The Apostles Confronted
When the Apostle Paul wrote his last letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, he said, “In the last days there shall come perilous times…” (2 Timothy 3:1b KJV). Those last days began when our Lord first appeared upon the earth.
We make a great mistake if we read that as though Paul was talking only about the future. He was talking about the present age, his day. All the time that lies between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ is the last days.
A Warning Of What to Expect
But you must realize that in the last days the times will be full of danger.
- Men will become utterly self-centered, greedy for money, full of big words.
- They will be proud and contemptuous, without any regard for what their parents taught them.
- They will be utterly lacking in gratitude, purity and normal human affections.
- They will be men of unscrupulous speech and have no control of themselves.
- They will be passionate and unprincipled, treacherous, self-willed and conceited, loving all the time what gives them pleasure instead of loving God.
- They will maintain a facade of “religion”, but their conduct will deny its validity.
You must keep clear of people like this. 2 Timothy 3:2-5 (PHILLIPS)
Whenever those conditions prevail, they are, indeed, perilous times. Selfishness creates violence, the demand to have your way, do your own thing, stand up for your rights, this — spread large across a nation — creates pools of dissent and attrition against one another, and results in waves of violence with bloodshed breaking out everywhere.
We are clearly in one of those “times of peril” today. As you know, there is an uneasy tension clear across the nation today. And, as we study through the book of Acts, we are seeing the early church facing just such a time. Therefore there are great lessons here for us who face a similar time of peril in our day.
We shall pick up our study in Acts, the fifth chapter, and begin with Verse 12. The closing words of this fifth chapter present a series of events which center around the confrontation of the apostles with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish rulers.
As we have frequently found in Acts, these are symbolic actions which occur in the realm of the physical to reveal to us the continuing possibilities to us in the realm of the spiritual. That is an important key to the way God teaches. He teaches by visible, physical events, which illustrate invisible spiritual situations and forces. The visible is occurring because of the unseen supernatural event. That is what we must understand if we are going to face life and understand it correctly.
You can never explain what happens in this world by an evaluation and assessment of visible things. The Bible, with one voice, says that this is the case. You must look behind the visible to the invisible, and this is what God is forever doing. But he allows us to see the invisible with the help of visible events.
Now, in this section, there are four great factors brought out that will always be present whenever the church is operating, in the midst of times of peril, as God intended it to work. These four factors are evident in this account. If we are aware of what is going on in our day, we can see that these four are essential to us and must be present in our hour.
The first factor is in Verses 12-16, where you have a clear demonstration of the power of God.
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:12-16 RSV)
Does it not seem like the days of Jesus all over again? Here is a tremendous display of physical healing power at the hands of the apostles. The result was those multitudes added to the church, increasing it far beyond the five thousand we had already noted before so that there was a tremendous number of Christians in the city of Jerusalem.
No one knows how many but it must have been well into the thousands, perhaps even ten thousand or more, in a city which at that time had an average population of about forty to fifty thousand. Here is visible evidence of the power of God at work.
But many people are troubled by this account. They say, “What is wrong with the church now? Why don’t we have signs and wonders and mighty events like these taking place?”
Many people, feeling that such signs are the mark of power have tried to reproduce these signs and wonders. And the result has been sure of the healing movements of our day, with faith healers who travel about declaring that they can heal as the apostles did — and that signs, wonders, and miracles are taking place by their hands. You can hear lots of propaganda about that in these days.
But, if you investigate, you will find that it is not the same thing at all. The “miracles” that seemingly take place in these great healing meetings are usually of a psychological character, which restores people temporarily. But if you check on them two weeks or a month later you will find them right back in the same afflictions they had before.
Many are troubled by this passage and say the church is not living in power unless these physical miracles are present. But now we must notice some things about this account by Dr. Luke.
First, he says, the hands of the apostles did these. The believers did not do these in general. The hands of the Apostles, who gathered themselves together in Solomon’s Porch, did them and no one dared add themselves to them because these were obviously men anointed by God with unusual and striking powers.
These powers were in answer to the prayer of the apostles. Remember, in Chapter 4, Peter and John brought before the Sanhedrin and when they came back to the others they prayed together, and this was their prayer:
“And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30 NLT)
That is what they asked God to do, and that is what he did. These signs and wonders are done through the apostles. They constitute, therefore, what the Apostle Paul later on, in Second Corinthians 12:12, calls “the signs of an Apostle.”
He said to these Corinthians, “You are questioning my apostleship. You’re asking if I am an apostle because I’m not one of the twelve. Well, let me ask you this.
Have you not seen the signs of an apostle that I have done among you?”
These signs you see were specifically to accompany the ministry of the apostles to whom was assigned the task of laying the foundations of the church, of giving the Scriptures upon which the church must rest.
The Lord Jesus himself had predicted these signs as accompanying those men of faith who believed in the resurrection power of the Lord.
These are a fulfillment of the closing words of Mark’s gospel, which has also been a troublesome passage for many. You will not find it in the text of the RSV because it is a questioned passage. Certain of the early manuscripts do not possess it and is given as a footnote in the RSV. It begins with the appearance of the risen Lord to his disciples, and he upbraids them, scolds them, for their unbelief. They would not believe that he was raised from the dead. Now get the picture.
Here is the risen Lord appearing before them and scolding them because they would not believe that he has risen. So powerful was their unbelief that even when he stood before them, they questioned it. Then, after telling them to preach the gospel to every creature, he adds these words:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe in my name: [the colon belongs here, not after “believe”] they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover,” (Mark 16:17-18 RSV Margin).
To who did the Lord say that? To the apostles! Then Mark says,
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth [Who went forth? The apostles.] And preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them [the apostles] and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. (Mark 16:19 RSV Margin)
Now there are the signs of an apostle. They were never intended for the church at large. They were expected to confirm the ministry of these mighty apostles who laid the foundations of the church in the giving of the Scriptures.
Not only were they to manifest the power of God in physical ways, but also this physical manifestation was to be a symbol, a sign, of the spiritual power that God would release among the people.
It is always a mistake to put emphasis upon a physical miracle. Physical miracles, although they attract attention, also confuse people so that ultimately they miss the point of what God is saying.
That is why the Lord Jesus consistently said to the men and women that he healed in the days of his flesh, “Now don’t tell anybody about it.” He did not send them out to broadcast the story; he said, “Go home and say nothing to anyone.” He did not want the confounding effect of physical miracles to thwart his spiritual ministry.
That is what happened here in this passage in Acts 5. We read that when the apostles began to heal the sick and to cast out demons and relieve those who were distressed, those multitudes “carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.”
That is a manifestation of the superstition that immediately begins to develop when physical miracles occur. There is nothing here to suggest that the apostles encouraged this kind of thing at all. Nor does it say that the shadow of Peter falling on them did heal them. I do not think it did.
And this is a superstitious response of people who were caught up in the tremendous excitement of physical healing, and they thus began to obscure the point of the spiritual lesson involved.
Jesus had said (John 14:12), “He that believes on me the works that I do shall he do also…” Those words again were spoken to the apostles. “He that believes on me the works that I do shall he do also…” and here they are, doing the same works that Jesus did, the same miracles of healing. “And,” said Jesus, “greater works than these shall he do…” (John 14:12b RSV).
Does greater work than physical healing? What greater works? Why, spiritual healings.
That is what God is after. God wants to heal the whole of man, the hurt in man’s spirit most of all. That is where the problem lies.
Every person ever healed by the Lord Jesus, or by the disciples in the days of the early church, died. The physical healing was a temporary thing, with no exceptions: They all died.
But when God heals the spirit, it is an eternal event. There is an inward change that is never lost it goes on forever. When God heals a man from the inside out, he makes him a whole person. It does not matter what happens to the physical — at best it is only a temporary thing.
The great thing that God is after is the healing of the hurt of humanity in its spiritual sickness, its evil, its darkness and its desperateness. That is always where he desires to start.
The power here manifest physically is a symbol and a guarantee of the spiritual power available to the church at all times. I do not mean that God has stopped healing physically He has not. The deepest need of man is spiritual healing, not physical.
But the power of God to heal spiritually is present and available to us. That is what this passage is saying. And when spiritual healing happens, multitudes will be added to the church.