Acts Lesson Nine

Acts Lesson Nine – 5:1-11 Don’t Test the Spirit

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 

Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him. 

There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price?” 

“Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 

Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 

10 Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. 11 Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things. (HCSB)

The last lesson ended with a display of generosity by Barnabas. In this lesson, we will see a polar opposite, greed, and jealousy by Ananias and Sapphira, which leads to their physical death. There are a couple of interesting points regarding their names; Ananias means “God is gracious” while Sapphira means “beautiful.” We may think that the punishment handed out to them was too severe for the crime. However, as we dig into this passage, we will see that our infinitely holy God was following a pattern of judgment that goes back to the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Here are some examples of divine judgment on seemingly minor offenses.

  • Nadab and Abihu were killed for presenting false fire in Leviticus 10.
  • Achan was killed for disobeying orders after Israel entered the Promised Land in Joshua 7.
  • Uzzah was touching the ark as it was being transported in 2 Samuel 6.

In each of these cases, it may seem that the punishment was too severe. However, judgment is passed according to an infinitely holy God’s standards and not ours. Another thing to note regarding each case above and the one in this passage is that God judges sin severely at the beginning of a new period in salvation history. 

Today’s passage will be broken into two parts. The first covering Ananias and background/general information, with the second part covering Sapphira and concluding thoughts.

Verses 1-6

In this section, we see that Satan was the culprit behind the couple’s actions. This doesn’t remove the guilt from them or us if we also follow Satan’s direction. But it does point to the issue of spiritual warfare that believers face. Up until this point, the young church was thriving and resisting the spiritual attacks from the outside, primarily from the Jewish religious leaders up to this point. Now, Satan changes his focus and decides to try and undermine the church from the inside by using members of the church to discredit it. If we fast-forward to Acts 20:28-31, we read where Paul warns the church leaders to be on the lookout for these attacks from the inside. Often these are the most difficult to see and the most damaging. Nothing discredits a church more than one of its leaders or prominent members involved in a public scandal. Believers need to read and apply Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:10-18 to continually put on our spiritual armor and be prepared for spiritual warfare.

As we look at the sin they committed, there are three distinct features.

  • It was energized and directed by Satan. 
  • It was motivated by pride.
    • They were possibly jealous of Barnabas’ gift at the conclusion of chapter four and wanted everyone to see that they were just as generous. We could call this religious “keeping up with the neighbor.”
    • God hates pride. Proverbs 8:13b I hate arrogant pride, evil conduct.
    • Jesus made it clear that how we give is essential. Is it for God’s glory or ours? See Matthew 6:1-4 and 19-34.
    • All that we have we have received from God. We are stewards of His possessions.
  • Their sin was directed against God’s church.
    • There is no reason to doubt that they were followers of Jesus.
      • The young church had such a high spiritual level that it is doubtful that a fake Christian could have invaded the church at this point.
      • They also lied to the Spirit (verse 3) and tested the Spirit (verse 9). This indicates that they had the Spirit living within them.
    • God loves His church and jealously guards it. The church was purchased by the blood of Jesus. The church has been put on the earth to glorify Him and complete His work. 
      • Satan wants to destroy and discredit the church. The easiest way is from the inside.
      • The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15.
      • The church is God’s temple in which He dwells. 1 Corinthians 3:16.
      • The church is God’s army. 2 Timothy 2:1-4.
      • The church is safe as long as Satan is attacking from the outside. When Satan gets a foothold within the church, that’s when danger is present.

Their sin was not withholding the money, essential robbing God. It was in lying to Him and robbing Him of the glory of selfless giving among the believers. There was no mandate that they had to sell the property; it was purely voluntary. Even after selling it, there was no stipulation that any or all of the money must be donated to the church. It was their overwhelming desire for recognition that contributed to their actions.

There are numerous interpretations of how Ananias died; zapped, heart attack, fear, overwhelming guilt. The how isn’t important when we look at this passage. What we can determine from the context of the passage is that it wasn’t an ordinary death; they saw God’s hand in his death. Otherwise, there would be no reason for great fear among the believers. The Greek word for fear in this passage means “great respect and awe for God.” 

The speed at which the burial was conducted also sheds some light on the circumstances. Burials were usually not lengthy affairs, but three hours or less would be considered fast in that culture. However, a hasty burial was the norm for deaths surrounded by unusual circumstances, such as suicides, executed criminals, and judgments from God.

Verses 7-11

We now move to the second participant in the conspiracy, Sapphira. There are several things to note in this section.

  • Sapphira was unaware of what had happened to Ananias. Although it wouldn’t accomplish anything, it is interesting to speculate what her actions would have been had she known what had happened a few hours earlier.
    • Would she have tried to continue the deception, thinking it couldn’t happen to her?
    • Would she have run away or disappeared out of fear?
    • Would she have come before the church with a repentant heart?
  • What we do know is that Peter gave her one last chance to come clean when he asked, “did you sell the field for this price?”
    • We need to note and follow Peter’s role in this encounter. Peter was not the judge; he was merely confronting both individuals with a question and allowing, at least with Sapphira, an opportunity to repent.
    • God was the judge, and swift consequences resulted from her refusal to repent.
  • There is great irony in this passage. First, Ananias laid the money at the feet of the Apostles. Second, both ended up dying at the feet of the Apostles. 
  • The church is intended to be a holy body, a place where the Spirit resides within the people who make up the church.
  • The church depicted at the beginning of Acts worked miracles, evangelized without fear, and was blessed with extraordinary growth. The Spirit was the power behind the unity and the unity as the power behind its witness.
  • This is the first time the Greek word for church, ekklesia, occurs in Acts. The word signifies the people of God gathered together as a religious community. It is probably no coincidence that it first appears in this passage. The church only thrives when it lives in the trust of its members, where there is unified trust the church flourishes in the power of the Spirit. When distrust appears, its witness fades.
  • Although Ananias and Sapphira experienced divine judgment, there is nothing to suggest their death was more than a physical one. 

Now let’s look at some general concepts and conclusions from this passage.

  • As strong, vibrant, and Spirit-filled as the early church was, it still was not a perfect church. We will never find a perfect church on this side of eternity. That doesn’t mean churches shouldn’t strive for that, but it’s unreasonable to expect it. Since there is no perfect church, we shouldn’t engage in “church shopping” once we’ve settled into a community of believers. The only exception to that is if the church, church leadership, or teaching becomes heretical and refuses to repent and return to being a biblically-based church.
  • The use of possessions and money. Using these in the wrong way or with the wrong intention is a serious sin in God’s sight. As we journey through Acts, we’ll see that there a quite a few instances where economic issues are dealt with in the Christian community. As we take a survey of churches today, we’d probably see quite a bit of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity gospel” heresy being proclaimed in churches. When we look at the New Testament, we’ll see an abundance of teaching on the dangers of wealth. Although wealth and possessions are not inherently wrong or evil, the proper biblical attitude is to understand that they are a blessing from God to be used to bless others.
  • Lying to make ourselves appear to be something that we aren’t. Ananias’s goal was to enhance his self-esteem and prestige within the church. How often do we see that in today’s church? This leads us to be dishonest with ourselves. A key component to receiving God’s grace is acknowledging our need for Him. Pride can slam shut the door that allows God’s grace to enter our lives.
  • A reverential fear of God and the consequences of sin. Sin and scandals will occur within the body of believers. How that is dealt with is an indicator of whether or not the church has a reverential fear of God. The early church dealt with the issue of sin quickly. In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, the opposite often occurs. The example of Ananias and Sapphira’s behavior was a cancer that needed to be removed from the church for it to be healthy. We are all sinners, but the sin must be confronted and not condoned.
  • The demonization of believers. Although believers can’t be possessed by Satan, the Holy Spirit lives inside believers and is stronger than Satan; we can allow ourselves to be directed and used by Satan. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira. We’ve probably all read of Christian leaders who have had moral failures. Often it can start as an innocent mistake, but then it snowballs out of control. These moral failures aren’t limited to the area of sexual misconduct. It can also occur when we feel wronged and plan an appropriate response. It can happen in professional ambition. There are countless examples that could be listed here. We must never forget that we are engaged in spiritual warfare with an unseen enemy. This can lead us to become complacent and not consider the spiritual realm. 

Applications

  • As we bring our offerings, we need to stop and examine our hearts and our motivation for giving. Is there any selfish motivation behind our gift, or is our gift meant to glorify God? If there is any selfish motivation, we need to stop, repent, and prayerfully reconsider our giving. Once our motivations are pure, then we can continue with our giving.
  • If we knowingly or unknowingly have impure motivations and a Christian brother or sister confronts us, we need to repent. We should also thank them for holding us accountable to pure living. This is one example of why an accountability partner is essential for our spiritual health.
  • If we see a Christian brother or sister sinning, do we gracefully confront them in a timely manner, or do we avoid and condone the behavior? Scripture indicates that we need to take action for their benefit as well as the church’s benefit.
  • We need to have a reverent fear for God and His holiness. This reverence needs to be evident in our words, thoughts, and actions.

Acts Lesson Eight

Acts Lesson Eight: 4:32-37 – Unified Believers

32 Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.  33 And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs. 36 Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (HCSB)

Although this is a short passage to study, four main themes will be discussed.

  • Unity of believers – verse 32.
  • Evangelism – verse 33.
  • Generosity and care for each other – verses 34-35.
  • Introduction of Barnabas – verses 36-37.

What we see in these six verses is a snapshot of what the early church looked like.

Verse 32 – The unity of the believers.

In a previous lesson covering part of chapter two, we studied how the early church was involved in studying Scripture and prayer, both corporate and personal prayer. Now we see that the church was unified in thought. I believe that because of the characteristics outlined in chapter two, we see the characteristic of unity in this passage. When a group of people dig into Scripture together and spend large segments of time in prayer together, it leads to a spirit of unity and togetherness that would not be found if study and prayer were absent from the corporate body of Christ. 

What makes the description of the early church even more remarkable is that it was made up of sinners, just like you and me! They were no different than any modern follower of Jesus. We may think this level of unity and trust is impossible in today’s world, and honestly, that thought challenges my faith, but Scripture proves that sinners, albeit redeemed, can be unified in thought, deed, and word towards each other. That thought alone should give us hope as we see the world around us becoming increasingly chaotic. 

The phrase “were of one heart and mind” is deeper than the surface understanding of the phrase. The original Greek reads, “one in heart and soul,” and leads to a couple of conclusions regarding the phrase. 

  • They were united in heart. They had unbreakable emotional bonds with each other. They loved each other with unconditional love.
  • They were thinking in unity. They had the same theology. There was no discord or disagreement with activities or practices within the fledgling church. They concentrated on what was important; evangelism and loving each other with agape love.
  • They were experiencing what Jesus prayed for before His crucifixion. John 17:20-23 2I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. 21 May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. 22 I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. 23 I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Not only were they unified, but they were also generous to and cared for each other. This is an extremely rare quality in the world today, even in Christian circles, where many are only looking out for themselves, either implicitly or explicitly. Often to get something done, the cooperation of others is required. Cooperation requires that people are treated well; otherwise, they probably won’t cooperate. It’s also important to keep them happy. Happy people who are treated well are often more cooperative. However, often the underlying motivation is not generosity; it is selfishness. We want something to happen, so we “use” others to that end. As a Christian, we should never forget what God has done for each of us, we’ve been forgiven, and our nature has been changed. The early church realized that God had been generous to them, far beyond what they deserved, and they extended that generosity to those around them. 

Verse 33

Now we have a sudden shift from the unity and generosity of the church to evangelism and teaching. We should ponder why this shift occurs. I believe it signifies a critical element of what is expected of the church, evangelism and spreading the Gospel.

Evangelism, as understood in biblical characteristics, is a concept that seems to be fading in some segments of the modern Christian church. The focus of the early church was on going and spreading the Gospel message. Too often today, the focus is on “come and see” the church. To make this method effective, the church needs to devise ways to attract people to church. The labels attached to these types of churches are “attractional” or “seeker sensitive.” The church tries to find ways to make the church “attractive” or cater to the whims of those they are trying to bring into the spiritual body of Christ. When looked at honestly, the Gospel is not an “attractive” message as it is challenging. It doesn’t promise anything except for persecution. Oh wait, it does promise eternal security, but we need to be faithful through the persecution. It’s not a message that sinners would be excited to follow until they’re brought to their knees by the weight of their sinful nature and realize they need redemption.

Francis Chan, in his book Letters to the Church, conducts a simple exercise with church leaders. He asks them to list all the things that people expect when they come to church. The list often includes:

  • A really good service.
  • Strong, age-specific ministry.
  • A certain type of music/volume/number of songs.
  • A professionally polished sermon.
  • Convenient parking.
  • A clean building.
  • Coffee, maybe even a cafe within the church.
  • Childcare.

He then asks them to list the commands that God gave to the church from Scripture.

  • Love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12
  • Visit orphans and widows. James 1:27
  • Make disciples. Matthew 28:19.
  • Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2.

If we asked the same question to those we know in church or even ourselves, would our answer look like the first list or the second?

The early church knew what God commanded it to do. The modern church too often resembles what we want in church and not what Scripture commands. The church needs to have an outward focus if it is to be a biblical church. The “country club” mentality church is not a church that honors God or follows His commands.

At the conclusion of the verse, we see how the church was blessed for its faithfulness. It says, “and great grace was on all of them.” I don’t know about you, but I always want to be part of a church that experiences great grace. There is no church without evangelism. Jesus didn’t command His followers to plant churches. He commanded them to make disciples. A church was a natural outgrowth of effective evangelism. We see the same concept in Paul’s missionary journeys. He would go to a town and share the Gospel. As people would come to faith, he would spend additional time there, often raising up leaders (elders) for the new flock before moving on. His primary focus was on making disciples. Once that was complete, a new church was birthed.

Verses 34-35

When we read these two verses, we need to understand that selling all of one’s possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the Apostles are descriptive and not prescriptive. This means that although they describe a characteristic of the early church, they are not a specific command for us today. There are other passages in the New Testament that outline the principles of Christian giving, with 2 Corinthians 8-9 being one good example. Now that the discussion of descriptive versus prescriptive is finished let’s look at these two verses in some detail.

The first part of verse 34 illustrates an Old Testament concept found in Deuteronomy 15:4a There will be no poor among you. If Israel would keep God’s commands, then God would bless them, and there wouldn’t be any poor among them. The early church viewed the passage in Deuteronomy as describing the ideal final age when Israel would be entirely faithful to God, and there would be no poverty in the land. The early Christians viewed themselves as the people of God in the final times, seen in Acts 2:17, they were experiencing God’s blessings, Acts 4:33, and were striving to reach the ideal of the people of God with no poor in their midst. 

The land and houses described as being sold were not their primary residence or plot of land. This may not be readily apparent, but when looked at in the context of the passage, it would make no sense if it was referring to their only house. If they sold that, then they would become one of the needy. Instead, they liquidated their “extra” resources and used that to help those in need. 

Clarification is needed for the phrase, “laid them at the apostles’ feet.” This was not some act of worship towards the apostles or payment for the leaders of the church. But it was a gesture of submission to each other. The twelve apostles were appointed by Jesus to continue His mission. The submission and giving of funds were not to them but to the one they represented. To lay the gifts at the feet of the apostles was to give them to Jesus. This was likely a role that they didn’t relish, and we read later in Acts 6:2, where the financial responsibility in the church was handed over to a new position created by the Apostles. We would know that position today as the role of a deacon.

There are some who have labeled the practices described here as “Christian Communism.” However, that is completely misunderstanding the nature of how the church worked and the evil of political communism we see in the world today. Let’s compare the two.


Political CommunismChurch in Acts
Required actionsMandated by the state.Completely voluntary.
MotivationPower and greed.Love.
OwnershipState owned.Private ownership.

Private ownership continues in New Testament Scripture, with another example in Acts 12:12, which mentions the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. Throughout the book of Acts and the New Testament Epistles, there are numerous accounts of churches meeting in the homes of believers. A proper understanding of the early church would dispel any notions that it resembled political communism in its design and practice.

Verses 36-37

The final two verses in chapter four may seem out of place with the introduction of Barnabas. However, there are several reasons for Luke to introduce him at this point. 

  • Barnabas’ action of selling one of his properties and bringing all the proceeds to the Apostles was a demonstration of the widespread activity of the church described in the preceding two verses.
  • His action could have produced envy in Ananias and Sapphira, leading them to make a show of their selling land and giving a portion of the sale while secretly keeping the rest for themselves. 
  • Barnabas plays a significant role in the early church and is mentioned repeatedly in Acts as well as in Colossians. 
    • Barnabas was an encouragement to and supported Paul. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, many of the Christians didn’t believe his conversion was genuine. They thought he was still plotting to arrest and kill Christians. Barnabas interceded and became an advocate for Paul’s acceptance into the early church.
      • Acts 9:26-27 When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple. 27 Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how Saul had seen the Lord on the road and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.
      • Acts 11:25 Then he  went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
      • Acts 13:2 As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”
    • Barnabas also encouraged John Mark after his failure on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas.
      • Acts 15:36-39 After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. 38 But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. 39 There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.
      • Colossians 4:10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark,  Barnabas’s  cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him).

As we reflect on this passage, especially the ideas of selling and giving, we need to understand that these ideas are descriptive and not prescriptive for each believer. They describe general concepts or characteristics of Christians and black and white rules. It should be viewed in light of our attitude towards each other and our attitude towards wealth. If we understand that everything we have comes from God, then we also understand it doesn’t really belong to us in the first place. We have stewardship responsibility over it, and we are expected to use these blessings wisely. When a Christian brother or sister is in need, it should be second nature on our part to help when and where we can. 

When we place this idea side-by-side with cultural norms, we clearly see that the church needs to be countercultural. The church (people) need to be united in purpose, thought, and action. There are five biblical principles for a unified body of Christ.

  • Each member must crucify themselves. Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
  • Leaders should endeavor to make unity a priority. Ephesians 4:3 diligently keeping the unity  of the Spirit with the peace that binds us.
  • Believers should meet often and share openly. 1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
  • Christian fellowship is spiritual unity in Christ. Spiritual disciplines enable us to have spiritual unity in Christ.
    • Worship.
    • Reading Scripture.
    • Prayer.
    • Fasting.
    • Serving.
  • Strive for agreement over the course of action. See Acts 15 for an example of this. Don’t rush to reach a result. Reach the result in God’s time.

Applications

  • Do you strive for unity with your Christian brothers and sisters, or are you the type that looks for conflict? We should strive for unity in purpose while not letting the ways of the world seep into the church. Conflict should only be started when the church or members of the church are clearly against what Scripture says.
  • Do you consider your possessions, money/stuff/time, yours or Gods? Your answer to this question will shape your actions regarding your possessions.
  • Are you involved in evangelism, either directly or in a supporting role? In the midst of our often busy lives, we are still called to share the Gospel.
  • Are you known as a son/daughter of encouragement or one of discouragement? We can be a person who builds others up, or we can be a person that tears others down. We control our actions in this area.

Acts Lesson Seven

Acts 4:13-31 – The Sanhedrin’s Dilemma

13 When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 And since they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in response. 15 After they had ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign, evident to all who live in Jerusalem, has been done through them, and we cannot deny it! 17 However, so this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.” 18 So they called for them and ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 

19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 

21 After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them, because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done; 22 for this sign of healing had been performed on a man over 40 years old. 

23 After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they all raised their voices to God and said, “Master, You are the One who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David Your servant: 

Why did the Gentiles rage 

and the peoples plot futile things? 

26 The kings of the earth took their stand 

and the rulers assembled together 

against the Lord and against His Messiah.

27 “For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness, 30 while You stretch out Your hand for healing, signs, and wonders to be performed through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness. (HCSB)

In the previous lesson, we covered Peter’s defense to the charges and how the Sanhedrin’s case contained no foundation. Now, the ball is firmly back in the Sanhedrin’s court. What were they going to do in response to the healing of the lame man and Peter’s defense of the situation?

Verses 13-14

The Sanhedrin faced a serious dilemma. Since they had publicly arrested Peter and John and placed them in jail the previous day, they now had to figure out how to proceed. However, the “trial” had not gone according to their plans. They probably expected these “uneducated” men to crumble after being brought before the council. Instead, Peter and John challenged the religious leaders. Here are some facts that the council needed to consider as they continued with this charade.

  • They couldn’t deny that a miracle had occurred. The man who had been lame since birth, a man who was easily recognized by many, possibly even some on the religious council, was standing before them with no physical disability.
  • How could uneducated and untrained men perform this miracle? They were ordinary fishermen, not scribes or authorized priests in the Jewish religious circle.
  • Peter and John were disciples of Jesus, but Jesus was dead.
  • The council was likely surprised by the courage and confidence that Peter and John displayed before them.
  • Miracles, by themself, are not proof of Jesus’ resurrection or the truth of Peter’s message.
  • Satan can perform miracles – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan’s working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, 10 and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved.
  • False prophets can do wonders – Deuteronomy 13:1-5 If a prophet or someone who has dreams  arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the Lord your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you.
  • The miracle, the message, and the events that had occurred since Pentecost were all supporting evidence that Jesus was alive and the church was powered by the Holy Spirit.
  • Peter used the Old Testament in both sermons to support his claims. This is evidence of a true prophet, as shown above in Deuteronomy 13:1-5.
  • The Sanhedrin was left speechless after Peter’s defense and the healed man standing before them.

Verses 15-18

Asking Peter and John to leave the council was a standard procedure once all the evidence and arguments were finished. This allowed the council to have an open discussion among itself, with no outside distractions or interruptions. From the short narrative in these verses, we see the following facts.

  • With the statement “what should we do with these men,” it was clear that they were indecisive about how to proceed.
  • They acknowledged that a miracle had occurred.
  • The miracle was widely known. There was no way the council could cover it up or deny that it happened.
  • Jesus’ disciples were popular with the people, as witnessed by the explosive growth of the church and that people came to hear their message.
  • There was no charge the council could pin on Peter and John.
  • The only thing the council could do was use their position and power to threaten this new religious movement. They would forbid any teaching that referred to Jesus.

There is one other significant point to consider in this section. It’s contained in verse 17, and depending on your translation, it appears as “this” (HCSB), “it” (ESV), or “thing” (NIV). What is “this” referring to? Does the Sanhedrin want to stop the further spread of the knowledge of the miracle that occurred? That is not possible; that “cat was out of the bag.” What the council was concerned about was the Gospel, the preaching of Jesus, and His resurrection. The focus of their attention was stopping this fledgling movement in its infancy. 

Verses 19-22

Peter and John continue down the courageous road they started on when they presented the defense of their actions. They refused to accept the decision of the council. Their response made it clear that they would follow God and not what the council was telling them. There was no way that they would stop preaching about Jesus. We can all learn from the boldness of the Apostles in rejecting instruction from man that conflicted with what God or Scripture proclaimed. At the same time, we need to make sure that civil disobedience or our personal crusades are actions that don’t tarnish Jesus’ Kingdom. At this point, let’s take a short history lesson from Scripture on civil disobedience.

  • The Jewish midwives were disobeying the pharaoh and not killing the babies in Exodus 1.
  • Moses’ parents in Hebrews 11:23.
  • Daniel in chapters one and six.
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3.
  • In each of these cases, there was clear direction from God.
    • The midwives and Moses’ parents knew it was wrong to kill children.
    • Daniel and his friends knew it was wrong to eat food offered to idols or bow down to idols.
    • Peter and John knew that they were under orders to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
    • In each case, the people were following instructions from God and not a personal agenda.
  • In each case, they also acted with courtesy and respect even as they defied the instructions of man. It is possible to both respect and disobey authority when authority runs contrary to God’s instruction.
    • Romans 13.
    • Titus 3:1-2.
    • 1 Peter 2:13-25.

 The greatest example of unjust suffering is Jesus. In His suffering, Jesus taught us three things.

  • Righteous protest against injustice always involves suffering.
  • Righteous protest against injustice always requires sacrifice.
  • Righteous protest must be motivated by love.

As followers of Jesus, we need to be careful not to wrap our prejudice as righteous indignation and make ourselves look like courageous soldiers. We must always examine our hearts to ensure we are not starting a “holy war” to satisfy our inner frustrations.

Another way to look at this problem is to examine four possible courses of action that Christians can take. Only one of these is biblical.

  • Monastic – views the world and all governments as corrupt, and the only solution is to retreat from the world. 
  • Secular – the world is the only source of authority, and God is denied. This option is foolish as there is no counterbalance to an evil or tyrannical government.
  • Cowardly – authority rests in both the world and in God, but the world has the predominant position. Pilate chose this option when he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
  • Biblical – authority rests in the world and God, with God in the predominant position. The government has authority but is not independent from God. When the two conflict, we must follow God.

Christians with courage should be law-abiding citizens until that law contradicts the clearly written law of God, at which point the higher authority (God) takes over.

Verses 23-31

Peter and John go back to the rest of the disciples and report the details on what happened. After this, they all joined together in praise and prayer to God. They were united in prayer. There’s a lesson here on the early church that the modern church all too often forgets, the importance of prayer. The early church understood that prayer was necessary to defeat the plans of the enemy. Prayer meetings in modern churches, if they even have prayer meetings, often resemble a party or concert. The meeting contains little sense of urgency or the danger we face because most of us live a “comfortable” Christian walk. If followers of Jesus were more intentional about following the Great Commission and being bold, there would be more urgency and need for prayer.

As we examine their prayer, we notice that they didn’t ask for their circumstances to be changed or for the religious rulers who were hostile to the Gospel to be removed from their positions. Instead, they asked for power to make the best of their circumstances and accomplish what He had already predestined. They desired to glorify Jesus, not themselves.

Their prayer was based on Scripture; they used the beginning of Psalm 2 for their prayer. Through Scripture, God speaks to us and tells us what He wants us to do. In prayer, we talk to God and make ourselves available to do His will. Prayer is not telling God what to do or what we want; it is asking God to do His will through our lives. 

1 John 5:14-15 Now this is the confidence we have before Him: Whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.

The contextual setting of Psalm 2 describes the revolt of the nations against Yahweh and the Messiah, but it originated in the crowning of an Israelite king and the subsequent refusal of some of the vassal leaders to pay homage and submit to the king. Now, the early church is applying this psalm to their situation with Herod, Pilate, the Romans, and some of the Jews as the disobedient vassal rulers.

In response, God shook the place where they had gathered, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, enabling them to boldly preach the Gospel. We mustn’t misunderstand the concept of them being filled again with the Holy Spirit. This was not another Pentecost. This demonstrates that believers must be continually filled with the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s work, and it is possible for our “tank to run dry” if we are not in right fellowship with God. If we are living in sin, if we are not reading Scripture, if we are not praying to God, if we are not using our gifts in service can all lead to our spiritual tank running dry. However, we see in this example the opposite. The believers were in a healthy and faithful relationship with God, and they were continually being filled with God’s power, the Holy Spirit.

Christian courage depends upon biblical praying grounded in the sovereignty of God.

A summary of this passage reveals several key points.

  • Strength to face suffering.
    • They were united in fellowship. This is a recurring theme in Acts, the united fellowship of believers. For those of us who live in individualistic countries, this theme often runs counter to our culture.
    • The sovereignty of God. Because God is in control of all things, we have nothing to fear if we walk in obedience.
    • Their united prayer was saturated with Scripture. We must spend time daily in God’s Word and let it soak into our innermost being. Psalm 119:11 I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.
  • Fellowship helps in times of crisis.
    • When we gather with like-minded believers, we gain strength and encouragement, knowing we are not alone. 
    • When we share our situation with our support group, we unburden ourselves. We can receive wise counsel and not act on our emotions.
    • When we gather with our support group, we can spend time in prayer together. Being together helps us to focus on God and His sovereignty instead of being overwhelmed by our problems.
  • Acknowledging God’s sovereignty helps in times of crisis.
    • When we are experiencing a crisis, the enemy seems powerful and seem weak in comparison.
    • We may experience suffering, and some could be quite severe. But in the end, God will turn it into good.
    • Evil is a reality, but God is a deeper and more powerful reality.

Applications.

  • Don’t let a lack of formal seminary training prevent you from being a bold witness for Christ. Instead, submit and let the Holy Spirit fill and guide you each day. For those who do have formal seminary training, don’t let the education make you arrogant and forget that without the Holy Spirit, your words will ring hollow.
  • Be bold in the face of persecution. We serve the highest power in the universe, the living God, and we have nothing to fear when we walk in accordance with His will.
  • Gather together with other believers in unity. We desperately need each other for support, encouragement, and correction. Lone-ranger Christians are ineffective Christians. 
  • Pray. Pray together, pray alone, pray without ceasing. It is our most effective weapon in spiritual warfare. Nothing else stops the efforts of the enemy as much as prayer. 

Acts Lesson Six

Acts Lesson Six – 4:1-12: Persecution Begins

4 Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example. So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000. 

The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family.  After they had Peter and John stand before them, they asked the question: “By what power or in what name have you done this?” 

Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man—by what means he was healed— 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is 

the stone rejected by you builders, 

which has become the cornerstone. 

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (HCSB)

In chapter four of Acts, the official persecution of the New Testament church begins, which Jesus had predicted would occur.

  • Matthew 10:17-20 – 17 Because people will hand you over to sanhedrins and flog you in their synagogues, beware of them.18 You will even be brought before governors and kings because of Me, to bear witness to them and to the nations. 19 But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you should speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, 20 because you are not speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.
  • Luke 21:12-15 – 12 But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of My name. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for you to witness. 14 Therefore make up your minds not to prepare your defense ahead of time, 15 for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

Peter’s message produced two very different results.

  • Approximately 2,000 more came to faith in Jesus.
  • The religious leaders rejected the message and tried to silence the Apostles.

Now let’s look at each group that is referenced in the first verse. It would be easy to skim over this, but it speaks to the level of attention and persecution that is beginning.

  • Priests.
    • The priestly caste in general.
    • They were opposed to Jesus before His crucifixion.
    • They were now opposed to the witness of Jesus’ followers.
    • Their teaching was being undermined by the Apostle’s teaching.
  • Commander of the Temple Police.
    • Not Roman troops.
    • These were the people who arrested Jesus.
    • Apart from the Roman governor and the Roman army, he was the second most powerful person in Jerusalem.
      • Romans first.
      • High Priest second.
      • Commander of the Temple Police third.
  • Sadducees.
    • Not the numerically biggest group in the Sanhedrin.
    • Upper class.
    • Powerful in position and with significant financial backing.
    • They understood that to survive the Roman occupation; they would have to cooperate with the occupiers. Hence, they had established close ties with the Roman authorities and would do anything to keep that influence.

So we see that power-brokers in the Jewish religious system were united in an effort to crush this new religious movement which threatened the stability and the positions of power that they now occupied. Instead of pursuing the truth, they were more concerned with preserving their prestige, status, and wealth.

We see in verse two what it was that was really bothering the religious leaders.

  • The Apostles were teaching the people.
    • Religious teaching was reserved for the priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, rulers, elders, and teachers of the Law.
    • In their minds, teaching was reserved for those who had attended a rabbinical academy and received the approval to begin teaching independently.
      • This was a point about Jesus that had really bothered them.
      • Still, Jesus had intrinsic authority in His teaching.
        • The people marveled at His teaching and followed Him to hear more.
        • His teaching was so powerful that at one point, when the temple guards were sent to arrest Jesus, they returned to the religious leaders and explained their failure (John 7:46.
      • Now they didn’t have one man to deal with; they had a group who spoke with the same level of authority.
        • The Apostles never attended rabbinical schools.
        • They came from simple backgrounds.
          • Fishermen.
          • Tax-collectors.
          • Untaught people. 
        • But they were teaching like Jesus, with authority, and the people were listening.
  • The Apostles were teaching about Jesus and God the Father raising Him from the dead.
    • Teaching only about resurrection would likely not have resulted in the persecution that now starts.
      • The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.
      • The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection.
        • This split in belief was later used by Paul to divide the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-9).
    • The Apostles were teaching about a resurrection on the last day.
    • They were teaching about the resurrection of Jesus.
      • If true, this would lead to several conclusions.
        • It would validate Jesus’ identity.
        • It would prove His nature and the value of what He came to do.
        • It would indict the religious leaders in the murder of their Messiah.

The religious leaders now resorted to a common, worldly method of retaining control. They used power in an attempt to intimidate and control the Apostles.

  • Power.
    • Economic power.
    • Authoritarian power – courts, legal system, and military.
    • Positional power.
      • You can preach when we allow it.
      • We can stop you anytime we feel like it.
      • We can arrest you without just cause.
  • Intimidation.
    • Putting them in jail was not necessary.
    • The Apostles were preaching in the open and not hiding.
    • They could have had brought them before the Sanhedrin the following morning.

The following day, as the Sanhedrin met, reveals additional powerful forces brought against the fledgling church.

  • Rulers – most likely those in positions of authority within the Jewish government.
  • Elders – distinguished older men who lived in Jerusalem and wielding great influence.
  • Scribes – teachers of the Law.
  • Annas – the high priest.
    • Although the Romans had removed him from the official position years earlier, he was still the power behind the position of the high priest.
    • In Israel, the high priest occupied that position for life. The Jews would consider Annas the true high priest until he died.
    • He connived to have his five sons and one son-in-law become high priest after he was removed from the position.
  • Caiaphas – the son-in-law and acting high priest.
    • He conspired along with Annas to have Jesus killed.
    • They may have begun to devise a similar plot against Jesus’ followers.
  • John and Alexander – not much is known about them. Most likely, they were members of the priestly family.

As we consider what had taken place so far, we need to review the responsibility of the Sanhedrin in Jewish life.

  • They were responsible for protecting the Jewish faith.
  • They were required to examine any new teacher or teaching within Israel (Deuteronomy 13).
  • They had the right to investigate what the fledgling church was doing, but they didn’t have the right to arrest innocent men and refuse to examine the evidence that was presented honestly.

The council now asks by what power, authority, or name they had healed the lame man. They unwittingly presented Peter with an opportunity to witness, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

Peter now begins his defense.

  • Peter demonstrates respect for the council as he explains how the lame man was healed.
  • There is also a not-so-subtle jab at the religious leaders regarding their arrest.
    • Since the question that they ask is about the healing of the lame man, Peter is implying that the only reason they could have been arrested was for healing him.
    • Healing the man is not a crime.
  • Peter then says it was through the name of Jesus that the lame man was healed. 
    • The religious council likely thought they had heard the last of Jesus after His crucifixion.
      • But the Apostles were teaching that Jesus was alive.
      • To the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, this would have been tantamount to a heavy religious slap in the face.
  • Peter’s defense is guided by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had told them.
    • Luke 21:15 For I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 
    • Peter quotes Psalm 118:22, a direct messianic reference that Jesus also quoted in Matthew 21:42.
    • Peter tells the council that they are the builder, but they rejected God’s stone, Jesus.
    • The image of a stone or rock is scattered throughout the Old Testament and is often symbolic of God. 
    • The stone can be a blessing or a stumbling block.
      • A blessing to those who place their faith in Jesus.
      • A stumbling block to those who reject Jesus.
  • Peter concludes his defense by stating that not only was the lame man healed in the name of Jesus but that Jesus is the only way to salvation and restoration with God.
  • In Peter’s short defense, we see a tactic that Paul would also use later. Not only did Peter speak in defense of their actions, but he also used it as an opportunity to witness to the truth of Jesus to the religious council, the very ones who should have already known who Jesus is.
  • Peter’s sermon can be summarized around four points.
    • The religious leaders were guilty of killing Jesus. 
    • Jesus rose from the dead; He was alive! The very God that the religious leaders worshiped is the God who raised Jesus and placed Him at His right hand, proving that Jesus is God the Son, the savior of the world.
    • God’s purpose was fulfilled despite the opposition of the religious leaders. 
    • Jesus is the only way to salvation.

A point to remember as we continue our journey through Acts, after chapter three, only three other chapters in total don’t mention persecution. This would imply that persecution, at some level, might be a necessary part of every believer’s life. Scripture would seem to confirm this.

  • 2 Timothy 3:12 In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
  • John 15:20 Remember the word I spoke to you: “A slave is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours.

There is an essential point for the modern church to consider here. How often did we/do we hear about suffering as being an expected part of the Christian life? I know that was never mentioned to me before I submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. I understand it now and don’t run from it. When we look at the shallowness of the modern church, especially in the affluent West, we need to consider whether the church’s neglect in this area has led to a significant number of shallow Christians who view salvation as a “get out of hell, free” card, but who otherwise don’t live as a faithful follower of Jesus. As Jesus said, we must count the cost.

Applications

  • The church must teach that persecution will occur. As we witness to the lost, we must talk about persecution. As we walk with Jesus, we must prepare ourselves for persecution. For many of us, persecution is something we read about. However, we have many brothers and sisters around the world who face persecution on a daily basis. And according to Scripture, those of us who don’t currently face persecution may soon find out circumstances rapidly changing, especially as we view what’s happening around the world.
  • We should never fear persecution. As followers of Jesus, we are to walk in His footsteps. Matthew 10:28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • Walk and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. The power behind the early church was the Holy Spirit. Ordinary, uneducated men were accomplishing remarkable things powered by God. The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the “forgotten God,” because the modern church often doesn’t rely on Him. 
  • No matter the circumstances or challenges we face, let the Holy Spirit lead you as you share the Gospel with the lost around you. Jesus is the only path to salvation.