Counted Worthy to Suffer Dishonor
|"Dispute before Sanhedrin" by Fra Angelica|
Then [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:40–42).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Baronelle Stutzman, Kim Davis, Ruth Neely, Aaron and Melissa Klein: Are you familiar with these men and women and their stories? You should be. Each of them are Christians who recently have been bullied for failing to bow down at the altar of political correctness. Each of them have suffered severe damage to their reputation and livelihood for refusing to violate their consciences. Each one of them has remained faithful despite religious persecution, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
Baronelle Stutzman is a 72-year-old florist in Richland, Washington. For her entire career, she served and employed people who identify as homosexual. Despite this, the ACLU and the Washington attorney general allege that she is guilty of unlawful discrimination because she declined to use her creative skills to beautify the same-sex ceremony of a long-time customer and another man.
Kim Davis is a Rowan County, Kentucky county clerk who was sued and jailed for refusing to validate marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Losing in lower courts, Davis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When they refused to hear the appeal, Davis, a relatively new Christian, responded: “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”
Ruth Neely is a municipal court judge in Wyoming who was asked a hypothetical question about whether she would officiate a same-sex marriage. Although she prefaced her answer by saying she had never performed any wedding in her 21 years as a judge, she said that she would decline such a request based upon her Christian faith. The radical religious group to which Judge Neely belongs? The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. By a vote of 3-2, she received a censure by the Wyoming State Supreme Court and faces further legal action.
Aaron and Melissa Klein are an Oregon couple who were asked to bake a cake for a wedding. Upon learning the ceremony would be for two women, Aaron said, “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t waste your time, but we don’t do same-sex marriages” based on his belief in the Bible. The women soon filed suit, claiming discrimination and mental harm. Overwhelmed by a nasty social media campaign, the Klein’s were forced to close their bakery. To add injury to insult, the Kleins were fined $135,000 by an Oregon judge for discrimination.
To be sure, such instances of violations of religious liberty in our country are the exception rather than the rule. But emboldened by their recent successes, with the help of an activist judiciary, willing accomplices in the media, and—let’s be honest—the failure of us Christians to defend our brothers and sisters who come under attack, such instances are becoming more frequent and the enemies of the Church and its Christians are becoming more vocal and threatening.
Current trends of political correctness put pressure on the Church as various groups declare that it’s “hate speech” to warn sinners of their sin. Sooner or later, the time may come when it is illegal to say that immorality is immoral or sin is sinful simply because it hurts feelings, because people don’t want to hear with their ears what their consciences are already telling them, because sin never settles for toleration but seeks acceptance and eventually demands supremacy.
The day is fast approaching when you or I may be challenged to confess with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men,” accepting the consequences of such defiance, and then go forward, “rejoicing that [we are] counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].”
I don’t say this to scare you, for the only one we need to fear is the Lord. I say this to prepare you, to convict you, and to encourage you. Martin Luther wrote:
I must place the Word of God above everything else. To keep it and to stay with Christ, who is my highest Treasure in heaven and on earth, I must be willing to risk my body and life, the popularity of the world, my goods, my reputation, and all my happiness. For one of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation.[i]
That is certainly the situation of the apostles in our first lesson. They stand before the Council—the Sanhedrin—because they’d been arrested in the temple. The chief priests had thrown them in jail for a night, but an angel released them and they returned to the temple to teach some more. And what are they teaching? They’re telling the crowds Jesus has died for their sins and is risen from the dead; and by His authority, the apostles are forgiving sins and healing people.
The chief priests are furious. They have the apostles brought before them again and say, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). The same men who led the mob in shouting, “Let His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25) now want nothing to do with Jesus’ death or blood. Ruled by blinding sin, they’re just trying to get as far away from Jesus as they can. In their fervent opinion, the sooner these apostles stop talking about Him, the better.
It is then that “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). This answer establishes a principle for all Christians for all time. What God’s Word commands, we must do, even when forbidden to do so by human authorities. What God’s Word prohibits we must not do, even when commanded to do so by human authorities. It is true that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). But when that authority exceeds its bounds by commanding people to break God’s law, Christians are bound to obey God rather than the authorities.
Peter goes on: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Why has God done this? “To give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Peter is exercising the Office of the Keys that we heard about in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said to His disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus sent His disciples to forgive sinners; and Peter is attempting to do exactly that. Peter is preaching the same message he had preached on Pentecost and since—the message he and other had been proclaiming in the temple courts a short while before. “You killed Jesus. God raised Him from the dead. Repent! Receive God’s forgiveness, which is for all, including you.”
Once again, in the case of the Sanhedrin, the message falls on deaf ears and hard hearts. It makes them furious and murderous. They hear the Word of Life and want to silence the messengers forever. This is no surprise, because this is how unbelief reacts to the Gospel, especially when there is fear involved. The chief priests are afraid—they’re afraid that if too many follow the apostles and believe in Jesus, Rome will destroy them. Fear often makes for zero-tolerance policies.
Fortunately, Gamaliel, regarded as moderate and tolerant in his religious views, saves the day. He notes examples of previous rebellions that have failed. Then he says, “in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Gamaliel’s speech persuades the Sanhedrin not to kill the apostles, but it does not persuade them to treat the apostles fairly. The apostles suffer a terrible beating; yet they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. The apostles keep on doing what they had been called to do. They never stop teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
What does this mean for you and me today?
First, God grant that His Church never cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ even for a day. That is the news of salvation for all who believe, and salvation is found in no other name than Jesus. If we are forbidden from speaking it, we must obey God rather than men—the Good News is just too good of news to forsake, for it gives repentance, forgiveness and eternal life.
This is especially true when we speak to those who oppose the Christian faith. When others seek to harm, the natural reaction is to speak only harm in return and therefore deprive them of the Gospel, or stop speaking the Gospel because it’s what got the trouble started in the first place.
But we must remember: Those who oppose the Gospel are also those for whom Christ died. He bore their sins to the cross and listened to their shouts of scorn as He breathed His last. He desires that they be saved, and salvation is found only in Christ and Him crucified. Therefore, where we encounter those who desire that we cease proclaiming Christ, it is right for us to proclaim Christ even more—for their sake; not without Law and not to be stubborn annoyances, but in sincere, loving desire that they hear, believe, and receive forgiveness.
We pray for them, too. And we give thanks: we give thanks that, while we were born enemies of God, God has made His salvation known for us. And we give thanks that, for Jesus’ sake, He counts us worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
We must obey God rather than men. Better yet, we believe God rather than men. The God our fathers is your heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake, because He raised Jesus from the dead, who was crucified for your sins. God has exalted His Son at His right hand as Leader, as Your Savior who leads you even through the shadow of death. He gives you repentance and the forgiveness of sins by the work of His Holy Spirit. That is the news that gives you salvation, and that is the news that God entrusts to His Church to declare so that others might have salvation, too.
Should you suffer for that proclamation, God grant you faith and strength to endure. God grant you joy, too: joy that He counts you worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. For this means that the world is not worthy of you, but that God declares you worthy to bear His name—because you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, p. 121). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.