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AM Bible Study Archives
"The Fruitful Witness of the Persecuted Church"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
October 10, 2007
Theme: This passages shows us how the early church responded to persecution in such a way as to advance the cause of the gospel.
This passage has an immediate connection to chapter three. A man who had been born lame had just been healed in Jesus' name through Peter and John. A vast crowd of the Jews congregated in the temple; and Peter and John preached the gospel to them. But it was then that the authorities came—seeking to silence the testimony of the risen Christ before it could spread.
This passage shows us the truth that Jesus taught about our life in this fallen world; that if the world hated Him, it would also hate those who follow Him (John 15:18-25). It shows us that, even from its earliest times, the members of His church would always need to show endurance as they are delivered up to councils, governors and kings for His sake (Matthew 10:16-22). But it also shows how the church is to respond to oppression at such times. The example set before us is of believers, filled with the Holy Spirit's power, responding graciously but boldly to official opposition to the gospel. In studying their Spirit-empowered example, we learn how we are to respond to official opposition in our own day in such a way as to advance the spread of the gospel.
I. THE ARREST (vv. 1-4).
A. This passage begins with both the disciples (not just Peter) speaking to "the people" (v. 1). Clearly much more was said to the multitudes than what is recorded for us in 3:12-26. But it was as they spoke that the priests, the captain of the temple (who was responsible for the temple guard, and who was a close second to the high priest in authority), and the Sadducees came up them—no doubt provoked by the large crowd of excited worshipers in the temple (3:11). That the Sadducees came is interesting, in light of the fact that they were among those who similarly came upon Jesus to challenge Him on the cleansing of the temple before His crucifixion (Matthew 21:23).
B. The reason for the coming of these authoritative bodies was their agitation over the fact that the apostles were teaching and preaching that the very Jesus whom they had crucified had been raised from the dead (v. 2). That the Sadducees were among them is also interesting in this light, since they held that there is no resurrection (Matthew 22:23). Since it was late in the day (perhaps 4:00 to 5:00 PM; see 3:1), and because it would have been difficult to call a meeting upon such short notice, they laid hand on the two apostles and put them in custody overnight "until the next day"—at which time the necessary authorities could come together (v. 3). This shows how seriously the matter was being treated by them. But it also shows how providential the matter was in the hand of God—because now, the chief leaders of the people would hear a clear presentation of the resurrected Lord Jesus. God sets up His own appointments for the gospel—and our job is to be ready to speak. Thus, opposition becomes His opportunity; and oppression becomes His open-door for the gospel.
C. The attempt to silence the message of the resurrection of Jesus was clearly to no effect; since we're told that "many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand" (v. 4). An additional two thousand 'men' were added to the church— perhaps not just by Peter's message; since the Lord was adding daily those who were being saved (2:47); but it's clear that this sermon was greatly used by God to add to the church. How many were added in total is hard to say, since only the 'men' were mention and not their wives and children. Perhaps the number was four times as much as mentioned. No wonder the enemy was in a hurry to put a stop to it!
II. THE HEARING (vv. 5-12).
A. God, in His providence, convened a very remarkable group of the leaders of Israel for a witness of the risen Christ the very next day (v. 5-6). The leaders of the Jewish people, their elders, their scribes, their high priest Annas, along with their former high priest Caiphas, John and Alexander (important relatives of the priestly family), and "as many as were of the family of the high priest" were gathered together. Some of these individuals were the very same ones who interrogated Jesus and personally condemned Him to death (Matthew 26:57-67; 27:1-2; Luke 22:66-67). Gathered together, they set the two apostles in their midst—perhaps in the center, as they sat in a large circle—and asked them, "By what power or by what name have you done this?" (v. 7).
B. In a sense, it was a ridiculous question to ask. They were grilling the apostles for a remarkable good deed done to a poor man. And so, that's how Peter responded to their question (vv. 8-9). Note that Peter responded as one "filled with the Holy Spirit". His tone was respectful; calling them "rulers of the people and elders of Israel". But he also recognized that they were asking him by what power and by what authority he presumed to heal a poor helpless man—as if he had either in himself!
C. Peter makes it clear to them that the man was healed "by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God had raised from the dead" (v. 10). Peter graciously but uncompromisingly confronts the leaders with that very truth that they had already sought to suppress (Matthew 28:11-15)—that is, that the One whom they crucified as a criminal had been confirmed as their Christ by the resurrection from the dead.
D. Peter then adds something that they didn't ask—and it is quite remarkable, considering the authorities to whom he spoke (vv. 11-12). He asserted that the very Jesus whom they crucified is the One spoken of in Psalm 118:22-23; and that His alone is the exclusive name given by God to men by whom they may be saved (see Psalm 118:14, 21, and 24). This bold proclamation to the rulers of Israel of Christ as the only Savior is nothing less than an affirmation of His deity; and is an assertion that the "stone" (Christ) whom those very "builders" of Psalm 118 (the religious leaders) rejected has become "the chief cornerstone" (the very King they were looking for). Both the condemnation of sin and the invitation of faith in Christ for salvation are given in these words. Peter's Spirit-inspired example teaches us that, when God opens the door for the gospel, we shouldn't hesitate to boldly but graciously speak the truth.
III. THE PROHIBITION (vv. 13-18).
A. Considering that Peter and John were uneducated and untrained men (see John 7:15), and that they were nevertheless bold before this austere group, the leaders concluded that these men had been with Jesus. They were behaving like Jesus had behaved; and clearly acted as if their slain leader were still alive. Not only had they failed to silence Jesus, but they now felt that His voice was multiplying out of control through the mouths of His followers (v. 13). And what made matters worse (for them) was that they could in no way deny the miracle that stood before them in the form of this healed man. We're told that he was over forty years old (v. 22); and yet, this man who was born lame was now made whole by the name of Jesus. They "could say nothing against it" (v. 14).
B. The leaders sent the apostles out of the room and deliberated among themselves (v. 15). They concluded that they could not deny this miracle—a miracle which had been plainly seen by all (v. 16). If this thing continues, they risked losing their position and their nation—and of course, the Romans were ready to lay a heavy hand on them if things got out of control. And so, in order that the message of the resurrection of Jesus not spread any further among the people, they ordered the apostles that they speak "to no man" in Jesus name (v. 17), and that they also no longer teach in the name of Jesus (v. 18).
C. It's interesting that the leaders, in deliberation with one another over this undeniable miracle, asked "What shall we do to these men?" (v. 15). Apparently, it hadn't occurred to them to do the very thing that Peter had earlier preached to the multitudes of Israel to do—"Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit" (2:38). Very often, when the Holy Spirit gives power to His witnesses, the only thing that hard-hearted and unrepentant authorities and leaders can do is to order them to be silent. When this happens, it should be an encouragement to the saints to know that God is clearly at work—"casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).
IV. THE STAND (vv. 19-22).
A. Peter and the apostles were respectful of their leaders' authority; but they also recognized that they were under a higher mandate to proclaim Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Peter respectfully left it to them to judge whether it was right for the apostles to obey them over God (v. 19)—and perhaps, in these words, Peter was even accepting whatever punishment the authorities may see fit to deal out for their stand. But for their part, they could not help but speak what they have seen and heard concerning Jesus (v. 20). This teaches us that, in times of official persecution, we are to graciously and boldly speak the truth at any cost to those seeking to silence the gospel, accept whatever the consequences may be, and leave the results to God (see 5:29).
B. What could be done in the face of such boldness? The apostles were acting as if what they claimed was true—that Jesus, whom they crucified, was alive and was acting in the world. Having nothing more that they could do, the authorities made threats of punishment against Peter and John (which apparently didn't leave the impression on the apostles that they intended), and then sent them away. The persecutions that would come upon the church in later times would not be so pain-free. But since the people at large were glorifying God for what had been done, there were no other options for the leaders—short, of course, of repentance (vv. 21-22). The apostles display gracious submission to their leaders in that they left as they were commanded to do—when in fact, since everyone saw what had happened and were praising God for what they saw, they could have easily stayed and caused a great deal of trouble. In leaving graciously, they were obeying the command of the Lord (see Matthew 10:14-15).
V. THE PRAYER (vv. 23-31).
A. Immediately, upon being let go, the two apostles joined the rest of the disciples and informed them of what had happened. This resulted in a spontaneous expression of unified prayer.
B. Here, we see a model of prayer in the early church in times of persecution. The prayer that was offered was one that was well-informed with respect to the actual circumstances (v. 23), offered to God in one accord (v. 24a), worshipful in perspective and confident in the supremacy of God's authority (v. 24b; note that the name they used for God in the original language is the one from which we get the English word Despot—thus highlighting God's greater authority over human leaders), scriptural in content (vv. 25-26; citing Psalm 2 as the prophetic background for the things that were now being played out before their eyes), confident in the sovereignty of God (vv. 27-28; affirming that the leaders were simply doing what God's hand and eternal purpose had determined before that they would do), submitted to God's timing (v. 29a; leaving the matter to God to do as He wished), and faithful to God's call (vv. 29b-30; asking that they continue to be bold, and trusting God to prove Himself).
C. One of the truly great lessons of this prayer is that the early church in persecution did not ask for relief from the trial of persecution so much as for boldness in the confession and affirmation of the gospel. This, clearly, met with God's approval and was provided to them (v. 31).