By Tom M. Roberts
One of the saddest events of Peter’s life must have been that split second of time when, after denying Jesus three times as was prophesied, it was recorded, “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And Peter went out, and wept bitterly” (Lk. 22:61,62). However, this failure of Peter was equally true of all the apostles during the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial and subsequent crucifixion. The Lord had spoken of them: “All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad” (Matt. 26:31). They must have been totally demoralized.
Not fully understanding the Jesus came into the world to die, the apostles tried to avoid danger and, when Jesus was arrested, even Peter “followed afar off” (Lk. 22:54) and warmed himself at the enemy’s fire (v. 55). Nothing much is said of the activities of the twelve during these days except that they were together (Lk. 24:10,33) for awhile and then went to their own homes (Jn. 20: 10). When they met together, they met secretly, fearing for their lives (20:19). Peter went fishing (21:3), along with others, even after the resurrection, not understanding what was to follow.
Thomas will forever be called “the doubter” because he would not believe the word of the brethren who had first seen the Lord after the resurrection (Jn. 20:24ff). His walk was not by faith (2 Cor. 5:7), but by sight.
It is nothing short of amazing that the disciples, who were petty, quarrelsome, jealous, doubting and materialistic during the ministry of Jesus, and who were scattered and confused by his death, could become the bold and aggressive evangelists revealed to us in The Acts. What an amazing transformation! Surely we can find some kind of lesson for ourselves in this metamorphosis from this anxious, disillusioned band of secluded disciples as they emerged on Pentecost and beyond as the fearless and dedicated proclaimers who were ready to die for Jesus Christ. One of the themes of Luke is the heroic labors of the men who went to prison and (with most of the twelve) to death, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
Rush to Judgment
We should be wary of being hypercritical of the vacillation in the lives of the apostles before they understood fully about Jesus. It should be remembered that we have the advantage of the complete revelation of prophecy and its fulfillment in a way that was not true of the apostles until Pentecost and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
I have often heard lessons about the disciples sleeping in the Garden while Jesus poured out his heart to God. Yes, they should have remained awake, as we often should be better than we are. But Mark tells us that Peter, James and John, who were there in the Garden, were “greatly amazed and sore troubled ” (14:3 3), their ” spirit willing, but the flesh weak” (vs. 38). Luke gently adds that they were “sleeping for sorrow” (22:45). Without attempting to excuse them, we need to ask, “Would we have done differently?”
Again, they pressed Jesus to establish the kingdom, thinking it to be like that of David and Solomon, even after the resurrection (Acts 1:6). Previously, they had quarreled about who was to be the greatest in the kingdom (Matt. 20:21f, et al). Yes, Jesus had taught many parables about the nature of the kingdom and that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). But, before we begin to criticize too harshly, let us remember that we have the advantage of New Testament definitions and examples of the spiritual nature of the kingdom which were hidden to their view. Their temerity, however wrong, is understandable in the light of their limited view of fulfilled prophecy before Pentecost. But before we rush to judgment, we should realize that we are often timid, scattered, confused, petty, quarrelsome, etc. and we have had the fullness of the Gospel all of our lives. The knowledge of Jesus after the resurrection and after Pentecost forever changed their attitude and provided the impetus for an onslaught of evangelism that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). 1 know why the apostles were hesitant before Pentecost, but what is our excuse? Why aren’t we turning our world upside down?
I heard a story once about a flea that rode on an elephant’s back across a bridge. When they got to the other side, the flea boasted, “Boy, we really shook that bridge, didn’t we?”
Unlike the apostles, we are not shaking anything. They were turned from cowards into heroes; from holding fearful, secret meetings to preaching on Jerusalem’s main street; from being fearful of their lives, to willing to die and rejoicing for the opportunity. This great theme from The Acts, the aggressiveness of the Gospel, should serve as a fire in our hearts and inspire us to zeal unseen in our times. Notice how bold the apostles became.
Aggressiveness of the Gospel
The first gospel sermon (Acts 2) did not take place on a side street, in a darkened alley, with whispers and innuendoes, fearful lest the dignity and decorum of the occasion of Pentecost be upset. Boldly, Peter and the eleven spoke out at a location large enough to accommodate thousands. They made a bold affirmation that what was seen and heard was a fulfillment of prophecy, that Jesus was the Christ and that the listeners were guilty of his murder. A fearless call for repentance went forth that was reminiscent of the prophets of old and the command to be baptized in the name of Christ was issued to every person. The apostles were totally convinced of the rightness of their cause, that there was only one right Way, that all were lost who believed differently, and it didn’t bother them that some considered them bigoted and narrow-minded. How different is this occasion from that when Peter denied Jesus and the twelve were scattered. Three thousand precious souls were baptized into Christ for remission of sins because the message now had messengers equal to the task.
Pentecost must have been a bombshell in the midst of the temple hierarchy. This pesky Jesus had been put to death and now a claim of resurrection was being made! The multitudes were being stirred again and political chaos was at risk. Fearing what was taking place, the high priest and his cohorts arrested the apostles and put them in jail (4:1ff). The Sadducees, taking the lead, and being in the company of no less than Annas, Caiaphas, his kinfolk, the rulers, elders and scribes, must have made an impressive sight. How would you like to stand before the Supreme Court, the President, congressmen, and power brokers? Would it make you just a little nervous? Would we temper our message to fit the “dignity” of the occasion? Peter said, “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him cloth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (4:10-11). What an assembly! What an occasion! What a message!
Was the high priest converted? No. Was he angry at what he heard? Yes. Did the apostles care? No. Did they stop preaching? No.
Soon, the high priest had all the apostles arrested and put in jail (5:17ff). But an angel of the Lord opened the gate and the apostles went into the temple itself with their message about Jesus. Being re-arrested, they were undaunted and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things” (29-32).
Was the high priest converted? No. Was he angry? Yes. He had the apostles beaten and charged them not to preach in the name of Jesus. They simply rejoiced that “they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (v. 41).
Stephen was martyred for the cause of truth, and Saul consented to his death (8:1). This was followed by a “great persecution against the church.” Did they retreat? Did they quit telling about Jesus? No. “They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word” (8:4).
Later, Ananias taught Saul (9:1ff) who himself became a fearless and dauntless preacher, taking the gospel to kings and nations of Gentiles. Herod killed James and put Peter in prison, “but the word of God grew and multiplied” (v. 24).
Tradition, for what it is worth (very little), has it that all the apostles died a violent death except John. Some of this has grown from Jesus’ comments in John 21:18-23 concerning Peter’s future as compared with that of John. Regardless, our proposition is clearly established: the bashful and fearful apostles became fearless and bold preachers, aggressively taking the word of God into every nook and cranny of the Roman world (Col. 1:23). This dramatic change took place in their lives when they fully understood that Jesus was risen from the dead and that discipleship in the kingdom is conditioned upon the proper use of our talents (Matt. 25).
Brethren, can we not learn from this change? Is it impossible for us to be aggressive and turn the world upside down in our day? Certainly we must not confuse contentiousness and belligerence with aggressiveness. But having said that, we must learn to develop a bolder attitude of taking the gospel to those who need it, recognizing that not all will be converted, that not all will appreciate our work, that many will hate us, maybe even persecute us. But it would be a blessing, indeed, if we could experience the joy, like the apostles, of suffering dishonor for the Name.
Here is a theme from Acts worthy of our consideration: Are we as aggressive with the gospel as we ought to be?
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 10, pp. 296-297
May 21, 1992