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.

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