The Arrest and Trial of Peter and John, 1-22

4:1 While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, 4:2 angry because they were teaching the people and announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 4:3 So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day (for it was already evening).

This chapter marks the beginning of resistance to the Jesus movement by the Jewish leaders (but not the Jewish people generally, v4).  Compare Acts 2:47.

Sadducees – They were conservative in theology, accepting only the Pentateuch as authoritative and rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees.  They had no belief in angels or demons, nor in any life beyond the present one.  They were members of the landed aristocracy, and were willing to keep the peace with the Romans, in order to preserve the status quo.  The Romans, in turn, allowed them considerable power, and the high priest was always drawn from their ranks.  Polhill concludes: ‘The prime concern of the Sadducean aristocracy, of whom the high priest was the chief spokesman, was the preservation of order, the avoidance at all costs of any confrontation with the Roman authorities.’

They were…announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead – As Polhill observes, their objection is not specifically against the resurrection of Jesus, but more generally against ‘the resurrection of the dead’ (announced ‘in Jesus’).  The notion of a general resurrection was an apocalyptic idea with all sorts of revolutionary overtones.  It suggested to the Sadducees the things they feared the most: political unrest, attempted overthrow of the Romans, and a destruction of the status quo.  Such things had happened before (cf. Acts 5:36f), and the Sadducees worst fears would be realised in AD66, when war broke out with the Romans.  The apostles’ message, along with the popular response to it, alarmed them greatly.  They must be stopped.

They…put them in jail until the next day – The Jews did not use imprisonment as a form of punishment, but (as here) as a way of detaining suspects until they could be tried.

The inevitability of persecution

This verse marks the beginning of the long history of persecution of the church.  Fernando (NIVAC) remarks that ‘We often hear people say that they would like to get back to the book of Acts and have a church just like that. But the view many have of this church is a romantic one. They think of a church that saw many miracles, much conversion, amazing unity, and Spirit-filled leadership. They forget that Acts also describes the troubles the church faced from within itself and without. The most consistent trouble mentioned is persecution.’  Fernando adds that after chapter 3 only three chapters in Acts do not mention persecution.  See Jn 15:20; 2 Tim 3:12.  We cannot remain faithful to our Lord and expect never to encounter persecution.

Fernando identifies some of the beliefs and practices that are likely to cause offence today: ‘evangelism with conversion in view; insistence that practicing homosexuality and abortion and consuming pornography are wrong; a pattern of showing active love and compassion to homosexuals, AIDS patients, prostitutes, outcasts, and other people shunned by the church; opposition to all forms of injustice and exploitation; and insistence that doctrines that contradict the clear teachings of the Bible are heresies and must be rooted out of the church.’

What the apostles are experiencing here had been predicted by the Saviour (Mk 13:9).  Fernando laments that ‘much of evangelistic proclamation today focuses on the blessings of salvation, such as eternal life, forgiveness, freedom, joy, peace, healing, significance, and purpose. Too many people view Christianity without including the blessing of suffering. Indeed, in the Bible suffering is presented as a blessing (Rom. 5:3–5; Phil. 1:29–30; James 1:2–4).’

Religious leaders often oppose God’s work

It is a sad fact that the opposition of the Sanhedrin to the work of the gospel has been duplicated many times down the history of the Christian church.  Those in authority may be jealous, or simply resistant to change.

4:4 But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

Many…believed – ‘Acts is the story of the triumphant spread of the good news from the Jews to the rest of the world, but we must not forget that it begins with the Jews, whom God prepared through their history and through the Scriptures. Although the gospel reaches some interesting places and people later in the book, we never again see the mass positive response to the message that we see in Acts 2:41 and here in 4:4, when the numbers grew to about five thousand.’ (NBC)

The number of men came to about five thousand – According to Polhill the term translated ‘men’ may be inclusive of both sexes (as in Lk 11:31; Rom 4:8; 11:4).  That commentator notes the ‘steady progression’ from 120 (Acts 1:15) to 3,000 (Acts 2:41) to 5,000 (Acts 4:4) to “many thousands” (Acts 21:20).  It appears that the number given may represent a cumulative total.

4:5 On the next day, their rulers, elders, and experts in the law came together in Jerusalem. 4:6 Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others who were members of the high priest’s family.

Rulers, elders, and experts in the law – Marshall says that these were probably the three components of the Sanhedrin.  The ‘rulers’ and ‘elders’

Annas – High priest from AD 6-16, he had been deposed.  But he still retained his title and influence.

Caiaphas – See Mt 26:57n.  He was son-in-law of Annas.  They had both played a role in the conviction of Jesus (John 11:49f.; 18:13f.) and fully prepared to pursue his followers in the same way.

‘This was the court which a few weeks previously had been hastily assembled in the early hours of a Friday morning to try another prisoner whose ministry had been similarly clouded in controversy, though adorned with multiple, evidences of divine, supernatural attestation.’ (Milne)

4:7 After making Peter and John stand in their midst, they began to inquire, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”

In their midstlit. ‘in the middle’, a description which fits well with the contemporary statements that the Sanhedrin met in a semicircle.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” – The grammar in which the question is expressed gives the sense: ‘What power or authority gave this right to you, insignificant nobodies?’ (Bock, Milne).

‘They claimed the right of regulating the religious affairs of the nation. They had vast power with the people. They assumed that all power to instruct the people should originate with them; and they expected that the apostles would be confounded, as having violated the established usage of the nation. It did not seem to occur to them to enter into an investigation of the question whether this acknowledged miracle did not prove that they were sent by God, but they assumed that they were impostors, and attempted to silence them by authority. It has been usual with the enemies of religion to attempt to intimidate its friends, and when argument fails, to attempt to silence Christians by appealing to their fears.’ (Barnes)

4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, replied, “Rulers of the people and elders, 4:9 if we are being examined today for a good deed done to a sick man—by what means this man was healed—4:10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, this man stands before you healthy.

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, replied – Peter is standing boldly before the very council that condemned his Master just a few weeks earlier, and from which he had hidden, out of fear for his life.  Now, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, he is able to speak wisely and boldly (see Lk 12:11f; 21:14f).  His boldness is in stark contrast to the usual submissive stance of a defendant before the Sanhedrin.  In fact, ‘instead of the expected defense, Peter gave them a sermon’! (Polhill)

It is reasonable to suppose, with Barnes, that Peter was motivated in part by an attitude of penitence.  At a critical moment, he had denied his Master.  Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he is determined to make amends.  It is not always possible for a repentant sinner to repair the evil he has done, but we should always be watchful for opportunities to do so.

‘Peter is in effect in this sentence reversing the roles in the judicial process; he, the accused, becomes the accuser; the judgment seat of the Sanhedrin is transformed into the judgment seat of God!’ (Milne)

Peter is here following his own advice, later given, 1 Pet 3:15.

‘What…is meant when Acts says that at a later time Peter and the other believers “were filled” with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8,31; 13:52; see also Acts 9:17 with Acts 13:9)? Perhaps the answer to this question can be gained by comparing the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus with that of the Spirit in the life of the church. Luke records that at Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him, filled him, was constantly leading him during the forty days of his wilderness testing (Lk 3:21-22; 4:1-2) and was present with him throughout the remainder of his life, (cf. Lk 4:14,18) even at the cross. (cf. Heb 9:4) Nevertheless, there are points noted by the Evangelists in the ministry of Jesus where it might be said that Jesus, “filled with the Spirit,” healed, spoke, saw or rejoiced. That is, he who was filled with the Spirit at all times was especially inspired by the Spirit at special moments during his ministry. For example, Luke records that on one such occasion “the power = Spirit, see Acts 1:8; Herm. /APC Man 11:21 of the Lord was at hand for him to heal.” (Lk 5:17) Again, when the woman with an incurable menstrual flow purposefully touched Jesus’ clothes, he knew “that power = Holy Spirit had gone out from him.” (Lk 8:46) Jesus’ disciples returned to him with word of their success over the forces of evil. At that instant, it would appear, the Spirit gave him a flash of insight to see in their successes Satan’s fall like a lightning bolt from heaven, for Luke goes on to say that “at that time Jesus, full of joy by the Holy Spirit,” began to praise God. (Lk 10:17-21) So it is with Peter and all other Christians, initially and continuously filled with the Holy Spirit from conversion. When they are faced with especially difficult and challenging experiences they need from the Holy Spirit a special endowment of insight, inspiration, effective speech, power and emotional strength successfully to carry out their mission in life.’ (DLNT)

“Let it be known…” – As Calvin says, Peter might have side-stepped the question, and offered some kind of excuse.  But, instead, he faces up to it directly.  Truly, Peter is now ‘the Rock’, as predicted by our Lord,  Jn 1:42; Mt 16:17, 18.  ‘The timid, trembling, yielding, and vacillating Simon; he who just before was terrified by a servant-girl, and who on the lake was afraid of sinking, is now transformed into the manly, decided, and firm Cephas, fearless before the great council of the nation, and in an unwavering tone asserting the authority of him whom he had just before denied, and whom they had just before put to death.’ (Barnes)

A good deed done to a sick man – The Jewish leaders were deeply suspicious of Jesus and those who followed him.  But, in fact, that had nothing to be afraid of, if only their own motives and desires were pure.  For Jesus brings good, not harm.

‘Here is a striking moment—the Church of Christ on trial for its kindness! Would that it had ever been so throughout its years.’ (Milne)

Healed – the same word – sozo – is translated ‘saved’ in v12.

Peter is perfectly happy to answer to question of the power or authority in whose name the miracle was performed.  It was performed by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene.  However, he is by no means willing to let it rest at that.  This will become the basis for a assertion about the nature of Jesus’ power.

4:11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone. 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.”

The stone that was rejected by you – The citation is from Psa 118:22, widely accepted as Messianic (cf. Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; 1 Pet. 2:4, 7).

There is salvation in no one else – Cf. Jn 14:6; 1 Tim 2:5.

“There is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” – Barnes remarks that in the word ‘given’ ‘it is implied that salvation has its origin in God; that a Saviour for men must be given by him; and that salvation cannot be originated by any power among men. The Lord Jesus is thus uniformly represented as given or appointed by God for this great purpose (Jn. 3:16; 17:4; 1 Co. 3:5; Ga. 1:4; 2:20; Ep. 1:22; 5:25; 1 Ti. 2:6; Ro. 5:15–18, 21); and hence Christ is called the “unspeakable gift” of God, 2 Co. 9:15.’

The word for ‘saved’ – sozo – is the same word used for the man’s healing (v9).  But, as Fernando says, ‘the meaning here is closer to the way it is used in Acts 2:40 (salvation from this perverse generation) and Acts 2:47 (attachment to the people of God). Peter is referring here to a broader meaning than simple deliverance from sickness or birth defect (which may also be included here). He is talking about a change of status from being rebels to being accepted among God’s people.’

So, although the word sozo may be used of any deliverance from pain, sickness or danger, its characteristic use in the NT is to deliverance from sin,  Mt 1:21; Lk 4:18; 19:10; Acts 5:31; Rom 8:21; Gal 5:1.  So Peter is moving here from a specific deliverance (of this man from his disability) to that greater deliverance that is needed by all (in this sense it is inclusive) and which only Jesus can provide (in this sense it is exclusive).

Note, then, that Peter takes the opportunity to move from a consideration of one specific healing to the message of the gospel for the whole world.  As Barnes says, ‘the mention of a part of the work of Jesus invited to a contemplation of his whole work.’

Note the ‘we’: ‘He places John and himself in the identical position of those whom he has newly accused of Messiah-slaying: for all distinctions are rendered void at the cross. There we are all equally helpless sinners, whether apostolic saints or adversarial Sanhedrin, and are all equally welcome there, to full and final salvation.’ (Milne)

As Milne succinctly states: ‘Here die all universalistic dreams…There is one way to salvation, and only one, the way that passes through Jesus Christ. His own claim is confirmed here: ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). For those who lived in ages before, notably within the covenant-community of Israel, salvation was also through Jesus, as His coming and self-sacrifice was anticipated. For all living subsequently salvation is by a trusting reliance upon Him and His atoning sacrifice on Calvary. There is no further option on offer. While for us today the virtue of the cross is projected forward, in the case of the Old Testament saints it is projected backwards (Matt. 8:16f; Luke 2:38; John 3:4f; 8:56; Rom. 4:25; 10:11–13; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:15; 10:12–14; 1 Pet. 1:18f). For them, no whit less than for us, atonement, ultimately considered, is by the blood of Christ.’

However, as Milne states, Peter’s assertion is inclusive as well as exclusive.  For the gospel ‘extends to all who come to Christ irrespective of their religious tradition and practices, or even their entire lack of them.’

It would be perverse to argue, as some do, that because Peter could not have known about the size of the earth or the number and variety of its people groups, his assertion here should be restricted to those groups with whom Christ and the apostles came into contact.  But ‘the consistent message throughout the NT is that Jesus is the only Savior for humanity. Human ignorance about the size of Earth’s landmass and human population has no bearing on the central facts of humanity’s need for redemption and the one means of redemption that is provided.’ There was no place more pluralistic than ancient Rome, and yet the message of Jesus as the only Saviour was preached their.  And, what is more, it is only Jesus and his gospel that address the deepest needs of all people everywhere.  (Holman Apologetics Commentary).

‘The consistent message throughout the NT is that Jesus is the only Savior for humanity. Human ignorance about the size of Earth’s landmass and human population has no bearing on the central facts of humanity’s need for redemption and the one means of redemption that is provided.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

‘Because in no other person but the historic Jesus of Nazareth has God become man and lived a human life on earth, died to bear the penalty of our sins, and been raised from death and exalted to glory, there is no other Saviour, for there is no other person who is qualified to save.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 49)

“…by which we must be saved” – The switch to first-person plural amounts, according to Polhill, to a direct appeal to the Sanhedrin.  Boldness indeed!

The word ‘must’, ‘together with the statement that God has given this name, reminds us that this is his appointed way of salvation. There is no other way’ (Williams)

4:13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 4:14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this.

The boldness of Peter and John – This ‘was the quality for which the disciples were later to pray (Acts 4:29, 31) and which characterized their public speaking (Acts 9:27f.; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; cf. Eph. 6:20; 1 Thess. 2:2).’ (Marshall)

Uneducated and ordinary – ‘The terms used here mean that they were ‘unlettered’ (agrammatoi) and unskilled ‘laymen’ (idiōtai), in the sense that they were not trained as interpreters of Scripture and rabbinic tradition’ (Peterson).  Although not highly educated in any conventional sense, Peter and John spoke with truthfulness (from Scripture) and conviction (from the Holy Spirit, v8).

Such terms were sometimes used of illiterate persons, leading some sceptics to conclude that such men could not have written the letters ascribed to them.

Sceptics such as Bart Ehrman take agrammatoi to mean that Peter and John were illiterate, and that they could not therefore have penned the NT documents attributed to them.  But this is to jump to far too many conclusions (about the meaning of the word itself, about whether, in context, their hearers were very much interested in their literacy levels, about whether they might any case have used amanuenses, and so on).

According to EBC, literacy levels were high amongst 1st-century Jews, whereas theological disputations required rabbinic training.

‘The King James Version says that the Sanhedrin regarded Peter and John as unlearned and ignorant men. The word translated unlearned means that they had no kind of technical education, especially in the intricate regulations of the law. The word translated ignorant means that they were laymen with no special professional qualifications. The Sanhedrin, as it were, regarded them as men without a college education and with no professional status. It is often difficult for the simple man to meet what might be called academic and professional snobbery. But the man in whose heart is Christ possesses a real dignity which neither academic attainment nor professional status can give.’ (DSB)

‘It has long been pointed out that the expression in Acts 4:13 does not mean that Peter and John were illiterate or profoundly ignorant but, from the point of view of contemporary theological proficiency, “untrained laymen” (NEB), not unlike Jesus himself (John 7:15). The astonishment of the authorities was in any case occasioned by the competence of Peter and John when they should have been (relatively) ignorant, not by their ignorance when they should have been more competent. Jewish boys learned to read. Since John sprang from a family that was certainly not poor (they owned at least one boat [Luke 5:3, 10] and employed others [Mark 1:20]), he may well have enjoyed an education that was better than average. And surely it would not be surprising if some of the leaders of the church, decades after its founding, had devoted themselves to some serious study.’ (Carson & Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament)

They were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus – who had caused similar amazement, Mk 1:22; Jn 7:15.  Marshall comments: ‘Perhaps the Jewish leaders remembered how difficult it had been to win an argument with Jesus. They were having the same difficulty now, and it was compounded by the fact that the healed man was there for all to see.’  The association with Jesus may also have been suggested by their Galilean accents.

They saw the man who had been healed standing with them – ‘All the while the Sanhedrin’s discomfort was only increased by the visible presence in the court of the lifelong cripple, who was doing there before their very eyes the one thing which he had been unable to do for all of his forty-odd years—standing!’

They had nothing to say against this – ‘The irony can scarcely be missed—the accused spoke with utter boldness and freedom; their accusers sat in stony silence.’ (Polhill)

4:15 But when they had ordered them to go outside the council, they began to confer with one another, 4:16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For it is plain to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable miraculous sign has come about through them, and we cannot deny it. 4:17 But to keep this matter from spreading any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”

‘Just how Luke knew what went on among the members of the Sanhedrin in closed session has often been debated, though we cannot know for sure. Perhaps Saul (Paul) was a member of the council at that time and he later told Luke. Or maybe Paul heard the gist of the discussion from his teacher Gamaliel and then told it to Luke. Or there may have been secret sympathizers of the apostles in the council who “leaked” to them what was said and from whom Luke picked it up. Most probable is the suggestion that the substance of the discussion was inferred from what was said to Peter and John when they were brought back to the meeting.’ (EBC)

“Let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in his name” – ‘Their fear was the spread of Christianity, which might have serious repercussions for the life of the community (cf. the attitude expressed in John 11:47–53), quite apart from the fact that the rehabilitation of Jesus among the people at large would cast the strongest aspersions on their own earlier action against him which had culminated in his execution.’ (Marshall)

Note carefully what the Sanhedrin did not do.  ‘It is particularly striking that neither here on this or on any subsequent occasion (so far as our information goes) did the Sanhedrin take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation—the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how readily would the Sanhedrin have seized the opportunity! Had they succeeded how quickly and completely the new movement would have collapsed! It is plain that the apostles meant a physical resurrection when they said that Jesus has risen; it is equally plain that the rulers understood them in this sense. The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the authority they had at their command could not produce it.’ (Bruce)

‘The plain fact of history is that when one reflects on this supreme court in Jerusalem, and recognizes their entire command of that Jerusalem society, all of its people and all of their movements, and that the period of their command encompassed, most critically, the immediate days and weeks around and following the date of the alleged resurrection of Jesus in the very location where it was claimed to have occurred, their demonstrable failure to successfully refute the apostolic claim is arguably a piece of evidence in support of the resurrection of hugely impressive weight.’ (Milne)

‘Poor fools they, to imagine that they in the Sanhedrin still retained the reins of spiritual and moral authority in the land. They were in effect appealing to an old order which had passed out of existence with the death and rising of Jesus. They had yet to wake up to the new world which had dawned, a world in which people marched to an entirely different beat, and took their orders from an entirely different throne.’ (Milne)

4:18 And they called them in and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 4:19 But Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, 4:20 for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

“Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide” – It was said of John Knox (1514–1572), that ‘he feared God so much that he never feared the face of any man.’

Conscientious objection

Peter was not alone in defying the authorities of the day: the Jewish midwives had done so (Ex 1), as had Moses’ parents (Heb 11:23; Daniel (Dan 1; 6), and the three Hebrew young men (Dan 3).  But of course, this text does not justify any and every form of civil disobedience.  Wiersbe notes the following common features:-

  1. Each had a clear message from God.  ‘The midwives and Moses’ parents knew that it was wrong to murder the babies. Daniel and his friends, and the three Hebrew men, knew that it was wrong to eat food offered to idols or to bow down to idols in worship. Peter and John knew that they were under orders from their Master to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and that it would be wrong to obey the Sanhedrin. All of these people were faithfully obeying a clear word from God and not just following some selfish personal whim of their own.
  2. They were dedicated to God in every part of their lives.  They did not stand up for the right in one area of their lives, but flout it in some other area.Second, their convictions touched every area of their lives.  ‘When a person’s total life is under the direction of a godly conscience, then I find it easier to have confidence in his unpopular decisions.
  3. They acted with respect and courtesy, (cf. Rom 13; Tit 3:1-2; 1 Pet 2:13-25).  ‘Daniel tried to avoid getting his guard into trouble, and the Apostles used their arrests as opportunities for witness. This is quite a contrast to some of the modern “Christian objectors” who seem to major on denunciation and accusation rather than loving witness. See, supremely, the example of our Lord, 1 Pet 2:13-25.  ‘Jesus teaches us that righteous protest against injustice always involves sacrifice and suffering, and must be motivated by love.’

“What we have seen and heard” – i.e. what Jesus has done and said; his works and words.

We must experience what we preach

‘If something that the Bible testifies about is not true in our lives, we must stop all our activity and grapple with God until we know that it is true for us, just as the disciples waited in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14). To believe in the Bible is to believe that what it says works, does in fact work. Jones tells the story of a young preacher who said, “I’ve been perjuring myself. I’ve been preaching things not operative within me. I’m through with this unreality. I’ll give God till Sunday to do something for me. And if he doesn’t do something for me before Sunday, someone else can preach. I won’t.” He took Saturday off as a day of retreat. God met him, and he went into the pulpit a new man. That Sunday the congregation got the shock of their lives—they had a new minister! The congregation found themselves seeking what their young minister had found.’ (Fernando, on Acts 1:1-8)

Let us bear witness

‘I miss this note of witness-bearing in contemporary Christianity. Many preachers bring carefully prepared scripts which they read with greater or less skill and conviction. But rarely do they let you know that this stuff is their very life blood. Rarely do they allow their own discovery of Jesus, their own profound convictions about him, the difference he has made to their own lives, to surface in their address. I do not know whether they think this is out of date, or embarrassing. I do know that sermons devoid of witness are drearily boring. I want to hear what Jesus can do to men of flesh and blood like me. I want it from the Scriptures, but I want it from the life too, and that is why witness is such an important part of the proclamation of the gospel. Often two minutes of honest testimony, the more broken and unschooled the better, is worth twenty minutes of eloquent discourse by some silver-tongued preacher. The early Christians knew this. They were not all preachers, but they were all witnesses. And they expected every Christian to have something to say about Jesus and the difference that Jesus makes to life. And where that happens in the world today, the church grows and people come to faith.’ (Michael Green, Acts for today, 87)

4:21 After threatening them further, they released them, for they could not find how to punish them on account of the people, because they were all praising God for what had happened. 4:22 For the man, on whom this miraculous sign of healing had been performed, was over forty years old.

‘Here for the first time is found a theme that will recur throughout Acts—the rejection of the Messiah by the Jews. For many of them, particularly their official leadership, he was, and continued to be, the stone rejected by the builders.’ (Polhill)

How could such highly religious people be so wicked?

How (asks Milne) do we account for the fact that the members of the Sanhedrin, with their daily acts of prayer and worship, love and study of the Scriptures, and sacrificial giving, could act with such heinous injustice, first against Jesus himself, and now against his followers?  ‘Its accounting lies in the way in which the lure of influence, and power over others, can seduce and finally dominate human personality, especially when bolstered by entrenched mutual loyalties, to the point that higher human values of sensitivity, compassion, and justice are routinely overridden. Once this reversal is in place, the point is quickly reached where everything becomes dispensable in the interests of the preservation of these all-consuming, ego-serving, interests and goals.’

What was the secret of the apostles’ success?

It was surely a totally unequal contest.  On the one side, all 71 members of the Sanhedrin, ’embracing all the political, military (with Roman approval), social, religious, moral, administrative, intellectual and scholarly authority available within the Jewish state of the period.’  On the other wide stood Peter and John, ‘uneducated and ordinary men’ ‘totally lacking all of the Sanhedrin’s multiple credentials and paraphernalia of power’.  The Sanhedrin thought they had dealt with Jesus; the apostles know him as Living Lord who presence dominates the present account.  And this is why the Christian faith has not only survived for two thousand years, but will at last prove to be triumphant over all opposition.  ‘It is not because Christians are wonderful people; in fact they are routinely demonstrated to be deeply ordinary and flawed. But they are not alone, the Risen and Reigning Lord is among them. That is the faith, and that is its certain Victory!’ (Milne)

Six characteristics of significant service

Following Fernando, we might identify the following from the present passage:-

  1. An anointing by the Holy Spirit, v18
  2. Courage, v13
  3. Use of every opportunity to share the gospel
  4. Similarity to Christ, v13 – his boldness, miracles, and use of Scripture
  5. Loyalty to God in the face of opposition, v19f
  6. Confidence in the gospel, v20

The Followers of Jesus Pray for Boldness, 23-31

Polhill notes that just as after Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost we were given an insight into the life of the Christian community, so here after his speech before the Sanhedrin.  But here the prayer that they uttered is recorded in some detail.

4:23 When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them.

Peter and John went to their fellow believers – Although some interpreters think that this expression refers to the fellow apostles (and therefore the prayer is for boldness among that specific group) Polhill insists that the connotation is wider.  After all, it was not only the apostles who spoke boldly: very soon Stephen (Acts 6:10) and Philip (Acts 8:5) would be doing so also.  The whole community was involved in both proclamation and prayer.

‘The depth of mutual engagement needs to be noted; quite simply these earliest Christians are already bound together in a sense of belonging which transcends anything previously experienced. Their life together in Christ is their defining identity.’ (Milne)

Peter and John shared their troubles with their brethren. This reminds us of the value of Christian fellowship, and of sharing our troubles as well as our joys. It’s easy to assume that telling others about our problems is an activity for weaker or more vulnerable folk; but here it is the apostles.

4:24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 4:25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather,
‘Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot foolish things?
4:26 The kings of the earth stood together,
and the rulers assembled together,
against the Lord and against his Christ.’

Here we have the longest recorded prayer in Acts.

This first part of the prayer is also the longest.  In it, the believers utmost express confidence in the God who is sovereign in creation, speaks through Scripture, and controls history.

They raised their voices to God with one mind and said – We are not to suppose that they all prayed in unison, or from a script, but rather that one spoke on behalf of them all, ‘and the whole company gave audible assent’ (Alexander).

Milne notes that corporate prayer gatherings have been a feature of the Christian church down the ages, not least in association with times of spiritual awakening.  The neglect of such gatherings for prayer may account, in large measure, for the weakness and ineffectiveness of large sections of the church today.  The pattern (Mt 6:9) and the promise (2 Chron 7:14) stand.

1. The Appeal

(a) They appealed to the Sovereign Lord. As preachers like to point out, the word translated ‘Master’ of all’ is despotes, from which we get our term ‘despot’.  The term was used of a slave owner and of a ruler of unassailable power. The Sanhedrin thought it was all-powerful; but it was not.  ‘The Jewish high court might utter warnings, threats and prohibitions, and try to silence the church, but their authority was subject to a higher authority still, and the edicts of men cannot overturn the decrees of God’ (Stott).

‘The God on whom they call is the Lord God Almighty, the Reigning and Infinite One, who is sovereign over all; the one whom Gabriel would describe as the God for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Luke 1:37), and Paul as ‘him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). This is the God who revealed Himself to Abraham, facing the ‘impossibility’ of a son in Sarah’s and his own great age, ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at this time next year and Sarah will have a son’ (Gen. 18:14). It is the God who, with Jerusalem, and all Judah with it, facing imminent destruction by the encircled Babylonian army, tells Jeremiah to buy a field in the local district of Anathoth, because ‘I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?’ (Jer. 32:27). It is this conviction of God’s infinite ability which is implicit in all sincere prayer, and which alone makes prayer a reasonable, meaningful and worthy activity.’ (Milne)

(b) They appealed to the God who created all things. How it strengthens and encourages us in prayer, to think that the One who hears our petitions is the Sovereign Lord, the Creator of all things.

Milne comments that for us moderns, with our knowledge of the vastness of the macro-cosmos and the intricacy of the micro-cosmos, the sense of God as Creator of all things should be yet more wondering, and provide a yet more secure foundation for prayer.

(c) They appealed to the God who has spoken in Scripture.  These verses quote the opening of Psa 2. ‘The prayer is based upon, and finds its intercessory fulcrum in, divine revelation’ (Milne).  When our prayers are focussed on what is revealed in Scripture, then we are showing God his own handwriting, and we know that he will be faithful to what he has already revealed.

‘Calvin (citing Tertullian) insisted that prayer is asking God for what he has promised. The citation of Psalm 2 in this prayer is designed to accomplish precisely that.’ (Thomas, REC)

We should note the reference to the ‘dual authorship’ of the psalm (and, by extension of all inspired Scripture): ‘[God] said by the Holy Spirit through [his] servant David’.

‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things?’ – ‘Satan is on the loose; but he is on a leash’ (Barclay).

The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ – And that was happening right now.  The great and the powerful of this world itch themselves against ‘the Lord and his Christ’ as they face up against the two apostles.  It’s no contest! ‘He who sits in the heavens laughs!’ (Psa 2:4).  ‘There can be few things more energizing to the believing heart than to catch the echoes of that heavenly dismissal of every assemblage of opposition, demonic or human, individual or corporate, from earth or hell. This laughter does not of course imply any diminution of the tears of God over a rebellious world, nor his utter identification with those who weep among all the nations. But there is a place too for his triumphant discounting of His enemies. He is Lord; He is ever so, world without end; blessed be His name.’ (Milne)

‘Christ’ translates ‘anointed one’.  The reference was regarded as Messianic as early as the middle of the 1st century BC.

In Psa 2, David was foretelling the mighty conspiracy against Jesus and the gospel: the nations rage, the peoples plot, the kings take their stand, and the rulers gather together against God and his Christ.

What the disciples are saying is this: we needn’t be surprised or shocked when we see Christ and his followers opposed. Lord, you knew beforehand that these things would happen; you foretold them in your word. Many are the dreadful things that wicked people do. And none worse than when they opposed and persecuted and ridiculed and crucified the Lord of Glory. But God is never taken by surprise. He is never caught out. Even that blackest of all deeds was foreseen by God and woven into his master-plan for the salvation of the world.

Saturated in Scripture

‘The Christians in Acts were saturated in Scripture. The Bible figured in their discussions before they made decisions (Acts 1:20); it formed the heart of their sermons (Acts 2:14–41) and of their defense when brought to trial (Acts 7:2–50). From their reserves of Bible knowledge they could draw out passages that spoke to situations they faced. All in all there are about two hundred references to the Old Testament in Acts, either by direct quotation, synopsis of a passage, or allusion to some event. The early Christians challenge us to be similarly saturated in Scripture.’ (Fernando’

4:27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 4:28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen.

(d) They appealed to the God who controls history.

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” – God’s lordship, so strongly affirmed in the psalm just quoted, extends even to the ‘very conspiracy of opposition to Jesus which ended in the cross’ (Milne).  For this emphasis on God’s sovereignty over the events leading up to and culminating in the Cross, see also Lk 24:26, 46; Acts 2:23; 3:18.

God is sovereign in history

How many people burn themselves on this red-hot truth! How they struggle to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility! But here are two truths, both taught in Scripture, and so nearly parallel that their convergence will only be discerned when earthly things are no more.

The cross no accident

‘The cross an accident? The cross a surprise? The cross something that might not have happened and that need not have happened? The cross merely something that God uses? No, the cross was planned, foreordained, before the world was ever created. Before man was ever made, God had planned the death of Christ His Son. This is the explanation, and these first believers had seen it.’ (Lloyd-Jones)

4:29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 4:30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

The Request

(a) They asked for courage to speak God’s message. They do not ask for the removal of opposition, but for boldness in proclaiming God’s word in the face of that opposition.  In other words, their prayer is not, ‘Change our circumstances’, but ‘Change us’. They did not ask to be delivered from a difficult situation, but to be sent back into it with increased boldness.  How many times do we ask God to change what is happening to us, when we should be asking him to change what is happening inside us. Here are two simple prayers that you can pray, that are absolute dynamite: ‘Lord, use me’; and, ‘Lord change me’.

‘Following their gaze at God, the problems facing these believers received only a glance, while their major request had to do with obedience (v. 29). Today too obedience to God should be our primary concern when we face crises.’ (Fernando)

‘I sometimes think when I read this prayer that I have never prayed at all! It forces us to ask serious questions about what we might have done in this situation. Like our day, these apostles had wives, children, and aging parents to think about! They could have reasoned their way out of this, and we would have understood and sympathized with them. But they did not. They were resolute and instant in their response. They decided that God’s will for them was to be faithful no matter what the cost. They recognized their weakness and prayed for the help of the Holy Spirit.’ (Thomas, REC)

(b) They asked for miracles. Their prayer is not now for miracles of vengeance or destruction, Lk 9:54, but for miracles of mercy. Miracles, not for themselves, to make their lives easier, or more exciting; but miracles to show God’s grace, and to adorn the preaching of the gospel. Someone has truly said that miracles are the bell which calls men and women to God’s sermon.

‘The prayer is not primarily that the opponents will be brought to naught. Rather, on the assumption that this will inevitably happen, the church asks for strength to carry on witnessing during the time while they still continue to be able to exercise their opposition. The Lord’s servants need courage (v13) to stand up to the threats against them and continue to proclaim the Word. At the same time, they are conscious how much the effectiveness of their preaching was aided by the healings and other miraculous signs worked by the Lord through the name of Jesus, and they prayed for the continuation of these.’ (I.H. Marshall)

‘It is significant that the only two requests in this prayer have to do with evangelism, which has just been outlawed! These people have a consuming passion for evangelism, and the only practical things that come to mind in this time of crisis are related to fulfilling the evangelistic task.’ (Fernando)

4:31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously.

The Answer

(a) A physical manifestation of God’s presence

The place…was shaken – God shakes things up with a quick earthquake on one more occasion in Acts (16:26), when Paul and Silas were in prison. I’ve also read about it occuring in some subsequent revivals. Now, whether or not you’ve ever had to call out a structural surveyor during a prayer meeting, know this: the same God who came and shook the foundations of the building as the disciples prayed, is the same God who hears and answers the prayers of his people today.

(b) A pouring out of the Holy Spirit

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit – they were filled with God! They hadn’t even asked for that! But God is saying to them and to us, ‘I don’t just fill you with good things; I fill you with myself.’ Don’t just seek God for what he can do for you; seek him for himself. Notice that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did not do away with the need for further ‘fillings’ on subsequent occasions. Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit need to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.

(c) Boldness in speaking God’s word

They spoke the word of God boldly – they continued to preach the gospel despite the warnings of the counsel. God didn’t take away the persecution: in the next chapter, the apostles are thrown into jail again. But God gave them the boldness they asked for. See Acts 5:29.

‘Once again, these Christians were “all filled with the Holy Spirit,” as had been the case on the day of Pentecost (Acts 4:31; cf. 2:4) and as Peter had been the previous day (Acts 4:8). As we have seen, believers already filled with the Spirit experienced another filling or empowering from the Spirit so that they could meet a particularly difficult situation. What is of special interest in the cases Luke describes is that the additional empowering by the Holy Spirit always enabled the disciples to witness and speak. These ordinary men and women, with no particular learning or training, without any evangelistic methods, were enabled to speak because they were filled with the Spirit. By the power of the Spirit, they were prepared to face opposition, beatings, imprisonments, and even death. They were convinced of the truth of the gospel, and they could not be kept quiet.’ (Thomas, REC)


Well, how do you feel about all this? Excited, or exasperated? Excited, because you can seen the possibilities of God at work in your own life? Or exasperated, because you’ve never aspired to this level of prayer and witness?

Realise that more things are accomplished by prayer than we can ever know this side of eternity. John Wesley boldly asserted that ‘God does nothing but in answer to prayer’. See Acts 2. The vast potential of prayer goes largely untapped today: we have this great resource, and we use it so stingily. We are like millionaires who have somehow been persuaded to think that we are paupers and so seldom draw upon those vast riches of grace that God has stored up for us.

Be prepared to start small. All this talk about apostles and saints and martyrs who were mighty in prayer can be very discouraging for us ordinary mortals, and we may feel inclined to give up praying altogether. But the message is this: if you can’t pray as you would like to, pray as you can. If you can’t pray for the conversion of the world, pray for a few souls. If you don’t have the confidence to shout the gospel from the roof-tops, then pray for boldness to share Jesus in some quieter ways, in your family, amongst your friends, at school or college or work. Pray for an opportunity to speak to someone this week about Jesus.

But above all, pray. Pray like the persecuted Christians of old, who shared their troubles with each other, who appealed to their Sovereign Lord, who asked for boldness for themselves and miracles for others, and who God answered, by sending an earthquake, by pouring out his Holy Spirit, and by making them ready to proclaim the good news of Jesus whatever the cost.

Conditions Among the Early Believers, 32-37

4:32 The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common.

‘As in music, though there be several strings of a viol, yet all make one sweet harmony; so, though there are several Christians, yet there should be one sweet harmony of affection among them. There is but one God, and they that serve him should be one. There is nothing that would render the true religion more lovely, or make more proselytes to it, than to see the professors of it tied together with the heart-strings of love. ‘Behold how good and how pleasant a thing it is, to see brethren live together in unity!’ Ps 133:1. It is as the sweet dew on Hermon, and the fragrant ointment poured on Aaron’s head. If God be one, let all that profess him be of one mind, and one heart, and thus fulfil Christ’s prayer, ‘that they all may be one.” (Thomas Watson)

4:33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all.
4:34 For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales 4:35 and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need.

As Milne remarks, the text falls short of saying that the selling off of lands and houses was either universal or mandatory.  Indeed, Acts 5:4 confirms that it was not.  ‘We should, however, not ignore the New Testament witness to the importance of the gift of hospitality (Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:10; Col. 4:10; Philem. 22). Even if not sold so as to increase our giving to God’s work, our homes and properties are not be hoarded as if ‘only ours.’ The Christian duty of hospitality is perhaps most clearly stated in 1 Peter 4:9: ‘Practise hospitality ungrudgingly to one another,’ a reference which interestingly occurs in the context of teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 10). Thus we can never complain of the lack of a gift of the Spirit if we have been given a home into which we can welcome people.’

4:36 So Joseph, a Levite who was a native of Cyprus, called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated “son of encouragement”), 4:37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and placed it at the apostles’ feet.

Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement) – son of paraklesis, i.e. of prophecy, encouragement (NIV, RSV, NRSV, NASB), exhortation, comfort, consolation (AV). ‘The office of a prophet being more than to foretell, all these interpretations are admissible in estimating Barnabas as a preacher.’ (ISBE)

Reviewing this chapter as a whole, Milne comments: ‘For all the gulfs of difference which stretch between Christian churches of today and the one described here in Acts 4, effective ministry still calls for many of the identical ingredients. We too need powerful prayer meetings, waiting upon God and calling upon Him for His enabling blessing. We too need the outstretched hand of God to fill us with His Spirit, and confirm His Word in ways that embolden our witness. We too need a spirit of mutual care expressed in sacrificial financial generosity so that there are no needy persons among us. We too need powerful and persuasive preaching of the good news of a risen Jesus. We too need congregations peopled by sons and daughters of encouragement.’

Barnabas, Paul and Mark