When Jesus first started teaching and talking to people about the kingdom of God, he introduced himself like this:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19 NET)
That was what he came to do; to bring good news to the poor, to release prisoners, to give sight to the blind and to free the oppressed. But then when we read the Gospels, when we read the stories of Jesus, we find that he didn’t actually release any prisoners. So we say, he didn’t literally mean “prisoners”, like people in prison. He obviously meant something different.
Maybe he was freeing people from the captivity of sin. Maybe he was giving sight to those who were spiritually blind. Maybe he was talking about the poor in spirit.
Now of course he was talking about all of those things. He came to save people from their sins. That’s what even his name means. But that was not all he did, and if you only read the Gospels, you only get half of the story. The Gospels tell us what Jesus did before he was crucified; but the Acts tell us what He did afterwards. Let’s have a look at the next part of our journey through Acts to see what Jesus did next.
The disciples are going about in the name of Jesus; “the name of Jesus” is an expression meaning “the authority of Jesus”. If you have someone’s name, it’s like you have their hanko.
In fact, it’s better than that. Do you know the series Mito Komon? It’s a classic Samurai series about a retired lord in the 17th century. He goes around with a couple of samurai and fixes problems. At the end of every episode, the samurai have found the bad guys, but they have no weapons and they are outnumbered. But one of them pulls out a little case with Mito Komon’s seal on it, and the bad guys realise that they’re dealing with someone incredibly powerful and they surrender. That’s pretty much exactly what it’s like to go out in the name of Jesus.
In fact, that’s exactly what it’s like for us today. We go in the name of Jesus, with the power and the authority of Jesus. And the bad guys know that we have the authority of Jesus and they know that they are dealing with someone incredibly powerful and they surrender.
So the book of Acts is the continuing story of Jesus because it’s the story of what people do in the name of Jesus, with the authority and the power of Jesus. And what happens?
First we see prophets going around prophesying. Remember that this is a new thing in Israel at the time. For about four hundred years, there were no prophets in Israel. Then John came, then Jesus, and suddenly we have prophets again. But these prophets come with the same message that prophets have always come with. Prophets come to encourage people to help the poor and oppressed. It’s what Amos did, and Micah and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and John, and Jesus himself. Now we see prophets coming in the name of Jesus, encouraging people to help those who were in need. You’ll always see in the book of Acts a church that balances meeting people’s spiritual needs and their material needs.
You see, Antioch was a pretty well-off city. It was one of the three biggest cities in Asia at the time. It was the main trade hub for the Roman Empire. The believers there would have been much wealthier than the ones in Jerusalem. And so even though there was going to be a famine through the whole empire, the people in Antioch would deal with it better than those in Jerusalem.
The other weekend we went down to Osaka to go help feed the homeless. So we were people from a small, poor city going to help those from a richer place, and sometimes you need to do that. But we went because we knew that there was a problem and a need there. We knew there’s been a need there for twenty years or so. The people here in Antioch were responding to a need that hadn’t happened yet. They were going to a people they didn’t know, who were different to them, about a problem that didn’t exist when they responded to it! And despite all that, they still sent money.
Why? Because there’s always a connection between reaching out to the poor and reaching out in faith. When the prophets called these Christians in Antioch to act of service to the poor they also called them to act of faith. Remember that they were going to be affected too. This was not a famine that would affect Israel or Judea. This was a famine that was going to affect the whole world. It happened between 45 and 48 AD; for three years there was a famine in the whole of the empire. Antioch was a big city but even the big cities were affected. Rome had such a severe grain shortage that the emperor was mobbed in the streets. The Christians in Antioch were going to be affected; they would go hungry. But they didn’t say “What about us?” They said “What about them?” That is a faith response.
This isn’t a prophecy - I don’t think it needs to be - but there is going to be a big financial crisis throughout the world. A lot of people will become homeless. And it will affect us as well. And when it does, we get to choose: do we say “What about us?” or do we say “What about them?” Will we be concerned about our own interests, or, as Philippians 2:4 says, will we be concerned about the interests of others as well? Help can only go downwards. We can only help those worse off than ourselves. So knowing that we will be affected, are we going to be good news to the poor? That would be an act of faith.
And it’s quite an act of faith for Barnabas and Saul, because they’re walking into a death trap. They need to get to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem has gone pretty seriously anti-Christian. Herod kills James and puts Peter in prison. But he can’t kill him yet, because it’s the Passover. He’s in prison for three nights, the length of the Passover festival, and on the final night, what happens? Release of the captives. Another part of Jesus’s gospel comes to pass. Feeding the hungry, releasing the captives. Good news to the poor. Perhaps he meant it.
But what strikes me is, why was he in prison for three nights? Why didn’t God release him straight away? I think the answer is something to do with faith as well.
We see in verse 5 that while Peter was in prison, the church got together to pray for him. They knew that he was suffering, they knew he was in need, so they got together to pray. Again, they were exercising faith.
In this passage we’ve got two types of faith. The first type of faith is listening to God and reaching out to the needs of others. The second type is listening to the needs of others and reaching out to God.
That’s what we see here in this passage. A church which is reaching out in faith, listening to God and looking to the needs of others, and listening to the needs of others and looking to God. The church going out in the power of Jesus, with the authority of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, doing what Jesus said he would do: bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives and also proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. And the Spirit of God going with them, to give them the strength and the ability to do this.
This is what we have as well. We have that same name of Jesus. Like in Mito Komon, we have the authority that makes the bad guys go away.