A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 4:1-22. The council brings the apostles to trial.
b). The court’s decision (4:13-22).
The court was astonished by *the courage of Peter and John*, particularly because they were *unschooled* (*agrammatoi*, meaning not that they were illiterate, but that they had received no proper training in Rabbinic theology) and *ordinary men* (*idiotai*, meaning ‘laymen’ or ‘non-professionals’). But then *they took note that these men had been with Jesus*, who also lacked both a formal theological education (Jn.7:15) and professional status as a Rabbi (13). Nevertheless, they could also see before their eyes the incontrovertible evidence of the healed cripple. Although it was well know in the city that he had never walked in his life, there he was *standing* with the apostles. *So there was nothing they could say* (14). They could not deny it and they would not acknowledge it. Embarrassed, they ordered them out of court, so that they could confer in private (15).
Liberal critics have enjoyed themselves in asking how Luke could have known what went on in the Sanhedrin’s confidential discussion. ‘The author reports the closed deliberations’, comments Haenchen sarcastically, ‘as if he were present’. But Paul may have been there. More likely, Gamaliel was, and he could have told Paul later what happened. At all events, the Council was in a real quandary. On the one hand, *an outstanding miracle* had been performed, as *everybody living in Jerusalem* knew well; so they could *not deny it* (16). On the other hand they must *stop this thing from spreading any further among the people* (17a). (We note in passing that they made no attempt to discredit the apostles’ witness to the resurrection, although they knew that it was the centre of their message, verse 2.) So what could they do? All they could think of was to warn them, as a legal admonition before witnesses, *to speak no longer to anyone in this name* (17b) – the powerful name by which the cripple had been healed, which Peter had preached, and which they were reluctant even to pronounce. So *they called* the apostles *in again* and solemnly forbade them *to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus* (18). To this prohibition Peter and John made a spirited reply that the court must judge whether the accused would be right in God’s sight to obey them or God (19), for they added ‘*we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard*’ (20). The court threatened them further, and then *let them go*. It did not seem possible *to punish them because all the people were praising God for what had happened* (21), especially because the cripple which had been miraculously cured *was over forty years old* (22). 4 The church prays (4:23-31)
What was the apostles reaction to the Council’s ban and threats? *On their release*, Luke tells us, they went straight *to their own people*, their relatives and friends in Christ, *reported* everything the Council had said to them (23), and then immediately turned together *in prayer to God* (24a). Here is the Christian *koinonia* in action. We have seen the apostles in the Council; now we see them in the church. Having been bold in witness, they were equally bold in prayer. Their first word was *Despotes, Sovereign Lord*, a term used of a slave owner and of a ruler of unchallengeable power. The Sanhedrin might utter warnings, threats and prohibitions, and try to silence the church, but their authority was subject to a higher authority still, and the edicts of men cannot overturn the decrees of God.
Next we observe that, before the people came to any petition, they filled their minds with thoughts of the divine sovereignty. First, he is the God of creation, who *made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them* (24). Secondly, he is the God of revelation, who *spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of…David*, and in Psalm 2 (already in the first century BC recognized as Messianic) had foretold the world’s opposition to his Christ, with nations raging, peoples plotting, kings standing and rulers assembling against the Lord’s Anointed (25-26), Thirdly, he is the God of history, who had caused even his enemies (Herod and Pilate, Gentiles and Jews, united in a conspiracy against Jesus, verse 27) to do what his *power and will had decided beforehand should happen* (28). This, then, was the early church’s understanding of God, the God of creation, revelation and history, whose characteristic actions are summarised by the three verbs ‘you made’ (24), ‘you spoke’ (25) and ‘you decided’ (28).
Only now with their vision of God clarified, and themselves humbled before him, were they ready at last to pray. Luke tells us their three main requests. The first was that God would *consider their threats* (29a). It was not a prayer that their threats would fall under divine judgement, nor even that they would remain unfulfilled, so that the church would be preserved in peace and in safety, but only that God would *consider* them, would bear them in his mind. The second petition was that God would enable them his *servants* (literally ‘slaves’) to speak his Word *with great boldness* (29b), undeterred by the Councils prohibition and unafraid of their threats. The third prayer was that God would *stretch out his hand to heal*, and to perform *miraculous signs and wonders* in and *through the name of…Jesus* (30). As Alexander pointed out, ‘their demand is not now for miracles of vengeance or destruction, such as fire from heaven Lk.9:54), but for miracles of mercy’. Moreover, the word and the signs would go together, the signs and wonders confirming the word proclaimed with boldness.
In answer to their united and earnest prayers, (i) *the place…was shaken*’ and as Chrysostom commented, ‘that made them the more unshaken’; (ii)*they were all* again *filled with the Holy Spirit*; and (iii), in response to their specific request (29), they *spoke the word of God boldly* (31). Nothing is said in this context of an answer to their other specific prayer, namely for miracles of healing (30), but it would probably be legitimate to see 5:12 as the answer: ‘The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.’
Tomorrow: Acts 3:1-4:31. Conclusion: signs and wonders.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.