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6. Overcoming opposition

Acts4:1-31; 5:1-11; 6:1-7. Church Growing Pains.

According to the dictionary, to oppose means 'to resist, to strive to defeat, to argue against or to be an obstacle to'. The Greek word 'antithesis' is used by Paul in his letter to Timothy. He warns the young church leader "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you", 1 Timothy 6vs20 and 21. He is saying 'Be prepared for opposition to your work. It has sidetracked others and will try to sidetrack you'. In 2 Timothy 2vs24-26 he encourages Timothy to press on: "And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." It is much easier said than done to gently instruct those who oppose you!

In Falmouth Bay there are frequently several ships anchored and waiting to use the docks. The anchor allows them the freedom to drift with the tide and wind. Although basically in the same place the ships face in different directions at different times. When called into port, the engines are started and the bow set on the course for the short journey. It may be against the prevailing conditions of sea and weather, but the captain knows he has to plough through them to progress and to meet his goal. Similarly, a church that has been marking time and little more can swing about sufficiently to keep most of its members happy with its general tenure. But once that church embarks on a mission, to move forward with God into unfamiliar territory, a variety of opponents will be revealed who will do their very best to take the church in another direction or to maintain the status quo.

There are many examples of opposition to God's work recorded for us in the book of Acts. In chapter 4 Peter and John were arrested and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection and were adamantly against the apostles' emphasis that God raised Jesus from the dead. In Acts 5 God's work was opposed by a husband and wife who made out they were totally committed to community sharing but in reality they were holding back. It was like a cancer attacking from within rather than an open bombardment from outside, but it was opposition nonetheless because, unchecked, it could have brought God's work into disrepute.

In Acts 6 complaints about unfairness were the next obstacles the church had to overcome. Perhaps a lack of efficient administration and supervision were contributing factors. In the second half of the chapter Stephen is having to face false accusations from religious people who had been stung by the truth he preached. By the end of chapter 7 this had intensified and led to the first Christian martyrdom - yet this apparent reversal for the church had planted the seeds for still greater growth through Saul of Tarsus. His aggravating persecution of Christians was violent and bloody. The phrase in Acts 8vs3 "But Saul began to destroy the church" is explained by the various translations: "made havoc of the church" Authorised Version, "laid waste the church" Revised Standard Version, "harassed the church bitterly" J.B. Philips, and in the Living Bible "Paul was like a wild man, going everywhere to devastate the believers, even entering private homes and dragging out men and women alike and jailing them." No wonder the believers found it hard to accept his conversion in chapter 9!

By 9vs23, 24 and 29 the hunter has himself become the hunted. I wonder if we really would like to have lived in the New Testament church? I have been alongside Christian converts in the Islamic Republic of Sudan and have experienced with them their job losses, home evictions and life threats. Some of them have been like Paul on both sides of the religious fence at different times. Those who oppose us in this way I am sure we are not called to "gently instruct", but Jesus Christ does tell us to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you", Matthew 5vs44. Paul wrote "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse", Romans 12vs14. The Greek for 'bless' literally means ' to speak well of'. As Stephen gave up his life, he had prayed blessing on his executioners. I wonder if Paul could ever get those words of Acts 7vs60 out of his mind? I am sure Stephen prayed that those who now wanted to kill him would soon have the same life-transforming experience of Jesus Christ that he had.

The next opposition to God's work of church growth comes from fellow believers in Acts 11vs2. Peter had obeyed God in going to the Gentile household of Cornelius. Those believers who had a cut and dried, black and white, theologically sound list of do's and don'ts, criticised Peter for 'doing a don't'! They distanced themselves from what he had done and passed judgement on him for being so wrong. Through his response, 11vs4, Peter shows us how to "gently instruct" our opponents. "Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened." He was patient in that it took his time, but he gladly gave it. He was personal in that he spoke face to face with those initiating the controversy. He was also accurate with his testimony, neither covering up incriminating evidence nor embellishing it to suit his own view. Because Peter himself had concluded it was God's leading through the vision, he trusted God and respected his fellow believers sufficiently to let the facts speak for themselves. It was the right thing to do, 11vs18.

In the next few chapters the church encounters continuing opposition from outside its own ranks. There is martyrdom and imprisonment, Acts 12vs1-4; a plot to stone the evangelists 14vs5 and 6; and an actual attempt to do so in 14vs19. There were more false accusations and beatings in 21vs27-36.

Consistently the religious people were jealous of the influence of evangelical Christians and they tried to incite riots at Pisidian Antioch 13vs45, 50; Iconium 14vs2; Lystra 14vs19; Thessalonica 17vs5-9; Berea 17vs13; Corinth 18vs6; and Ephesus 19vs9. The phrases used to describe their methods may ring bells in our minds today. The opposition "talked abusively against what Paul was saying". They "stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas". They "poisoned their minds against the brothers". They "won the crowd over". They "formed a mob and started a riot in the city". They "agitated the crowds", "became abusive" and "publicly maligned the Way". How hard it is for us to react in the way Jesus Christ urged us to in His Sermon on the Mount. It must be possible though, because God never calls us to do anything without enabling us to do it. So when we encounter stiff opposition that hurts us in our attempts to follow God's will remember, "Blessed are you when people insult you, and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you", Matthew 5vs11 and 12.

I can find three other types of opposition in Acts. On the island of Cyprus a spiritualist false prophet called Elymas deliberately tried to stop the proconsul Sergius Paulus from being converted, Acts 13vs6-12. His spiritual blindness was visibly demonstrated by physical blindness at Paul's words, vs11. The sorcerer's deceit and trickery were no match for the man of God walking in the Holy Spirit on the Great Commission. At Philippi a young fortune teller whose evil spirit recognised Paul and Silas as "servants of the Most High God" was released "in the name of Jesus Christ", Acts 16vs16-18. The ensuing clash with the business people who had lost a valuable source of revenue actually appeared to end in disaster. The apostles were imprisoned. But there was a reason God allowed their loss of freedom. It was to demonstrate His own sovereign power to the Philippian jailer and his household who had an encounter with the truth they probably would not have had any other way. God's work will always be done God's way. A similar confrontation in Ephesus with the silversmith Demetrius contributed to the formation of a church that knew "every spiritual blessing in Christ", Ephesians 1vs3; Acts 19vs23-41. No spiritual force on earth or in heaven is able to permanently withstand the Christian church as she goes on the offensive in the name of her Lord and Master Jesus Christ.

In Lystra, Acts 14vs11-13, the people were so impressed by the miraculous healing of a lame man that they tried to deify Paul and Barnabas. It is a subtle attack of the enemy to try and make the success of a mission into the failure of the missionary. Paul and Barnabas kept their feet firmly on the spiritual ground by insisting on their own humanity. Anything of value done through them was the activity of Almighty God who would use people that turned away from idols and acknowledged Him alone as the Creator and keeper of all things.

While considering opposition we must not pass over the doctrinal dispute resolved by the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. We will look at it in more detail in chapter 15, "sorting out tradition". The opposition to the growing church came in the form of making additions to the Christian gospel. The Jewish rite of circumcision was essential for salvation according to these protagonists who were attempting to influence the whole of God's work from Jerusalem. This implied that Jesus Christ's death and resurrection were insufficient for the salvation of any human being. To their credit the church leaders convened a Council to consider the issue in its entirety. They heard testimony of what God had been doing, they considered the Scriptural injunctions. Finally they clearly communicated with all the involved parties their collective ruling, using both a written document and respected Christian men who could explain it and answer questions.

There will always be opposition to any work of God. The devil will always try to destroy the work, and he frequently uses deceit as one of his ploys. In over twenty years of Christian ministry in England I have experienced more difficulty from within church ranks than from outside. One church minister closed his churches to me because I preached too much about being born again. Some church members, sincerely longing for church growth, would not change from their traditional service times and forms. They wanted a revival within their old system and not simply revival from God at any cost. I have known lonely times when God-given vision has been frustrated by lack of faith. I have experienced being squeezed out of decision-making by false accusations. I have been misquoted, misunderstood and misrepresented, as I suspect many Christian leaders are from time to time.

I am pleased to say there have been times when godly friends around me have rescued me from wandering into the devil's traps. No human being is infallible nor incapable of making mistakes. We can all listen to and learn from criticism. It may be God's way of speaking to us. Paul urged the Galatians: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you may also be tempted", Galatians 6vs1. If we lead a Christian group and never accept criticism we will soon find ourselves leading a cult. We must remain permanently open to rebuke, correction and direction from God's word and God's people.

Yet, at the same time, we must learn to overcome the opposition that is derived from the evil one and his hosts. Faith is the shield which extinguishes every single one of his flaming arrows. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is often easier to retaliate ourselves than to wait for God to exact justice in His own time, but true church leaders are gentle rather than violent or quarrelsome, 1 Timothy 3vs3,

In the three initial examples of opposition in Acts, the church's reaction gives us guidelines to follow ourselves. After the threats of the Sanhedrin, the early church prayed unitedly "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus", Acts 4vs29 and 30. A fresh infilling with the Holy Spirit was God's immediate answer. When Ananias and Sapphira deceived the church with their hypocritical involvement in financial sharing God revealed instant judgement which brought a very healthy fear of God on the rest of the church and community, Acts 5vs11. Peter's God-given discernment was the trigger for these events. Then, when he and the other apostles found themselves in danger of neglecting their priorities of prayer and preaching by becoming absorbed in administration, they involved the entire church in developing a practical solution worked out by spirit-filled men to facilitate the excellent and necessary practical caring ministries of the church. God honoured their stand by giving growth and blessing.

Suffering is not a sign of failure. "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name", Acts 5vs41. Paul was warned before his ministry had even started that he would suffer in carrying it out. The Lord told his nurture-group counsellor Ananias "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name", Acts 9vs16. Paul writes a list of them in 2 Corinthians 11vs23-33. Verse 30 says "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness" and in 2 Corinthians 12vs9 he quotes the Lord's words to him when he wanted to be delivered from the suffering, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me." We will be mature in our Christian attitude to opposition when we can genuinely agree with Paul in verse 10. "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong". To take pleasure in everything God allows to happen, while continuing to work out His will, is Christian worship at its highest level.

Discussion questions

  • Share how you define opposition

- in your personal Christian walk

- in the life of your fellowship

  • How can outright opposition be recognised?

  • How can subtle opposition be recognised?

  • Work out together a plan of Christlike thinking for facing opposition.


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