We have here the issue of the trial of Peter and John before the council. They came off now with flying colours, because they must be trained up to sufferings by degrees, and by less trials be prepared for greater. They now but run with the footmen; hereafter we shall have them contending with horses, Jer. 12:5.
I. Here is the consultation and resolution of the court about this matter, and their proceeding thereupon.
1. The prisoners were ordered to withdraw (Acts 4:15): They commanded them to go aside out of the council, willing enough to get clear of them (they spoke so home to their consciences), and not willing they should hear the acknowledgements that were extorted from them; but, though they might not hear from them, we have them here upon record. The designs of Christ’s enemies are carried on in close cabals, and they dig deep, as if they would hide their counsels from the Lord.
2. A debate arose upon this matter: They conferred among themselves; every one is desired to speak his mind freely, and to give advice upon this important affair. Now the scripture was fulfilled that the rulers would take counsel together against the Lord, and against his anointed, Ps. 2:2. The question proposed was, What shall we do to these men? Acts 4:16. If they would have yielded to the convincing commanding power of truth, it had been easy to say what they should do to these men. They should have placed them at the head of their council, and received their doctrine, and been baptized by them in the name of the Lord Jesus, and joined in fellowship with them. But, when men will not be persuaded to do what they should do, it is no marvel that they are ever and anon at a loss what to do. The truths of Christ, if men would but entertain them as they should, would give them no manner of trouble or uneasiness; but, if they hold them or imprison them in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), they will find them a burdensome stone that they will not know what to do with, Zech. 12:3.
3. They came at last to a resolution, in two things:—
(1.) That it was not safe to punish the apostles for what they had done. Very willingly would they have done it, but they had not courage to do it, because the people espoused their cause, and cried up the miracle; and they stood now in as much awe of them as they had done formerly, when they durst not lay hands of Christ for fear of the people. By this it appears that the outcry of the mob against our Saviour was a forced or managed thing, the stream soon returned to its former channel. Now they could not find how they might punish Peter and John, what colour they might have for it, because of the people. They knew it would be an unrighteous thing to punish them, and therefore should have been restrained from it by the fear of God; but they considered it only as a dangerous thing, and therefore were held in from it only by the fear of the people. For, [1.] The people were convinced of the truth of the miracle; it was a notable miracle, gnoston semeion—a known miracle; it was known that they did it in Christ’s name, and that Christ himself had often the like before. This was a known instance of the power of Christ, and a proof of his doctrine. That it was a great miracle, and wrought for the confirmation of the doctrine they preached (for it was a sign), was manifest to all that dwelt in Jerusalem: it was an opinion universally received, and, the miracle being wrought at the gate of the temple, universal notice was taken of it; and they themselves, with all the craftiness and all the effrontery they had, could not deny it to be a true miracle; every body would have hooted at them if they had. They could easily deny it to their own consciences, but not to the world. The proofs of the gospel were undeniable. [2.] They went further, and were not only convinced of the truth of the miracle, but all men glorified God for that which was done. Even those that were not persuaded by it to believe in Christ were yet so affected with it, as a mercy to a poor man and an honour to their country, that they could not but give praise to God for it; even natural religion taught them to do this. And, if the priests had punished Peter and John for that for which all men glorified God, they would have lost all their interest in the people, and been abandoned as enemies both to God and man. Thus therefore their wrath shall be made to praise God, and the remainder thereof shall be restrained.
(2.) That it was nevertheless necessary to silence them for the future, Acts 4:17, 18. They could not prove that they had said or done any thing amiss, and yet they must no more say nor do what they have done. All their care is that the doctrine of Christ spread no further among the people; as if that healing institution were a plague begun, the contagion of which must be stopped. See how the malice of hell fights against the counsels of heaven; God will have the knowledge of Christ to spread all the world over, but the chief priests would have it spread no further, which he that sits in heaven laughs at. Now, to prevent the further spreading of this doctrine, [1.] They charge the apostles never to preach it any more. Be it enacted by their authority (which they think every Israelite is bound in conscience to submit to) that no man speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus, Acts 4:18. We do not find that they give them any reason why the doctrine of Christ must be suppressed; they cannot say it is false or dangerous, or of any ill tendency, and they are ashamed to own the true reason, that it testifies against their hypocrisy and wickedness, and shocks their tyranny. But, Stat pro ratione voluntas—They can assign no reason but their will. “We strictly charge and command you, not only that you do not preach this doctrine publicly, but that you speak henceforth to no man, not to any particular person privately, in this name,” Acts 4:17. There is not a greater service done to the devil’s kingdom than the silencing of faithful ministers; and putting those under a bushel that are the lights of the world. [2.] They threaten them if they do, strictly threaten them: it is at their peril. This court will reckon itself highly affronted if they do, and they shall fall under its displeasure. Christ had not only charged them to preach the gospel to every creature, but had promised to bear them out in it, and reward them for it. Now these priests not only forbid the preaching of the gospel, but threaten to punish it as a heinous crime; but those who know how to put a just value upon the world’s threatenings, though they be threatenings of slaughter that it breathes out, Acts 9:1.
II. Here is the courageous resolution of the prisoners to go on in their work, notwithstanding the resolutions of this court, and their declaration of this resolution, Acts 4:19, 20. Peter and John needed not confer together to know one another’s minds (for they were both actuated by one and the same Spirit), but agree presently in the same sentiments, and jointly put in the answer: “Whether it be right in the sight of God, to whom both you and we are accountable, to hearken unto you more than unto God, we appeal to yourselves, judge you; for we cannot forbear speaking to every body the things which we have seen and heard, and are ourselves full of, and are charged to publish.” The prudence of the serpent would have directed them to be silent, and, though they could not with a good conscience promise that they would not preach the gospel any more, yet they needed not tell the rulers that they would. But the boldness of the lion directed them thus to set both the authority and the malignity of their persecutors at defiance. They do, in effect, tell them that they are resolved to go on in preaching, and justify themselves in it with two things:—1. The command of God: “You charge us not to preach the gospel; he has charged us to preach it, has committed it to us as a trust, requiring us upon our allegiance faithfully to dispense it; now whom must we obey, God or you?” Here they appeal to one of the communes notitiae—to a settled and acknowledged maxim in the law of nature, that if men’s commands and God’s interfere God’s commands must take place. It is a rule in the common law of England that if any statute be made contrary to the law of God it is null and void. Nothing can be more absurd than to hearken unto weak and fallible men, that are fellow-creatures and fellow-subjects, more than unto a God that is infinitely wise and holy, our Creator and sovereign Lord, and the Judge to whom we are all accountable. The case is so plain, so uncontroverted and self-evident, that we will venture to leave it to yourselves to judge of it, though you are biassed and prejudiced. Can you think it right in the sight of God to break a divine command in obedience to a human injunction? That is right indeed which is right in the sight of God; for his judgment, we are sure, is according to truth, and therefore by that we ought to govern ourselves. 2. The convictions of their consciences. Even if they had not had such an express command from heaven to preach the doctrine of Christ, yet they could not but speak, and speak publicly, those things which they had seen and heard. Like Elihu, they were full of this matter, and the Spirit within them constrained them, they must speak, that they might be refreshed, Job 32:18, 20. (1.) They felt the influence of it upon themselves, what a blessed change it had wrought upon them, had brought them into a new world, and therefore they could not but speak of it: and those speak the doctrine of Christ best that have felt the power of it, and tasted the sweetness of it, and have themselves been deeply affected with it; it is as a fire in their bones, Jer. 20:9. (2.) They knew the importance of it to others. They look with concern upon perishing souls, and know that they cannot escape eternal ruin but by Jesus Christ, and therefore will be faithful to them in giving them warning, and showing them the right way. They are things which we have seen and heard, and therefore will be faithful to them in giving them warning, and showing them the right way. They are things which we only have seen and heard, and therefore, if we do not publish them, who will? Who can? Knowing the favour, as well as the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; for the love of Christ and the love of souls constrain us, 2 Cor. 5:11, 14.
III. Here is the discharge of the prisoners (Acts 4:21): They further threatened them, and thought they frightened them, and then let them go. There were many whom they terrified into an obedience to their unrighteous decrees; they knew how to keep men in awe with their excommunication (John 9:22), and thought they could have the same influence upon the apostles that they had upon other men; but they were deceived, for they had been with Jesus. They threatened them, and that was all they did now: when they had done this they let them go, 1. Because they durst not contradict the people, who glorified God for that which was done, and would have been ready (at least they thought so) to pull them out of their seats, if they had punished the apostles for doing it. As rulers by the ordinance of God are made a terror and restraint to wicked people, so people are sometimes by the providence of God made a terror and restrain to wicked rulers. 2. Because they could not contradict the miracle: For (Acts 4:22) the man was above forty years old on whom this miracle of healing was shown. And therefore, (1.) The miracle was so much the greater, he having been lame from his mother’s womb, Acts 3:2. The older he grew the more inveterate the disease was, and the more hardly cured. If those that are grown into years, and have been long accustomed to evil, are cured of their spiritual impotency to good, and thereby of their evil customs, the power of divine grace is therein so much the more magnified. (2.) The truth of it was so much the better attested; for the man being above forty years old, he was able, like the blind man whom Christ healed, when he was asked, to speak for himself, John 9:21.