Updated: Jul 15, 2020
by Samantha Shrauner
Author Christopher Ash, expounding on Psalm 2, has an interesting interpretation of the words ‘kings’ and ‘rulers.’ In our modern world, it isn’t just people with political power who shape our lives and cultures. He lists “Media moguls, movie directors and producers, news-channel anchors and editors, bloggers, celebrities and all those categorised as ‘influencers’” as part of the category under the heading of ‘ruler.’ (1) These are the people we listen to, and these are often the people who are able to sway our opinion in the ways they want.
When the powerful people of the world stand against God, how can we stand firm in our trust?
In the face of threats and intimidation, what does it mean to acknowledge and serve God as our king?
In Acts 3, Peter and John healed a lame man in the temple and preach a powerful sermon proclaiming Jesus to a great crowd of people. In response, the authorities in Jerusalem bring them in front of the Sanhedrin and ultimately charge them not to speak about Jesus to anyone else. In Acts 4:23-31, we see how the believers respond to these authorities who stand against God and his Messiah Jesus. In their response, we can learn what it looks like to acknowledge and serve God as the King of the universe, the King of history, and the King over human hearts.
The King of the Universe
23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them… Acts 4:23-24
Peter and John have been charged not to speak the name of Jesus by the same group of people who successfully had Jesus put to death. This is the group that had caused the disciples to hide in fear. Their power is real and their threats have weight.
In response, Peter and John gather with other believers and raise their voices in prayer. When the rulers of the world stand against them, they turn to the ruler of the universe. Their prayer begins with an acknowledgement of who God is and what he has made. God is the Sovereign who reigns over every part of creation. More than simply ruling over creation, God is the One who made everything: the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them. God is the creator, the sustainer, and ruler over everything in existence.
There are many beautiful artworks depicting the wonders of the universe. We teach our children about the world that God has made with colourful pictures that inspire wonder and delight. It is inspiring to watch documentaries about animals or the far reaches of space. It’s also true that there are parts of creation that inspire fear as well as wonder. Nothing makes us feel more fragile than learning about the violence of a supernova or the inescapable darkness of a black hole. I remember hearing a lion roar on a visit to the zoo and feeling both awe and dread at the sound of its power. There’s a fascinating clip of a documentarian huddling in a bear-proof box while a polar bear tries to get in, attracted by the man’s scent and the promise of a tasty meal. The man does an admirable job of staying calm, but acknowledges his fear at how close the bear is. (2) Creation is wonderful, and it is terrifying.
When we approach God as the creator, may we do so not only with an awareness of his creativity but also of his power.
The universe God made is a testimony about who he is. To say that God is our sovereign and our creator means that he has power over everything that he has made. The God of the Bible is the ruler of supernovae and black holes and lions and polar bears. When we draw near to God in faith, this is the ruler who becomes our strength and our refuge. Acknowledging God as the sovereign of the universe can help us approach God with the trouble that we face in our lives. As Paul Mumo Kisau says, “Everything and everyone is subject to God’s creative power, even the members of the Sanhedrin.” (3) When we appreciate God’s power we have a better understanding of the God who offers his help to his people in their need. God’s offer of help is not a token gesture or a psychological crutch, it is the king of the universe stooping down to rescue a person that he loves because they are in distress. When pressures build and threats surround you, come to your King and receive his gracious help.
The King of History
“Sovereign Lord,… 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. Acts 4:25-28
The gathered believers turn to Scripture as they continue their prayer. The quoted passage is from Psalm 2, one of the most frequently cited passages in the New Testament for its explicit description of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. Here the psalm is quoted for its specific and recent fulfilment. This is not an abstract reference to people who are opposed to God. A group of people led by Herod and Pontius Pilate gathered in Jerusalem to stand against Jesus- God’s holy servant. Psalm 2 has become history with actual people in an actual place. This group of the earliest believers is acknowledging that God is the king of human events in history. The people who gathered to oppose God’s Anointed One were instead proving God’s sovereignty over his predestined plan. In their opposition, they fulfil what God had foreknown and foretold.
Psalm 2 illustrates God’s power over history and the fate of those who stand against him and his Anointed One. When the believers pray this psalm in Acts 4, they are declaring that “One day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.” (4) This prayer takes on a particular urgency when there are people in power voicing actual threats against your life. By acknowledging God’s sovereignty over human history, these gathered believers give us an example of how to face opposition in the knowledge that God is our King.
As Psalm 2 demonstrates, God will have the ultimate victory over every human enemy. When rulers stood against Jesus in Jerusalem, the death that they conspired to bring about was overcome by the resurrection three days later.
No one can stand against God and win.
But in this place and this time, the goal of the praying believers is not victory through domination. The conflict is not over the nature of the authority but over the charge that they have given: that the apostles must not preach in Jesus’ name. This is not a charge that the apostles can fulfil because Jesus himself has told them to witness about what they have seen and learned. The good news of salvation in Jesus’ name must be proclaimed. By acknowledging God’s sovereignty, the apostles are proclaiming their belief that their obedience will be vindicated. They are acting in faith that God’s kingship will ultimately be visible. There may well be immediate consequences for disobeying the authorities in Jerusalem, but these authorities cannot do lasting harm to those who stand in shelter of the One who is sovereign over history.
When the storms of life swell up and it looks like the world is descending into chaos, we can turn to our God who rules over history. In the darkest moment our world has ever seen, evil men plotted against and killed God’s holy servant. Even there, God was not overcome, and those who did evil were acting in accordance with what God knew and planned ahead of time. Our God did not stop acting in history after Jesus ascended into heaven. God knew Pilate and Herod, and God knows the authorities who stand against him now. As Peter and John could trust God’s sovereignty in Acts 4, we can trust God’s sovereignty when everything feels out of control.
In the face of pressure and an uncertain future, come to your King and receive his gracious help.
The King of Human Hearts
29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:29-31
What do you ask when you stand before the King of everything? Do you ask for a clear path forward, an easy way? Do you ask for protection, a promise of security? These would be natural things to request, and surely they would aid the cause of spreading the gospel far and wide. But the apostles make no requests for ease or security. They do not seek circumstances that make the mission easier, they seek strength to fulfil the difficult mission that God has set before them. God is at work in the early church performing signs and wonders, and the apostles want to be at work beside God preaching the salvation that Jesus offers. The miracles are not protection against opposition; Jesus performed such signs and he was put to death. The signs establish that the apostles are indeed sent by God to testify about Jesus.
While God does wonders, the apostles pray for boldness to speak God’s word.
God answered their prayers in a powerful way. There is an earthquake where they have gathered, and the believers are filled with the Holy Spirit. This is not an inward-facing filling of the Spirit, but allows them to go out and to continue to preach with boldness. With their prayer, the believers show their trust that God is sovereign over their hearts and inward thoughts. God is able to produce in them what they cannot produce in themselves: boldness to preach.
We do well to follow the apostles’ example and pray for boldness, but we must not wait to share our faith for the moments where we feel the most brave. In our own minds, the threshold for the required amount of courage may never come. Peter and John did not avoid sharing the gospel in Acts 3 before they had prayed for boldness, and we should take the opportunities as they come. But when opposition mounts and our own strength for sharing our hope wavers, we must turn to God and pray for boldness to continue. It is a difficult and often thankless task to share the gospel with those around us, even if we do not face threats and intimidation as the apostles did. God, who has triumphed over sin and is at work to make us new, can give us the courage and boldness that we need to do the work that he has set before us. When your courage fails and your heart is weary, come to your King and receive his gracious help.
The challenges of this world are many, but we have a King who has overcome everything to draw people to himself.
Facing danger and intimidation, Peter and John gathered with other believers to remember who God is and ask his help to do the work he had given to them.
We can follow their example so that we also can step forward to do God’s work in our families and communities. When opposition stands against us, we can remember that God is sovereign over all creation, and he is mighty to save. When threats intimidate us, we can see how God is sovereign over history and rules over even the people who stand against him. When our hearts fail and our courage leaves, we can remember that God is at work in our own hearts and that he can give us the boldness we need to do his work.
At precisely the right time, our King will come in glory and we see the one in whom we have placed our trust.
On the heavy and difficult days between now and then, come to your King and receive his gracious help.
(1) Christopher Ash, Psalms for You, (The Good Book Company, 2020), 24
(2) BBC Earth, “Wild Polar Bear Tries to Break In,” 22 December 2018. Watch the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJra0fcMsVU
(3) Paul Mumo Kisau, “Acts” in Africa Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1333.
(4) Ash, 28.