The Church’s First Fight
Although our Lord was more often confronted by Pharisees, the infant Church finds its first clash with the Sadducees. While Pharisees represent religious hypocrisy, the Sadducees represent religious unbelief.
4:1-2. And the Sadducees came upon them. While the Pharisees hated our Lord manifested in flesh, as a sect, the Sadducees seemed little disturbed by Him. They may have viewed Jesus as but another Rabbi whose teachings about angels, spirits, and resurrection were popular and Pharisaic.
Note the phrase preached in Jesus. The apostles used Jesus as proof of resurrection truth. Given the empty tomb, and the witnesses to His resurrection, Jesus became more than a Rabbi who taught about resurrection, He was proclaimed as a living example of its truth, and the Sadducees could not tolerate that. They were greatly disturbed, suggesting their emotional involvement.
Imagine their frustration. They could not disprove the resurrection. They could imprison its witnesses. While they were not supposed to believe in a resurrection (cf. Acts 23:8), upon hearing about Jesus, perhaps an intolerable doubt had entered their minds. It raised the possibility of eternal judgment, a thought they could not endure. As the hypocrite hates reality, so the religious infidel hates the testimony to the truth and reality of the world to come.
4:3-4. For it was already evening. The evening setting is appropriate spiritually, for even as the shadows were lengthening and night falling upon the temple courts, so this rebellion of human authority (i.e., the Sadducees) against divine authority (i.e., the apostles) took place, so as to speak in the gathering shadows of impending wrath which would leave not one stone of the Temple upon another. Man’s greatest rebellions are ever at evening, in the shadow of divine judgment (cf. Great Tribulation). The Jewish “day” of opportunity was fast fading away.
And they laid hands on them. The Sadducees could seize and imprison the apostles, but not imprison the Word of God (cf. 2 Tim 2:9). Even as they arrest the apostles, multitudes are being saved, about five thousand.
We may be removed from the scene (by persecution, sickness, or death), but if we have presented God’s Word and not our own, that Word can continue to work and bear fruit (Isa 55:10-11).
The miracle of the loaves had been repeated in its true spiritual significance before Satan roused himself to attack. Five thousand men had eaten of the bread of life (not to mention the women and children, Matt 14:21). No doubt the number refers to the new total of Christian men as a result of that day’s evangelism.
Ironically, as the Sadducees seek to suppress resurrection truth, multitudes are experiencing resurrection in their very midst (cf. John 5:24-25). Those that heard the word in faith here lived! They passed out of death into life.
Testifying Before the Sanhedrin
4:5-6. Peter’s boldness stands in contrast to his previous denial. Peter and John stand before the very council which had condemned their Lord to death (cf. Mark 14:53-55, 64). And Caiaphas is present, in whose courtyard Peter’s failure occurred (John 8:15).
In that situation, worldly wisdom might have counseled caution and tact. Instead, there is boldness. If ever Peter compensated for his past failure to confess Christ, it was here, for this seems an appropriate climax to the boldness displayed at Pentecost and in the crowd under Solomon’s porch.
At this point, but not previously, he is truly ready to follow his Lord “both into prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). The former he had spent the night in, the latter was now conceivable. What seemed on the night of our Lord’s arrest a failure in His work on Peter, now is proved to have been but a stage before success was attained. It is seen here.
Were gathered together at Jerusalem. Instead of a “captive” audience, there were “captive” preachers, who gain this audience before the council only because they are captives. This body of men, to whom God would bring a testimony, would probably have gathered for a testimony under no other circumstances than these (cf. Luke 21:13).
4:7-8. “By what power or by what name have you done this?” The question expresses scorn. How have you, of all people, done this? Yet the boldness of Peter and John is undeterred by the rulers’ disdain of them. In fact, the Holy Ghost fulfills the promise of Christ and speaks through them (cf. Luke 21:12-15; 12:11-12).
4:9-11. Peter responds with a barb toward the council. The council had the authority to examine men for evil deeds, but they had nothing more against the apostles than the accusation of “a good deed done to a helpless man.” The sword of the Spirit convicts the council of sin by way of contrasting what they did to Jesus (“whom you crucified”), with what God did to Jesus (“whom God raised from the dead”). The council’s responsibility, and failure, as God-answerable builders is driven home by the Word of Scripture (“the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders’”).
4:12. Nevertheless, despite the council’s actions, the door of mercy is opened to them, as it had been to the crowds outside. They too had acted in ignorance (cf. Acts 3:17), and might have found mercy as did a certain Pharisee named Saul (cf. 1 Tim 1:13). But they could find it only in the name of Jesus. “Nor is there salvation in any other…”
The grace of God is especially evident in being shown toward those most guilty for the death of His Son. That Annas and Caiaphas were specifically named (v 6) emphasizes this point because they were supremely guilty. Both had presided at an interview with Jesus on the night of His trial (cf. John 18:12-14, 24). There is no evidence that they accepted the offer of salvation then or ever. Everything points the other way, especially later events in Acts. If this is so, and they are in hell, their memories of Christ, Peter, and John, all standing before them in witness to the truth, must be very dreadful.
Peter’s Dynamic Change
4:13a. Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John. Upon reading Peter’s sermon, and noticing his boldness, the speaker seems a different person than the figure we know from the Gospels. And so, in a sense, he is. For here he is “Peter” (v 8), where often in the Gospels it is “Simon” (cf. esp. Luke 22:31). In bearing two names, one by natural birth, one by spiritual when first he came to Christ (cf. 1 Pet 1:3, 23), Peter is a living representative of the new birth. Yet only now does “Peter” truly cause “Simon” to virtually disappear from the scene (though never entirely, cf. Gal 2:11-21).
In the same way, it may take years for our new nature to firmly displace the old in manifestation so that we appear, as Peter here, to be new men.
Yet, in another sense, it is the same Peter we knew before—quick to speak.
In Acts 2–3 and here, Peter speaks out first. But what once had been a weakness, in that he spoke too fast, now becomes a strength in that he is quick to speak for his Lord.
God is able to take our weak points and transform them into strength for Him. Don’t we often look for the abilities in the unsaved and think how God might use their strengths if only the person believed? But God may see a weakness which He can fill with His strength. Every born-again person has weaknesses. If so, he has something God is capable of using. His strength is perfected in weakness which is why Paul gloried in weaknesses that the power of Christ might rest upon him (2 Cor 12:5)!
And what about John? Would John have liked to speak here, or earlier, on Solomon’s porch? Peter is first to speak both times. Perhaps John did get some words in “edgewise” (cf. Acts 4:1-2, 13). Nevertheless, John was a contemplative sort, quite different from Peter. The writings of John (especially the Gospel and first epistle) are obviously the products of deep thought. In fact the vision of Revelation begins, it would seem, in a moment of deep spiritual contemplation (cf. Rev 1:10).
Quick-speaking Peter finishes his life in a relatively short time. John, slower to speak, outlives him nearly 30 years. Whereas John’s writings were evidently late in life, after years of meditation, Peter had written his two books long before. John can afford to let Peter have this opportunity to speak here in Acts 4, for John’s voice will still speak long after his companion’s has been stilled in death.
Two witnesses, Peter and John, are chosen by God to bear this testimony to the Sanhedrin. Yet as individuals they are strikingly different, both in temperament, and in their ministry experience.
So God ever calls many men to witness for Himself, but has never called, molded, guided, or dealt with any two who were exactly alike.
Ignorant, Unlearned, and Used by God
4:13b. Two evidently ignorant and unlearned men stood before the most learned body in Israel.
This shows how things highly esteemed among men are an abomination with God.
So little does God respect the learning and wisdom of earth that the first gospel witness to this educated council came, not from a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea—as we might expect and think prudent—but from two unlettered fishermen.
In our desire to impress men with our learning we fail to impress them with our boldness (as did Peter and John) or to truly turn men’s thoughts to our Lord.
Human attainments in a witness may actually hide the One to whom he witnesses. Often a man’s boldness shrinks in proportion as his education increases. He becomes too “sophisticated” to be zealous. Better to possess boldness and lack learning, than to possess learning and lack boldness.
They marveled, but they did not know the half of it. As remarkable as it was to find such boldness before so august a body, the judges could scarcely have believed that these two “ignorant and unlearned” men would one day become authors. They would leave behind seven books as their literary legacy which would have world-wide circulation, be translated into countless languages, and be studied and written on by the learned and educated in colleges and universities. God not only can use the ignorant and unlearned man, but can use him far above all that he might ask or think.
And they recognized they had been with Jesus. As the council stare incredulously at Peter and John, searching for some explanation of their boldness, it dawns on them that they have seen them before—with Jesus! No doubt they had seen Peter and John often with Jesus in the Temple, yet took so little note of them as to not recognize them until now. So little had the rulers esteemed the followers of Jesus, they had let them go when they arrested Jesus. They did not think of them as dangerous. How wrong! For these men took Jesus’ gospel worldwide.
Perhaps the apostles’ unfearful manner before the council reminded them of Jesus’ calm poise. Unwittingly they stumbled on the explanation for their boldness, i.e., being with Jesus. Companionship with the Lord will ultimately result in boldness.
The apostles’ relation with Jesus was that of student/teacher, or disciple/master. Though not formally educated Himself (John 7:15), Jesus was still often regarded as a Rabbi. Thus these ignorant and unlearned men had had schooling by being with Jesus. God calls all Christians, regardless of worldly education, into the spiritual school of discipleship, being “with Jesus” (cf. Matt 11:29).
He who had promised a course in fishing for men, could here survey the product of His spiritual training. Though the disciples often seemed like slow pupils, especially on the night of Jesus’ arrest, His masterful skill prevailed. How much must the example of Jesus have contributed to their education, for a true teacher teaches by example as well as precept. Peter never forgot (cf. 1 Pet 2:21-24).
Thus these two men were especially “educated” for the occasion of Acts 4. It was one thing to fish for men at Pentecost, or in Solomon’s porch, but quite another to fish for men among hostile judges who could take their lives away.
Were they successful in making a catch?
Surely so, for how else would Luke know of the private deliberations of the Sanhedrin (vv 15-17; cf. Acts 6:7)? Thus, effective in the supreme act of men-fishing, they were far from being “ignorant and unlearned.” Whatever else we may learn from the “Master” this is one art in which we all (when we are in His school) receive an education (cf. 2 Tim 4:5).
The Character of Faith and Unbelief
4:14-22. The passage is designed to be one of contrasts. Where v 13 presented the contrast in education between the Sanhedrin and the apostles, v 14 onward presents the contrast between their characters of the leaders of age-old Judaism and the leaders of the new-born Church. This contrast may be epitomized as between faith and unbelief.
First, unbelief is occupied with man. Note in vv 15-17 that this religious tribunal makes no mention of God, only of men (“these men,” “all them that dwell in Jerusalem,” “the people”). They are primarily occupied with the sentiments and reactions of man (cf. v 21 also) and determine their action by this criterion. So ever does unbelief.
By contrast, faith is occupied with God and determines its actions in reference to Him (Peter mentions God twice, v 19).
Second, unbelief has no standard of right and wrong. Note that the council cannot speak against the miracle (v 14), but because of their real desire must discuss the case privately (v 15). Verses 16 and 17 show no consideration of justice, only expediency. They stoop to threats (vv 17, 18, and 21), totally unworthy of judges. They have not even the courage of their unrighteous convictions and are afraid to punish them (v 21). The collapse of faith, or absence of it, inevitably entails a loss of moral standards. For these have no rationale apart from God. Expediency is the criterion of unbelief.
By contrast, faith is concerned with right and wrong because it is concerned with God. “Whether it be right in the sight of God…” (v 19).
Third, unbelief is illogical. Note that though they do not question the miracle (v 16), they never reason on to its implications—the living power of Jesus’ name. Unbelief cannot get the right answers for, illogically, it does not ask the right questions. They do not ask: “What should our response to this message be, for a notable miracle has been done?” This is nothing more than a non-sequitur which bypasses reality. So unbelief ever is illogical, whether in the higher critic (who assumes that the resurrection is unreal) or the man in the street who knows he must die, yet does not prepare.
By contrast, faith thinks about things with true rationality. Verses 19 and 20 exhibit the logic of faith which cuts to the heart of a matter and faces its real issue.
Fourth, unbelief is cowardly. They are afraid to punish these men for fear of the people’s reaction (v 21).
By contrast, faith has courage. Peter and John are not frightened by these threats and boldly assert their intention to continue to witness.
Fifth, unbelief resists the spread of the truth. “But so that it spreads no further among the people…” (v 17). This is their chief concern (cf. v 18). By contrast, faith feels compelled to make the truth known. “For we cannot but speak…” (v 20).
Those most deeply tainted with unbelief, which have rejected much light, resist the truth the most vigorously. Those most deeply affected by faith, whose faith is deepest, are under the greatest inner compulsion to bear witness.
Sixth, unbelief is ineffectual. The procedure of the Sanhedrin amounted to little more than an empty bluff, exposed as such when Peter and John defied their threats; it accomplished nothing except to inspire the prayer of vv 24-30 and a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. Unbelief, sooner or later, is revealed to have accomplished nothing but its own defeat.
By contrast, faith is effectual. Here it led to this very prayer and its attendant marvelous answer. Faith has always been the secret of unbelievable accomplishments (cf. Heb 11:33-34).