Acts 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Church's Prayer for Boldness
When ordered to be silent, the apostles make clear that they "cannot help speaking about what [they] have seen and heard" (4:20). How will they sustain such determination? The church looks in prayer to its sovereign Lord and finds the strength to continue its advances with boldness. In this way Luke gives further evidence for the truth of a gospel that is more than a sectarian Jewish message.
The apostles are released, showing for the first time what Luke will contend consistently: Christianity is both innocent before the state and triumphant when its enemies seek to use state authority to hinder its advance (5:40; 16:35-40; 18:14-16; 23:28-29; 25:25-27; 26:32). They report to their own people--probably not simply the other ten apostles nor the whole assembly of more than five thousand, but their close friends and supporters, perhaps the original 120 of the pre-Pentecost upper room days (1:13-15; Kistemaker 1990:165). They report all that the chief priests and elders had said, particularly the threats (4:17-18, 21). (By referring to the Sanhedrin as the chief priests and elders Luke highlights the Sadducean loyalists among them.)
The first Christians were realists, and so must we be. These threats, coming as they did from the highest civil authority, had the force of law. Obedience to Christ in the midst of a hostile environment will be costly. Will we realistically face that cost?
The news drives the believers immediately to their knees. In united (compare 1:14; 2:46; 5:12), urgent prayer they raise their voices to God the Father (either praying in unison, repeating the words of one apostle, or greeting his prayer with a hearty amen). They address God the Father as Sovereign Lord (Despotes). Not common in Scripture, this divine title emphasizes the complete ownership God exercises over his servants (Lk 2:29; compare Jude 4; Rev 6:10). It was a common ascription in Jewish prayers (see Josephus Jewish War 7:323) and among the Greeks (see Aelius Aristides Works 37:1; Xenophon Anabasis 3:2, 13).
With such liturgical language, grounded in the Old Testament (such as Ex 20:11; Ps 146:6), the believers declare the scope of God's omnipotence. So they encourage themselves through praise that even the threatening Sanhedrin is not outside God's sovereign control. Confessing the truth about God's relationship to our circumstances always brings encouragement, especially when we are aware of danger and feel out of control.
The prayer turns to an Old Testament text, Psalm 2:1, understood as foretelling the Messiah's suffering and making reference to a united (note the reverse parallelism: nations . . . peoples . . . kings . . . rulers), rebellious, conspiring, yet futile hostility against the Lord's Anointed One. Via the pesher method, the believers proceed to make immediate application to Jesus' suffering at the hands of a king, Herod (Lk 13:31; 23:6-12; see Bruce 1990:158); a ruler, Pilate; the Gentiles (the nations); and the people of Israel (laoi--literally, peoples--probably to maintain correspondence with the quote's wording).
This immediately raises a number of issues. Historically there is no inaccuracy in the believers' interpretation, for even though both Herod and Pilate declared Jesus innocent, they did cooperate with those who conspired against Jesus (Lk 23:6-25; Acts 3:13). The psalm is properly understood as messianic, for it speaks of a universal reign (Ps 2:8, 10-11; contra Marshall 1980:105; compare the pre-Christian Jewish messianic interpretation of the psalm, 4QFlor 1:18-19/Ps 2:1-2; also compare Psalms of Solomon 17:22-23/Ps 2:2, 9). Theologically, Jesus' anointing at a particular time--his baptism (see Acts 10:38)--does not contradict the fact that he was always Messiah, conceived by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:35); his baptism may be viewed as the time when he "received the endorsement of the Father and the enduement with the Spirit" (E. F. Harrison 1986:97). The identification of Israel with the "peoples," in parallel with a pagan king represented by Herod, points out graphically that by rejecting Jesus, Israel was forfeiting its position as God's special people; if the Jews did not repent, God would view them no differently from Gentiles (see Acts 3:23).
The church's confessional ascription climaxes by celebrating God's sovereignty in the active accomplishment of his plan, as even his enemies do what his power (literally, hand) has predetermined (see 2:23; Lk 22:22). What a great encouragement! The very same group that is threatening these believers opposed their Lord. The persecutors' earlier success brought Christ's death but was really according to God's plan and by his hand. Surely any suffering these believers--or we--endure, then, is not outside God's control and will serve only to advance the purposes of the risen and reigning Messiah.
The church asks God to pay attention to the Sanhedrin's threats (4:17, 21) without further defining what they expect him to do about them. The easy transition from opposition to Jesus to threats against the apostles is possible because theologically there is a close identification of the people of God with their suffering and risen Lord, not only in continuing his work (1:1) but also in the pattern of his life (Lk 24:25-27; Acts 14:22; compare 1 Pet 2:20-25; 4:13). The great (literally, complete) boldness or candor the believers ask for is not only the freedom of speech of a Greek citizen versus a slave (Demosthenes Orations 9.3) but also the courage that stands up to all those who would limit the right to reveal the truth (Dio Chrysostom Discourses 32.26-27; Schlier 1967:872-73). Peter has already demonstrated such Spirit-filled boldness in declaring the whole truth to the Sanhedrin (4:8, 13; compare 28:31; the verb form, 9:27-28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26). With this request we learn the believers' great concern is not for their own safety but for the mission's advance.
In the Greek, verse 30 is not a request (contra NIV; E. F. Harrison 1986:97) but a confident assumption of what will accompany the enablement to speak the word boldly ("while you stretch out your hand"). The believers understand the corroborative weight that the healings, signs and wonders have for their preaching of the gospel. The recent experience with the crippled beggar has taught them both the impact and the limits of a miraculous sign through the name of your holy servant Jesus (3:6-7, 16; 4:10, 14; see comments at 3:7-8).
When we realize that this statement is not a request but an assumption of what God can do, we are freed from both the presumption and subsequent anxiety which come with demanding the miraculous from God.
In answer to their prayer and in fulfillment of his promise (Lk 11:13), the place is shaken, and all--not just the apostles--are filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4; 4:8, see comment). They speak (literally, were speaking--continuous action at intervals) the word of God (God's great good news of salvation; 11:19; 13:46; 14:25) with boldness. The messengers are unstoppable. The mission continues with divine momentum. As Chrysostom observed about the place being shaken: "and that made them the more unshaken" (Homily on the Acts of the Apostles 11).