Paradox is a key part of the Christian life; things that seem contradictory actually can sit alongside each other snugly. Jesus told us the greatest must become the least (Luke 9:48), that if we want to gain life, we must first be prepared to lose it (Matt 16:25). Paul takes this theme and expounds it in 1 Cor 1:18-25, teaching that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and that His weakness is stronger than human strength. The kingdom of God turns the world’s way of thinking on its head, and unless we grasp the topsy-turvy nature of paradox and its role in God’s kingdom, life will very often seem elusive and baffling to us.
In Acts 5:12-42, we see a number of paradoxes. The miraculous signs and wonders performed by the apostles resulted in the paradox ‘no one else dared to join them’ (Acts 5:13) living alongside the truth ‘more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.’ (Acts 5:14) As John Stott puts it, the power of God will always be ‘alarming to some and appealing to others.’ (‘The Message of Acts’, P 116)
Another paradox was the ability of the apostles to reconcile persecution with joy. Naturally speaking, opposition and persecution (especially when these lead to physical pain and distress such as the apostles experienced after being flogged) do not lead to joy. They usually leave us broken and dispirited (which is why torture and imprisonment are seen as highly effective weapons.)
Despite all the Sanhedrin prohibitions on preaching, the apostles were not daunted. Imprisonment did not deter them – in this passage, an angel of the Lord acts as their deliverer, unlocking the prison doors and commanding them to go to the temple courts and continue to preach (Acts 5:18-20). They used every opportunity to testify to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 5:29-30) and were not broken by beatings: ‘the apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’ (Acts 5:41)
The paradox of persecution producing joy had been predicted by Jesus (Matt 5:10-12; Luke 6:22-23) and has been the ongoing experience of the Christian community throughout history. Tertullian said, ‘The more you mow us down, the more we grow; the seed is the blood of Christians.’ Bishop Festo Kivenge said, on the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, ‘without bleeding the church fails to bless.’ We cannot expect to avoid opposition and persecution, but can know the paradox of blessing and rejoicing in the middle of it if we, like the apostles, can understand the privilege of being counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.