Unstoppable Courage

| Acts 4:1-20

Week of November 13, 2016.

The Point:  God gives us courage to speak boldly for Christ.

The Cost of Discipleship:  Acts 4:1-20.

[1]  And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, [2]  greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. [3]  And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. [4]  But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. [5]  On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, [6]  with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. [7]  And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” [8]  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, [9]  if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, [10]  let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by him this man is standing before you well. [11]  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. [12]  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [13]  Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. [14]  But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. [15]  But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, [16]  saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. [17]  But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” [18]  So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. [19]  But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, [20]  for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  [ESV]

“The Cost of Discipleship [1-22].  After healing the lame man in the outer section of the temple, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin Council to give an account for their actions. Jesus not only had promised His disciples that they would be absurdly happy by the knowledge of what salvation had purchased for them, but had also warned them that they would be in constant trouble. This is what we encounter here. The disciples were in trouble because they had obeyed what Jesus had told them to do. One might think that healing a cripple, a man who had been this way for over forty years would have been a cause for joy! But as far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, it was the fact that the action had been done in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth [3:6] that caused them offense. It quickly becomes apparent that it is not the healing as such that has exercised the Sanhedrin but the disciples teaching: the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead [4:1-2]. The word teaching is noteworthy in Luke’s account. He has already used this word to describe one of the four hallmarks of the early Christian church: they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers [2:42]. The Sanhedrin were upset by the continued affection for and claims made about Jesus, whom they had convinced the Roman authorities to crucify barely two months earlier. They had hoped that by now Jerusalem would have abandoned all affection for Jesus, viewing Him as one more misguided messianic pretender. It must have been unnerving indeed that not only were His disciples still talking about Him, but they were also claiming that He had risen from the dead and was demonstrating His power in acts of miraculous healing. Peter and John are arrested and put in custody until the next day, for it was already evening [4:3]. The lateness of the day meant that any investigation into the matter had to wait until the following day. The two apostles, therefore, must spend a night in jail. It is barely six weeks since Jesus’ death, and already the disciples are suffering on His account. Boldness has already gripped the postresurrection disciples of Jesus. The Peter who denied knowing Jesus at the time of his Savior’s trial was now prepared to go to prison for Him. Does such boldness and courage characterize our discipleship? Are we prepared to suffer for the sake of the gospel? Do we find ourselves complaining because we are enduring a minor inconvenience, when our brothers and sisters in some parts of the world are experiencing imprisonment, torture, and even death for their testimony to Jesus Christ?

The Rapid Growth of the Church.  Following Pentecost, Luke informs us that the church numbered about three thousand souls [2:41]. Following Peter’s sermon and the arrest of Peter and John, many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand [4:4]. Luke uses the gender-specific term for males here. If we add women and children to this figure, we have a much larger number. Despite the onset of persecution (note the adversative, but [4]), the church is nevertheless growing. The times of refreshing to which Peter had alluded [3:20] had already begun to manifest themselves. A true birthing of genuine faith began to emerge by the power of the Spirit. What normally occurs over large stretches of time had now occurred in a matter of weeks. The city of Jerusalem was vibrant, as believers gathered together in houses and street corners to talk about their newfound faith in Jesus Christ. The aftershocks of the earthquake that was Pentecost were still affecting Jerusalem. Soon, the faith would spread beyond the city into Samaria and Judea and the ends of the earth [13:47]. This growth of the church is something we have every right to wish to see occur again in our time. Then, as now, it must be viewed as a sovereign outpouring of the Spirit. We must call upon Him to come down and break through our lethargy and embolden us, as He did these apostles, giving us both the desire and the courage to bear witness to Jesus Christ without regard for personal consequences. We must be prepared, however, that like the early church, we may, in addition to the church’s growth, see along with it the indefatigable hostility to the gospel and those things that belong to the realm of the Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit.  Following the night Peter and John spent in prison, the formalities of an investigation took place [4:5-7]. The rulers and elders and scribes constitute the Sanhedrin. Rulers is a general term that would include the chief priests mentioned in verse 6. Elders is a general term applicable to both priests and laymen. The scribes were the lay, Pharisaic scholars. Annas the high priest is mentioned first, even though he had held office much earlier (from 6 to 15), but his influence was evidently still powerful. Caiaphas, his son-in-law, was the actual high priest at the time, officiating from 18 to 36. Luke draws attention to an important feature of Peter when he describes him as filled with the Holy Spirit [4:8]. It is possible that Luke is merely giving expression to what was permanently true of Peter as a consequence of his coming in faith in Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, Luke described all as filled with the Holy Spirit [2:4]. More likely, here in Acts 4, Luke is describing a particular phenomenon related to the activity to which Peter had now been called. In verse 31, Luke writes something very similar: they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. It seems that Luke wants us to appreciate a special and particular filling of the Holy Spirit that enables Peter to meet the circumstances he now faces. It is because Peter is filled with the Spirit that he is able to face his circumstances with courage and boldness. In one sense, every believer is filled with the Spirit and baptized with the Spirit. If we do not have the Spirit, then we are not believers, and we are not in communion with the risen Jesus Christ [Rom. 8:9]. Nevertheless, Paul can make the exhortation, Be filled with the Spirit [Eph. 5:18], implying that there is to be an ongoing and continual filling, made all the more necessary in opportunities for proclaiming the gospel. The sense here is not a once-for-all filling experience, either at conversion or at some time subsequent to it. Rather, it is an exhortation to a continual filling. Here in Acts 4, it would seem that the filling is to be understood as meeting the particular demands placed upon the apostles by their imprisonment. In the hour of trial, the Spirit enables us to persevere amid forces of opposition. The Spirit is our Helper, just as Jesus had promised in the upper room. In evangelistic opportunities when we are uncertain about what to say, the Holy Spirit promises to help us. In circumstances where we might think we have no ability to endure, the Holy Spirit will come and fill us and energize us. After all, this is Peter, a man given to staggering self-doubt and failure. Just a few months before, immediately following Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter was reduced to a cowering, frightened individual when a young girl recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples [Matt. 26:69-75]. What a change had taken place since then. Peter witnessed powerfully on the day of Pentecost, and now he manages to get himself arrested. His boldness amid the ordeal was the Spirit’s work, just as the growth of the church that accompanied it had been.

The Response of the Apostles.  The response of the church to this opposition is breathtaking. Note Peter’s response especially. The apostles have been arrested and have spent the night in a prison cell in less than salubrious circumstances. The next morning they were brought before the Sanhedrin Council to be questioned. And what does Peter do? He does the same thing that got him imprisoned in the first place! He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, clearly and unapologetically [4:8-12]. Peter preached Jesus Christ. This in itself is a wonderful example of boldness and courage. Something has clearly happened to Peter from the time we saw him at Jesus’ arrest. Filled with the Spirit, he puts his life on the line and proclaims the very gospel that had angered the Sanhedrin. This is Peter’s third sermon so far in Acts. He was doing exactly what he will later exhort all Christians to do when facing trials and opposition: always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you [1 Peter 3:15]. Peter was urging his readers to keep the faith and have an eye for eternal issues. In this sermon, for the third time, Peter lays the blame for the crucifixion on the Sanhedrin Council [4:10; 2:23,36]. They had been responsible for the death of Jesus, and they needed to come to appreciate their guilt in order to discover the forgiveness that lay at the heart of the gospel. Unless this sin was first of all exposed, they would not see their need of a Savior – certainly not one who died such a death as crucifixion, a stumbling block to Jews. In rejecting Jesus Christ, the Jews had rejected the chief cornerstone of the kingdom of God, and thus they had doomed themselves to eternal ruin. Peter also asserts the exclusivity of Jesus as the way of salvation. There is no other name under heaven given to men except the name of Jesus. No other way of salvation is possible apart from faith alone in Jesus Christ alone [4:12]. What an extraordinary statement that is! In our own time, it is not the statement that Jesus saves that is offensive, but the insistence that He alone can save, thus making every other religion false and a form of idolatry. Peter’s response is breathtaking. In the face of possible reprisals, he was fearless. Peter preached the same message he had preached before his arrest. He tells his captors that there is only one way a man or woman can be rescued from the guilt of sin and the certainty of the coming judgment. It is by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. In doing so, he was making a very public resolve not to be intimidated by any threat made against him by the Sanhedrin Council. Peter will obey God and not men. When the Sanhedrin admonished him not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus, Peter responded by disobeying the commands of the authorities. Peter’s obedience to civil and religious authorities could not go beyond his obligation to obey the word of God. He could not obey this stricture because it violated something that is greater: the truth of God and of the gospel. That is Christ’s call for every believer. I wonder what we might have said to the Sanhedrin if they had asked us not to speak about Jesus Christ to anyone. Whatever the desired response of the Sanhedrin might have been to Peter’s statement, they were hampered in doing it because public opinion was evidently against them [14-22]. The authorities could find no way to punish the apostles because of the people [21]. In God’s goodness, the apostles were spared further punishment by the restraint of the general population. However, several items are now noteworthy. First, even the Sanhedrin took note of the boldness of Peter and John [4:13]. Peter had been bold in his response to their questioning. The apostles were under a sense of compulsion to preach the good news of the gospel. Second, the apostles were uneducated, common men [4:13]. They were not trained interpreters of Scripture from the rabbinic tradition. Third, the Sanhedrin recognized that the apostles had been with Jesus [4:13]. Like Peter and John, Jesus had received no formal training either, but His influence upon these apostles was life-changing. The authorities could tell immediately that what Peter had proclaimed was not a message that he had invented by himself; it was a message that spoke about Jesus and reflected time spent with Jesus. The apostles were Christ-centered in their testimony, and even unbelievers recognized it. Unable to escape the fact that the man healed by the apostles was standing before them, and unable to avoid noticing the interest and support of the general population, the Sanhedrin decide to invoke a warning to the apostles. Peter and John must no longer speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus [4:18]. It was a prohibition impossible to obey. In doing so, the apostles would have been violating the most basic instruction given to them by the Savior before His ascension [Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8]. The apostolic response, therefore, was both immediate and confrontational: obeying such a command was not possible! We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard, the apostles insisted [4:20]. When civil or religious authorities forbid what God requires or require what God forbids, some form of civil disobedience, with acceptance of penal consequences, becomes inescapable. No Christian engages in such a response lightly, but no authority may overrule our requirement to obey God. The church and the governing authorities in Jerusalem are set on a collision course. Faithful gospel ministry demands such courage. If placed in similar circumstances, are we willing to offer such a response as that offered by the apostles in Jerusalem that day? There may come a day when preaching the exclusiveness of Jesus as the only way of salvation may incur a “hate crime” from the point of view of the secular state. Declaring that all other forms of salvation are false may one day be viewed as a judgment of intolerance by the secular state. If such a day should come, will we be willing to declare with the apostles: we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard [4:20]. If we shrink now from giving a faithful witness to our Savior, when no such threat exists, how will we possibly remain faithful if such a threat materializes? Let us pray that God the Holy Spirit would grant us the same boldness as was given Peter and John.”  [Thomas, pp. 91-103].

“In sum, this first touch of persecution against the apostles shows that the Jewish leadership’s reaction to God’s activity is completely inadequate. Here is an obvious healing that even they recognize. Yet they are concerned not about responding to the apostolic message to which the healing points but about trying to silence the apostles with threats and the use of council power. In the face of such pressure, the apostles are courageous and bold, speaking forth Jesus’s uniqueness and making clear that they will obey God no matter what the council threatens. They are willing to suffer for what they believe and to proclaim Jesus in obedience to God. These first-century Spirit-filled men knew their calling and would not be deterred. They would serve and preach God’s way through Jesus, the only one through whom salvation comes. They show that suffering is not to be feared, nor is it necessarily an indication of failure. In fact, it may well come with the territory of sharing the need for Jesus in a world that seeks self-sufficiency. God has not called them to preach a gospel without sacrifice. If Jesus, the servant and example, experienced sacrifice and rejection by many, should those who follow Him expect anything different? Those who minister with an appreciation of this truth and let God use His people as His vessels will not fear being poured out in whatever manner God calls for. There is an exclusiveness to Jesus’s work that is not popular today. It is seen in our culture as a blow against religious diversity as well as the cause of great religious and political strife throughout history, especially in European history up to the Enlightenment. But a key point is often missed. It is when religion is imposed that it does damage. Here we see apostles making an appeal and leaving the decision and consequences to individual response. There is no effort to impose the faith, only to inform about it and to stress the responsibility every creature ultimately has to be responsive to the living God. In addition, the offer of Jesus is made to all without discrimination. Thus the exclusiveness of the benefit is directly related to one’s willingness or unwillingness to be connected to the benefits. The church’s call is to be loyal to God in sharing the message and doing so in such a way that its impact on believers’ lives is evident. The call is not to impose the gospel on others. Some will not welcome such a testimony. They are left to go their own way with its tragic consequences. To others, however, the gospel will supply the sweet savor of real life and will open new vistas to how one can live and have fellowship with God.”  [Bock, pp. 200-201].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why did the Jewish leaders arrest Peter and John? Why were they so concerned about the resurrection of Jesus? What accusation was implied in their question to Peter and John? (Note: power and name implies authority.) How does Peter answer their question [8-12]?
  1. In our day of religious pluralism Christians are accused of being intolerant and arrogant when they echo Peter’s confession in Acts 4:12. How do you respond to such criticism? What do we learn from this passage that guides us in our response to such criticism [4:13,19-20]? If we are tempted to allow the intimidation from other people to hinder our testimony to Jesus’ grace, then we need to seek the boldness that the Holy Spirit alone can give us. Pray earnestly for the courage to be faithful witnesses to the truth that Jesus is the only way for salvation.
  1. According to 4:19-20 [also 5:29], under what circumstances must Christians disobey human authorities, and when must we obey human authorities? Do you agree with Thomas: “When civil or religious authorities forbid what God requires or require what God forbids, some form of civil disobedience, with acceptance of penal consequences, becomes inescapable.”  Think of a modern situation in which  Christians should disobey the authorities and one in which they should obey.

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.