Acts 4:23-31 - Seeing and Responding to God’s Sovereignty (Rev. Erik Veerman)
When Bad Things Happen to Good People That is the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 book. For multiple weeks it stood on top of the New York Times best seller list and is still popular today. In it, Kusher attempts to ask and answers the question, how should we respond when bad things happen?
But Kushner doesn’t acknowledge that God is sovereign. Rather, he says this, “I believe in God. But… I recognize his limitations. He is limited in what He can do… by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.” It’s from that worldview, that Kushner comes to this conclusion: “…the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. . . . But we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them.” In other words, he wants us to assign some sort of meaning. According to him, bad things are meaningless and God can’t do anything about them. Because of these views, Kusher doesn’t believe that prayer is effective when we pray for help. To him, God is unable to intervene.
Well, asking “how should we respond when bad things happen?” is an important question. In fact, these verses, Acts 4:23-31, address that question. However, the Scripture here gives a very different answer than Kushner’s. A vastly different view of God’s sovereignty, a different understanding of meaning and purpose, and a different approach to prayer. Maybe I should have titled my sermon “When Bad Things Happen to God’s People.”
The specific focus of these verses is how the apostles and believers responded to opposition… to threats, to rejection, and to being imprisoned. These verses obviously have direct application for us… when our faith is attacked. But as I was studying this week, I realized that the example and the principles here apply to more than just opposition… they also apply to other bad things. So as we go through this text… yes, we can, as a church, be prepared for persecution, but we can also be prepared for other evil and suffering
As a background and reminder… these verses conclude what had happened over the last 2 days in the life of the early church.
• Remember, God through the disciples healed a disabled man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple.
• Then the apostle Peter responded to this amazing miracle. He preached that the resurrected Jesus healed him. He also declared very clearly the power and person of Christ.
• Well, no surprise, some of the very people who arrested Jesus didn’t like what Peter was saying. So they also arrested Peter and the apostle John.
• After a night in jail, they were questioned. Peter gave another powerful defense of Jesus – that he is the only savior.
• Next, the religious leaders had no choice but to release them. But when they did, they threatened Peter and John, commanding them not to speak about Jesus again.
• And finally, Peter and John wouldn’t have it. They responded with a bold convicting response “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.”
Now, while the imprisonment and trial were going on…. The other disciples and followers didn’t know what was happening. So it makes sense… as soon as Peter and John were released, they went right to them. And they shared everything that happened, everything that was said.
Now, think for a minute… how could they all have responded? Or how would you have responded?
I’ve been thinking about that question. These verses are convicting. I think my initial reactions would have been very far from how they responded.
First, I think I would have been afraid. Fearful of the threats. Afraid at what could happen. Further persecution. But nowhere in these verses do we sense any fear. In fact, the opposite. The Holy Spirit stirred up in them boldness. A firm resolve for the word and prayer.
My second response probably would have been anger. Maybe I’d call it “righteous anger” so I could somehow justify it in my mind. We do that, don’t we. But notice what’s absent. They don’t express resentment… and nowhere in here do they even ask God to punish the chief priests or elders.
So, then, how do they respond? Well, several ways… and we’ll get to those in a moment.
But underlying all of it… is a recognition of God’s sovereignty. I would say, each part of their response directly or indirectly points to God’s sovereignty. We see that right there as they pray: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.” That Greek word for “sovereign” in verse 24 is not often used in the New Testament. It means absolute authority. And besides their initial recognition of God’s authority, they quote Psalm 2 as part of their prayer. Well, Psalm 2 focuses on God’s sovereignty. Then in verse 28, they acknowledge that God ordained in his plan, all that he predestined. Verse 30, it’s the Lord’s hand who healed and performed signs. Even our last verse… as the earth shook, it testified to God’s control over the whole created order.
Do you see that underlying theme? God’s dominion, His authority, His power and will overseeing and planning everything that happens. This is not Rabbi Kushner’s God, limited and impotent, unable to enter in to his very creation.
No, the God of the Bible, your God, is the creator and sustainer of all things. He’s not bound by time or space… nor is he figuring out what’s happening in order to respond to it. No, He is…
• Eternal, always existing… from everlasting to everlasting, he is God Psalm 90. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end Revelation 1.
• He is infinite beyond all measure… The heaven of heavens cannot contain him… 1 Kings 8 How unsearchable are his judgments and ways… from him and through him and to him are all things. Romans 11.
• He’s the I AM. Exodus 3 The only being whose existence is in himself. He is and was. Revelation 11 He’s the eternal king, immortal, invisible, the only wise God. 1 Timothy 1. He knows all things and nothing is hidden from his sight Hebrews 4
• He laid the foundations of the earth, the springs of the deep, and caused the dawn to know it’s place Job 38.
• By the very word of his power, he created all things, Genesis 1. All the starry and heavenly host, he created and calls them each by name Isaiah 40 The worlds were framed by his word Hebrews 11
• And all of his plans have happened, do happen, and will happen – Nothing happens by chance… Our God does all that he pleases, Psalm 115. He can do all things, no purpose of his can be thwarted Job 42 All his plans and purposes come to pass Isaiah 14. He’s determined all, provides for all, the one who gives all human life, makes poor and rich, brings low and exalts 1 Samuel 2. He foreordains everything that comes to pass, Ephesians 1 and Isaiah 14
• In his sovereign authority he is king of kings and lord of lords… the great and awesome God, Deuteronomy 10. All things are possible with God Matthew 19. None of the inhabitants of the earth can stay his hand Daniel 4. His work and judgments are perfect Deuteronomy 32
• As we read earlier in the service, He is robed in majesty, puts on strength as his belt, mightier than the thunders of many waters, trustworthy and holy, Psalm 93.
• His truth endures forever Psalm 117 He is abundant in goodness and truth Exodus 34.
• He is perfectly holy 1 Peter 1. He is perfectly pure and in him is no sin. 1 John 3.
• He knows you, discerns your thoughts, formed your inward parts in your mother’s womb Psalm 139. He searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought. 1 Chronicles 28.
Beloved, this is your infinite, eternal and unchangeable God in all of his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
And whatever comes to pass in your life, no matter how hard or painful, your God is sovereign over it, he is working in it; and he has a purpose for it…
God’s Sovereignty is a great comfort to believers in Christ. Nonetheless, as you know, there are aspects of it that are hard for us to understand. Like how it fits with human responsibility, and the presence of evil. Both also taught in Scripture. While these aren’t the focus of Acts 4, what we can be sure… is that God is over all and in all. We can believe that and we can go to him in prayer because of that.
That’s where the apostles and other followers of Jesus began… believing in and acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things.
So, with God’s sovereignty in mind, let’s now consider their response… so that we may respond with the same trust and confidence as they did.
The first thing they do is they pray! Now, they were probably praying the whole time that Peter and John were on trial. But now with everyone together…. they all prayed, and it says they prayed together. Their hearts and minds were aligned with the same understanding of God’s sovereign role in all this.
In whatever situation, but especially opposition to your faith in Christ… pray. Pray to your Sovereign Lord over all of life and creation.
Look again at this prayer. 75% of this prayer is acknowledging who God is and his Word. Their focus on God starts in verse 24… but it continues on in verse 25 and 26 and 27 and 28… and then finally in verses 29 and 30, they pray for their need.
Here’s the first principle in these verse: See God as sovereign over all things and pray to the sovereign God over all things.
When you are faced with opposition to your faith… or really, faced with any bad things… see God as sovereign. Acknowledge him as sovereign… praying to him, the sovereign God.
It so easy in prayer to jump right to our requests, our needs. We do that all the time. And God wants to hear them, but the overwhelming pattern of prayer in the Bible is to begin by exalting God, acknowledging His character and Salvation and Authority. Just like this prayer. Just like the Lord’s prayer. That prayer begins with a recognition of who God is. Our father in heaven…. And then a declaration of his glory… hallowed be thy name. Another great example of prayer in the Bible is 1 Chronicles 29, a prayer of Kind David… He begins in a similar way “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours.”
See God as sovereign over all things and pray to the sovereign God over all things.
Imagine if you were really concerned about some families in your hometown. And you wanted to help them. So you came up with this ministry idea. Well, the mayor of the town loved you idea. He told the county officials… they thought it was great and could help so many families. The governor of the state, thought so, too… and what if the idea went all the way to the President of the United States? And he wanted to meet with you in person.
So you go to the white house and you enter the oval office where the president works. And there he is. Would you begin by saying “here’s my idea, and I need this and this and this to make it work.” No, you’d probably begin by saying, “Mr. President, what an honor to meet you and to be here. Thank you for leading our country and all you do. Thank you for inviting me here and being willing to listen.”
He’d probably say, “you’re a great American. Really, you are… there’s no one greater.”
It’s not a perfect analogy, but when we come into the presence of our sovereign God in prayer, we should acknowledge his sovereignty and glory and majesty, knowing and believing that he is over all things.
Ok, A second thing to notice here… is they also prayed the Scriptures back to God. Verses 25 and 26 quote Psalm 2. Psalm 2 directly related to what they had experienced. It asks what they were asking. Why do the gentiles and kings and rulers rage? Why are they against the Lord and his anointed?
Only the first couple verses are quoted here… but Psalm 2 continues with a clear response from God. In fact, God in his sovereignty laughs at them! The kings and the rulers. That’s what it says. This is one of three Psalms where God is described as laughing in a mocking sort of way. God is saying that their arrogance in opposing him is laughable… because he is in control of all things. But then Psalm 2 gets serious. God warns the kings and rulers of their futility. He declares that his people will break them in pieces like a potters’ vessel. With their outward threats and in their opposition to Jesus and the resurrection, they will ultimately be defeated… no matter what they try to do to Jesus followers.
A clear pattern is emerging in Acts. You’ve probably noticed it. Going back to the Scriptures. Every chapter so far, every sermon, and prayer emphasized the Word of God.
The principle is this: Seek the Scriptures, and pray to our sovereign God through them.
When you are overwhelmed and don’t know how to pray. Pray God’s word back to him. Take, for example, the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6. And one phrase at a time, speak it to God… and then speak your words and situation to him. Or take a Psalm that relates to what you are going through… and one couplet at a time pray it and ask God for his grace and help. When the Psalmist recognizes God and his mercy and sovereignty, pray in your situation recognizing God and his mercy and sovereignty.
Notice in Acts 4 verse 27… they applied Psalm 2 to their situation. The gentiles and kings and rulers against them. And immediately after, verse 28… they acknowledged God in his Sovereignty just as the Psalmist had done. Acknowledging God’s plan in it all.
Seek the Scriptures and pray to our sovereign God through them.
It’s then that they finally come to the Lord asking for help. That’s after they had acknowledged God’s sovereignty, and after they had prayed the Scriptures. They next prayed for boldness. Despite the threats, they prayed for strength to not back down. And if you look at the second half of verse 31, God answered their prayer. Through the Holy Spirit, they continued to speak the Word of God with all boldness.
The principle is this. See and share the certainty of God’s sovereign will
When we more fully realize the eternal extent of God’s sovereignty …God will give us confidence in the situations we face. Here’s another quote from Rabbi Kushner. This one I actually agree with. He said, “We could bear nearly any pain or disappointment if we thought there was a reason behind it, a purpose, to it.” Now, he wants to manufacture a reason. But having a sovereign God with a sovereign plan. We have a certainty that whatever comes to pass, God has sovereignly predestined it. We have a reason for our hope and therefore confidence in God’s will.
The disciples prayed for bold confidence… knowing God’s sovereignty. Because it’s God work. His Holy Spirit doing the work, His will, and His Word. What they were really praying for was for God to deepen their confidence in his sovereignty.
As they did, may we See and share the certainty of God’s sovereign will
And this whole prayer, this emphasis on God’s sovereignty… it all centers on one thing. One fundamental focus from which everything radiates, one defining emphasis of Psalm 2, One pivotal thing in God’s sovereignty from which the rest of God’s sovereign plan works out.
What is that one thing? Jesus. The person and work of Christ.
The disciples and believers saw the opposition against them as opposition against Jesus. That’s what their prayer focused on. Verse 26… quoting Psalm 2. The rulers of the earth set themselves again the Lord, and against his Anointed. The translators capitalized Anointed because it’s referring to the messiah, to the Christ. That’s what the word Christ means in the Greek. Anointed one. Verse 27 confirms that. And their prayer makes clear that the rulers were against Jesus. Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles… the Romans. God used them all to accomplish his plan and purpose. And the very center of that plan is the ministry of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.
The principle is this: See the center of God’s sovereign plan as salvation in Christ.
God plan, everything about it, begins with, works toward, comes from, His plan of salvation in Christ. Redemption in Him.
Before the foundation of the world, God set into motion this overarching plan. And everything that happens, including opposition and suffering, connects to this grand purpose which God predestined.
Any faithful church will have opposition. But the underlying opposition is against Christ. 1 Corinthians 1 says “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Those opposed to God and his church will in the end, as Psalm 2 says, meet their end. But at that time, His church will be victorious. And the victory will be in and through Christ. That’s where our confidence and boldness come from. The promise of eternal victory in him.
In any difficult situation… if you are a believer in Christ, God is working in and through your suffering and pain. Not that we always clearly see or understand what God is doing. But in Christ, as the center of everything that is happening… we can look to for our ultimate hope. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That eternal hope gives us the courage and confidence in any situation.
See the center of God’s sovereign plan as salvation in Christ.
In closing, when the apostles and believer finished praying, it says the place where they were gathered was shaken, and then, they were filled, it says, with the Spirit and the spoke with boldness. These signs confirming for them God’s will and purpose.
When bad things happen to God’s people… we should come to him, the sovereign God, on our knees. Praying his Word, acknowledging his purposes and authority, knowing the certainty of his will, that we may with boldness, declare the promises of Christ. Who is the center of God’s sovereign and predestined plan.