Failure and Success in Acts 5

I’ve spent the last two Wednesday nights teaching at our church’s high school group—Ignite. It’s been a great experience. There’s such an atmosphere of authenticity there, as though the group’s leadership (especially the student leaders) is after really building disciples and not just putting on a show.

Last night we were in Acts 5:17-42 which records the second conflict between the “church” (i.e., the apostles and the emerging group of Spirit-empowered, Jesus-followers) and the Jewish high council (i.e., the religious powers-that-be). Two passages in particular stood out:

Acts 5:18-21
[The council] arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Acts 5:40-42
[A]nd when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they 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 Jesus as the Christ.
In the first passage, the angel’s revelation must have been a bit confusing to the apostles and (in a way) even disturbing. In essence, they’re arrested, miraculously rescued and immediately told to go right back to the very same place and activity that got them in trouble to begin with. What’s more, all that their impromptu (and incredibly brief) release does is embarrass and further enrage the very people who’re already taking issue with them.

What this passage teaches us is that (despite our personal expectations), God (at least in this story) isn’t all that interested in our physical safety or our social well-being. Instead, God’s all consuming priority is that the “words of this Life”—the gospel—be declared.

This run contrary to the way we naturally respond to trouble. Normally, our goal when things get hard or scary is to simply put our heads down, take a deep breath and just get through it as quickly possible. Our aim is simple: “Get out.”

The problem with this is that all through the book of Acts, God is much more interested in getting his people into trouble than he is in getting them out of it. Now, it’s important to understand what this trouble is. The trouble in question isn’t brought about by laziness, short-fuses or sinful mistakes. What I’m talking about are situations in which our reputations, our names, our futures, our emotions and even our bodies are threatened for the sake of the gospel.

At an even larger scale, we usually go through life as if the point were to basically be as safe and as comfortable as possible. Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting good grades, playing sports, going to a good school, getting a good job, buying a nice house and raising a family in a safe neighborhood. All I’m saying is that that’s not what God’s people, under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, were after. Nor was that what Jesus was after either.

The second passage is equally disturbing. We’re used to thinking of persecution as a very physical thing. Here, while it’s certainly partly physical—after all, the apostles are beaten and have their lives threatened—what they ultimately rejoice in is being “counted worth to suffer dishonor for the name.” The Greek word behind “dishonor” could just as easily be translated as “degradation,” or “mockery” or even “abuse.” The point is that the apostles weren’t just physically hurt, they were socially rejected. They were looked down upon, belittled, by the very people who their culture most admired and looked up to.

What this part of the story’s trying to tell us is that so-called “personal success” is just as much an enemy of the gospel as other more overt and stigmatized sins. In fact, it’s probably even more of an enemy because of how deceptive, acceptable and even trumpeted it is. The problem is, if what motivates us is success—personal recognition, looking good, being beautiful, liked and looked up to—then we simply will not be willing suffer public dishonor for the sake of Christ. It’ll just be too hard. Your heart won’t allow it.

The bottom line is this: following Jesus means following in the footstep of a man who (in the eyes and estimation of the world) was a colossal failure. This means that following him will inevitable lead us into the same sort of apparent failure. It’s simply impossible to look good and follow Jesus. At times, the two become mutually exclusive. In the end (as hard as it may be to accept), it’s better to be a “failure” who loves Jesus than a success who left him behind long ago.

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