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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 4

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-37

Chapter 4

ARREST (Acts 4:1-4)

4:1-4 While they were speaking to the people, the priests, the superintendent of the Temple and the Sadducees came upon them. They were annoyed because they were teaching the people, and proclaiming, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead. So they laid hands upon them and put them under arrest until the next day, for by this time it was evening. But many who heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.

The healing of the lame man had taken place within a part of the Temple area which was continually thronged with people. The spotlight of publicity was inevitably focused upon the incident.

The Gate Beautiful was the gate which led from the Court of the Gentiles into the Court of the Women. The Court of the Gentiles was at once the largest and the busiest of all the Temple Courts, for into it anyone of any nation could come so long as he observed the ordinary laws of decency and decorum. It was there that the money-changers had their booths and the sellers of sacrificial victims their stalls. Round the outer boundary of the Temple area ran two great colonnades meeting at a right angle in the corner of the Court of the Gentiles. The one was the Royal Porch, the other Solomon's Porch. They, too, were crowded with people who had come to worship, to learn and to sightsee. Clearly the whole series of events would gain the widest publicity.

Into this crowded scene came the priests, the superintendent of the Temple and the Sadducees. The man whom the King James Version calls the captain of the Temple was an official called the Sagan. He was the High Priest's right-hand man. In particular he had the oversight of the good order of the Temple. When the crowd had gathered it was inevitable that he and his Temple police should arrive on the scene. With him came the Sadducees who were the wealthy, aristocratic class. There were not many of them but they were rich and of great influence. The whole matter annoyed them very greatly for two reasons. First, they did not believe in resurrection from the dead; and it was this very truth that the apostles were proclaiming. Second, just because they were wealthy aristocrats, the Sadducean party was collaborationist. They tried to keep on friendly terms with the Romans in order that they might retain their wealth and comfort and prestige and power. The Roman government was very tolerant; but on public disorder it was merciless. The Sadducees were sure that, if the apostles were allowed to go on unchecked, riots and civil disorder might follow, with disastrous consequences to their status. Therefore they proposed to nip this movement in the bud; and that is why Peter and John were so promptly arrested. It is a terrible example of a party of men who, in order to retain their vested interests, would not themselves listen to the truth or give anyone else a chance to hear it.

BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN (Acts 4:5-12)

4:5-12 So on the next day it happened that the rulers and the elders and the scribes were assembled in Jerusalem, together with Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and all those who belonged to the priestly families. So they set them in the midst and asked them, "By what power or by what name have you done this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders, if today we are being examined about the good deed done to the infirm man, if you are asking us by what means he has been restored to health, let it be known to all of you and to all the peoples of Israel that it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead--it is by this name that this man stands before you in sound health. This is the stone which was set at naught by you builders, which has now become the head of the corner; and in no other is there salvation; for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved."

The court before which Peter and John were brought was the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of, the Jews. Even in Roman times it had the right of arrest. The one thing it could not do was to pass the death sentence, except in the single case of a Gentile who trespassed on the inner courts of the Temple.

The Sanhedrin had seventy-one members. The high priest was ex officio president. In the Sanhedrin there were priests, practically all of whom were Sadducees. Their one desire was to preserve the status quo that their own emoluments might not be lessened. There were scribes, who were the experts in the traditional law. There were Pharisees, who were fanatics for the law. There were elders, who were respected men in the community.

There were also those described as being of "the priestly families"; these are the same people who are sometimes called chief priests. They consisted of two classes. First, there were ex-high priests. In the great days the high priesthood had been hereditary and for life; but in the Roman times the office was the subject of intrigue, bribery and corruption and high priests rose and fell so that between 37 B.C. and A.D. 67 there were no fewer than 28. But even after a high priest had been deposed, he often remained the power behind the throne. Second, although the high priesthood had ceased to be hereditary, it was still the prerogative of a very few families. Of the 28 high priests already mentioned all but 6 came from 4 priestly families. The members of these families had a special prestige and it is they who were known as the chief priests.

When we read Peter's speech, and remember to whom it was spoken, we recognize one of the world's great demonstrations of courage. It was spoken to an audience of the wealthiest, the most intellectual and the most powerful in the land, and yet Peter, the Galilaean fisherman, stands before them rather as their judge than as their victim. Further, this was the very court which had condemned Jesus to death. Peter knew that he was taking his life in his hands.

There are two kinds of courage. There is the reckless courage which is scarce aware of the dangers it is facing. There is the far higher, cool courage which knows the peril in which it stands and refuses to be daunted. It was that second courage that Peter demonstrated. When Achilles, the great warrior of the Greeks, was told that if he went out to battle he would surely die, he answered in the immortal sentence, "Nevertheless, I am for going on." Peter, in that moment, knew the peril in which he stood; nevertheless, he, too, was for going on.

NO LOYALTY SAVE TO GOD (Acts 4:13-22)

4:13-22 When they saw how boldly Peter and John spoke, and when they had grasped the fact that they were men with no special knowledge and no special qualifications, they were amazed; and they recognized them for men who had been in the company of Jesus. So, as they looked at the man who was cured and who was standing with them, they could find no charge to make. They ordered them to leave the Sandhedrin, and they discussed with each other, "What are we to do with these men? For, that, through them, a notable sign has happened is plain to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But, in order that this may not spread any further throughout the people, let us forbid them with threats to speak any more in this name to any man." So they summoned them in and ordered them absolutely to abstain from teaching in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John said to them, "You must judge whether, in the sight of God, it is right to listen to you rather than to God; for we are unable not to speak the things that we have seen and heard." But they added still further threats and let them go because they could find no means of punishing them because of the people, for everyone glorified God at what had happened, for the man on whom the sign of healing had taken place was more than forty years old.

Here we see very vividly both the enemy's attack and the Christian defence. In the enemy's attack there are two characteristics. First, there is contempt. The King James Version says that the Sanhedrin regarded Peter and John as unlearned and ignorant men. The word translated unlearned means that they had no kind of technical education, especially in the intricate regulations of the law. The word translated ignorant means that they were laymen with no special professional qualifications. The Sanhedrin, as it were, regarded them as men without a college education and with no professional status. It is often difficult for the simple man to meet what might be called academic and professional snobbery. But the man in whose heart is Christ possesses a real dignity which neither academic attainment nor professional status can give. Second, there are threats. But the Christian knows that anything man does to him is but for a moment whereas the things of God last forever.

In face of this attack Peter and John had certain defences. First, they had the defence of an unanswerable fact. That the man had been cured it was impossible to deny. The most unanswerable defence of Christianity is a Christian man. Second, they had the defence of an utter loyalty to God. If it was a question of choosing between obeying man and obeying God, Peter and John were in no doubt as to what course to take. As H. G. Wells said, "The trouble with so many people is that the voice of their neighbours sounds louder in their ears than the voice of God." The real secret of Christianity lies in that great tribute once paid to John Knox--"He feared God so much that he never feared the face of any man." But the third defence was greatest of all, the defence of a personal experience of Jesus Christ. Their message was no carried tale. They knew at first-hand that it was true; and they were so sure of it that they were willing to stake their life upon it.

THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN (Acts 4:23-31)

4:23-31 When they had been released, they came to their own people and they told them all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they had heard the story, with one accord, they lifted up their voice to God and said, "O Sovereign Lord, thou who hast made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, thou who didst say, through the Holy Spirit by the mouth of David, our father, thy servant, 'Why did the nations rage and the people set their thoughts on empty things?' The kings of the earth stood around and the rulers assembled together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. For in truth in this city they were assembled against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint--Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel--to do all the things which thy hand and thy purpose foreordained should be done. So now, O Lord, look upon their threats and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with boldness, whilst thou dost stretch out thy hand to heal and whilst signs and wonders happen through the name of thy holy servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place in which they were assembled was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and kept on speaking the word with boldness.

In this passage we have the reaction of the Christian Church in the hour of danger. It might have been thought that when Peter and John returned with their story a deep depression would have fallen on the Church, as they looked ahead to the troubles which were now bound to descend upon them. The one thing that never even struck them was to obey the Sanhedrin's command to speak no more. Into their minds at that moment came certain great convictions and into their lives came a tide of strength.

(i) They had the conviction of the power of God. With them was he who was creator and sustainer of all things. Once the papal envoy threatened Martin Luther with what would follow if he persisted in his course and warned him that in the end he would be deserted by all his supporters. "Where will you be then?" demanded the envoy. "Then as now," Luther answered, "in the hands of God." For the Christian, they that are for us are always more than they that are against us.

(ii) They had the conviction of the futility of man's rebellion. The word translated rage is used of the neighing of spirited horses. They may trample and toss their heads; in the end they will have to accept the discipline of the reins. Men may make their defiant gestures against God; in the end God must prevail.

(iii) They set before themselves the remembrance of Jesus. They remembered how he suffered and how he triumphed; and in that memory they found their confidence, for it is enough for the disciple that he be as his Lord.

(iv) They prayed for courage. They did not pretend that they could face this in their own strength; they turned to a power that was not their own.

(v) The result was the gift of the Spirit. The promise was fulfilled; they were not left comfortless. So they found the courage and the strength they needed to witness when their witness might well mean their death.

ALL THINGS IN COMMON (Acts 4:32-37)

4:32-37 The heart and soul of the crowd who had believed was one; and no one used to say that any of his possessions was his own, but they had all things in common. And the apostles kept on bearing witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and great grace was on them all. Nor was anyone in need amongst them, for all who were owners of lands and houses made a habit of selling them and of bringing the proceeds of what they sold and of placing them at the apostles' feet, It was distributed to each, just as a man needed.

Joseph, whose surname was Barnabas, one of the apostles (the translation of the name is Son of Consolation), who was a Levite and a native of Cyprus, possessed a field, and he sold it and brought the price and laid it at the apostles' feet.

In this new paragraph there is a sudden change which is typical of Christianity. Immediately before this all things were moving in the most exalted atmosphere. There were great thoughts of God; there were prayers for the Holy Spirit; there were exultant quotations from the Old Testament. Now without warning the narrative changes to the most practical things. However much these early Christians had their moments on the heights, they never forgot that someone had not enough and that all must help. Prayer was supremely important, the witness of words was supremely important, but the culmination was love of the brotherhood.

Two things are to be noted about them. (i) They had an intense sense of responsibility for each other. (ii) This awoke in them a real desire to share all they had. We must note one thing above all--this sharing was not the result of legislation; it was utterly spontaneous. It is not when the law compels us to share but when the heart moves us to share that society is really Christian.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-4.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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