(A) Introduction (Read the passage.)

The passage deals with the tactics of the opposition to Christianity. These tactics have not changed much through the years. It is worth studying the Sanhedrin's reaction to Peter and John to assess our opponent's strategy. The apostle's defence, that left the opposition floundering, should suggest ways we, too, can defeat the foe.

(B) Five characteristics of the opponents of Christianity.

They were:

    (a) Prejudiced.
    Peter and John were never going to get a fair hearing because the Sanhedrin were prejudiced against unschooled, ordinary men. v13. They were not going to be instructed by uneducated laymen.

    Many, many people in the West are prejudiced against Christians. They do not base judgements upon relevant evidence. Christians are dismissed as narrow-minded, brainwashed, bigoted, simple and frightened of dying.

    I sometimes travel to play hockey with a very fit eighty year-old who umpires for us. He is a genial individual and amusing raconteur. Sadly he is very dismissive of religion. One of Tom's favourite remarks is: "Religion is responsible for all the trouble in the world." Last time he made this comment I said, "Don't you think Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot caused some of the trouble in the twentieth century?" He had nothing to say.

    Of course prejudice of the sort exhibited by the Sanhedrin also exists amongst Christians. I was talking to an old friend about the state of her local Anglican church. She told me that a lady member of the congregation had been turned down for a lay reader's course. My friend said, "Of course she wouldn't do. She's the sort of woman who goes round wearing a bobble hat. If she conducted a service - I wouldn't go." Many a Christian's usefulness is impaired because he or she is not a "proper" pastor, or minister, or vicar, or priest.

    (b) Contemptuous.
    The members of the Sanhedrin took note that these men had been with Jesus. v13. They didn't respond to the assertion of Peter and John: "Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." v12. The wily politicians kept silent on the main matter and were unwilling to enter into a rational discussion with Peter and John about Jesus. Their silence showed contempt.

    Non-believers treat Christians with contempt. I have enjoyed over many years Alistaire Cooke's, 'Letter from America.' I was very disappointed to read his contemptuous remarks about Billy Graham. In March 1955 Cooke reported for the Manchester Guardian on an evangelistic rally conducted by Graham. He reckoned that Graham's Jesus was a snooping, darting detective, spotting you in your mirror, riding in the Underground, watching at the foot of your bed, anticipating the waking excuse, posted at every exit of the Garden if you should dare to bolt for it. This is a sneering misrepresentation of Graham's message. Cooke is equally condescending about those who showed a desire to follow Jesus. They were: the halt and the lame in spirit, surely, but also the pasty-faced, the careworn, a hangdog sailor, "teenagers" in desperation, a mountainous mother and her huge, sullen daughter, regiments of the awkward and the unloved. It is obvious that Cooke hasn't much time for joyless matrons and their lumpish daughters. Cooke - debonair, charming, talented and popular - obviously feels in no need of a Saviour. He writes disparagingly of the unattractive and unappealing. Jesus does not disparage them. He loves them and he will give them what Cooke, for all his earthly success, will never have - eternal life. Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. .... For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." Mt9v12.

    Sadly the world does not have a monopoly of contempt. Christians can be very, very, dismissive of those who do not share their views. I fear it is almost a besetting sin of Christians. I fall into the trap myself. I find it very difficult not to disparage those who believe that the Genesis flood was universal in extent. The insults come flooding into my mind - it is crass, stupid, ignorant.....

    We might be kept from serious sin by remembering the words of the great apostle: 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 them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses.... 2Tim3v24to26.

    I have always found contempt difficult to cope with. In my early days of teaching I would slap any boy who treated me like dirt. Peter and John bore it with dignity. It was not they who were demeaned by the posturing of the Sanhedrin.

    (c) Secretive.
    Luke tells us: So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. v15. The enemies of Christ often operate in secret. The opponents of truth and fomenters of evil prefer darkness to light. All sorts of wickedness have been plotted behind closed doors. I hate secrecy.

    I am so thankful that court cases in this country are tried publicly. The accused is present, as are the prosecution and defence lawyers; the judge presides. Three other groups ensure fair play: the jury, sundry spectators and the press. Secret trials would be a terrible thing. Stalin used them to eliminate opponents.

    Christians should avoid making accusations behind a person's back. Too many reputations suffer from the wagging tongues of ill informed gossips. We should avoid making any remarks about a fellow Christian that we would be ashamed of repeating to his or her face. Gossips are usually craven cowards. They are the last persons to speak up at a staff or church meeting for fear of being ill thought of. Another group whom I despise are the anonymous complainants. I suffered from these towards the end of my teaching career.

    (d) Restrictive.
    The Sanhedrin called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. v18. For 2000 years it has been the aim of the opponents of Jesus Christ to shut his followers up.

    During the Taliban era in Afghanistan Peter Foster wrote in the Daily Telegraph about the difficulties of finding a church in Kabul. He was told that there had been a chapel in the Italian embassy. It was officially closed - but he found three nuns there and it smelled of candles and incense. The Community Christian Church was shut up and had been for several years. Only the German Lutherans, who ran a leprosy clinic, had a church in their cellar. It had no address, Afghans were not admitted and journalists were not encouraged to visit. There were Christians in Kabul - working in hospitals, clinics and administering aid - but virtually no churches. The militant followers of Islam prohibited churches because they were enemies of Christ. They did not want any public teaching in the name of Jesus.

    For much of the twentieth century the church was harassed and persecuted by communist politicians. Stalin did his best to eliminate Christianity from the USSR. Mao drove the church underground in China. Notwithstanding the worst efforts of the bitter enemies of Jesus courageous Christians continued to name the name and the church survived the troubles.

    (e) Threatening.
    We read And after further threats they let them go. v21. The Sanhedrin tried to bully Peter and John into abandoning their ministry. It didn't work. Persecution rarely stops the spread of the gospel. It did in Japan during the 16th century. Christianity was all but eradicated by a ferocious campaign of violence against Roman Catholics. Vicious opposition of this sort is usually short lived. The words of Jesus are true: And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. Luke18v7to8.

(C) The Christian defence.

Peter and John's defence owed its effectiveness to three things:

    (a) They knew what their priorities were.
    The Sanhedrin forbad the two apostles from preaching Jesus. Peter and John replied, "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." v20. The priority of Peter and John was to obey God and fulfil Christ's great commission to make disciples.

    It makes life simpler if we are clear about our priorities. On Jan 6th 2002 Aled Jones asked Gloria Gayner on Songs of Praise why she liked to sing hymns. As quick as a flash she replied, "Hymns are about my first love - Jesus." She spoke spontaneously and with a lovely smile. Her priority was to sing about Jesus.

    It is not by accident that the first request in the Lord's Prayer is: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." Jesus also said: "No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Peter and John, and so many who have followed in their footsteps, have fearlessly defended the interests of Jesus because God's will comes first.

    (b) The power of personal testimony.
    Peter and John said, "For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." v20.

    We cannot help speaking about what impresses us deeply. When I came home from my holiday in Japan I told folk what a wonderful time I had. I spoke with animation and great enthusiasm of the graciousness of the Japanese. People do not always listen to me with rapt attention but such was my fervour that on this occasion they did! I told them of our visit to Senso-ji in Asakusa Park, Tokyo with Pauline and her son. Pauline was very keen to show us a monument to her grandfather - a famous Japanese poet. She couldn't find it. Eventually she asked a young Japanese man on a bicycle. He did not know where it was either. However, about ten minutes later he found us again - in the milling crowd. He had made inquiries and was able to direct us to the appropriate place. I was hugely impressed by the trouble that young man had taken to help us. I was glad to tell my friends in England of the incident.

    There are some things we cannot help talking about. I think if we met a famous person we would have plenty to say about it. I like to tell of the time I saw Sir Bobby Robson at Felixstowe when he was manager of Ipswich Town FC. He was plain Bobby Robson then. He was sitting with a group of old ladies, who were obviously fans, enjoying an ice cream. As people went by they waved and shouted out a comment or two. Bobby waved back or had a few cheerful words to say in reply. He was in his element. His lack of pomposity and genial good humour made a lasting impression.

    Jesus is the best-known figure that ever lived! If we have a personal encounter with him we cannot help talking about it. My mother had a personal encounter with Jesus. She was overwhelmingly impressed with the love of Jesus as many years ago she listened to a sermon by Alan Redpath. She yielded to that love and came to know Jesus for herself. From that time on she was prepared to be his witness. On the 14th of June 1938 she wrote to her fiancee, my father: I am always praying that I may be true to Jesus and may thus be consistent in my life.
    I am looking forward eagerly to a life shared with you in serving him wholly and may I help you in this wonderful privilege.

    I do not think the experience of being a pastor's wife turned out to be everything my mother expected. There were disappointments, hardships and tears but I can say this of my mother - she served Jesus wholly and actively supported my father in his ministry.

    (c) A life changed for the better.
    The opponents of Christianity were powerless to act against Peter and John because they could see the man who had been healed standing their with them. v14. The Sanhedrin had to admit, "Everybody living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it."

    Christians have, through the centuries, made a difference to people's lives. Countless numbers of the saints have said with Peter, "but such as I have, give I thee." v6. AV

    The German Medical Service, a Lutheran organisation, has run a leprosy clinic in Kabul for the last 35 years. They also give out sacks of rice in the poorest parts of the city. This Christian organisation survived so many difficult years by performing good works and avoiding anything that could be construed as missionary activity. They gave what they could and changed lives for the better.

    However, the greatest witness to the truth of Christianity, the authenticity of the gospel and the authority of Jesus is the testimony of all those who have been born again - dramatically changed - given life more abundantly by believing in the risen Christ. My cousin David helps to organise events where well known figures like Paul Jones the pop singer, Tony Canon the comedian and Jonathan Edwards the athlete give an evening of entertainment and testimony. Such occasions are wonderfully impressive but so, too, are the testimonies of ordinary folk who tell of the amazing difference that Jesus has brought to their lives. This is the great strength of the long lasting TV programme Songs of Praise. It gives people from many backgrounds the opportunity to describe how Jesus has transformed their lives. He gives faith to the fearful, hope to the despairing and love to the bitter and resentful. The book of Acts is about transformed lives. The church is full of them.