This section details the results of the events of chapter 3, with persecution of the Apostles by the Jewish leadership. As we consider this section, many have undertaken to equate the situation of the Apostles in chapters 4 and 5 with some contemporary situations in our corner of the world, which may be summed up in a verse from chapter 5 that we’ll consider next week: “we must obey God rather than men”. We need to exercise our understanding of these chapters with care, though, to consider their context. We’ll make a few of those general contextual comments before looking at a few specific verses.
The context of Acts 4 and 5 is more theological than political, though there are both things going on. It’s a very different context than our day, since there was no separation at all of “church” and “state”. They were one and the same. Ancient Israel was the only true “theocracy” (a nation with a divine figure as its head of state). Though they did have earthly kings and rulers, God was their rightful King. So the laws of the nation were directly taken from God’s law, most notably the Torah.
Though we in Canada today would say that many of our laws are still rooted in what might be called “natural law”, that is, the way God designed the whole world to work, the actual laws on the books here and now in many cases completely oppose God’s will. And those who hold to Christian views are increasingly told that they have no place in the civil/political life of the nation. So in that regard, we are almost completely different from ancient Israel. (And, it must be noted, as Canadians, that the language of “the separation of church and state” isn’t so much Canadian as USAmerican, even though the idea/desire is certainly around in Canada, if only in a sociological way and not an official legal one).
So the authorities that we read about in Acts 4 (e.g. in verse 1: priests, temple captain, and Sadducees) were both religious and civil. The Apostles were arrested, but for a specific reason: preaching and teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. That was enough to get them arrested under that system. So when they answered that they would obey God rather than men, that’s the context of their response and actions. It’s a profoundly religious and theological context, not primarily a civil one.
With those general observations, let’s consider a few specifics:
4:1 This opposition begins to happen even while Peter is still preaching; it’s an immediate reaction to a clear message about Jesus as Saviour.
4:4 Even though the Apostles were arrested and taken into custody, the Word still did His work: more people were added to the family of the Church because of the preaching of the Gospel!
4:7 The question is one not only of power, which has to do with the ability to do something, but of authority, which is the right to do something. The Jewish rulers are questioning the Apostles regarding both of these things, because in their minds, they were the ones who had both power and authority to act in God’s name. But now here were others claiming to do that.
4:8 Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit for this task. We might be tempted to think, wasn’t Peter already filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost? He was. And continues to be. The Spirit is poured out not only “in general”, but for the vocations to which He calls people. A grammar note here is worth considering: a more literal rendering could be “being filled with...”; it’s using the passive voice, which in Scripture is primarily used to show that it’s God at work.
4:13 A most interesting verse: Peter and John were “common, uneducated men”. The word “common” here points to the Apostles as unskilled outsiders. The religious professionals were astonished that these untrained, ordinary men could be so bold as to publicly proclaim these deep theological truths. What was their qualification? They “had been with Jesus”, a three-year journey that certainly surpassed any other training that anyone else could have received.
4:14-18 Where does this confrontation leave the Jewish rulers? Without power or authority. And they seem to recognize at least the part about power, since they couldn’t really punish the Apostles for fear of the people, because the miracle that had happened was plainly seen by everyone (including them!)
4:20 The Apostles can’t help sharing what they’ve personally witnessed. They’re not compelled by simple obedience or threats; they’re witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus!
4:23-31 The group of believers, having heard what happened, gather in prayer that God would continue to do His work through them. Notice their prayer in verse 30: “while you stretch out your hand to heal and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus”. It is God Himself who is doing these things, through His instrument the Church.
4:32-37 This was an amazing time in the life of the early Church. As we seek to learn from this account, it’s important to remember this is a description and not a command. The ways in which people were provided for is a commendable thing, but not a commanded thing. The Church has always sought to care for those who are in particular earthly need, but again (as above, in the witness of the Apostles) not out of threats but of a response of faith.
4:36 Barnabas, who was already contributing in a significant way in the life of the Church, will contribute in a remarkable way again soon, as the “bridge” between Saul/Paul and this group of believers.