A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 3:1 – 4:31. The outbreak of persecution.
Luke has painted an idyllic picture of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Its members, having received forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, were conscientious in their learning from the apostles, their worship of God, their care of one another and their witness to those as yet outside their fellowship. Everything was sweetness and light. Love, joy and peace reigned. Commissioned by Christ and empowered by his Spirit, they stood on the threshold of the great missionary adventure which Luke is going to describe. The good ship *Christ-church* was ready to catch the wind of the Spirit and to set sail on her voyage of spiritual conquest. But almost immediately a perilous storm blew up, a storm of such ferocity that the church’s very existence was threatened.
Alternatively, we might say that, if the chief actor in the story of Acts 1 and 2 is the Holy Spirit, the chief actor in Acts 3 – 6 almost seems to be Satan. True, he is identified only once by name, but his activity may be discerned throughout. His one specific mention is when Peter confronts Ananias: ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…?’ (5:3). Here the Holy Spirit and that evil spirit often called the devil stand in opposition to one another. According to outward appearance, two men faced each other, and one of them lied to the other, but Peter had the spiritual discernment to see behind the appearance of the unseen reality: Satan had lied to God (5:3-4). Indeed, Satan had filled Ananias’ heart to induce him to do so – a kind of diabolical equivalent to Peter’s being filled with the Spirit.
For a full understanding of the early church we need to read *the Acts of the Apostles* and *The Book of Revelation* side by side. Both tell much the same tale of the church and its experience of conflict, but from a different perspective. Luke in Acts chronicles what unfolded on the stage of history before the eyes of observers; John in the Revelation enables us to see the hidden forces at work. In the Acts human beings oppose and undermine the church; in the Revelation the curtain is lifted and we see the hostility of the devil himself, depicted as an enormous red dragon, aided and abetted by two grotesque monsters and a lewd prostitute. Indeed the Revelation is a vision of the age-long battle between the Lamb and the dragon, Christ and Satan, Jerusalem the holy city and Babylon the great city, the church and the world. Moreover, it can hardly be a coincidence that the symbolism of the dragon’s three allies in Revelation corresponds to the devil’s three weapons wielded against the church in the early chapters of Acts, that is, persecution, moral compromise, and the danger of exposure to false teaching when the apostles became distracted from their chief responsibility, namely, ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’.
The devil’s crudest weapon was physical violence, and Luke describes two outbreaks of persecution by the Sanhedrin. In the first Peter and John are arrested, jailed, tried, forbidden to preach, warned and released (4:1-22); in the second they and others (‘the apostles’ in general) are arrested, jailed and tried, and this time flogged before being again forbidden to preach and released. Luke sees this as a fulfilment of Jesus’ own predictions, which he has recorded in his Gospel, that his disciples would be hated, insulted and rejected (Lk.6:22,26), brought to trial before ‘rulers and authorities’ (Lk. 12:11), and persecuted and imprisoned on account of his name (Lk. 21:12ff).
It is noteworthy that the structure Luke adopts in chapters 3 and 4 is the same as in chapter 2. First, he describes from the spectator’s viewpoint a miraculous event – in chapter 2 the coming of the Spirit (2:1-13), in chapter 3 the healing of the cripple (3:1-10), The story is told in an objective, matter-of-fact way, although in both cases the crowd are said to have been utterly amazed and ‘unable to explain’ what had happened (JB, 2:7, 12;3:10). Secondly, Luke records a speech by Peter which takes the miraculous event as its text and interprets it in such a way as to glorify Christ, whom his hearers had killed, but God had raised, as the apostles had witnessed. In addition, the now exalted Christ had both poured out the Spirit and healed the cripple, thus demonstrating the power of his name to those who believe (2:23-39; 3:13-16; 4:12). In each case Peter concluded his speech with an appeal to the crowd to repent, so that they might receive the promised blessings (2:38ff. and 3:17ff). Thirdly, Luke describes the consequences of the miraculous event and Peter’s explanation of it, namely a Spirit-filled church which in the first case learns, worships, shares and witnesses (2:42-47) and in the second is persecuted, but also prays and shares (4:1-37).
As Luke develops this second vignette of the post-Pentecost church, he focuses successively on the cripple who was healed (3:1-10), on the apostle Peter who addressed the crowd (3:11-26), on the council which arrested and arraigned the apostles (4:1-22), and on the church which turned to God in prayer (4:23-31).
Tomorrow: Acts 3:1-10. A congenital cripple is healed.
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.