After spending some time in the kingdom parables of Jesus, listening to his voice, seeing through his eyes, I want us to return to our theme for the year: A Closer Walk with God. And I want us to begin by going back to those early disciples and see how their closer walk with Jesus changed their lives.
In Acts 2, we see an unprecedented response as 3,000 come in repentance to be baptized and become the newborn church. In Acts 4, the response goes in two distinct directions. In vs 4, we see the same response as Acts 2 – “…many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” But there is another side of the response – Acts 4:1-3 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.
On the day of Pentecost, it came out of the blue – no warning, no precedent. The Jewish leaders thought they had rid themselves of this nuisance, Jesus. Suddenly, his little band of troublemakers has grown exponentially into the thousands. Their success continues as every day they watch them gaining new converts – every day, thousands of disciples meeting in the Temple courts. This is more than a nuisance and it must be stopped.
The word comes – they’ve healed a man and the crowds are going wild – this could spiral out of control. They rush to the scene and have Peter and John arrested. Let them cool their heels in jail overnight – that ought to make them think – (they obviously don’t know Peter and John). Persecution becomes opportunity. Even as Peter and John are being dragged away in chains, the crowd is headed for the river for 2,000 more baptisms.
When the next day arrives, a familiar cast of characters assembles to decide Peter and John’s fate – Caiphas, Annas, rulers, elders, teachers of the law, the high priest’s family – they’re all there. Déjà vu – didn’t we just do this? [Picture – Peter and John] They look at Peter and John, and they don’t see much – obviously ordinary, unschooled, yokels from the back woods – this shouldn’t take much. And as they did in the trial of Jesus, they try to intimidate them – “By what power or what name did you do this?”
And what they get knocks them on their heels – Acts 4:8-12 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
These aren’t frightened, intimidated hicks from the sticks. These are men filled with courage and confidence and obviously ready for a fight. I love what Luke says in vs. 13 – “they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
The Sanhedrin – the Pharisees, the priests – they are beaten. The power of Peter’s response, the evidence of the healed man standing there – vss. 14-16 says, “there was nothing they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. ‘What are we going to do with these men?’”
You know what they did – they did what you do when you don’t have a leg to stand on – they threatened them: “don’t speak or teach in the name of Jesus ever again.”
Bless their hearts, Peter and John couldn’t leave well enough alone. They can’t just say thank you and make their getaway. They look them in the eyes and say, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Ouch!
But let me tell you right now, that ought to be our battle cry – “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Regardless of the threats, or the risks, or the consequences or the fallout, the message of what Jesus is doing in our lives should be so powerful it cannot be silenced.
There was a transformation that took place in these men. It didn’t happen overnight, and they struggled through the process.
When you compare this response with the pre-resurrection disciples – what a transformation has taken place. When they began their walk with Jesus, they often scratched their heads and said, “We don’t understand.” Jesus often called them “you of little faith.” When Jesus was arrested, most of the disciples fled, Peter and John followed at a distance and then Peter, under pressure, denied that he ever knew Jesus. They went into hiding, fearful for their lives, afraid of the Jewish leaders. But then the resurrection, and the appearances of Jesus, and then the coming of the Holy Spirit and these men are not the same. Fear and timidity is replaced by confidence and boldness. They are willing to die for their belief in Jesus. They are truly transformed.
That’s what being in the presence of Jesus will do to you.
Our closer walk with God is more than a perfunctory attendance at church once a week where we sing a few songs, perform a few rituals and go away feeling good about ourselves because we’ve been religious.
It is a daily, intimate relationship with our savior. Just as their enemies could see that Peter and John had been with Jesus, the true test of being a follower of Jesus is whether people can see that you have spent time with him. Has his presence in your life changed you – the way you think, the way you talk, your values and priorities, your relationships and your recreation? Has the Spirit begun transforming you more and more into the likeness of Christ? That’s what’s going to catch people’s attention – not whether they saw you driving to church on Sunday morning while they were headed to the lake. They want to know – does being with Jesus make a difference in your life?
What does it look like when you’ve been in the presence of Jesus? [Picture – holding hands] I was trying to think of a way to describe it, and in so many ways it resembles a long-lasting, love-filled marriage (after all, we are the bride of Christ). But think about it.
After a couple has been together for a while, they come to share many of the same interests. We share the same values and same goals; we know what each other’s likes and dislikes are. Isn’t that what our relationship with Christ should look like after we spend a lot of time together?
If I spend enough time with Jesus, in his word, in prayer, with his people, I begin to know what his interests are – I come to realize Jesus cares about people, he cares about the lost, he cares about the hurting and helpless, he has compassion on those who are struggling with life and reaches out to those who need a savior.
I come to see Jesus’ values – he values relationships above ritual, he values true godliness over religious appearance, he values a genuine heart over hypocrisy, he values openness and honesty over deception and secrecy, he values unity over division, he wants us to be one rather than to be right.
You know how when a couple has been married for a long time they start to finish each other’s sentences, they know what each other are thinking, they anticipate each other’s needs? That happens when we spend enough time with Jesus. When we spend time in his word, it starts to mold how we think – that’s what Job meant when he said, “Lay up his words in your heart.” (Job 22:22) Or when David wrote, “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Ps 40:8) I may not have chapter and verse on the tip of my tongue, but I have been so immersed in his word that it has molded the way I think, it has become second-nature for me.
If you’ve been married long enough you learn that yielding your rights to each other brings joy and contentment. And that one takes a while, because most of us think we are happiest getting our way and being in control. One thing that Paul wrote to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5:21 said, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Rather than submission being a restrictive straightjacket or a loss of independence, submission gives us the greatest kind of freedom as we entrust ourselves to someone who cares for us completely. That’s how it is when we submit to Christ – rather than robbing us of freedom, Jesus shows us how to live with the greatest kind of freedom as we learn how to be completely and authentically ourselves under his lordship.
We don’t sacrifice our identity when we become one with Christ, we come to know exactly who we are and who God created us to be. Those things that mar and damage the real us, begin to be stripped away and discarded as we learn to become the kind of man or woman who hasn’t been shaped by the mold of this world.
Paul described it this way in Colossians 3: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Col 3:5-10)
“Renewed in the image of our Creator” – that’s the way God originally designed us. But sin began to distort us and twist us and rob us of those things which were truly our nature. But when we begin to walk closer to God, all of those things become less important, less a part of our character, and God’s image is restored and renewed. We begin to look like our Creator and people begin to recognize him within us.
That new self that we are becoming is really our original self that was created in God’s image. But until we begin to get rid of all those things – the immorality, impurity, lust greed – the anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language – they are like a cloudy film that obscures the real us beneath.
Let me give you a quick self-test to see whether you are walking closer to God or whether you’ve let distance come between you:
1) Do you feel closer to God today than you did three years ago? (Are you moving closer, not further away?)
2) Have you found yourself becoming more interested in and looking for ways to serve others around you? (Jesus came as a servant – are we becoming more like him in this respect?)
3) Have you worked at integrating prayer and Bible reading into your daily routine? (Not that you have perfected it, but are you striving to let God have a consistent voice in your life?)
4) Do your conversations with others often include discussions about spiritual things? (That was the one thing Peter said, “We cannot help but speak about what we have seen and heard…”)
5) Would your family and friends describe you as a person who loves God? (We are blind to our weaknesses and need people who love us, but who will tell us honestly what they see in our lives.)
As I have said several times this year, a close walk with God is a journey, not a destination. There will be no moment where you can announce, “I’ve arrived!” unless you can echo Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4, just before his death: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:7-8)
The “fight,” the “race,” the “faith” – they are all works in progress. They all describe this journey with God through life. And as we walk, we draw a little bit closer, we feel a little bit more comfortable, we find our lives changing just a little bit at a time.
A couple of weeks ago, our grandson Jade came to visit. When he arrived he had just begun walking the previous week and he was still a bit wobbly and tentative. By the end of the week, he was walking steadily, climbing stairs, confidently walking on carpet, wood, cement or grass. Now, he’ll keep growing and his walking will no longer be a thing of wonder, but a common ordinary part of his life. But in that little micro-moment in his life, we saw the transformation take place. Before our eyes he transformed from infant to toddler.
Like the infant, we wobble haltingly, tentatively with those first few steps, but then we grow more confident in our walk, our steps are surer, the things we once struggled with we handle in stride. Our walk with God becomes a regular part of our life. And though it happens so gradually that we don’t really recognize it, when we look back, we see how far we’ve come.
Yes, our walk is intentional – we choose to walk with God, but it is the most natural thing in the world, because that is what God created us for – to walk with him.