Acts 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Temple Arrest, Sanhedrin Hearing and Release

The uninterrupted progress of the church in Acts 1--3 is quite unlike the situation in our world, but with the story of the apostles' arrest, incarceration and trial Luke brings us "down to earth." The progress of the Jerusalem church did not occur without opposition. But advance it did, and therein lies the challenge to us: to accept the truth of its message and to be faithful in following its courageous example.Official Opposition (4:1-7)

The apostles were interrupted in their preaching by the sudden, dramatic appearance of hostile officials (ephistemi is stronger than the NIV came up to; compare Lk 20:1; Acts 6:12; 17:5). The priests (Sadducean in conviction), the captain of the temple guard (a highly placed member of the high priest's family charged with temple security) and Sadducees (probably aristocratic laymen) were greatly disturbed (compare 16:18). In Jesus the people were being offered a particular instance of and foundational argument for the resurrection "from the dead" (NIV somewhat follows the Western text, anastasei ton nekron--the resurrection of the dead).

The Sadducees, the priestly and lay aristocracy who had ruled the Jews in religious and political matters at the behest of foreign overlords since Hasmonean times, did not believe that anyone but the priests should be instructing the people in spiritual matters. They believed that the messianic age dawned with the Hasmoneans in the second century B.C. Anyone making messianic claims was at best mistaken and at worst a political revolutionary posing a threat to their comfortable position. In matters of doctrine they considered themselves traditional, holding only to the written Torah and rejecting the oral Torah, the sayings of the fathers, which the Pharisees accepted. One doctrine they did not find in the written Torah was resurrection from the dead (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.16-17).

Seizing Peter and John, . . . they put them in jail until the next day (compare Jesus' prediction, Lk 21:12). It was already evening, and the Sanhedrin normally commenced its judicial business only during daylight hours (m. Sanhedrin 4:1). Luke lets us know through the Sadducees' negative example that those with vested interests in power and comfort and with unbiblical preconceived notions will view the gospel as a threat.

Luke will not allow us to think for a moment, though, that human beings had thwarted the advance of God's saving work. He immediately gives a summary statement on church growth: many who heard the message (literally, the word) believed (compare Lk 8:11-15; Acts 2:44; 3:22; 4:29, 31-32). The total church membership grew to about five thousand males, not to mention women and children. In our own day Muslim rulers' imprisonment of Christians also works to advance the gospel. Persecuted believers get to know one another in their confinement, forming a network for communication and support once they are released.

The next day the Sanhedrin convened. This highest legislative and judicial body in Israel consisted of seventy-one members from three groups: rulers, or temple officials, many from the high-priestly families; elders from the chief families, the landed gentry; and teachers of the law, professional Torah scholars who taught, expounded and applied the law, as well as arguing it in court. Identifying by name key members from the high-priestly component, Luke emphasizes the Sadducean viewpoint, which predominated in the council because of these members' prominence.

They placed Peter and John in their midst (the Sanhedrin sat in a semicircle--m. Sanhedrin 4:3). Just as they had challenged Jesus after he rid the temple court of the high-priest families' concession booths (Lk 20:2), so now they want to know by what kind of power (Acts 4:7; compare 1:8; 3:12; 4:33) or in what kind of name (3:6, 16; 4:10, 12, 17-18, 30) Peter and John had healed the beggar. Thus the council charged with distinguishing between truth and error in Jewish religion exercised its prerogative to test the basis for this healing. Their interrogation, however, was not unprejudiced. The emphatic placement of you in the question lets us know the contempt with which they hold these unschooled, ordinary men (4:13).

Whenever members of an establishment confuse their desire to maintain their own power with their duty to guard the public trust, sound judgment will invariably become impossible for them. Their blind ambition will keep them from seeing and comprehending the very truth they are to guard (see Jn 9:40-41).Bold Declaration of the Word of Salvation (4:8-14)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit (experiencing his "intense presence" and "abnormally strong" working), addresses the leaders (compare 9:17; 13:9). Their amazed reaction to the apostles' boldness and their inability to reply to Peter's scripturally and experientially based defense shows us the effect of the Spirit's filling (4:13-14). Jesus is here fulfilling his promise (Lk 12:11-12; 21:15). Peter's example is our challenge and encouragement. "What are we attempting which could not be accomplished without the Holy Spirit? What is there about our lives which demands an explanation? We will be `filled with the Holy Spirit' when we dare to do what could never be accomplished on our own strength and insight" (Ogilvie 1983:98).

Peter begins his defense by reframing the council's question. The miracle--what they called simply this--becomes an act of kindness. Peter further defines it as he was healed (literally "saved," sesostai). By introducing the word sozo, which can refer to rescue from both physical dangers and afflictions (Lk 7:50; 17:19; 23:35-37; Acts 14:9) and the spiritual danger of eternal death (Lk 19:10: Acts 2:21, 40, 47; 4:12; 11:14; 15:11; 16:31), Luke initiates a wordplay that he will complete in verse 12. Finally Peter places John and himself in the background and concentrates on the name of Jesus Christ, the person of Jesus and his saving power (compare the same tactic before the crowd in 3:12, 16; see comment at 3:4).

Peter transforms his formal defense into evangelistic proclamation as he answers the council's question with an open invitation for them, along with all the people of Israel, to know that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth the man stands before them completely healed. In his brief reference to Jesus' saving work--whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead--Peter provides the authentic basis for the claim that Jesus' name can indeed have the power to heal. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, the beggar could not have been healed (compare 2:32-33; 3:16).

Now Peter alludes to Psalm 118:22 to help the leaders understand that their rejection of Jesus and the Father's resurrection of him were the fulfillment of God's saving plan. A number of Jewish leaders had last heard this verse applied messianically by Jesus himself, as he interpreted their opposition to him (Lk 20:9-19). That opposition had manifested itself with the same question: "Tell us by what authority you are doing these things. . . . Who gave you this authority?" (Lk 20:2; compare Acts 4:7). Not heeding Jesus' interpretation, they had rushed on in blind rage to fulfill the prophecy. Would they in hindsight repent now?

Peter declares that Jesus has become the capstone. The NIV marginal reading cornerstone is more literal, picturing a stone at the base of a corner where two walls meet and take their line from it (Williams 1985:67).

Peter now declares the significance for every human being of Jesus' position: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven--throughout the whole world--in which (NIV takes the instrumental understanding only, by which) we must be saved. These leaders know from the Old Testament that the God of Israel is the only Savior (Is 43:11; 45:21; Hos 13:4). Now Peter claims this role for Jesus Christ (compare 4QFlor 1:13; 1QH 7:18-19; Jubilees 31:19). And this name has been given to men.

In an age of religious pluralism, this radical claim is rejected outright by some (Hick and Knitter 1987). Others will admit the uniqueness of Christ in the objective accomplishment of salvation, but they say this text does not teach that it is essential to hear the good news about Jesus' saving work and consciously "name the name" (Sanders 1988). Such a bifurcation of the accomplishment and application of salvation runs counter to the explicit thrust of this verse. Peter makes his universal claim by explicitly asserting that this name has been given to humankind as a means by which we must be saved (compare Lk 24:46; Acts 11:14). Appropriation of the name is an essential part of God's salvation transaction. To be true to Peter and Luke, we must never water down the fact that apart from Jesus there is no salvation for anyone--neither its accomplishment nor its appropriation.

Peter's Spirit-filled speech elicits amazement not unlike what the crowd experienced when they saw the crippled beggar walking (3:11). Peter's Spirit-endowed courage empowers him to tell the whole truth even though it will turn his judges into defendants and call into question their conviction that resurrections don't happen (4:10).

He tells an intelligent truth, skillfully handling the Scriptures to prove that all this happened according to God's plan (v. 11). Yet he and John have not had the rabbinic training required, humanly speaking, to sustain such theological argumentation. They are unschooled. They are ordinary men, more precisely "laymen." They lack the recognized credentials of a professional teacher of the law, which alone would command respect in the council. Nevertheless, amid their astonishment the council grasps the fact that these men had been with Jesus. Their Lord also lacked credentials yet handled the Scriptures in the same effective way. With a completely healed man (note the perfect-tense tetherapeumenon) standing before them as living proof of a truly risen Lord, the council has nothing to say in reply (compare Lk 21:15).

Today, as well, the Spirit's witness to the truth through Christ's messengers will be unanswerable, though still unacceptable, for many people. Here is the challenge not to hear the gospel message in vain. To be astonished at it, even to admit we cannot refute it, is not enough: we must allow it to do its saving work in our lives.The Word of Salvation Frustrates the Opposition (4:15-22)

The Sanhedrin confers in closed session over their dilemma. Jesus' followers and their message are unacceptable, yet they have performed an outstanding miracle (literally, manifest sign). It is outstanding in that everyone knows about it, and a sign in that it points beyond itself to make claims for the dawn of the age of salvation in Jesus (compare 4:22; 8:6; Lk 11:16, 29-30). There is no denying the reality of this miracle.

Note that the council does not even consider seeking to discredit the apostles' message by marshaling evidence against Jesus' resurrection. Their pragmatic solution is to stop the spread of the message, either temporally or in degree, by warning the apostles to speak no longer to anyone in (on the basis of) this name (pointing to the divine power and authority of Jesus; Foulkes 1978:123).

Calling the apostles back in, they command them in the strongest terms possible to stop speaking (literally, proclaiming) and teaching on the basis of the name of Jesus. Thus the Sanhedrin not only seeks to cope with truth by the only effective means known--silencing it--but also creates a basis for further judicial proceedings against the apostles. And the method is still the same today. Tentmaking missionaries seeking to penetrate "creative access" countries should not be surprised to find people who are kept ignorant of the gospel's truth by those who control the media and make laws against "proselytizing."

Again taking the offensive, Peter and John command the council to make a judgment: is it right in God's presence to obey (literally, hear; compare 3:22) a human council, even one that views itself as ordained by and speaking for God, rather than God? They show their basic submission to the council's authority by calling on them to make that judgment (see 1 Pet 2:13-17). Yet at the same time, as our Lord did, they show the council members both the limits to their authority (compare Lk 20:25) and how they abuse it when they prohibit divinely commanded actions.

The council will need to make that judgment now, or in the very near future, for the apostles serve notice that they cannot help speaking what they have seen and heard. In obedience to the risen Lord's mandate they must continue to be eyewitnesses of these salvation truths (Lk 24:48; Acts 1:8; 3:15; 2 Pet 1:16-18).

Such a declaration of loyalty to God in the face of human opposition has been echoed often in church history, not least during the Reformation. Think of Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, or the Scots Reformer John Knox, of whom it was said "He feared God so much that he never feared the face of any man" (Barclay 1976:41). And today the church faces the same challenge when confronted with human authorities that demand that it stop advancing in its mission. The church's willingness to keep spreading the Word despite threats of peril is clear evidence that its message is truly from God.

That Peter and John spoke and acted as they did should challenge Theophilus and others to consider the gospel's claims all the more closely. If these Jews were willing to put their highest tribunal on notice that they were going to continue to obey God, then their message must be true!

The council released them unpunished for two reasons. Judicially, they could not find a punishable offense on which to base a verdict (NIV's smoothing of the syntax obscures this point by referring to the means of punishment). This had not stopped them in Jesus' case (Lk 23:14-15, 22-25). Now the people make the difference. They are praising God (literally, glorifying God) for this miraculously healed man who was over forty years old (compare Lk 5:26; 7:16). To punish the human instruments of the miracle would not be a good move politically.

Luke ends his account of this episode in triumph. In reminding us of the man's helplessness, a congenital defect of long standing (see 3:2), he stresses the greatness of the miracle. But he also calls the miracle "this sign of healing." God's act of kindness has a significance beyond the beggar's physical restoration or even the amazement and praise of the crowd. It points to a salvation now offered to all in a gospel message whose proclamation, by the Spirit's power and the messengers' obedience, is unstoppable.

Next commentary:
The Church's Prayer for Boldness

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