Reading Acts Together #8: Acts 4:1-22

Following on from the healing of the lame man, this episode sees Peter and John questioned and threatened by the Sanhedrin because of what happened, and perhaps more importantly because of whose ‘name’ it happened in and what they were preaching: in Jesus the resurrection from the dead (v2). Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits of resurrection life!

When the captain of the temple guard gets involved, you know you’re in trouble. Second only to the high priest in authority in the temple precinct, he walks over to Peter and John along with some other priests and Sadducees and puts them in jail until they can be questioned the next day. As already noted, they were disturbed more at the message of resurrection than the miracle (v2), although doubtless the miraculous healing helped vindicate the message of resurrection. It was a sign of healing after all (v22).

It’s not possible to look at all the various parts of this section – but let me offer two observations:

1: This has to do with authority. There’s an authority issue going on here. But it isn’t between the Sanhedrin and the apostles, rather the Sanhedrin and Jesus. He is the name in which Peter and John proclaim (v10). When they commanded Peter and John to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus, (v18), Peter answers, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’

Who are you going to listen to when peer pressure tells you to stop teaching in the name of Jesus? God or the people persecuting you?

The Jewish leaders knew their authority had been threatened. Not only were Peter and John teaching in the temple, they were teaching the resurrection and healed a lame man, who’d been lame for over forty years old (v22)! They knew they couldn’t do anything because they could see the miracle was a ‘notable sign’ (v16) and ‘all the people were praising God for what had happened’ (v21).

There’s a couple of contrasts between the people and the leaders that highlights their crumbling authority. The first is that while the leaders arrested Peter and John and were disturbed (v1-3), many who heard the message ‘believed’ and so the church grew (v4). And while they were deliberating what to do and threatening the apostles, (v15-17; 21) the people were praising God (v21). The old Israel could not accept the good news about the New Israel.[1]

They didn’t want to bow to the authority of Jesus – they didn’t want to accept him as Lord and Saviour – even though Peter states quite clearly ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’ (v12).

2: This shows us the help of the Spirit. In v8 we read ‘Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit’ spoke to them. Challenged and questioned, he knew what to say, with the Spirit’s help. This brings to mind what Jesus said in Luke 12:11-12, ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say’. Here we see Jesus’ words fulfilled and through the power of the Spirit, Peter is able to defend and refute with great courage and learning, so much so the leaders were astonished (v13).

This reemphasises one really important fact in the mission of the church that started at Pentecost in Acts 2 – we need the Spirit’s help. In fact, we need to rely on the Spirit when we declare the gospel. Without the help of the Spirit in mission, we’re doomed to fail.

[Side note:  v13 shows the influence Jesus had on Peter and John. They’d spent quality time with Jesus over a span of three years or so, and as a result they were able to go toe to toe with some of Israel’s finest scholars. Just because they were ‘unschooled, ordinary men’ it doesn’t mean they were illiterate,[2] rather they were not schooled like Paul, who had been trained by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the great elders of the day. For a modern-day example, you could say they were not university educated, but because they had spent quality time with Jesus, they were well taught and prepared. You get a sense of this in v11 when Peter quotes Psalm 118:22; Jesus quotes the same text in Luke 20:17. They knew how to handle their OT because they’d seen Jesus do it.]

[1] David G. Petersen, The Acts of the Apostles: The Pillar New Testament Commentary, pp. 185-189

[2] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 243.

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