jesus’ resurrection. The freedom the apostles had is seen when they stand before the Sanhedrin and say: “We must obey God rather than men.”
We are going to talk about freedom and captivity today. The Lord sets us free. For spiritual freedom Jesus taught us to hold fast to the word of God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31b, 32).
Today, we gather because we hold fast to God’s teachings and his truth has set us free. We are encouraged to be as bold as these disciples and be confident in our faith. To be able to say:
“We must obey God rather than men.”
How did the apostles end up in prison? At the beginning of Acts we see Jesus’ ascension. Then Pentecost. The church grows by the thousands, and the teaching of Jesus grew. Believers worshipped daily. The disciples healed the infirm. So they gained favor among the people. This did not set well with the religious rulers. Verse 12 of chapter 5 says: “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.” People would be blessed by just having Peter’s shadow pass across them. You can imagine the Sanhedrin’s concern. They thought that they had eliminated the teachings of Jesus when they got rid of Him.
But verse 17 tells us: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.” They were jealous of these disciples. They were upset at the new teaching that people were following, upset with what was happening. They had not silenced Jesus and the Easter message. They hadn’t squelched the power of Jesus’ resurrection. We are told: “They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.” The disciples couldn’t reach the people while imprisoned. They couldn’t be in the streets or temple healing the sick. The council thought this imprisonment should stop their message. But God had far greater plans to spread his message, just as He has for those He has called.
Released from jail and brought before the council, the disciples tell them the truth. They say to them: “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”
The council was trying to cover up and hide that message when they put the apostles in prison. You may remember that after they put Jesus to death and Jesus was put into the tomb, they hired a guard to watch the tomb, and they sealed the rock so that no one would come and steal the body away. Yet what happened? Jesus still rose from the dead. Then, they tried to silence the power of God and the Easter message, telling the soldiers, “Spread the news that the disciples came and stole the body.”
Paul wrote that this rumor was still around when he was preaching and teaching. They tried to silence God’s message. But they could not. Not with guards, not with rocks, not with seals, not with imprisonment or beatings, not even later with executions. The church still proclaimed the truth that “We must obey God rather than men.”
This sounds strange, doesn’t it, that someone would try to silence and suppress God’s message? Yet, it has happened through every generation from the very beginning until the present. Why did Adam and Eve sin? Because Satan tried to suppress God’s message, creating doubt by saying, “You will not surely die.” Mankind and his own wisdom and his own self-righteousness also attempt to suppress God’s message. The Tower of Babel was an attempt to reach the level of God, because we humans want to feel so self-important. We are given this from the Psalmist: “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” (Psalm 4:2). We delude ourselves. We seek out false gods. That describes our society today. There are so many false gods and messed-up priorities in our lives we can’t list them all. Our culture makes a lot of things seem important, sets them up as important, and deludes us into turning to human solutions instead of God.
Worst of all, many begin to believe that faithfulness to God’s word is not important. They begin to seek, as Paul wrote, what their itching ears want to hear. People turn aside from the truth to human myths and lies. There are hundreds of books and authors who have made lots of money trying to confuse the simple truth of Scripture. People are led astray.
Paul writes in Thessalonians: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12) Again, this is a ringing condemnation of our society that delights in wickedness. Places of debauchery are often filled to capacity, while places of worship are usually not so full. Where are the many who were here last week?
How does it happen that even believers end up fooled? Satan uses all kinds of weapons and tools to deceive mankind. Sometimes he uses those pretending to be people of God. From 2nd Corinthians: “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:13, 14) Satan does not openly say, “I am going to take away your faith. I am going to take you and your souls down to hell to be punished forever.” A false prophet doesn’t say that either. He doesn’t broadcast that he will lead one astray, that he will teach some false but reasonable and attractive doctrine that doesn’t agree with God’s Word. No, they masquerade as angels of light. They come as Jesus said in Matthew, “as wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They try to silence God’s Easter message. Today, the value of Jesus’ resurrection is lost as people celebrate spring renewal, the Easter bunny, etc.
Much like the early apostles, we need to understand how important it is to say, “We must obey God rather than men.” You and I were held captive by sin, slaves to Satan, and under the grip and power of death, but are now set free to testify to the truth.
Peter and the apostles probably didn’t expect to spend any time in prison, especially after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the early growth of the church, even though Jesus had warned them of it. They were able to do miracles. They weren’t expecting to be put in jail, but inside, they remained free. We see God didn’t leave them there, either. The Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out to tell the people of this new life in Jesus Christ. No one could extinguish, silence or suppress God’s Easter message.
Our lesson today covers what happens next. After their miraculous release, they are brought before the council. Are Peter and the apostles afraid to confess their faith before the powers that be? After all, this was the high ruling authority; those who should have known God’s word the best. Yet, they again tell the apostles not to talk about Jesus. That’s when the disciples state they had to obey God rather than men. And they proclaim the Easter message once again, “You killed Jesus, but Jesus was brought back to life.”
More than that, they tell the rulers: “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” That was a profound statement. It tells them that Jesus didn’t come as a rabble-rouser or to cause trouble. Jesus came for repentance and salvation, to provide forgiveness to Israel and all who sat in darkness. Jesus came as the light of the world, to be the crucified and risen Savior.
It is a simple truth that is the very essence of our Christian faith. Jesus died for the sins of the world and has died for your specific sins. We confess that in the creeds. It is a message we can not hear enough. Paul proclaims it: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4) Paul, who once sat in darkness, who once was held as a slave to Satan and captive by sin, was set free to testify to the truth. He spent the rest of his life proclaiming that: Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again.
That is a message that the prophets wrote about; a message fulfilled in the gospels, and that is the message that is proclaimed in the epistles. It is a message that remains under attack today. But we are constantly reminded by the Holy Spirit, through the faith we have been given, that we must obey God rather than men. We stand up for our faith.
Why? Paul says in Romans: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” (Romans 6:22). Eternal life is God’s greatest gift for us. We could spend a lifetime trying to repay Him for that gift, but would still fall infinitely short.
Instead, we simply show our gratitude by faithful living, a joyful life, and letting the faith that we have in our hearts be seen in our lives. The prophet Jeremiah wrote these words about trying to hold in God’s message: “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9). That is the same with us. We may not always put it in those words or feel that same exact way.
But in everything we do in His name, in accordance with His word—when we are honest in dealing with others, kind to those who aren’t so kind to us, forgiving to those not so forgiving, loving to the unlovable, and treat our enemies as our friends—we are testifying to the truth that Jesus Christ lived, died, was buried and rose again for forgiveness and to provide eternal life. He has changed our lives for eternity, so we are changed even now.
That is how we obey God rather than men. We recognize and respect the authorities He has allowed to rule over us. Even though we will not always agree with it completely, the government is still there for our benefit. It is God’s gift of reasonable order amidst the world’s entropy and chaos. We obey the laws of the land. God hasn’t given us the right to protest or disobey everything we don’t like—only that which violates His far superior Word.
But we are reminded that God’s law is far more right and authoritative than any law generated by man. Where they depart from one another, we must obey God rather than men. It didn’t really hurt Peter and the other apostles to stand up for their faith. They were put into prison, but God let them out. They had the chance to testify to those in authority, and they did. They were beaten, but they rejoiced in their suffering. The Lord blessed them even though many tried to silence the Easter message, and even though many today try to make Easter seem unimportant, or limit it to one day.
We know how the world deals with Christmas. God’s message still gets out, because there are believers, you and I and millions throughout the world. We are set free to proclaim and to testify to the truth that God is still God, the truth that Jesus is our Savior, the truth that our sins are forgiven, and that eternal life is ours.
Peter writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3). This is the truth that the world cannot silence. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia. Amen.