Disciples Arrested – Acts 4:1–31
Read the Passage: Acts 4:1-31
Acts chapter four contains a record of the first public persecution faced by the church. The text reports that the leaders, including the Sadducees who did not believe in the idea of physical resurrection (cf. Luke 20:27), “came upon them [i.e., Peter and John], being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). While the disciples were not causing a public disturbance, nor were they engaged in civil disobedience, the Sadducees were offended by their theology, as well as the implication of their guilt in killing Jesus (cf. Acts 3:13–14). Note, however, that many people were believing the gospel message preached by Peter and John. In just a few short weeks the number of believers had grown from 120 people (cf. Acts 1:15), to over three thousand souls (cf. Acts 2:41), to eventually five thousand men (cf. Acts 4:4).
It is interesting that in bringing Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, the rulers did not ask about the truth of their message, nor seem to want to inspect the evidence—that is, the healed lame man (cf. their similar reaction at John 9:1–41). Rather, perhaps betraying their own sinful motives and idolatry, the leaders inquired about the disciples’ authority as they asked, “By what power or by what name have you done this” (Acts 4:7)? In response, Peter boldly preached the gospel to the religious leaders as he simultaneously accused them of murdering Jesus (cf. Acts 4:10). Further, Peter demonstrated that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (cf. Acts 4:11; Ps. 118:22), and noted that there is no “salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; cf. John 14:6).
Acts 4:13–22 reports the religious leaders’ response to Peter and John. Acts 4:13 reads, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.” Since Peter and John freely admitted their association with Jesus, the leaders’ realization that they had been with Jesus is not a commentary on this raw fact, but a commentary on the apostles’ character. The religious leaders, of course, were in a quandary. On the one hand they were confronted with the witness of Peter and John, as well as the evidence of the healed man; yet, on the other hand, continued preaching of Jesus would implicate them for their murder of Jesus the Messiah. As a solution, the leaders resolved, “Let us threaten them that from now on they speak to no man in this name” (Acts 4:17).
In an almost comical exchange, the Sanhedrin “commanded them [i.e., Peter and John] not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). In response, however, the disciples asked the rhetorical question, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot help but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). Certainly, believers are commanded to obey governing authorities (cf. Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). It is important to note that such obedience is not contingent upon the worthiness of the office holders, but rests upon the authority structure which has been established by God. The only reason not to obey authorities, thus engaging in civil disobedience, is if such obedience would cause one to sin or keep one from righteousness (cf. Exod. 1:15–17; Dan. 6:4–10; Matt. 22:20–22).
Acts 4:23–31 records the disciples’ immediate reaction to their meeting with the religious leaders. Rather than being discouraged, they were invigorated. Indeed, in their meeting with the gathered church, they prayed and testified of their belief that their experiences were a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy—namely, Ps. 2:1–2. Moreover, rather than complain about their sufferings, they rehearsed the gospel message by admitting in regard to Jesus’ death God’s sovereign right “to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done” (Acts 4:28). With this perspective on God’s sovereignty, they did not ask for deliverance from evil, but for boldness to speak the gospel and for power to work miracles as a communication and testimony of the gospel message. This humility and reliance upon God resulted in them being filled with the Holy Spirit.
- Do you think most church attendees would be willing to be arrested for their faith? Would you? What would it take to make you deny your faith?
- What are believers responsible for in the process of evangelization? How is it possible that so many people in Acts became Christians so quickly?
- Aren’t claims of the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus rigid, intolerant, and narrow-minded? Don’t such claims have the potential to offend others?
- What does the phrase “they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13) imply? Can others make this same claim about you?
- When is it acceptable, if ever, for Christians to disobey governing authorities? Have you ever engaged in civil disobedience?