Today’s reading: Acts 4-6.
“It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists’ ] terms. It was a deal; we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.” ― Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ
It didn’t take long for opposition to confront the newborn church. The continued miracles, the rapid growth of new believers, the preaching which condemned the murder of Jesus – they all brought down the indignation of the religious leaders. It began with the High Priest and Sadducees who were the most powerful and stood to lose the most from any upheaval (and who did not believe in life after death). They targeted the apostles. First they used jail time and stern lectures. That escalated to beatings. Death was not far in the distance.
But the disciples rejoiced in spite of the conflict.
…when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:40-42
What inspired their joy? How did they bear the interrogations and jail time? First of all, they identified with the Lord, who had suffered much from the same authorities. Jesus had taught them to expect this kind of pressure. They believed the words they preached courageously, that there was salvation in no other name than that of Jesus Christ. They considered obedience to the governing authority, but decided that they must obey God before man, and God kept telling them to spread the good news. When they prayed for boldness to resist the threats, they saw their prayer answered with the unmistakable rumbling of the Holy Spirit that made them stronger.
The early church was powerfully effective because of the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the believers. God was with them, but their faithfulness and power fueled the conflict with the worldly authorities. Rather than questioning their mistreatment, the disciples accepted it as proof that they were following the path of Jesus. As Paul later wrote in Colossians, they were “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Their suffering was not only a result of their success, but a necessary ingredient in the continued growth of the church.