God's Un-jail-able Word (Acts 5:17-21)
Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Passage: Acts 5:17–21
I. The Increasing Word
Listen to the following summary statements from the book of Acts, and consider their common theme: Acts 6:7... “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly...” Acts 12:24... “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” Finally, Acts 19:20... “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” As you may have noticed from your readings in Acts, this book is most definitely concerned with the growth of the early church. But as these evenly distributed summary statements indicate, that growth was inseparable from the growth (or “increase”) of the gospel. That's helpful to keep in mind as you continue to read through Acts. But I'd also like you to keep that idea in mind as we look at our main text for this morning, Acts 5:17-21. Turn there if you haven't already.
II. The Passage: “The Words of This Life” (5:17-21)
After the resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples, and then returned to the Father, the book of Acts describes early on how the Apostle Peter was used to preach the Good News about Jesus to his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. Before our main text in chapter 5, we've already heard three of Peter's evangelistic messages, one in Acts 2, one in Acts 3, and a shorter one before the Jewish council in Acts 4. When we arrive at 5:12-16, we discover a longer summary of not only Peter's ministry, but that of all the apostles. Look with me at verses12–13...
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.  None of the rest [i.e., of the Jewish people] dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.
But in light of Luke and Acts, the story takes a frustratingly familiar turn in verse 17. We read...
But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy  they 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.” [i.e., this eternal life, through the “Author of life” (3:15)]  And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Now think about what we just saw. We heard about resistance to the gospel, persistence with the gospel, and in the middle of it all (in vs. 19-20), a reminder of what makes all the difference regarding the gospel. Also think about why this matters: how God grows his church has not changed. What was true for them is true for us. So let's look at each of those more closely.
So first, in this passage, we once again read about resistance to the word. You previously read in the opening verses of Acts 4 about how Peter and John were arrested on a separate occasion, before this imprisonment in 5:17-18. This time, all of the apostles are thrown in the slammer for proclaiming the Good News about Jesus (one of six imprisonments mentioned Acts, three of which involved Peter). Now think about who was responsible for their arrest: the very same men who, two months earlier, had arrested Jesus and succeeded in having him killed by the Roman authorities. Peter didn't pull any punches when he addressed the council during his first arrest. He spoke in Acts 4:10, “...Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified...”
Of course, as we went on to read this past week, these same men continued to resist the gospel, didn't they? We read about the death of Stephen, and about the persecution under Saul. And we will continue to read in Acts about resistance to the gospel, even among the Gentiles.
Of course, as you know, we also continue to find resistance to the gospel in our world. This can look very different in different places, but we know what has and what continues to drive this resistance. The word of God highlights two factors. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul speaks of a super-natural blindness to the truth of the gospel, and identifies one of its sources. He writes, “...even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (vs. 3-4). As Jesus taught in Matthew 13:19, Satan is like a bird who steals that gospel seed from alongside the path. But Jesus never supported a 'devil made me do it' rationale. He would highlight a second, more fundamental factor behind people's resistance to the gospel. Listen to how John described it in his Gospel, 3:19–20...
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
The Jewish council back then, along with men and women today, resist Good News of Christ's lordship and redemption because they love the idea of their own lordship and their self-salvation projects, more than they love the truth. That's what fueled the “jealousy” Luke writes about at the end of v. 17. But our great hope in the face of demonic deception and the depraved human heart is precisely what Jesus himself told Saul when he powerfully appeared to him on that road to Damascus: “[I am] delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17-18) And so, by God's amazing grace, like Saul, you and I can move from resistance to persistence. That's the next idea from our main text...
Second, we should be so thankful to read about the apostles' persistence with the word. Though Peter and John were ordered in 4:18 to not preach about Jesus, and even though all of them were thrown in jail in our main passage (in 5:18), when released, where do these disciples go? In obedience to the angelic instruction, they go right back to the very place they were arrested, and they resume doing the very thing for which they were arrested. Remember, 5:12 told us they were preaching and healing in Solomon's Portico. That was a covered walkway that ran along the east side of the... Temple in Jerusalem! And that's where we find them in verse 21.
Does that inspire you? When it comes to the work of ministry, do you want to be like these fellow disciples? Do you want to be the kind of Christ-follower who when he or she encounters resistance (whether it be avoidance or dismissiveness or unkindness or some passive-aggressive pushback or scorn or hostility or even violence... do you want to be the kind of disciple who) gets up again and goes right back to speaking about Jesus? Do you want your life to be marked by a persistence with the word? We'll come back to this in a few minutes... but if you do, then it's absolutely critical you grasp the central point of our main text. If you look back at verses 19 and 20, we find that final idea.
So third, notice what this passage reveals about the real difference regarding the word. Though there is a supernatural blindness, exploited by a supernatural enemy, and it leads here to the imprisonment of the apostles, God himself brings supernatural emancipation. No human planned this jailbreak. It was an angel of God that opens the prison doors in verse 19.
But think about this: what the Jewish leaders were attempting to do here by locking up the apostles was to lock up the gospel. But unlike God's servants, God's word is un-jail-able. Going back to Saul (a.k.a. the Apostle Paul), listen to how he later expressed this glorious truth...
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel,  for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!  Therefore [because it's not bound] I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2:8–10)
Paul was convinced of what Acts tells us time and time again about his ministry, the ministry of the others apostles, and the ministry of so many other disciples: God himself was supernaturally advancing his word, through circumstances and right into the hearts of those he called to himself. What have we seen so far in Acts? The word of God proclaimed in a symphony of foreign languages. Gospel proclaimers supernaturally liberated from a prison cell. An Ethiopian eunuch reading the clearest Old Testament passage about Jesus at the exact moment that Philip runs up alongside his chariot. Saul, the great persecutor of the church, radically trans-formed into a great ambassador of the gospel. And Acts will go on to give us many more examples of this supernatural advance, including the most common example, summed up in Acts 14:3, “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.”
III. Are You Shackled?
Brothers and sisters, Luke wrote the book of Acts for his ancient readers, and it was divinely given to us, for the same reason. It was given that it might greatly encourage us in light of this fact: God grows his church through the supernatural advance of his word. That means God has grown and will continue to grow this church through the supernatural advance of his word. As Acts reveals, nothing can stop the increase of the gospel. No political opposition can stop it. No cultural divide can stop it. No hard-heartedness can stop it. No internal strife or assassination plot or even shipwreck can stop it. Therefore, be encouraged, believer! It's easy to become discouraged, isn't it? But whatever resistance to the word has looked like and will look like in your life, or in this community, it cannot stop the advance of the gospel in this place. How can we say that? Because the word of God is being supernaturally advanced by God himself!
But please hear this: even though the word of God cannot be shackled... you and I can be. When the apostles were physically liberated from their prison cells, they might have remained shackled... by fear of further persecution. But, by God's grace, they courageously resumed their preaching. Now, aren't we susceptible to the same temptations? Remember, we have a super-natural enemy who would love to shackle us with fear, with indifference, with busyness and distractedness, with feelings of inadequacy, with unbiblical rationales. Even though the word cannot be shackled, Satan would love to shackle our hearts. But those very shackles should be shattered by the reality that God is supernaturally at work. Shouldn't that fact rouse us? And thrill us? And give us courage? You see, God's advance does involves us, just as it did the apostles. But let's be clear: our job is not to get results. Our calling is to be faithful; faithful to speak, no matter what kind of resistance we experience. I'm incredibly thankful for the stories so many of you have shared with me, stories about opportunities you've had recently to practice this faithfulness with the word. In those opportunities, and in our future opportunities, no matter what discouragements we face, let's remember: God opens prison doors! So brothers and sisters, let us live openly, share boldly, and pray regularly! And let us remember that at the center of the very message we share is One “who endured from sinners such hostility against himself”; remember that, “so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:3)