Not long after Jesus was crucified and buried, two of his disciples, Peter and John, were jailed by the Jerusalem authorities for telling people that He had been resurrected from the dead after three days in the tomb, that He had talked multiple times with the disciples, and that He had ascended to Heaven.
Peter and John were preaching these things from Solomon’s Colonade in the Temple, according to Acts 3:11, and in course of the incident, they healed a man who was lame, and claimed the healing was done “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene — whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead — by Him this man is standing before you healthy.”
And then they made the claim that began to change the world in the most radical ways possible: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven give to people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
The authorities who had Peter and John arrested realized that they had put themselves between a rock (pun intended) and a hard place, saying, “What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign, evident to all who live in Jerusalem, has been done through them and we cannot deny it.”
So they did what governments have been doing to dissidents ever since: They ordered them to shut up, to stop preaching Jesus resurrected, on pain of further, likely much more severe, punishments. Since Jerusalem had no First Amendment, Peter and John were faced with a profoundly serious choice.
Acts 4:19-20 tells us the choice they made: “But Peter and John answered them, ‘whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
So Peter and John kept right on proclaiming Jesus as the resurrected savior of all who would accept Him, defying the very authorities who had murdered Him with a cross and held the same power over His disciples who now refused to shut up.
A remarkably similar scene has just happened in our neighbor to the North. Pastor James Coates of Edmonton, Canada, Grace Life Church, was jailed earlier this month for preaching to an assembly of unmasked congregants whose numbers exceeded the 15 percent of building capacity permitted by the authorities during the Covid Pandemic.
Coates was tried in secret and sentenced to prison, according to his wife, but on the condition that he can be a free man if he agrees not to again violate the Covid restrictions by preaching to his congregation assembled illegally for worship. Coates, like Peter and John, refuses to be silent. Unlike Peter and John in Acts, Coates remains in jail.
Coates is the first Canadian pastor to be so jailed. No American pastor has been jailed, yet, but many of them, especially in California, face fines that in some cases approach millions of dollars. And the prospect of going to jail is very much on their minds.
Canadians are guaranteed freedom of worship. Americans have the First Amendment to the Constitution, with its guarantee of freedom of worship and assembly.
The U.S. Supreme Court, unlike those in Canada, is steadily striking down and limiting the actions of presumptuous officials threatening church congregations and their pastors with fines and imprisonment for their obedience to God’s command at Hebrews 10:25 “to not neglect the assembling together [for worship].”
But why are these battles having to be fought in the first place if governments are bound by their chartering documents to respect freedom of assembly and worship?
Lawyer James Kitchen of Canada’s Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms suggests that a major part of the answer to that question is the fact we let officials trample on our rights:
“More people need to stop self-censoring. They’re scared to speak up. They’re scared of getting in trouble at work, they’re scared of losing their friends, they’re scared of what people are going to say, they’re scared of dirty looks, this is what I hear, they’re scared of other people.
“And unfortunately, the more influence people have, the more they’re scared to use it, to say ‘You know, this is wrong. Count me in, I disagree with this. This has to stop.’ People with their words and with peaceful actions need to say, stop, enough is enough.
“Democracy is governing by consent. This is the whole underlying philosophical purpose of elections, You choose who governs you. … It is time for people to say, ‘I am removing my consent to be policed and governed this way.’”
That advice holds true on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border, and it is a challenge to each and every one of us.