Powerful witness to the resurrection

Please read Acts 4: 32-37 and Psalm 133 and then pray: Almighty God, as we hear and receive your word, grant us your Spirit’s power and love in order that we may be great witnesses to the truth of the resurrection and the Lordship of Jesus, your Son. Amen!

My thinking this week has been channelled in to a single verse of Acts of the Apostles and here it is;

With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. (Acts 4:33)

The verse obviously speaks about the way in which the chosen apostles of Jesus were absolutely and unflinchingly committed to testifying to and preaching about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. This was without a doubt, a fundamental part of their core message to the world, and it was having a tremendous impact upon the people of Jerusalem after Pentecost. As we are told at the beginning of this chapter the Sadducees and many others “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching to the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. (4: 1-2) It was this message that got Peter and John arrested and put on trial (4:3-22), and it was this message that was causing the Church to grow at an alarming rate. (4:4)

As I read and meditated on this verse (4:33) this week, I was especially drawn to the words “great power” and “much grace” – which could be translated “great grace.” Here was a new living and spiritually vibrant Christian community where Jesus was Lord, and where there was evidence and clear experience of great power and great grace. God was powerfully building this community of kingdom love and life, and there was a tangible sense of God’s grace and favour resting upon and flowing through all that they were doing together. As Psalm 133 makes clear – here the blessing and favour of Almighty God was falling upon and flowing through the people. (Psalm 133:3) This phrase “much grace or great grace” was also used by Luke in his gospel (volume 1) to describe what was happening to the boy Jesus as he grew up into manhood. In Luke 2:40 we read; “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.” Just as Jesus had become strong and wise and enjoyed much of God’s grace and favour, so now, in Acts (volume 2), the early church had started to grow stronger and stronger in number and unity, and they were also experiencing much grace and favour from God, and from the local people. (Acts 2:47)

At the beginning of this section in Acts, we are informed about the noticeable oneness and unity of this new Christian community. We are told that “all the believers were one in heart and mind.” The apostles, who led this new community, were obviously one in heart and mind. One of the reasons they were able to speak with such great power about the resurrection was because they were all uniquely eye witnesses of the risen Christ. Each apostle, along with many others, has seen the risen Jesus, and they were convinced about his victory over death. In fact, you could only be an apostle if you had been a personal witness of the risen Christ. This was one of the key qualifications of being an apostle. We see this at the beginning of Acts when there is a need to replace the traitor Judas. (Read 1: 15-26)

This stress on the apostles being actual eye-witnesses of the risen Christ continues to be emphasised and made eminently clear throughout Acts. (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 5:30-32, 10:40-41, 13: 30-31). They possessed this vital common knowledge of the resurrection and were committed to testifying to its truth. They could not but help proclaiming the truth of what “they had seen and heard.” (4:20) This therefore is the first great reason why the apostles were able to preach with very great power. They knew they were telling the people the truth – the facts. Jesus had died on a cross and had risen on the third day. They had seen him many times over a period of forty days. (1:3) Jesus had given them many convincing proofs that he was alive. He ate with them on several occasions. He taught them. THERE WAS NO DOUBT THAT HE WAS ALIVE. When you know for certain you are speaking the truth, it is a very empowering experience indeed. If you are called to be a witness in a Court of law and you know your testimony is 100% true, then you really do feel confident and empowered. Julia had to give evidence in Court some time ago, and she said to me that it was one of the most empowering and invigorating experiences she had enjoyed in many years.

Here too, the apostles can speak confidently and boldly about what they know to be true! They had not seen an apparition of Jesus; they had not encountered some sort of spirit; they had not all been subject to the same hallucination. No! They had seen the Lord. It was Jesus Himself! (John 20:7) Jesus purposely said to them in the upper room – “Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see: a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39)

When you know for certain that you are on the side of truth – it is the most liberating and empowering of experiences. The apostles were preaching true facts and they did it powerfully! They not only did it powerfully, with God’s power, they did it with great courage and boldness – despite significant threats to their wellbeing. (Read Acts 4: 13-22, 4:29-31). So, the second reason that the apostles were powerful in their preaching was because of their shear outstanding courage. Nothing is more powerful than courageous clear Christian preaching! How we need more of it today. These apostles were not worried about offending people – the Sanhedrin for example. They were only concerned with preaching the fact of the resurrection even if it meant suffering for their bold message. And we see them on many occasions being willing to suffer persecution and imprisonment for the sake of truth! Remember – eleven out of the twelve apostles went on to be martyred for the sake of this truth. They never recanted. They were bold and courageous, even to the end. They fearlessly declared truth!

The third reason why their preaching of the resurrection was so powerful was that it was empowered and honoured by the Holy Spirit. How very important this was and is! It is this preaching and this message that gets the express backing and blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world specifically to empower this sort of direct and truthful preaching about the fact of the resurrection. The Holy Spirit was a witness to the resurrection alongside the apostles. (Acts 5:32) The Holy Spirit is only interested in truthful speech and historical facts about Jesus whom He is sent to exalt and glorify. If you want to know why the Church today lacks this vital life-giving power of God’s Spirit, then realise this, if you compromise this truth as many have done, if you deny this truth of the physical resurrection which the apostles forthrightly affirmed, if you even tone it down in a vain attempt to be popular and inoffensive – you lose the power. It is gone! You do not enjoy the empowering blessing and presence and witness of the Holy Spirit which these apostles enjoyed and continually experienced. (Read Acts 5:29-32) There will never be any growth in the Church unless we are committed to the message of the apostles which was built upon historical truth and facts. This alone is marked by the saving and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Paul says that the apostolic preaching “was not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (1 Thess 1:5)

So, hopefully you can see why the apostles knew of the power of God and the favour of God in their preaching. They spoke the truth directly and without compromise. They spoke it courageously and fearlessly, and they spoke the truth with and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This alone adequately explains the phenomenal growth of the Church then and now. In every single significant revival of the Christian religion – this is the characteristic mark of preaching which always comes to the fore.

But how can we now be powerful witnesses to the resurrection? How can we experience much power and grace and favour both in our own hearts and within the community life of the Church today? Well, all true Christians are called to be witnesses of the resurrection just as they apostles were. There is of course one major difference. We are not eye-witnesses of the risen Jesus as they were for that important forty-day period between the third day and the day of the ascension. Nevertheless, the teaching of the NT is that each Christian can bear witness to the truth and the reality of the resurrection. We are in the same position as the first converts of the apostles who formed that early Christian community in Jerusalem and those communities that were formed in other parts of the Mediterranean world. Peter said this of persecuted Christians he was in direct contact with, and we fit in to this description;

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

We do not see Jesus – but – we still know him personally and savingly through the work and gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, who does make the reality of the resurrection real to us in our lives today. The Holy Spirit who witnessed the resurrection now brings that witness to us, to our hearts and minds, and makes the living presence of Jesus a living reality within us. We can say that Jesus lives because Jesus has come to live in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have “Christ in us – the hope of glory.” This is our testimony – our living testimony and experience. We speak the truth. We are not deluded. We have accepted and welcomed the testimony and the teaching of the apostles concerning Jesus – his sinless life, atoning death, and mighty physical resurrection from the dead. Therefore, we can and must share what we also know to be true. As the hymn puts it; You ask me how I know he lives – he lives within my heart. Over a billion believers today, cannot be wrong. We are living truthful witnesses to the resurrection. I charge you all to take up your sacred responsibility of being such a witness to the living and reigning Christ! Tell your family, friends, and neighbours – He lives!

We are also witness to the resurrection as we surrender to Jesus’s Lordship and selflessly and joyfully seek to put his kingdom teaching into practice. Because the early Church believed Christ had risen, they embraced him as their Lord. As their only Sovereign, they had to put into practice his teaching which they willingly did. (John 13: 13-17) And what was at the very centre of His teaching. Love one another! (John 13: 34-35) By this shall all men know you are my disciples if you love one another. And they loved one another through word and deed, through sacrificial generosity and sharing, through making sure no Christian suffered from lack of food or shelter. (Read Acts 4:33-36) This was the practical care which Jesus spoke of in the parable of the sheep and goats – and it was this community spirit which also revealed their trust in Jesus’s teaching concerning personal possessions. Life does not (as the world so often thinks) consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15), but in the just sharing of resources which reflects the kindness, compassion, and mercy of the ever-living Saviour.

The Church then and now witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection by living according to his living word which ensures that the grace of God is made manifest in the Christian community. Much grace among them (and us) leads to generous and sacrificial giving and sharing. Much grace leads to an explosion of the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7) as it did here in Jerusalem. This testified to the truth of Jesus’s resurrection and to the truth of His teaching and Kingdom. This was entirely counter-cultural, but the risen Christ was magnified. Does such grace exist amongst us today? Do we reveal the truth of resurrection through our obedience to the command to love others? Have we been captured and filled with the grace and goodness of the risen Jesus? Do people say of our Christian community – See how they love one another!

Finally, we witness to the resurrection of Jesus, not only through our obedient living and loving, but through our calm and faithful approach to dying. The Christian can and should witness to the resurrection through the way they face their death with faith, hope and deep conviction. Believing in the reality and truth of the resurrection and of our own resurrection hope and future, must have a significant bearing on how we face our own death. The Christian of all people, should be able to face death with such a confident hope and a deep inner peace and calmness. The only way you can really explain the phenomenon of triumphant and peaceful Christian martyrdom is by understanding that those surrendering their lives for the sake of the gospel know the truth about the resurrection hope. Stephen knew it as he was martyred. (Acts 6:15) All the other apostles willingly gave up their lives knowing what was to come. Peter was crucified upside down. No more denying Jesus, only a willingness to die for his risen Saviour and faithful Friend. Charles Wesley wrote to his brother John about what a doctor was reporting about so many of the early Methodist believers;

Most people die for fear of dying, but I never met such people as yours. None of them are afraid of death, but are calm, and patient and resigned to the last. John Wesley went on to famously state; Our people die well.

One of the most powerful testimonies to the resurrection comes when the ordinary humble Christian, like some of the members of our Church, face their deaths with a deep and real sense of peace, calm, hope and even joy. It has been my privilege to pray with many a dying saint and witness that they passed on into glory with much grace. A Christian can die with much grace – and it is that grace which brings peace, quiet confidence in the reality of heaven, and a belief that Jesus awaits them in glory. The angels are set and ready to carry them into the Saviour’s presence and eternal love. (Luke 16:22)

And as death draws near, there is a brilliant God-given opportunity for a Christian to speak clearly and firmly about their hope of heaven built on the truth of Jesus’s resurrection. A Christian can speak lovingly to friends and family gathering around, to carers and nurses and doctors, of their sure and certain hope in the risen Jesus. They can share with many in their homes or hospitals or hospices their knowledge of God’s love and hope in their resurrected Lord. Our dying days may turn out to be the richest days of our Christian witness. We can speak of the fact that “in my Father’s house there are many rooms” – and one such room awaits me.

Tim Keller (1950-2023) was an outstanding Christian leader, pioneer, and writer. He died last year after a battle with cancer. Whilst being interviewed as the time of his death neared, he made this very simple but highly profound statement of faith and hope;

If Jesus was raised from the dead, and he was, then everything is going to be ok.

In his final days and hours, Tim Keller’s witness to the resurrection of Jesus was remarkable, but no more remarkable than millions of others who have died knowing that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) You can even witness to the resurrection after you have gone to heaven by instructing your family which hymns are to be sung at your funeral service and which bible readings are to be read. I think I would like the second half of the 16th Psalm to be read at my funeral. This will be one of the readings – what will yours be? (Read Psalm 16: 5-11)

When I tread the verge of Jordon – bid my anxious fears subside. Death of death and hells destruction, land me safe of Canaan’s side. Songs of praises, songs of praises – I will ever give to Thee, I will ever give to Thee. Could this be one of your funeral hymns?

My dear friends, we are called to be noble and bold witnesses of the resurrection of our Saviour and Lord. Will you bear witness for Him? Will you stand alongside the apostles and all God’s faithful people and declare that He lives? And, will we as a Church seek to know much power and much grace among our fellowship? Will we embrace the challenge to be truly generous Easter people? Will the world be able to see within us and within this Church the great grace of the risen Servant King?

May the grace of God be with us all as we seek to be witnesses of the greatest story ever told – the story of “God raising his own Son from death to life.” As Peter proclaimed so courageously on the day of Pentecost; “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” AMEN!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (7.4.24)