The Church’s First Opposition in Jerusalem: Acts 4:1-37

Introduction

Acts 3:26 (CSB) — 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.

>>>PRAY<<<

In chapter 3 we walked us through the beginning of the second movement of Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles:

  1. Peter and John heal the 40-year-old man who had been lame from birth
  2. Peter preaches that God glorified Jesus Christ by raising him from the dead
    1. Faith in Christ’s resurrection made the lame man whole again
  3. Peter preaches that they must repent and turn back to God so that their sins may be wiped out
    1. God would send times of refreshing to them if they repented
    2. God would also send Christ to them if they repented
  4. Peter announces the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham in Jesus Christ

Peter has announced that Christ was sent to the Jews to turn them from their evil ways so that the times of refreshing could come upon them in Christ.

Now, in today’s text, Luke begins to explain the complex religious and political environment in Jerusalem that the disciples were being thrust into.

He illustrates how the Church responded in Christ to the opposition they faced in the world:

  • This narrative carries the central theme of the gospel’s victorious spread throughout the world
  • It continues the impact of their first miracle in healing the lame man
  • It begins by explaining the persecution that will intensify against the disciples
  • It explains the conflict between human authority and God’s authority
  • It asserts that the message given by the apostles comes directly from God, not human authority
  • It illustrates the Christian response to worldly persecution
  • It illustrates the reality of the Christian community in love and unity

All of these points are dependent upon first receiving God’s blessing in being turned away from our sins.

The narrative that follows next week in chapter five will show in the story of Ananias and Saphira the consequences of pursuing these blessings apart from first receiving the blessing of turning away from our sin.

This account is skillfully woven together so that verses 1-4 not only conclude the narrative of the crippled beggar’s healing but also introduce the first appearance of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin.

  • Linguistically, the adverbial participle, “while they were speaking” (λαλούντων [lalountōn]), joins these verses with what has gone before while topically introducing what follows as Peter and John stand before the Sanhedrin.

The statement “the next day” (v. 5) is better taken as beginning a new unit of material.

>>>READ ACTS 4:1-37<<<

Setting

There was a complex religious-political environment in Jerusalem at this time that the disciples were thrust into:

  • The religious authorities were the “priests,” the “captain of the temple guard” and “the Sadducees.”
  • The Sadducean sect, which was one of three competing sects, controlled the operation of the temple during Jesus’ time.
    • Sadducees: adhered strictly to the written Law
      • Rejected the oral law
      • Rejected the resurrection and the angels
    • Pharisees: adhered strictly to Jewish tradition and the Law
      • Accepted the oral law
      • Accepted the resurrection
      • Accepted Jewish angelology
    • Essenes: adhered to strict asceticism
      • Devoted to spiritual disciplines like prayer
      • Devoted to religious rituals and ceremonies as a means of purification
      • Rejected animal sacrifices
      • Rejected luxurious lifestyle

The Sadducees position of power in the temple meant that they took a more cooperative attitude towards the Romans.

  • Believed that accommodation was better than confrontation
  • They feared any disturbance in the temple because it could bring Roman disapproval and punishment
    • For this reason, a “temple guard” was posted to prevent any rioting or turmoil.
    • The captain of the guard was such a high position that he had an advantage in being selected for the position of high priest.

Peter and John’s sermon greatly disturbed the ruling Sadducees because they feared their message could become inflammatory:

  • Messianic phrases like these could foster rebellion among the temple crowd:
    • Times of refreshing
    • God sending the Christ
    • Resurrection
    • The new Moses

The Sadducees could not tolerate this disturbance for fear that it could materialize and turn into a rebellion against Rome that would bring the wrath of the Roman Empire down on Jerusalem and the Sadducees would lose their position of power.

So, the apostles had to be taken into custody, but the late afternoon hour made it impossible to hold the hearing until the next day, so Peter and John spent the night in confinement.

 

Verses 1-4: Opposition in Jerusalem

1 While they were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, 2 because they were annoyed that they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 So they seized them and took them into custody until the next day since it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

One of the central themes of Acts is how the gospel victoriously spread from the Jews into the Gentile world.  Despite the gospel’s initial success among the Jews, we will never again see the mass positive response to the gospel that we saw in 2:41 and that we see here in 4:4, when the numbers grew to about five thousand.

Here we are seeing an important pattern developing throughout the Book of Acts through until we meet Paul:

  • Miracle
    • Preaching
    • Trials and Testimony
    • Community response and growth

The response to Pentecost was entirely positive, but this time the response is mixed; the Sadducees were concerned not only by the fact that these were Jesus’ disciples, but also by their message about the resurrection of the dead.

  • Imagine how you might feel if another sect began to use your church building to preach their own doctrines
  • The Sadducees were upset that they were teaching the resurrection that they rejected (See Lk 20:27 & Jn 11:25-26)

Verses 5-12: On Trial Before the Sanhedrin

5 The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family. 7 After they had Peter and John stand before them, they began to question them: “By what power or in what name have you done this?” 8 Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: 9 If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man, by what means he was healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.”

Healing the man who had been lame since birth required that the ruling officials take what Peter and John were saying seriously; they couldn’t just ignore them because everyone knew this lame man had been lame for 40 years since birth.

Now think about this lame man:

  • Imagine if your baby could not crawl around the room and play happily
  • Imagine how hard it would be to watch your friends grow up and live fulfilling lives
  • Imagine how difficult it would be to be treated like a societal burden all your life by passersby
  • Now imagine if someone came in 40 years later and healed your in front of your church’s eyes

So often we do not realize the part we are playing in God’s plan of redemption until our part is made known.

For forty years this man was a nobody, but little did he know that in him the testimony of Christ’s resurrection would be proclaimed to Jerusalem for the glory of Christ!

John 9:3 (CSB) — 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered. “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.

Romans 8:28 (CSB) — 28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Verses 13-14: Jesus Recognized in Them

13 When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 And since they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in opposition.

First-century Jewish civil law held that a person must be aware of the consequences of his crime before being punished for non-capital offenses.  Meaning that in noncapital cases the common people — as distinguished from those with rabbinic training, who would know the law — had to be given a legal admonition before witnesses and could only be punished for an offense when they relapsed into a crime after due warning.

Therefore, this story sets up the narrative for future intensifying persecution throughout the Acts of the Apostles.

  • Verse 13: the Sanhedrin sees that the apostles were “unschooled, ordinary men”
  • Verse 17: tells how they were given a legal warning not to speak anymore in the name of Jesus
  • 5:28: tells how the Sanhedrin reminded the apostles of their first warning
  • 5:40: the Sanhedrin turns them over to be flogged because they had persisted in their “sectarian” ways

The emphasis of this text is twofold:

  1. The apostles have their first encounter with the law that sets up future intensifying persecution
  2. The apostles did not receive their message from scholastic training, but from the recognizable presence of Christ

Verses 15-17: A Clear Sign

15 After they ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign has been done through them, clear to everyone living in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But so that this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.”

This speaks to the nature of “signs”:

  • Signs demand that we pay more attention to the message
  • Signs require accountability for our response to Christ’s great salvation
  • Signs speak the testimony of God to witnesses about our great Savior Jesus Christ

These supernatural workings of God force us to deal with the purpose and will of God that is being carried out in Christ:

Hebrews 2:1–4 (CSB) — 1 For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? This salvation had its beginning when it was spoken of by the Lord, and it was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 At the same time, God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distributions of gifts from the Holy Spirit according to his will.

In the Sanhedrin’s conference together, the question of the truth of the apostles’ claims was not discussed, only how they might stop this thing from spreading.

2 Thessalonians 2:10b (CSB) — 10… They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth and so be saved.

They were so busy trying to defend their personal power, sectarian theology, and social authority that they did not stop to investigate the claims being made by Jesus and his apostles.

The danger is that we entrench ourselves in our own theological position and miss the work that God is doing.  We must always investigate the truth-claims according to God’s word.

Verses 18-21: Human Authority vs. God’s Authority

18 So they called for them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done. 22 For this sign of healing had been performed on a man over forty years old.

The Sanhedrin gave Peter and John their formal admonition and warning not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.

“Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God”: the apostles respond respectfully by calling their attention to the authority of God and asking them to consider these things in light of God’s will.

  • The Church has always faced opposition from human authorities that resist our message
  • The Church has always responded by submitting to God rather than to human authority

When we are confronted by the ruling human authorities that resist God, here is our response:

Deuteronomy 5:7 (CSB) — 7 Do not have other gods besides me (First commandment).

Joshua 24:15 (CSB) — 15 But if it doesn’t please you to worship the Lord, choose for yourselves today: Which will you worship—the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living? As for me and my family, we will worship the Lord.”

We submit to human authority out of liberty, not compulsion:

Matthew 17:25–27 (CSB) — 25 “Yes,” he said. When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes? From their sons or from strangers?” 26 “From strangers,” he said. “Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. 27But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you.”

The Christian response to the ruling powers of this world is to acknowledge that they are divinely appointed by God to keep civil order and punish lawbreakers and to voluntarily submit to them from a position of liberty and love because we are the children of God and we seek the wellbeing of all around us.

“For we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard”: The apostles could only speak of what they had seen and heard (v. 20).

They were the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry:

Acts 1:21–22, 24 (CSB) — 21 “Therefore, from among the men who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us—from among these, it is necessary that one become a witness with us of his resurrection.” 24 Then they prayed, “You, Lord, know everyone’s hearts; show which of these two you have chosen

They were the eyewitnesses to his resurrection:

Acts 2:32 (CSB) — 32 “God has raised this Jesus; we are all witnesses of this.

Acts 3:15 (CSB) — 15 You killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this.

The eye-witness apostolic ministry is one of the founding principles upon which Luke writes the Acts of the Apostles, and the idea that their apostolic witness originated with Christ himself and did not come from human minds is the basis for the authority of Scripture itself:

John 12:49 (CSB) — 49 For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a command to say everything I have said.

John 16:13 (CSB) — 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come.

1 John 1:1, 3 (CSB) — 1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…  what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father 3and with his Son Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:16 (CSB) — 16 For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Galatians 1:11–12 (CSB) — 11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not speak from his own will but delivered the message given to him by the Father.

The Holy Spirit comes to us and does not speak on his own, but delivers what he hears from above.

The apostles did not speak from their own will but bore witness to what they heard from their Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Verses 23-31: Glorifying God

23 After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David your servant: Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples plot futile things? 26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers assemble together against the Lord and against his Messiah. 27 “For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly.

When Peter and John returned to their people and reported what had occurred, the first reaction of the church was to raise their voices together in prayer to God.

  • This was not primarily a prayer of triumph
  • This was a prayer for courage and strength against the intensifying opposition that they saw coming
  • They didn’t pray for the defeat of the evil forces, or for their own safety
  • They prayed for boldness and for the hand of God to heal and perform signs and wonders for the sake of their mission

The believers are strengthened through Psalms (2:1–2), as they felt that everyone was against them as everyone had been against Jesus. The answer to their prayers came with the awesome shaking of their meeting place and the granting of their request to speak boldly.

Verses 32-37: The Holy Spirit Poured Out

32 Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas (which is translated Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

One of the central themes that run throughout the first 11 chapters of Acts is the development of Christian life in the early Church community.  This theme develops the reality of Christian conversion in stark contrast to the world and pagan ideals around them.

Luke continues to develop the reality of life in the Christian community with four distinct points about Christian love:

  1. Verse 32a: They were unified in mind and heart
  2. Verse 32b: They shared their possessions
  3. Verse 33a: The apostles gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus
  4. Verse 33b: The grace of God rested upon them all

Of particular importance is the “unity of heart and mind”, which serves as the basis for Luke’s narrative on life in the Christian community.  This expression reflects the Hebrew idiom “one heart and soul” (See Deut 6:5; cf. 10:12; 11:13; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10), and develops the Christian concept of “community” based on love for God:

Deuteronomy 6:5 (CSB) — 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

John 17:21, 23 (CSB) — 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

1 John 3:11–18 (CSB) — 11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another, 12 unlike Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers and sisters. The one who does not love remains in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. 16 This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him—how does God’s love reside in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.

Unity in Christ based on the kind of love for God that is tangibly expressed to our brothers and sisters is the primary reality of Christian life that we are supposed to experience with one another.

Conclusions

Luke is telling us that the resurrected Messiah blessed our repentance by turning us from our evil ways and joining us together in one body on the basis of his love.

  • He shows us that the gospel of Christ’s love conquers against all odds
  • He shows us that the Church relied on God when it faced worldly opposition and was filled with praise for God
  • He shows us that the Christian witness is about what God has done in Christ
  • He shows us that what God has done in Christ must be real in the experience of the Christian community
  • He shows us that what God has done in Christ must be lived out through repentance in the name of Christ

The early Church faced no-less challenging social and political environments than we do today, yet they overcame and grew because they relied solely on God to vindicate their cause.

Their pursuit was so fixated on Christ above that their victories produced praise and worship for God instead of pride and boasting in their own organization and accomplishment.

Their apostolic mission was to deliver the testimony of Christ’s resurrection to the Church by the power of God.

Ephesians 2:19–22 (CSB) — 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.

And most importantly, Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles tells us what it means to be the body of Christ in love and holiness.

Luke carefully constructs these themes together as he weaves new themes into this ornate and beautiful story about the Church that was founded upon Jesus Christ, whom God glorified and raised from the dead according to his will.

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