Peter and John before the Council / 4:1-22
Evidently a large crowd had gathered at Solomon’s Colonnade (3:11) where Peter began to preach. While Acts is a record of powerful sermons, astounding miracles, and the rapid spread of the Christian church throughout the world, it is also a reminder of the truth of spiritual warfare. Whenever believers are seeking to impact their culture, whenever the gospel is preached in power, wherever the church is growing and making inroads, the enemy stirs up fierce opposition.
4:1 This crowd in the Temple drew the attention of the religious leaders, who came over to see what was going on. The leading priests were mostly Sadducees. The Sadducees were members of a small but powerful Jewish religious sect that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They were the religious leaders who stressed cooperation with the Roman Empire. They also rejected the idea of a coming Messiah, believing that he was an ideal, not a person who would intervene in history.
The captain of the Temple guard was also a high-ranking Sadducee. He was the leader of the guards who ensured order in and around the Temple. The captain was considered second in authority only to the high priest himself. The Temple guard had arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Luke 22:52-54).
4:2 Imagine these Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, listening to Peter claiming, right there in the Temple, the resurrection of the dead. No wonder they were very disturbed. Peter and John were refuting one of the Sadducees’ fundamental beliefs and thus threatening their authority as religious teachers. The religious leaders had thought this uprising would be finished with the death of its leader, so it disturbed them to find Jesus’ followers teaching the people in the Temple.
4:3 Even though Israel was under Roman rule, the Sadducees had almost unlimited power over the Temple grounds. Thus, they were able to arrest Peter and John for no reason other than teaching something that contradicted their beliefs. Assuming that the healing of the crippled man occurred as Peter and John made their way to the 3:00 p.m. prayer time (3:1) and that Peter’s sermon to the gathered masses followed this miracle, it would have been too late in the day (already evening) to gather the necessary religious leaders to hold an official inquiry.
4:4 The Jewish religious leaders were able to arrest (at least for one night) Christ’s messengers; they could not, however, stop the spread of Christ’s message. The miraculous healing of the crippled man in such a visible place, combined with the powerful preaching of the apostles, sent spiritual shock waves through Jerusalem. This brought the total number of believers to about five thousand men, not counting women and children. God was mightily using Peter, for at his first sermon, three thousand people had become believers (2:41)! Estimates of Jerusalem’s population at this time range from twenty-five thousand to eighty-five thousand. Josephus recorded that there were a total of six thousand Pharisees in Palestine. Thus, a total of five thousand Jewish Christian men (not counting women and children) was a very high percentage of the population!
4:5 The rulers, elders, and teachers of religious law made up the Jewish council—the same council that had condemned Jesus to death (Luke 22:66). This council acted as the ruling government of Israel. They handled the local problems and religious questions but had to work under Rome’s supervision. For crimes that carried capital punishment, they had to obtain Rome’s approval. For instance, the council had condemned Jesus to death, but it could not carry out the sentence; the Roman leader in the area alone had the authority to order an execution. That is why the religious leaders had taken Jesus to Pilate, the Roman leader in the Jerusalem area (Luke 23:1).
The council had seventy members plus the current high priest, who presided over the group. The Sadducees held a majority in this ruling group. These were the wealthy, intellectual, and powerful men of Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers stood before this council, just as he had.
4:6 Annas had been deposed as high priest by the Romans, who then had appointed Caiaphas, Annas’s son-in-law, in his place. But because the Jews considered the office of high priest a lifetime position, they still called Annas by that title and gave him respect and authority within the council. John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest were also there, supporting the power base of the high priest’s office. Annas and Caiaphas had played significant roles in Jesus’ trial (John 18:24, 28). It did not please them that the man whom they thought they had sacrificed for the good of the nation (John 11:49-51) had followers who were just as persistent and who promised to be just as troublesome as he had been.
4:7 The council asked Peter and John by what power, or in whose name, they had healed the man (see 3:6-7). “In whose name” refers to exorcism practices. They wanted to know what formula Peter and John had used. Their concern was more about the apostles’ teaching, but they began their questioning with the miracle, for the healed man was there as well (4:14). The actions and words of Peter and John threatened these religious leaders who, for the most part, were more interested in their reputations and positions than in the glory of God.
4:8-10 Peter, the rough ex-fisherman, stood before a room of disapproving, scowling faces and, filled with the Holy Spirit, began to speak. There are two kinds of courage: reckless courage that is unaware of the dangers it faces, and the courage that knows the peril and yet is undaunted. Peter’s boldness is of the latter variety as he clearly stated in whose name they had healed and how they could do so.
4:11 Peter quoted a familiar Old Testament passage—Psalm 118:22—and gave it new meaning. Most Jews regarded their nation, Israel, as the stone chosen by God but rejected by the nations. Jesus had referred to himself as the stone that the builders rejected. The cornerstone was the most important stone in a building, used as the standard to make sure that the other stones of the building were straight and level. Israel’s leadership, like the builders looking for an appropriate cornerstone, would toss Jesus aside because he didn’t seem to have the right qualifications. They wanted a political king, not a spiritual one. Peter made it clear that you builders were the Jewish religious leaders.
Yet God’s plans will not be thwarted. One day the rejected stone will become the cornerstone, for Jesus will come as King to inaugurate an unending Kingdom. He already had begun a spiritual Kingdom as the cornerstone of a brand-new “building,” the Christian church (see also 1 Peter 2:7). Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection would be the church’s foundation.
4:12 The resurrected Jesus had healed the crippled man physically. That same Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, can heal all people spiritually. Salvation does not come from being a descendant of Abraham (Luke 3:8) or by following the law of Moses (John 6:32-33). The clear gospel teaching is that there is salvation in no one else but Jesus (John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5).
4:13 Peter and John, fishermen by trade, had never received formal theological or rhetorical training in the rabbinical schools; they were ordinary men who had had no special training. Yet they were bold, composed, confident, and undaunted in their defense. As the apostles stood there with the healed cripple, speaking with authority, the members of the council recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. Their boldness was possible only because they were filled with the Holy Spirit (4:8; cf. 4:29, 31; 9:27-28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31).
4:14-15 In the same way that the words and works of Jesus had often left the Jewish leaders speechless (Mark 12:34), the council had nothing to say in the face of this supernatural healing and preaching. The council chamber was cleared so that the leaders could decide on a course of action. How Luke knew what went on in this closed discussion has been debated. Possibly a sympathizer among the council “leaked” the information. Perhaps Gamaliel, a member of the council, told his student Paul, who later told Luke (5:34; 22:3).
4:16-17 The council was in a quandary. The apostles had performed an undeniable, widely publicized miraculous sign. The masses were gravitating toward this new sect. How could the religious leaders save face (in light of the obviously healed man), discourage further teaching and healing in the name of Jesus, and preserve the status quo? Their solution was to order the apostles not to speak to anyone in Jesus’ name again. It seems as though they thought that their power and position could convince these men to be silent.
4:18 Because Peter and John had not broken any laws and were enjoying popular support among the people, the Jewish council’s best attempt at damage control was to summon the apostles and try to scare them into silence with vague warnings. They were told never again to speak or teach about Jesus. Jewish law specified that at the first instance of wrong or illegal action, the guilty were to be warned and released. The second time they did wrong, they were to be beaten with rods (5:28, 40). With this official order, the council would have legal grounds to impose more punishment in the future should the apostles choose to disobey.
4:19-20 Commanded by Christ to be witnesses (1:8) and utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel, Peter and John announced their rejection of any such ban on speaking in the name of Jesus. In effect, the apostles’ response accused the council of being at odds with the will of God. The apostles already knew the answer, so they asked the council members to judge for themselves whether they should obey the council’s orders or God’s. This principle of obeying God rather than people is a major Christian ethical principle (see commentary at 5:29).
These men had indeed “been with Jesus” (4:13), and he had completely transformed their lives. They had lived with him; they had witnessed his resurrection; they had experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit. And so they said, “We cannot stop telling about the wonderful things we have seen and heard.” To have obeyed the council’s command would have been to disobey God.
4:21-22 Stunned by the courage of Peter and John and fearful of their popularity among the masses, the religious leaders could do nothing more than threaten them and let them go. One would think that these leaders would be thrilled that the people were praising God. But that was not the case. Luke’s comment heightens the significance of the miracle—the man had been healed of a forty-year condition.
The Believers Pray for Courage / 4:23-31
After being sternly threatened by the same group of men who had orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus only six weeks earlier, the followers of Jesus gathered and prayed. Their prayers weren’t for an end to persecution or for easy times. Rather, the believers asked God for the boldness necessary to continue proclaiming the good news about Jesus. God gave them what every church needs: a reminder of his power and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
4:23-24 Upon their release, the apostles found the other believers and shared with them the details of their experience. In the face of this recent persecution, the believers spontaneously joined in prayer to acknowledge God’s sovereign control (see Psalm 146:6; Isaiah 37:16). This appeal to the God of creation shows that God, who had power to create the universe, will have power over their enemies. Everything in heaven and earth is subject to God and his will.
4:25-26 The group’s prayer cited Psalm 2, a messianic hymn written by King David. Psalm 2 describes the rebellion of the nations and the coming of Christ to establish his eternal reign. David may have written these words during a conspiracy against Israel by leaders of some of the surrounding nations. Chosen and anointed by God, David knew that God would fulfill his promise to bring the Messiah into the world through his bloodline (2 Samuel 7:16; 1 Chronicles 17:11-12). This psalm is also cited in other places in the New Testament (see 13:33; Hebrews 1:5-6; 5:5; Revelation 2:26-27; 12:5; 19:15) because of its prophetic description of Jesus, the Messiah. The believers saw the Jewish leaders’ opposition to Jesus (and to them, his appointed representatives) as fulfilling this ancient prophecy.
4:27 In fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 2, kings and rulers had gathered against the Messiah. Herod Antipas ruled over the territory of Galilee. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor over Judea who had bowed to pressure from the mob of Gentiles and the people of Israel in Jerusalem. All of these had conspired against Jesus, God’s anointed.
4:28 While it seemed that Satan had gotten the upper hand when the Son of God was crucified on the cross, in reality everything occurred according to God’s eternal will and plan. The believers declared that God is the sovereign Lord of all events; he rules history to fulfill his purpose. What his will determines, his power carries out. No army, government, or council can stand in God’s way.
4:29-30 The apostles prayed not for divine vengeance but that God would hear the threats that had been leveled against them. The believers did not pray that God would remove the threats, take away the possibility of persecution, or even protect them. Instead, they prayed that God would give the believers, his servants, great boldness in their preaching. They also asked for displays of power to confirm their message. These believers were not afraid to ask God for great power and wonders in order that his name would be glorified.
4:31 God’s answer of the apostles’ prayer was both swift and powerful. When the building shook, the believers realized that God had not only heard their prayer, but he also was pleased with it. The believers received a fresh filling with the Holy Spirit, which renewed their courage to go out and preach God’s message with boldness, just as they had requested (4:29).
The Believers Share Their Possessions / 4:32-37
The final verses of chapter 4 provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the early church. The first-century Christians enjoyed a sense of closeness and unity that caused the world to sit up and take notice. It’s one thing to talk of loving others; it’s quite another to sell one’s valuable possessions and give the proceeds to those less fortunate. Yet that kind of generosity was common in the early church. And that kind of selflessness is the essence of true fellowship.
4:32 In summarizing the daily activities of the early church, Luke noted the believers’ unselfishness. Surely the church’s spiritual unity (all the believers were of one heart and mind) prompted this material generosity. No one was required to contribute to the needs of others; this “communal purse” was voluntary. Yet the believers willingly shared everything they had, not holding tightly to possessions.
Differences of opinion are inevitable among human personalities and can actually be helpful if handled well. But spiritual unity is essential—loyalty, commitment, and love for God and his word. Without spiritual unity, the church could not survive. The early church was able to share possessions and property as a result of the unity brought by the Holy Spirit working in and through the believers’ lives. This way of living is different from communism because the sharing was voluntary, didn’t involve all private property but only as much as was needed, and was not a membership requirement in order to be a part of the church. The spiritual unity and generosity of these early believers attracted others to them. This organizational structure is not a biblical command, but it offers vital principles for us to follow.
4:33 Ignoring the threats of the council (4:18), the apostles gave powerful witness. God worked powerfully among them (see 6:8) to empower their witness and to meet their material needs. Jesus had told his disciples, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). As the outside world saw the believers’ generosity with one another, their care for the needy, and their powerful witness, they were drawn to the Lord Jesus.
4:34-35 So widespread was the generosity of the Jerusalem believers that there was no poverty among them. Lavish gifts from the sale of land or houses were brought to the apostles for distribution to others in need. Such gifts were exceptional expressions of social concern for those in need. These good times, however, would not last. A famine (see the prophecy of Agabus in 11:28) would eventually result in the Jerusalem church becoming dependent on the gifts of believers in Asia (see Romans 15:25-28; Galatians 2:10).
4:36-37 Barnabas (Joseph) is introduced here because he gave money from the sale of a field to the apostles to give to those in need. Barnabas would prove to be a respected and important leader in the life of the early church. He was a Levite by birth (a member of the Jewish tribe that carried out Temple duties) but a resident of Cyprus. This may explain why he was a landowner (Levites were forbidden to own land in Israel—see Numbers 18:20-24 and Deuteronomy 10:9; 18:1-2). Barnabas would later travel with Paul on Paul’s first missionary journey (13:4). John Mark (author of the Gospel of Mark) was his cousin. “Barnabas” means Son of Encouragement, and it would prove, over and over, to be most appropriate.
—Life Application Concise New Testament Commentary