Thousands Added to the Church

Acts 4:4

One day when Peter and John went up to the Temple, they saw a lame beggar seated near the gate. They commanded him in the name of Jesus to rise up and walk. In faith he obeyed, and he was instantly healed of an affliction since birth. News of the miracle spread rapidly throughout the Temple, and people rushed to see the lame man who could now walk and leap. They found him in the area known as Solomon's Porch, where he was showing his gratitude by clinging to the two apostles.

Seeing the huge crowd gathering around them, Peter began to preach about Jesus. He declared that although the Jews rejected and killed Him, God raised Him from the dead, because He was God's own Son, the Holy One. He called upon them to repent and be converted, so that their sins might be blotted out.

The same power of God that healed the beggar also worked to change hearts as Peter preached. His sermon was even more fruitful than the one at Pentecost. Five thousand men besides women and children were saved. Within days after the Ascension, the church had grown from 120 to well more than ten thousand.

The Apostles Arrested

Acts 4:1-3

The commotion came to the attention of the authorities. They heard that followers of Jesus were teaching in the Temple and affirming that He had risen from the dead. No doubt they heard also that the apostles had stirred up the worshipers to great excitement by performing a miracle. This information greatly displeased them.

Pondering a Question

Why did the report of this miracle upset the religious authorities, who were supposedly men of God?

The news upset them for two reasons:

  1. The miracle was done in the name of Jesus, and Jesus was a man they had executed as a troublemaker and false teacher.
  2. As Sadducees, they did not believe in resurrection of the dead. There were two main religious parties among the Jews: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were the conservatives. The Sadducees, including many of the chief priests, were the liberals. The Pharisees professed to believe the entire Old Testament and sought to meet every requirement of the law, whereas the Sadducees limited the Word of God to the five books of Moses and rejected any doctrine that, in their view, was missing from his writings.
         The latter party scoffed at many beliefs of the former. Although the Sadducees admitted that God exists, they denied the existence of angels and demons, and they ridiculed the idea that dead bodies would someday come alive and rise from the grave. Apparently they went to the extreme of denying any life after death. Because they were great admirers of the Greek world, their thinking was shaped more by Greek philosophy and culture than by their Jewish heritage.
         The division between the two parties was extremely bitter, and they were constantly locked in heated debates.

Delving Deeper

In supposing they were faithful to the teachings of Moses, the Sadducees were self-deceived. In fact, these books support the very doctrines that the Sadducees rejected.

For example, what were the cherubim if they were not angels? In Scripture, they first appear in Genesis 3 as guardians preventing access to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). In Exodus, the second book of Moses, we learn that the Tabernacle, designed according to God’s direction, contained many artistic representations of the cherubim, both in flat (Exod. 26:1, 31; 36:8, 35) and three-dimensional media (Exod. 25:18–22; 37:7–9).

As Jesus bluntly informed the Sadducees and their allies, the doctrine of life after death also appears in Moses’ writings. He pointed to Exodus 3:6, when God said to Moses long after the patriarchs had died, "I am . . . the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Matt. 22:32). Jesus added, "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."

After the Jewish leaders were apprised of what was happening in Solomon’s Porch, some priests and other Sadducees personally rushed to the scene, bringing with them the captain of the Temple. He was the head of a troop of Jewish soldiers employed by the priests as Temple guards. No doubt a contingent of his men came with him to deal with the disturbance.

Romans soldiers never served as Temple guards, for they were barred from the inner precincts, open only to Jews. They could not proceed farther inward than the Outer Court, known as the Court of the Gentiles. Although the Romans exercised strong control of the Jewish nation, they did not challenge the right of the Jews to restrict access to their Temple. They even granted that gentiles who went into areas off-limits were subject to capital punishment, as Jewish law required.

Along with the guards hurrying to Solomon’s Porch came the leaders themselves. Perhaps they accompanied the soldiers because of past experience. Some months earlier, they dispatched the same guards to arrest Jesus when He was teaching in the Temple, but the soldiers came back empty-handed. They reported, "Never man spake like this man" (John 7:46). It was obvious that some of the soldiers were sympathetic to Jesus. Now, to make sure that the soldiers would not fail to make the arrest, their superiors came with them.

When the authorities arrived, they dispersed the crowd and arrested Peter and John. It was now already evening, so it was too late to bring the apostles before any tribunal. The leaders decided to put them in jail until the next day, when they could assemble the rulers and conduct a hearing.

The Hearing before the Council

Acts 4:5-12

When the next day arrived, Peter and John were brought before an assembly of all the important Jewish leaders. The priests were there, including Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the current high priest by Roman appointment, but Annas, a former high priest, wielded the most power. Also present were John and Alexander from the priestly family and many other rulers, elders, and scribes. It is likely that the assembly was a session of the full Sanhedrin.

Pondering a Question

What exactly was the Sanhedrin?

The Sanhedrin was the ruling body of the Jews. It consisted of seventy-one members, including seventy elders and one president, the high priest.45 It was a form of government patterned after the government of Israel during its years of wandering in the wilderness, when seventy elders assisted Moses (Num. 11:16–30).

The same Sanhedrin that examined Peter and John had met just weeks before to try Jesus.

Delving Deeper

In Luke’s account of the two apostles’ appearance before the Sanhedrin, some critics have claimed to find an error. He identifies Annas as the high priest, whereas two Gospels tell us that in the same year, the high priest was Caiaphas (Matt. 26:3, 57; John 11:49; 18:13, 24). To complicate matters, Luke reports that both Annas and Caiaphas were high priests when John the Baptist began his ministry (Luke 3:2).

The facts drawn from the Josephus, the Jewish historian, help to resolve the issue. The high priesthood in the era of Jesus was determined by Roman appointment. However much the Jews resented Roman intrusion into their religious affairs, they could not resist it. Annas held the office of high priest from AD 6 to AD 15. At various times five of his sons as well as one grandson and one son-in-law, Caiaphas, also held the same office. The longest-serving of these was Caiaphas, who was high priest from 18 to 36. The John mentioned by Luke was probably Annas’s son Jonathan, who was high priest in 36–37. No surviving record sheds light on the ruler that Luke calls Alexander.

Throughout his life, Annas remained a powerful figure, justly described as the power behind the throne. After Jesus was arrested, He was interviewed by Annas before He was taken to Caiaphas (John 18:12–14, 24). Further action evidently awaited Annas’s approval or guidance.

Luke’s choice in Luke 3:2 to identify Caiaphas and Annas as high priests simultaneously is a clue that he is not referring to official rank in a narrow sense. He knew perfectly well that the high priesthood belonged to one man. Rather, he was referring to political reality, in recognition that Annas had not lost commanding influence. For the same reason, in Acts 4:2 Luke points to Annas rather than Caiaphas as the high priest. He was the high priest de facto.

Getting Practical

The Book of Acts is full of historical details that have been verified by modern research. It is a record of amazing accuracy, without any proven flaw. The nineteenth-century archaeologist William Ramsey started his career as a thoroughgoing skeptic, but after many years of examining the relevant evidence, much of which he himself had unearthed, he concluded that Luke is absolutely trustworthy. Luke’s witness to the work of God in the early church eventually convinced Ramsey to become a believer in Christ.

As we go through the Book of Acts, we will point out the many details that now have the status of being confirmed.

The leaders asked the apostles, "By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?" Peter stood forward and gave an answer. Instead of currying the favor of these men who could take his life, he started by criticizing their question and finished by accusing them of a great crime.

In his opening words Peter implied that their question was inappropriate in a serious legal proceeding. Asking about "this" that the apostles had done, it was too vague. If they were being arraigned on a charge, they should have been told what their offense was. The leaders resorted to fuzzy language to avoid admitting that the offense was a miraculous good deed—hardly grounds for a criminal indictment. Peter replied by supplying the missing words. He declared that they healed a man, and that they healed him through the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. To make the identification absolutely certain, he added that this Jesus was the very man the rulers recently crucified.

Peter then argued that when the Sanhedrin tried Jesus, they came to a verdict sharply opposed to God's view of the man under trial. Whereas they killed Him, God raised Him from the dead. Peter went on to explain why God so honored Jesus. He said that Jesus was the figure described by the Psalmist: "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner" (Psa. 118:22).

In an ancient stone building, the head of the corner was a large stone set atop the joint between two walls. It kept these walls from separating. A building without this stone was in danger of toppling over.

The rulers would have understood Peter’s quotation of Psalm 118 as a declaration that Jesus was the rightful king. No doubt this was a proper interpretation of Peter’s intention, as well as the Holy Spirit’s intention when inspiring the psalmist. Yet the meaning of the words quoted is much fuller. In referring to Jesus as the head stone of the corner, the Psalmist meant that He would hold together God's spiritual house. Scripture often uses a house to represent the people of God. They are like a house because they are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the chief stone, because except for Him, there would be no house. No one can join the people of God except by having his sins forgiven through the blood of Christ.

Therefore, Peter continued by pointing to Christ as the Savior from sin. He emphasized that there is no other Savior. The Jewish rulers believed that they could save themselves by keeping the law, but Peter warned them that they were deluded. He said, "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." A specific other name was probably in Peter’s mind: the name of Moses, whose books contain the law that the rulers viewed as their road into God’s kingdom.

Peter's Boldness and the Council's Weakness

Acts 4:13-18

The rulers listening to Peter marveled at his boldness. They could see that he was a common man. The words "unlearned and ignorant" do not mean that he appeared to be stupid. They mean only that Peter had obviously received no training in either a Jewish rabbinical school or a Greek academy. In such an academy he would have learned rhetoric, the art of public speaking. In a rabbinical school he would have learned how to build an argument based on the opinions of revered rabbis. But Peter did not use rhetorical devices, and he made no reference to rabbis. Peter's boldness was surprising because normally when a man of no social importance was brought before the Sanhedrin, he quaked in their presence. But without a trace of fear Peter accused them of crucifying a man sent from God.

Getting Practical

The Peter who fearlessly proclaimed Christ to the most powerful men in the nation was the same Peter who, less than two months before, was afraid to tell a mere servant girl that he followed Christ (Mark 14:69). The contrast not only illustrates the transforming power of the Spirit, but also gives us our best example of how the Spirit can turn craven fear into unflinching boldness.

If fear stops you from witnessing or doing right, look to the Spirit for help. He may not take away every flutter of your nerves. But as you step out to obey God, you will receive the power to complete each step and take another. Still, as you go along, you may feel that you are stumbling, or that you look foolish, or that the end of your present duty is impossibly far away. But when you reach the end, you will make several faith-building discoveries. Perhaps you will learn that you did well—that the power of God was evident in you. You will certainly learn the satisfaction in doing right. Above all, you will learn that obedience wins God's approval and blessing as well as a wonderful sense of His love.

How did Peter know what to say to these men? He no doubt had taken to heart an instruction that Jesus gave the disciples years earlier, when He said, "And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you" (Matt. 10:18-20). Peter trusted that the Holy Spirit would enable him to speak before the Sanhedrin, and the Spirit gave him both the words to say and the ability to say them. The author of Acts accounts for the power of his speech by saying that he was "filled with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 4:8).

Getting Practical

The power that flowed through Peter is available to us today, and we need it. It is impossible to be a good witness for Christ and yet remain silent. It is not enough to be a nice person who goes to church and refrains from conspicuous sins. We must also tell others about our faith in Christ and verbally challenge them to consider His claims. But to witness is often difficult. Indeed it is impossible to witness with lasting results unless we lean on the Spirit to help us.

Standing with Peter and John was the man they healed. The authorities must have taken him into custody along with the apostles. As the rulers gazed at the three disturbers of the peace, they reached two conclusions immediately. First, "they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus." In other words, they recognized Peter and John as men who had been prominent among the disciples of Jesus in days past. Second, they saw that the third man, formerly a lame beggar who had often greeted them as they entered the Temple, was no longer lame but able to walk normally. Both conclusions made them feel uneasy. The strong connection between the two apostles and Jesus made it clear that the Jewish masses would credit Jesus with the miracle. The full restoration of the beggar forced them to abandon any hope of denying that the man was truly healed.

They therefore sent the detainees out of the council and discussed what to do. Their options were extremely limited. Everyone in Jerusalem knew that the apostles had performed a "notable miracle." To avoid public criticism for killing Jesus, the council decided to stop His followers from talking about Him. They called in the apostles and threatened severe consequences if they continued to spread Jesus' fame.

Notice that the leaders did not even consider the possibility that the apostles were doing the work of God. In the next lesson, we will discuss the reasons for their intransigence.

Obeying God First

Acts 4:19-22

The council did not succeed in intimidating the apostles. Both Peter and John were resolute in their determination to bring souls into fellowship with Christ. They simply refused to obey their rulers, saying that they had a higher obligation to obey God. Their exact words were these: "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye." Although they did not reveal anything about their commission to evangelize the world, they stated that their duty to God required them to speak of recent events. The Sanhedrin understood that they were referring to the Resurrection.

Pondering a Question

Were not Peter and John wrong in their refusal to obey authority? Did they not set a poor example for the rest of us, especially the young?

The apostles later taught the church that Christians ought to obey their rulers. Paul said, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (Rom. 13:1-2). The same Peter who scorned the Sanhedrin's order to stop preaching said, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well" (I Pet. 2:13-14). Peter says clearly that we must submit to every ruling of every ruler.

How then did Peter justify his refusal to obey a ruling of the Sanhedrin? He understood that a ruler has no authority in himself. As Paul teaches in the verse quoted above, the only authority a ruler has derives from God. God grants him authority so that he will enforce the laws of God, thus limiting sin and corruption in the world. A ruler loses divine backing if he treats God's laws with contempt, whether by allowing people to break them or by passing his own laws that make it difficult or illegal or impossible for people to obey God's laws. He then ceases to have authority, and all of his laws contrary to God's are null and void, so far as a believer is concerned. A believer should not obey any human command that forces him to disobey God.

Pondering a Question

Are there examples in Scripture or history of believers whose faithfulness to God made them outlaws in the eyes of government?

There are many.

In Scripture

The book of Daniel records that King Nebuchadnezzar built a tall golden statue and ordered his officials to bow down and worship it. Three officials—the Hebrews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego—refused to obey because God had commanded, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image . . . . Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them" (Ex. 20:4-5). They were arrested and brought before the king. In their defense, they said only, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Dan. 3:16-18). Like Peter's, their language was not very respectful. The king threw the Hebrews into a fiery furnace, but God prevented the fire from harming them. Clearly, God was showing His approval of their decision to obey God rather than an earthly ruler.

In history
  1. Many early Christians were devoured by lions in an arena or crucified because they refused to worship Caesar.
  2. In the Sixteenth Century, most rulers throughout Europe forbade the distribution of Bibles written in languages understood by the common man. William Tyndale, translator and distributor of the English Bible, spent much of his life eluding arrest, but at last he was captured and condemned. After he was strangled, his body was burned at the stake. Many other believers, numbering at least in the hundred thousands, were slain during the Reformation.
  3. Still in our day, a Christian may be required to violate the laws of man in order to serve God. In some Muslim countries, it is a crime to witness for Christ or hold church services. In Communist countries, the government tolerates only those churches that support the Communist party. Therefore, most believers meet in illegal house churches. There is good evidence that the toll of martyrs in the twentieth century was greater than in any preceding century.

Delving Deeper

Many other examples of believers persecuted for their faith are recorded in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The chief persecutor of the church has always been an alliance between the state and false religion.

  1. In first-century Judea, the chief persecutor was the Sanhedrin in league with Pharisees and Sadducees.
  2. During the early centuries, the chief persecutor was the Roman government in defense of the Caesar cult.
  3. In the Middle Ages and in Reformation times, the chief persecutor was European governments under the influence of the papal Roman Catholic Church.
  4. In the twentieth century, the chief persecutor was Communism promoting the false religion of atheism.
  5. In our century, political correctness is emerging as the new religion we must follow to avoid public censure.

One key to understanding history is this principle: the devil is always seeking to concentrate power in the hands of a few proud men, because they are easy to control and corrupt, and through them he can control and corrupt everyone else. Thus, he prefers world government to national government, national government to regional or local government, big business to small business, mass media to local media, and church hierarchies and monolithic religious institutions to independent churches. Some measure of centralized authority is certainly legitimate if it is superior to decentralized authority in its promotion of God’s interests and protection of human welfare. Without a federal government, America would not have ended slavery as early as the 1860s, and it would have offered weak resistance to such monsters as Hitler and Stalin. Still, the devil’s chief aim, first seen long ago when he prodded mankind to build the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), is always to consolidate both political and religious power in the same hands, because such an arrangement is a powerful weapon against true religion.

His ambition will someday be fully realized when all political authority in this world devolves upon the Antichrist and all religious authority upon the Antichrist's henchman, the false prophet.

After Peter and John refused to stop preaching in the name of Christ, the Sanhedrin desired greatly to punish the apostles, but feared taking any action that would further diminish their own popularity. The whole city was glorifying God for the miracle the apostles had performed. Everyone was overjoyed at God's goodness to a man who had been lame more than forty years. The council at last decided to do nothing beyond making more threats. After trying to frighten the apostles into silence, they let them go.

Renewal of Divine Power

Acts 4:23-31

When Peter and John returned to the company of believers, they reported how the rulers treated them. The assembled brethren then prayed, addressing the Lord as the Creator of all. They acknowledged that their persecutors were only fulfilling God's plan from long ago. They were encouraging themselves with the reminder that a loving God was in control, and that no enemy of Christ could abuse His followers more than God allowed.

The company of believers quoted David's words in Psalm 2: "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed" (Ps. 2:1-2). Because the Hebrew word "anointed" is the same as the title Messiah, the believers understood that this psalm spoke of Jesus. Indeed, as David prophesied, a strong coalition of political forces rose up to do away with God's anointed. It included all the Jewish and gentile rulers with authority over the land of Israel. Now the Jewish rulers were setting themselves against the church also. The believers asked the Lord to give them power to continue His work despite powerful opposition.

They desired two things in particular: boldness in speech and ability to perform signs and wonders. Instead of keeping quiet, as they had been told to do, they wanted to speak out even more boldly. They wanted Jerusalem to ring with the name of Jesus. And to show that they were not mere fanatics promoting a foolish cause, they wanted God to back up their testimony with miracles. The Sanhedrin's attempt to intimidate them had failed altogether. They were more determined than ever to witness for Christ.

God's answer was immediate and dramatic. The Lord responded by giving them another outpouring of the Spirit. The Spirit was already indwelling them, but now He gave them power for the specific task of witnessing without fear. Afterward they proclaimed the Resurrection with great boldness.

Practical Outworkings

Acts 4:32-37

The believers were so filled with the Spirit that there were many other evident results as well.

  1. They were perfectly united in affection for each other, and in all their decisions there were no disputes.

    Getting Practical

    In a Spirit-filled church there is room for loving disagreements. We need not all have the same opinion or think alike. But we must not allow any difference of opinion to spoil our fellowship or hinder the work of God. We give that work priority over proving we are right.

  2. No man regarded his possessions as his own. He was willing to share them with any brother who had a need. The wealthy sold houses and lands so that they could give the proceeds to the church for distribution to the poor. One who was outstanding in generosity was Barnabas, later an important figure in spreading the gospel to new places. He sold land and laid the money at the apostles' feet. Scripture gives the meaning of his name—"son of consolation" (or, "of exhortation")—because it describes his character, evident later in the Book of Acts. He was famous as an exhorter of others.

    Getting Practical

    The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this occasion, as on the day of Pentecost, was in answer to prayer. A believer today may wonder how he can receive a filling of the Spirit comparable to what the early Christians enjoyed. The chief requirement is to pray for it. Of course he must pray with a surrendered heart, willing to do whatever God desires. And he must pray in faith, not doubting that it is possible to be filled with the Spirit.

    You should put these truths to the test. Start your day by asking God to make you a vessel for the Holy Spirit's use. Confess all sins that God shows you are a hindrance to the Spirit's filling. Then go through the rest of your day with confidence that the prayer has been answered. The difference in your life will be revolutionary.