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Called to Give Account

Acts 4:1–31

Introduction: The arrest of Peter and John took place as a result of the publicly stirring nature of an apostolic sign and an apostolic sermon. The sign was the healing of a lame man so that all the people attending afternoon prayer at the temple saw the healing and heard the rejoicing of the man. This led to a sermon from Peter pointing to Christ as the source of this healing. He isolated Jesus as the only one who can so heal and, though rejected by them and crucified, God has proven by the resurrection that Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the prophetic promises.

I. Peter and John greatly annoyed the Religious elite – Verses 1–4 “Annoyed” can be, “indignant,” “highly troubled,” “grieved,” “disturbed.”

A. Who were these alarmed people?

    1. The Priests – Among the number of priests, divided into twenty–four classes, these were the ones officiating at the temple at this time, still during Pentecost celebration probably. (See 1 Chronicles 24:1–19). Their duties were assigned by lot. Some of them might even have been the teachers among whom Jesus sat when he was twelve (Luke 2: 46, 47).
    2. The Captain of the Temple – He was the chief administrator of a group of Levites responsible for maintaining order around the temple, especially during times of service. The activity of the lame man, once healed, and the resultant time of crowd-gathering and preaching would have threatened the order of the temple at this designated time of prayer (See also 5:24–26).
    3. The Sadducees – This sect of Jews controlled the high priesthood at this time (see 5:17). They were more aristocratic and political than their rival sect the Pharisees. It is probable that their name came from Zadokthe high priest during David’s time (2 Samuel 8:17; 15:24–29). Their rejection of resurrection, angels, spirits, (Acts 23:8) led to pivotal confrontations with Jesus (e.g. Matthew 22:23–33) and perhaps stemmed from the influence of Greek culture on them.

B. Their annoyance at the preaching of the resurrection was three-fold.

    1. One, these common men, untrained, now were “speaking, . . . teaching, . . and proclaiming” to the people, that is, in the office of teaching them the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead through the events that had happened in Jesus’ resurrection. The Priests, who were supposed to have the monopoly on the teaching function (Malachi 2:1–9) saw the power of doctrinal instruction in the speech of these untutored men.
    2. Two, this preaching affirmed that the one so recently executed by them as a blasphemer now lived. A resurrection, a coming back from the dead, would indicate that a miracle of the sort that only God could perform had been done. This would render false their entire judgment against him and made them, the religious leaders, opposers of the work of God.
    3. Three, this proved the Sadducees wrong theologically. They denied the resurrection, but certainly could maintain their argument no longer if this proclamation were a fact. Jesus confronted the Sadducees (Luke 20:27–40) on their views,. Paul used this theological disagreement in Acts 23:6–10 to divide those who were seeking to have him accused of criminal activity. It is amazing how a single fact can destroy a canonized opinion. The resurrection of Jesus overthrew the creed of the Sadducees.

C. Their detention of them for possible religious violation was within the province of their authority as they had a semi-independent sphere of operation on some aspects of life.

See Paul’s delineation of possible offenses in Acts 25:8. From them Paul had received his authority to arrest, bind, and submit to judgment the Christians that he opposed (Acts 22:5). Peter and John were put in custody until the next day for no judicial examination could take place in the evening, [contrary to what had been done with Jesus].

D. The number who believed on this occasion, added to the number that believed at Pentecost, plus those that were being added daily (2:47) brought the number of believers to 5000.

This fact in itself is a powerful testimony to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. In the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, the proclamation and teaching based on the claim of his resurrection had gained 5000 adherents, even though the cost of such belief was increasing. Had their claim been false, it easily could have been disproven by those who had deeply vested interests in its not being true, such as this cohort that now arrested Peter and John.

 

II. The elite religious leaders assemble and pose a question (5–7).

A. The general word for the group that gathered as denominated by Luke was “rulers.”

The constituent elements were elders, scribes, and the high priest’s family. According to Kitto’s History of the Bible this group, known as the Sanhedrin consisted of seventy-two members, seeking to duplicate the number of seventy elders appointed to assist Moses. Their gathering “in Jerusalem” indicates that some had to be summoned and journeyed into the city from smaller towns in the environs. The approximate distribution would be 24 priests (heads of the 24 priestly classes), 24 elders (heads of prominent families), and 22 scribes and lawyers, with perhaps at least two other members of the high priest’s family. Annas had formerly been high priest and is listed as such out of respect to his age and influence as we see in John 18:12–14. Caiphas, who actually was high priest, had just over two months before set in motion the plans to arrest and kill Jesus (John 11:49–53). They are finding it much more difficult to dispose of him than anticipated.

B. “In the midst” – This group sat in a semi-circle, cross-legged on mats and thus half surrounded Peter and John, a perfectly poised audience for this bold proclamation of the verification of Christ as Messiah and the exclusivity of his work as the means of salvation.

C. No more appropriate question could have been posed for the full manifestation of the work of Jesus.

They asked about the power and the name. Just how relevant this was they had no idea but they knew that something notable had been done. The Pharisees had proposed Satan as the power by which Jesus did his miraculous works of healing and casting out of demons (Matthew 12:22–32 cf Luke 11:14–23). The sinful folly that produced the absurdity of that suggestion now continued to operate in this response to healing a life-long lameness.

 

III. Peter preaches again. – Verses 8–13. Peter was only too eager to profess the Lord before this examining council as he had failed so miserably to do during Jesus’ trial (John 18:12–27).

He himself would be a manifestation of the power as he proclaimed the name of Jesus.

A. The blessing of the Holy Spirit – verse 8.

As at Pentecost, a special unction from the Holy Spirit prompted Peter’s concise clarity, his boldness, and the comprehensive substance of his message.

B. Restating the occasion of the inquisition – verse 9.

Peter restated the facts of the event that led to their initial sermon, the gathering of the people, and the general spirit of rejoicing that seemingly still prevailed (see verse 21) even after the arrest and the night in the temple prison.

    1. Peter addressed them respectfully, fully acknowledging their status within the Jewish community—“Rulers of the people and elders.”
    2. He reminded them that this meeting was not prompted by any crime but by a “good deed,” an act of pure benevolence.
    3. The object of this deed done in compassion was a “crippled man,” a debility that would have been obvious to all, with no possibility of its having been set for mere sensation by the apostles. He was “lame from birth,” and had to be carried and was “laid daily at the gate of the temple” (3:2). He was “more than forty years old” (4:22).
    4. None could deny his next observation in recounting the Sanhedrin’s query, “this man has been healed.” With a stroke of Spirit-given ingenuity Peter had set forth an indisputably clear and profound scenario to give place for an answer that could hardly be denied.

C. They answered the query. – verse 10.

They determined to give an answer in the form of a mandate that called for their consideration, but not theirs only; the truth was of universal application for it was about the long-awaited Messiah—“To all of you and to all the people of Israel.”

    1. They had asked in what name this deed had been done, and Peter identified the historical person already known and hated by this group. Jesus of Nazareth. This answer shows that the disciples did not intend to create a “Christ” unattached to the real historical figure. They pointed to the historical person as the very one who was himself the Christ. As Peter already had preached at Pentecost, “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified,” (2:36), so he now asserts.
    2. He then contrasts their treatment of Jesus with God’s determined purpose concerning him. In 3:13–16, Peter had already used this rhetoric of contrast to point to the incongruity between their judgment and God’s judgment.
      • They crucified him, an execution reserved for despicable enemies of the nations. To turn over one of their own people to the Romans for such an execution showed a hostility and hatred of the most base sort.
      • God raised him from the dead. God’s seal upon the events was an absolute contradiction to their perception; Jesus is the only one through whom death will be overcome.
      • The lame man—who perhaps had been summoned to this hearing also—“is standing before you well,” by the power of the name of Jesus.

D. Jesus is identified as a fulfillment of a sobering prophecy – verse 11.

Peter cited Psalm 118:22 as a Scripture predicting this rejection on their part. Verse 7 of Psalm 118, says in the prospective words of this one that was rejected, “I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” This has come true. These judgments are thoroughly defeated, though they will not believe it and repent. They still reject him. They rejected him, but he has become the cornerstone. Peter refers to this same text in 1 Peter 2:7. Since one of the purposes of Scripture is to bear witness to the sovereignty of God through its unwavering truthfulness, Peter concludes that since this Scripture must be fulfilled those who rejected this cornerstone stumbled in their disobedience to the word as “they were destined to do.” Jesus now is the cornerstone of a new house being built on the basis of a new and better covenant (1 Peter 2:9, 10; Hebrews 9:11–17).

E. They affirmed the exclusivity of salvation in Christ – verse 12.

    1. There is salvation in no one else. Salvation means that one is rescued from an impending destructive force. Man, entrenched in sin and rebellion and thus subject to the wrath of God cannot escape unless a means of salvation comes to deliver them from a justly enraged God.
    2. “No other name” – The name includes the fullness of the work and integrity of the person. Jesus as the God-man who bore the penalty of sin in himself, fully paid its claim, and demonstrated the acceptability of both his payment and his perfectly honorable life by loosing the bonds of death. Death has no more claim on those who are in Christ Jesus, for it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2:24).
    3. “Under heaven, given among men” – In the view of heaven, where God dwells, no other name could warrant salvation. He alone is acceptable. For all men everywhere, this is the only solution to the problem of sin and death which prevails over every person.
    4. “By which we must be saved” – This phrase points to a moral oughtness. Not one single person can escape the righteous wrath of God if they do not experience this specific rescue. Only Jesus saves. We cannot venture before God’s holy omniscience in the day of judgment if we are not clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

F. The power, confidence, and mental alacrity of Peter and John is an evidence of the truth of Jesus’ claims about himself.

These men had not learned their understanding of divine truth from the schools of the day or at the feet of any of the well-respected rabbis. The Sanhedrin came to recognize that these two men were among the followers of Jesus during his earthly ministry. From him they had learned what his work on earth was, and from him they had received promises of a ministry of the Spirit by which they would more clearly understand all that he had said. The Spirit also would teach them more things that they could not bear even while he was with them. The messages recorded in quick succession in the book of Acts show the truth and power of Jesus’ promises concerning the “Comforter” and “Teacher” that he would send.

 

IV. The council has a difficulty in the conflict between facts and predisposition (14–22).

A. They give a candid, but private, acknowledgement of the facts (14–16).

    1. The palpable evidence of the miraculous in the power of Jesus’ name stood before them (14). They could not deny it any more than they could deny that there he stood. Such an undeniable reality severely challenged their assumptions, but their assumptions rather than invincible evidence would win their action. In the same way, perhaps with greater subtlety and sophistication, certain world views of rationalism and scientism reject doctrines and truth-claims built on principles of divine revelation.
    2. They wanted neither the apostles nor the healed man to hear the character nor the content of their discussion. Their hypocrisy was brazen. To state it, however, in the very presence of its refutation was too severe a blow to their pride. The contradiction to their driving purpose must be dismissed.
    3. Note the absurdity of their discussion (17). A life-giving miracle had been done in the name of Jesus. This council exhibited no compassion for others or conviction of their own erroneous views; Instead, they wanted to prohibit any knowledge of the power of the name of Jesus to reverse the effects of the fall. This should not spread among the people. We find totalitarian governments today taking similar action when the gospel operates to free people from the absoluteness of earthly authority and materialistic philosophy.

B. They gave an order arising solely from their prejudice (18).

In accordance with their agreement, the priestly council issued an absolute prohibition of further action, no matter of what nature, in the name of Jesus. They were highly aware (“we cannot deny it”) of their lack of conformity to the popular approval (“all who live in Jerusalem”) of this miraculous work of healing (“a noteworthy miracle”), but they resented the implication that their entire aura of spiritual authority and knowledge of Scripture was challenged by these events (16). Their only resort, therefore, was to seek to overcome both observable evidence and biblical proclamation by irrational authority—“not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (18).

C. Peter and John place the council in a dilemma (19–22).

What Jesus had said was coming to pass, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. [Their answers reflect this kind of wisdom.] But beware of men, for they will deliver you to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” Matthew 10:16, 17). The answer of Peter and John, wise as a serpent but harmless as a dove, placed a burden of an idolatrous exaltation of self on the council.

    1. Their answer (19) made the council judge whether obedience to human authority had priority over obedience to divine authority. Not only did they juxtapose these two spheres of obedience, but they reminded the council that all of this took place “in the sight of God.” This was not a contest of authority between the apostles and the priests. Rather, their actions reflected acknowledgement of divine omniscience, the conscientious perception of what is “right” in an absolute sense, obedience to divine mandate in light of covenantal fulfillment (3:25), and the council’s ability, or rather inability, to look with discernment and apply fitting action to the obvious moral imperative involved in this confrontation.
    2. The apostolic action was already determined by what they had “seen and heard.” In essence, John repeats this in 1 John 1:1—“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the word of life.” He does not refer only to the events immediately preceding this conflict, but to the entire ministry of Jesus, his teachings and claims, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, the presence and speech of the resurrected Jesus, fully adorned and manifest as the Christ, and the fulfillment of the Promise of the coming of the Spirit. They could not deny what they had seen and heard, nor would they deny it in light of the eternal and infinite implications of the message they now had to deliver.
    3. The council issued another irrational threat for them to stop doing the very thing that had caused such praise to God among all the people. The very thing that the priesthood should seek among the people was happening. The phenomenon, however, did not comport with either their preconceived notions or their selfish zeal for religious adulation among the people. What Jesus had said about them was being proved true to an incalculable degree (See Matthew 12:37; 15:14).

 

V. The church recognized the sovereign will and power of God prevailing (23–31).

A. The church invoked the Lord together (23, 24).

Even the apostles, under direct command from Jesus and under the immediate inspiration of the Spirit found within the fellowship of the church a needed source of encouragement. They reported to them the threats and peremptory orders of the priesthood.

B. The church expressed confidence in the sovereign power of God and in the truthfulness of divine revelation (25, 26).

The God who brought all things into being will surely acknowledge their earnest call to him. Nothing in heaven, or earth, or the sea can surprise him or wrest from him control of his intended purpose and end in creation. In addition, the God who stated the rage-filled resistance of earthly powers (Psalm 2:1, 2) to the manifestation of sovereign power by the Christ will see in their predicament precisely what the apostles and these early believers are facing.

C. The church acknowledged the outworking of biblical prophecy (27–28).

These earthly powers responded precisely to the manifestation of the prophet, priest, and king of all creation just in the way Psalm 2 anticipated. Now the church would expect the Lord to hold them in derision and manifest the glory of His Son through both conversion (“kiss the Son”) and judgment (“when his wrath is kindled but a little”). See Jesus’ acknowledgment of such rejection as predicted prophetically in Matthew 20:18; 26:56; Luke 18:31–33; Luke 20:13–19. They did not view this opposition as a failure of God to protect them but as an incentive to anticipate the full accomplishment of divine purpose. Not only Herod and Pontius Pilate but the “Gentiles and the people of Israel” did what God had predestined to occur. God’s redemptive purpose must take place in this fallen world where his holiness and his law are regularly and systematically resisted and nullified. Now, the holiest, most righteous, and most deeply gracious of all the divine actions would be resisted with the greatest demonstration of human vileness possible. Since God predestined redemption, he did so in the midst of a fallen human history weaving his pure purpose into the providential tapestry of human rebellion.

D. The church called upon God to continue his powerful work in the preaching of the apostles and other disciples (29–31).

They did not ask for less opposition but for sustained boldness and divine confirmation of their message about the power and redemptive outworking of the completed mission of Jesus. God gave immediate confirmation that, in spite of the appearance of earthly power on the part of the enemies of apostolic preaching, God’s power was present, and their mouths would be filled with convicting and saving truth (See Mark 13:9–13).

 

How great would your disturbance be,
If you rejected resurrection,
And some spoke undeniably
Whose word put it beyond all question?

“We have seen Him with our eyes;
Jesus from the grave did rise;
By his pow’r the lame now walk,
Blind men see, the mute can talk.

By God’s own will this dead man lives,
The man named Jesus you crucified.
In him resides the life he gives,
And through his grace we are justified.

Greater than the lame made whole,
None but Jesus saves our soul;
Saving grace meets all our needs.

Through his death, he intercedes.

Taught not by man, but taught by God,
They knew what they saw and what it meant.
“Silence that name or feel the rod.”
“Keep preaching Jesus is our intent.”

Rebels won’t the truth abide,
Close their minds, put truth aside;
In face of fact they waver,
The path of folly favor.

The peoples plot the nations rage
Against the way that God will save us.
Jesus met death and paid sin’s wage,
So in his Name the Lord engaged us.

Planned before the world began,
Trusting still in God’s own hand,
Boldly we must preach the word,
Speaking what we’ve seen and heard.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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