Before returning to heaven, Jesus instructed his followers to go out into the world preaching his message of forgiveness. It wasn’t going to be easy! The early Christian church faced an uphill struggle to spread its message and survive under the constant threat of oppression and persecution from the government and religious establishment.
This passage from Acts 4 describes a tense and important encounter in the earliest days of the Christian church. The apostles are confronted by the ruling religious order of the day (not for the last time) and must defend their beliefs and actions. Here’s how the scene played out:
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.
The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest. They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says,
‘The stone that you builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.’
There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing right there among them, there was nothing the council could say. So they ordered Peter and John out of the council chamber and conferred among themselves.
“What should we do with these men?” they asked each other. “We can’t deny that they have performed a miraculous sign, and everybody in Jerusalem knows about it. But to keep them from spreading their propaganda any further, we must warn them not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again.” So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never again to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”
The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than forty years. — Acts 4:1-21 (NLT)
Questions to Ponder
- The Gospel message being preached by the early church was one of grace, freedom, and forgiveness—it even involved the healing of sick and crippled people. Why do you think the religious rulers felt so threatened?
- As this and other Bible accounts note, early Christianity’s message seemed to spread fastest during times of persecution. Why do you think that was?
- Can you sympathize at all with the religious rulers in this story? What do you think keeps them from accepting the truth of the Gospel?