A Dependent Church – Acts 4:23-35 (pt. 3)

II. A Dependent Church Finds Comfort in the Sovereignty of God (vv. 24b-28)

We have seen that the first reaction of the early church was to turn to God in prayer.  This is the first trait of a dependent church.  Now, as we look at the content of the church’s prayer we are going to see that the second trait of a dependent church is that a dependent church finds comfort in the Sovereignty of God.  As John Stott put it, “before the people came to any petition, they filled their minds with thoughts of the divine sovereignty.”[1] We see this in vv. 24b-28.  Here we see that these believers began their prayer by turning their attention to the sovereign nature of God.  Kistemaker has pointed out that “The prayer that Luke records is typically Jewish and is molded after the petition Hezekiah uttered when the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem (Isa 37:16-20).”[2]

The very name that they chose to refer to God in this prayer highlights His sovereignty.  They did not use any of the usual titles for God that are found in the NT.  Instead they used a unique title for God that is found only 6 times in the NT.  The title is δεσπότης, and it can be translated as Sovereign Lord, or Master.  It probably sounds familiar to you since this is where the English word despot come from.  However, the Greek word does not imply a despotic, tyrannical ruler.  It simply highlights God’s control, and authority.  By using this title they made it clear that God was in control of their specific situation.  Furthermore, they recognized that ultimately they would have to answer to their Sovereign Lord, not to the Sanhedrin.

In addition to being the Sovereign Lord, the church also recognized that God is “the One who made the heavens, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them.”  The wording here is very similar to the wording found in Psalm 146:6.  And if we look at Psalm 146:6-9 we will see why the church chose to bring up God’s work in creation:

Who made heaven and earth, The sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises up those who are bowed down; The Lord loves the righteous; The Lord protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, But He thwarts the way of the wicked.

The point being made by the psalmist is that the same God who created the world is the one who control what happens within it.  This is why he is able to set prisoners free, and thwart the plan of the wicked.  And this is why the church brought up this passage in their prayer.  As they prayed they found comfort in the fact that God is in control of all things.  As one commentator put it, “Confessing the truth about God’s relationship to our circumstances always brings encouragement, especially when we are aware of danger and feel out of control.”[3] When we feel out of control we should find comfort in the fact that God is in control.  This is certainly where this group of believers was at, and in the midst of that out of control feeling they found comfort in the Sovereignty of God.  Or to put it another way, they depended upon His sovereignty.

This emphasis on God’s sovereignty does not end in v. 24.  In v. 25 the people turn their attention to a specific prophecy found in Psalm 2 to recall God’s control of their situation.  As the passage tells us this was a psalm written by David through the inspiration of the Holy Sprit.  Specifically, this quotation come from Psalm 2 which is a Messianic Psalm.  In this passage David prophesied saying,

“Why did the Gentiles rage, And the peoples devise futile things? ‘The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the Lord and against His Christ.”

In this Psalm David prophecies of the day when the people of the world will rise up against the Christ (literally the anointed one).  Revelation 17:9-14 teaches that this prophecy will be ultimately fulfilled in the end times, however the believers in Acts 4 because they had seen its initial fulfillment in the life of Jesus.  Verse 27 explains,

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.

Here we see that the events of Jesus’ crucifixion happened just as David, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, prophesied.  The Gentiles represented the Romans and ironically the peoples were the peoples of Israel who both worked to have Jesus killed.  Furthermore, the Kings and Rulers were represented in Herod and Pontius Pilate.  Both of whom, by the providence of God, were in the city of Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was killed.  Luke 23:6-12 tells recalls the account:

When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time. Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other.

Isn’t it amazing to see how God worked together all the details exactly according to the prophecy?  Evil men devised a plan to rid themselves of the Messiah, but it was all in vain.  In fact, God used their evil actions to accomplish His own plan.  This prophecy is a reminder that sinful men have always worked against Gods kingdom, and so it was no surprise that this continued in the early church.  Nor is it a surprise that it continues today.  However, as Calvin reminds us, “we may persuade ourselves, that however all men, both high and low, do wickedly conspire together against this kingdom, yet shall they not prevail, for what is all the whole world compared with God?”[4] This perfectly captures the attitude of the church on that day.  In fact, in v. 28 they go on to say the people conspiring against Jesus where only able “to do whatever you hand and your purpose predestined to occur.”  In this verse we find the point of the quotation from Psalm 2.  The church found comfort in the fact that even though evil men were plotting against the them, nothing could happen to them that was not predestined to happen by God.

Verse 28 says that God’s hand as well as His purpose.  His hand refers to His power.  This is the might by which He is able to accomplish whatever He desires.  His purpose is what He uses His power to accomplish.  This is the plan He has for the world, and this plan has been in place since before the foundation of the world.  This is why it says that nothing can happen that has not been “predestined to occur.”

The word predestined (προορίζω) is an important word for us to understand.  It occurs 6 times in the NT (Acts 4:28; Romans 8:29, 30; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Eph 1:5, 11).  Each time that it is used it has the meaning to predetermine, or decide beforehand.  It is not just seeing what will happen in advance; it is actually ordaining the events of the future.  Thus nothing can happen that has not been predestined by the hand of God, and in every situation God accomplishes his purpose.  No matter how bleak things may seem from our perspective God, by the strength of His hand, is accomplishing the plan that He laid out before the world began.  This is what comforted the believers in Acts 4.  They knew that the plotting of the Sanhedrin against them was in vain, just like the plotting against Jesus was in vain.  The early church saw the opposition that they were facing simply as a continuation of the opposition that Jesus faced.  Thus, they could be confident that no matter what happen to them God’s purpose would be accomplished.  This is what comforted them.

When we find ourselves in difficult situations we would do well to remind ourselves that the only thing that can happen to us is what God has predestined to happen.  And as we remember this we should be comforted by the sovereignty of God.  Not because everything is going to turn out like a Disney movie in the end, where the princess finds the prince, the hero learns his lesson, and the bad guy ends up with egg on his face.  Most of the time it doesn’t end up like this.  God’s predestined outcome may not always be the outcome that we would desire. Remember, God accomplished His plan, but Jesus was still killed.  So as the early church found comfort in the sovereignty of God they still knew that they could, and probably would be killed for their faith.  Yet, even this was an acceptable outcome because it would be used by God to accomplish His purpose.  Everything that the Sanhedrin did to oppose God would be in vain, but nothing that God did would be in vain.

Finding this kind of comfort in the sovereignty of God can only happen if you are truly depending upon Him, and His predetermined plan.  This means that we must not only recognize His control, but that His plan is a wise and good plan. (Romans 12:2)  There are times when this can be difficult.  Usually our problem with God’s sovereignty is not that we do not believe that God is in control, usually the problem is that we do not like the way that God is working out His plan.  This is when we must decide if we are going to depend upon God and how He is working out His plan, or if we are going to depend upon something else.  If we choose to depend upon God we will find comfort in the fact that His is in control.

[1] John Stott, The Message of Acts, 99

[2] Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, 166

[3] William Larkin Jr., Acts, 79

[4] John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, 184.