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. 

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