Chapter 4 continues the story of the healing of the lame man. The immediate effect of the healing is that Peter and John are given a perfect opportunity to share the gospel with hundreds of people who come running to find out more about the miracle. The continuing effect is not so positive. The gathered multitude attracts the attention of the Jewish religious authorities and they are not as enamored with what is happening. As Peter and John minister to the crowd in the power of the Spirit, the temple police show up and everything changes.
This text shows the first instance of persecution in the church age. It is amazing and sobering that persecution begins almost immediately after the gospel is first preached. It is a mark of the significance and power of the gospel that the Enemy reacts so strongly and quickly. What this text also shows, however, is that God keeps His promises and while He allows His children to be tried and persecuted He never leaves them to go through it alone.
Peter and John continue to interact with the crowd after Peter finishes his speech. Verse 1 says that they both are speaking to the people, so apparently John addresses them as well. They discuss the gospel and explain Jesus’ death and resurrection and the need for repentance to the different groups of people gathered.
As they teach, another group of people appears, and this group is not interested in believing or repenting. The priests and the captain of the temple guard [The captain of the temple guard is the number two man in the temple and answers only to the high priest. He assists the high priest and has authority over the temple guard – a force made up of Levites that answers to the Jewish authorities and is permitted by Rome – probably the same group that arrested Jesus in Gethsemane – Lk 22:52] and the Sadducees come to the gathering and they are greatly disturbed because of what Peter and John are doing and teaching.
The religious leaders are disturbed by two things. The first problem is that Peter and John are teaching a large crowd in the temple – something best left to the priests and Levites (perhaps their teaching and praying with the new believers up to this point has been more informal). Secondly – and much more problematic – is that they are teaching that Jesus rose from the dead. Remember that the Sadducees (the party that makes up most of the priesthood) do not believe in a physical resurrection. And unlike the Pharisees – who disagree with the Sadducees and believe in a resurrection – the apostles are teaching that resurrection has already happened. They are not just teaching about something in the distant future that no one can prove. They are saying it is a fact because Jesus is alive.
The temple police arrest Peter and John and put them in jail until the next day because it is late (Peter and John went up to the temple at 3:00 PM – 3:1 – so it is now likely late afternoon). The Sanhedrin – the ruling council they now will appear before – meets in the morning. Nothing is said about the apostles being accused of a crime. Apparently they can be arrested just because the religious leaders want them silenced. Regardless of the injustice, however, the apostles now have all night in jail to contemplate what will happen tomorrow.
The apostles are hustled away but the damage – from the Sanhedrin’s perspective – has been done. The Spirit works among those who listened to Peter and many believe. As a result, the number of believers in Jerusalem now number about five thousand (the text actually says the number of men equals that amount – so the total could be significantly higher). This is now quite a multitude in a city with a population estimated from 25,000 to 85,000. The size of the group has to be a concern to the religious leaders who constantly monitor threats to their authority and who continually worry about Roman response.
The next day Peter and John (and apparently also the healed man – vs 14 – hard to know if the council called him or if he just will not leave his new best friends (3:11)) are brought before the Sanhedrin. The high priestly family is there (Annas is a past high priest and the father-in-law of the current high priest, Caiaphas – John and Alexander are unknown) along with the other members of the council (71 men in all). They place the apostles in the center of the gathering and begin to question them.
They ask Peter and John, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Note that the council really does not care about the healing or the wonderful effect it has had on the man – they just want to know about the message the apostles proclaimed. If they did not already know Peter said he healed the man in Jesus’ name they would not ask this question – they would simply ask something along the lines of, “How did you do this?” They arrested the apostles because they proclaimed Jesus (vs 2) – they now want Peter and John to state publicly who they serve.
[Interesting to think about what the religious leaders’ perspective on Jesus is. They know what happened when Jesus was on the cross – darkness, earthquake, weird reports of dead people appearing in Jerusalem. They also know the body of Jesus disappeared after three days and that His followers claim He rose from the dead. They have likely hoped that the whole Jesus issue died down after the initial furor over the empty tomb. His is a name they would like to forget. But lately a new movement has sprung up and thousands of people are meeting in the temple every day calling themselves Jesus’ followers. And now these two have made the movement very public by apparently performing a miracle – just like Jesus used to do – right in the temple where everyone could see it. Something needs to be done so this whole Jesus thing does not start up again.]
[Another aside: Peter and John have to be impacted by appearing in the same place and before the same men who falsely tried and convicted Jesus just months before. They likely assume they will not receive a fair trial and may be a little anxious over what might happen. Jesus was handed over to the Romans and crucified for doing effectively the same things they have been brought in for. And not only were they doing the same things, they were doing them in Jesus’ name. This is certainly not a friendly audience and the implications of this meeting could be dire.]
As Peter begins to respond to the council’s question he is filled with the Holy Spirit. He and John are called upon to testify for Jesus before a hostile group of men and the Holy Spirit comes upon them just as they are about to speak. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to the disciples when He said they would be persecuted for being His followers. Jesus told them, “But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak; for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (Matt 10:19-20). The Holy Spirit comes upon Peter and effectively says, “I have this.” Peter and John do not have to prepare, they do not have to strategize or worry. They simply have to appear as a result of faithfully proclaiming the gospel. The Holy Spirit will speak for them.
How wonderful is this? The VERY FIRST TIME any of Jesus’ followers are delivered up to authorities who wish them harm God fulfills His promise. God is not hit or miss with His word. The apostles had no idea they would appear before the Sanhedrin or be exposed to persecution when they went to the temple yesterday afternoon to pray. But in the end it does not matter – Jesus promised they would be given in that hour what they are to say and it has happened. Our God is faithful and He remembers His promises. God allows persecution but He PROMISES He will be there with us throughout all of it and will even give us the words to say. One of the scariest things that can happen to a believer is to be called upon to testify publicly in front of a hostile gathering to the truth of what he believes. And in that time we have our Savior’s iron-clad guarantee that He will give us the words to say. We never face persecution or testing alone.
Peter responds with a little bit of irony. He says, “If we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well…” He states publicly the ridiculous situation they are in. They have done what to any reasonable person is a wonderful deed for a very deserving man. But the council has put them on trial as if they are criminals.
He goes on to give them their answer. The name they healed the man in is Jesus. Peter does not shy away from this at all. He does not say it sheepishly or fearfully. He says, “…let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus the Nazarene…” He wants the whole nation to hear it. He has already proclaimed the name to thousands of people in the city on two different occasions; he is not going to back off now just because he is in front of the Sanhedrin.
Incredibly, however, he does not stop there – he does not give them the short answer or the one that is safest (he does not abide by the cardinal rule of hostile questioning and IRS audits – never volunteer any information). He GIVES THEM THE GOSPEL! He says of Jesus, “…whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the Builders, but which became the very corner stone.” He briefly states that Jesus was the Messiah – and quotes Psalm 118 to illustrate it – and that they killed Him.
Remember that Peter is the same guy who denied he even knew Jesus when confronted only by a crowd of onlookers at Jesus’ trial. There he was bowed by a servant girl – here he speaks boldly and even confrontationally to the most powerful Jewish authorities in Israel. He speaks to the same body who condemned and executed Jesus and who scared him so much that he did not want to be identified with Jesus at all (and how cathartic do you think this is for Peter – how wonderful it must be to confront his demons head on and make it so clear that he is a changed man and not the coward who denied Christ). This is the Holy Spirit. Peter is bold because the Spirit is bold.
Jesus also quoted Psalm 118 in a very similar circumstance (Lk 20:1-19, Matt 21:23-46) and likely quoted it to some of the same people listening to Peter now. In both cases the meaning is that the Messiah came to those who should have known Him but was rejected, and the rejection will be fatal. As Jesus concluded after quoting the Psalm – “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust” (Matt 21:43-44).
Peter finishes his short speech with what has become a very well known verse. It is a beautiful summary of the gospel – said to people who hate every word. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” In case they did not fully understand that Jesus is the Messiah and died to save mankind he makes it very clear. There is only ONE name and there is only ONE way of salvation. Only through Jesus – the One they rejected and killed – can anyone enter the presence of God.
Peter cannot help but give the gospel at every opportunity. When he is given a forum the gospel comes out. When he opens his mouth in front of people he proclaims Christ. If you cut him, he bleeds the gospel. The great commission is not a burden or a source of guilt to him – it is a compulsion (I Cor 9:16 – see also verse 20 below).
The constants in Peter’s three presentations so far have been: identify Jesus as Messiah; point out to the Jews that they killed Him; claim that He rose from the dead; do not mince words at all. Peter has not held back in the least and has confronted every listener with the hard truth. He did not back down from the thousands on Pentecost, the crowd in the temple, or now the Sanhedrin. The stakes have been raised significantly but the approach is the same – here is the truth and the truth will either set you free or condemn you.
As Peter speaks the men of the council are amazed. They are amazed that men who have no formal rabbinic training – as all of the council members have – speak so boldly and confidently. Men who come before the council are typically intimidated by the learning and authority of its members. But these two – who are common Galileans – are clearly not intimidated at all. Men who accuse the Sanhedrin of murdering the Messiah make it pretty clear that the council does not scare them.
Along with marveling at the apostles’ boldness the members of the Sanhedrin notice something else. They finally recognize Peter and John as being two of Jesus’ followers. This has to be met with a collective inward groan. The ministry of the One who almost single-handedly ruined the country is continuing by the hands of His followers. The ones who deserted Jesus are apparently back and the ministry the leaders thought was dead is very much alive. It is almost as if His death has made Him more dangerous – His ministry is growing faster now than it was when He was alive!
Other than amazement, however, the council’s reaction is strangely muted. They do not respond to Peter claiming that Jesus rose from the dead (even though they took pains to try to discredit the story when the empty tomb was first discovered – Matt 28:11-15) or to his claim that they crucified the Messiah. They also do not react to Peter’s quoting of Psalm 118 – and the fact that it implies they are cut off – or to Peter’s gospel message in verse 12. They have just been called eternally doomed Messianic murderers and they have nothing to say in reply. Typically we would expect them to cry out and tear their beards and clothes (what they will do when Stephen appears before them – 7:54-57). Here they apparently are so taken back by Peter’s confidence and authority – and by the healed man standing in their midst – that they do not know how to react at all. This also is the Holy Spirit working. He not only gives Peter the words to say, He works on the listeners and controls how they respond.
They order the apostles out and begin to confer with one another. They say, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.” They have two problems – the miracle is clearly genuine and the miracle is known by the whole city. They have no way to discredit the apostles and all of Jerusalem is now open to their message. How can they stop this movement now?
It is important to take a step back and analyze what the religious leaders are actually saying. A man who was lame from birth and who has led a horrible life for over four decades is now wonderfully and wondrously healed. He can walk as if he were never lame, which means the power that healed him is way beyond anything natural. He no longer needs to beg as he has for his whole life. And yet all these men can do is worry about how it will affect their authority and prosperity. They do not care about the healed man or what the miracle says about Jesus. They care about maintaining their grip on power and the life that power affords them. They are completely and hopelessly blind.
Remember that these are some of the same men who, upon hearing from the Roman soldiers that an angel appeared after an earthquake and rolled the stone away from the tomb (Matt 28:1-15), simply worried about quelling the story. These are the same men who, after hearing that Lazarus was raised (Jn 11:38-57), worried about how it would increase Jesus’ popularity (think about that – a man was raised from the dead and it did not change their perspective at all). In both cases they did not think through the implications of what happened or of what the events said about Jesus. They merely focused on how to manage the events such that they did not threaten their positions.
This is what sin and man-centered religion does. This is why being close to the truth without truly believing it is often more dangerous than having no exposure to it at all. They are so far from God that they look right at His truth and right at His miraculous actions and see only threats to their wellbeing and prosperity. They have absolutely no ability to see at all. The Enemy has clouded their minds so much that they no longer even understand the issues. They do not think, “What does this act tell us about God?” They only think, “What do we have to do to make sure this does not hurt our power and authority?” Sin always, always, always blinds those in its grip.
The council brings Peter and John back into the room and warns them not to speak any longer in this name (they cannot bring themselves to actually say ‘Jesus’). They know they have no basis to punish them and they are very aware that people throughout the city are glorifying God for what had happened. They threaten Peter and John with further action if they do not stop teaching but otherwise do nothing to them.
Peter and John respond to the warnings very clearly. “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard.” WOW. A simple statement but one so loaded for those who hear it. “You are religious leaders who presumably minister before God – are you saying that we should reject God’s command and instead listen to man? Is that what is right in God’s sight?” They do not back down at all and in a few words show they remain filled with the Spirit. “Go ahead and command us to stop, but we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard.” They are compelled to obey their Savior and to spread His good news. The warnings of the council pale in comparison to the commission they received from the Messiah.
This is what it means to confess Jesus before men. Peter and John illustrate Christ’s words in Matt 10:24-33. They do not fear the council but rather trust God to give them the words to say and to watch over them. Their trust in God precludes the fear of man (the two are always mutually exclusive). Man can kill the body but cannot touch the soul. Their Father in heaven numbers the hairs on their head and knows when the sparrow falls – they have no need to fear any other. They appear before the same men who condemned their Lord to death but their Lord is with them and so they speak boldly without fear.
Peter and John are released unharmed. They and the healed man – presumably still running and leaping and trying out the new legs – leave the council and head immediately to the other apostles and followers to report. The first brush with persecution is over but they know the hard times are only beginning. God is faithful, the gospel is powerful, and the enemy will not rest.
- The gospel always meets resistance. The enemy hates the gospel and will do anything in his power to silence it or make those who hear it reject it. The battle the enemy wages will never end this side of eternity. Hostility to the gospel and to those who believe it will be with us until Christ returns.
- Sin always blinds those in its grasp. This is always true and it is true no matter the size and extent of the sin. Sin always blinds and continual sin continually blinds to the point that the sinner no longer recognizes light at all. The smallest sin is dangerous because of the potential blindness it brings.
- God always keeps His promises. He said He will be with us and give us the words to say when we face hostility to the gospel, and Acts 4 proves He will do just that. We do not present the gospel alone and we do not face persecution alone. The battle will never end this side of eternity, but God is more powerful than the one we face and He promises to fight and speak for us.