Acts 4 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

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(Read all of Acts 4)
Verses 1-3.   Just at this point in Peter's discourse: (1) "And while they were speaking to the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, (2) being indignant that they taught the people, and preached, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead. (3) And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day; for it was already evening." This sudden disturbance of the interested audience, by a body of armed men rushing through their midst and seizing Peter and John, is the beginning of a series of persecutions with which Luke is about to follow the account of the first peaceful triumphs of the apostles.

We would naturally, at first thought, expect to find the parties to this violent proceeding identical with the chief persecutors of Jesus, supposing that the same motives which had excited opposition to him would perpetuate it against his disciples. But the Pharisees were his most bitter enemies, the Sadducees being comparatively indifferent to his pretensions, while here we see the Sadducees leading the attack upon the apostles, and we will soon see the leader of the Pharisees interfering to save them from threatened death.{1} In order to appreciate this unexpected change in the aspect of the parties, we must note a little more carefully the ground of opposition in each case.

The supposition sometimes entertained that Jesus was hated by men simply because there is in human nature an innate aversion to truth and holiness, is not less false to the facts of history than to the nature of fallen men. It is disproved by the fact that it was not the mass of his cotemporaries who hated him, as the supposition would require, but chiefly, and almost exclusively, the Pharisees. That portion of the people who were most depraved, according to external appearances, heard him gladly, and delighted to praise him, while the Pharisees, who were most of all noted for their piety, were the men who hated him most. Neither were they actuated simply by an aversion to his holiness; for they had a more substantial, if not a better reason for hating him. If he had been content merely to go about doing good, and teaching righteousness, "letting other people alone," he might have passed his days in peace. But such was not his sense of duty. He knew that his teaching could not have proper effect unless the erroneous doctrines of the Pharisees, who were then the chief teachers of Israel, were dislodged from the public mind, and the mask of hypocrisy, which had secured them their great reputation for piety, were stripped off. He undertook, therefore, an offensive warfare upon their doctrinal tenets and their religious pretensions. The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains an epitome of this warfare on his part, than which there is not a more withering philippic on record in all literature. Such denunciation necessarily provoked the most intense hatred on the part of such Pharisees as were too deeply imbued with the prevailing spirit of the party to be reached by the truth. By this very fact, however, they made it more evident to the people that they deserved all the denunciation which he hurled against them. On the other hand, the Sadducees were so well pleased with his successful assaults upon their hereditary and too powerful enemies, that they forgave, in some degree, his known opposition to their favorite doctrine, and felt for him some friendly sympathy.

With the apostles the relations of these parties were as naturally reversed. Instead of assaulting, in detail, the doctrinal tenets of any party, they confined their labors, at first, to testimony concerning the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. This confirmed the chief distinctive doctrine of the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection, and it left their other tenets, for the time being, unnoticed. But the whole force of this preaching was leveled against Sadduceean infidelity in reference to the resurrection, and it therefore aroused this party to an activity never exhibited before. They rushed in and arrested Peter and John, "being indignant that they taught the people, and preached, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead." They were seconded in this violent movement by the priests who were at the time officiating in the temple, and who were either identified with the Sadducees, or were enraged because the apostles, in the very midst of the temple, were drawing away the people from waiting upon their services. The "captain of the temple," with his guard, was doubtless subject to the orders of the chief of the officiating priests, and executed the arrest.

Verse 4.   The audience who had been listening to Peter must have been thrown into intense excitement by the arrest, and the disciples among them, doubtless, expected to see re-enacted, in the persons of Peter and John, the murderous scenes which had terminated the life of their master. Notwithstanding this excitement, however, the words of Peter were not without a decided effect upon the hitherto unbelieving portion of his hearers; for Luke says: (4) "But many of those who were hearing the word believed, and the number of the men became about five thousand." Whether this number includes the three thousand who were added on Pentecost or not, has been a matter of some dispute, but it is generally agreed by critics that it does. If those who believed on the present occasion were alone intended, the writer would have said the number en, was, instead of egenethe, became, about five thousand.

Verses 5, 6.   The prisoners having been arrested late in the afternoon, all further proceedings were adjourned till the next day, and Peter and John had the quiet of a night in prison for reflection and mutual encouragement ere they were brought to trial. (5) "And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers and elders and scribes, (6) and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together in Jerusalem." This assembly was the great Jewish Sanhedrim, and the parties here named are the different officials who constituted that tribunal. Who John and Alexander were is not now known. Annas and Caiaphas are historical characters, conspicuous in the history of the trial of Jesus, and also prominent on the pages of Josephus. Between the latter and Luke there is an apparent discrepancy, in reference to their official position at this time, Luke calling Annas the high priest, and Josephus attributing that dignity to Caiaphas. According to Josephus, Valerius Gratus, the immediate predecessor of Pontius Pilate, had removed Annas from the high priesthood, and after having appointed and removed three others, one of them, Eleazar, the son of Annas, finally left Caiaphas in office, when he was superseded by Pilate.{2} The Apostle John informs us that Caiaphas was son-in-law to Annas.{3} According to the law of Moses the high priest held office during life; hence, in deposing Annas, the Roman governor violated the Jewish Law, and the act was religiously null and void. Annas was still high priest by right, and for this reason is so styled here by Luke. The Jews, also, recognized his right, by taking Jesus before him for trial, though he, not daring to claim the office, sent them to Caiaphas. In his former narrative, Luke also mentions them both as being high priests at the same time.{4} This is best explained by the fact that one was rightfully entitled to the office, and the other was exercising it by illegal appointment.

The "kindred of the high priest" embraced not only the chief members of his immediate family, but also some of the deposed high priests, who were all, in great probability, connected with the one high priestly family, and thereby entitled to seats in the Sanhedrim.

Verse 7.   When the court was assembled, the prisoners were introduced, and the cripple, who had been healed had the boldness to appear by their side. (7) "And placing them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have you done this?"

This is not the first time that Peter and John had been together in the presence of this august assembly. As they gazed around for a moment, and recognized the faces of their judges, they could not fail to remember that terrible morning when their masters stood there in bonds, and they themselves, full of fearful misgivings, stood in a distant part of the hall, and looked on. The fall, and the bitter tears of Peter, on that occasion, were now a warning and a strength to them both, and their very position brought to mind some solemn words of Jesus which had never acquired a present value till now. "Beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in the synagogues, and you shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what you shall speak; for it shall be given you in the same hour what you shall say. For it is not you that speak, but the spirit of your father that speaks in you."{5} Cheered by this promise, they now stand before their accusers and judges with a boldness unaccountable to the latter.

The prisoners had been arrested without a formal charge being preferred against them, and the court was now dependent upon what might be extorted from them, for the ground of their accusation. The question propounded to them is remarkable for its vagueness. By what power, or, in what name, have you done this? Done what? might have been the answer. Done this preaching? or this miracle? or what? The question specified nothing. There was no one particular thing done by Peter, on which they dared fix attention; but they frame an indefinite question, in attempting to answer which they evidently hoped he would say something on which they might condemn him.

Verses 8-10.   They could not, however, have asked a question which suited Peter any better. It left him at liberty to select any thing he had done as the subject of reply, and, therefore, he chose to select that deed, which, of all that had been done, they were most unwilling to hear mentioned. He frames his answer, too, with a more direct reference to the other terms of their question, than they either desired or anticipated. (8) "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: Rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, (9) If we are examined this day concerning the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he had been saved, (10) be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him doth this man stand before you sound." This statement needed no proof, for the Sanhedrim could not deny, with the man standing before them, that the miracle had been wrought, nor could they, with plausibility, attribute the deed to any other power or name than that assumed by Peter. To deny that it was a divine power would have been absurd in the estimation of all the people; but to admit that the power was divine, and yet reject the explanation given by those through whom it was exercised, would have been still more absurd.

Verses 11, 12.   Realizing the advantage which he had now gained, Peter pushes his adversaries into still closer quarters, by adding: (11) "This is the stone which was despised by you builders, which has become the head of the corner. (12) Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved." In this passage, he places his proud judges in the ridiculous attitude of searching about vainly for a stone to fit the corner of the foundation, while persistently rejecting the real corner-stone, without which the building can be reared. And, leaving the figurative language of David, he more fully declares, that there is no salvation for man except in the name of the very Jesus whom they had crucified. This proposition is universal, and shows that the redemption effected by Jesus will include every human being who shall finally be saved.

Verses 13, 14.   Instead of answering evasively and timidly, as was expected of men in their social position, when arraigned in such a presence, the apostles had unhesitatingly avowed the chief deed of yesterday's proceedings, with the name in which it had been done, stating all in the terms most obnoxious to their hearers. (13) "Now, seeing the freedom of speech of Peter and John, and perceiving that they were illiterate and private men, they were astonished, and recognized them, that they had been with Jesus. (14) But beholding the man who was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it." There was total silence for awhile, when Peter ceased speaking. Not a man in the Sanhedrim could open his mouth in reply to Peter's brief speech. He had avowed every obnoxious sentiment on account of which they had been instigated to arrest him, yet not one of them dares to contradict his words, or to rebuke him for giving them utterance. The silence was painful and embarrassing.

Verses 15, 16.   Finally, the silence was broken by a proposition that the prisoners be withdrawn. (15) "And having commanded them to go aside out of the Sanhedrim, they conferred among themselves, (16) saying, What shall we do to these men? For that, indeed, a noted miracle has been wrought by them, is manifest to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we can not deny it." This admission, in their secret deliberations, shows the utter heartlessness and hypocrisy of their proceedings, and it is astonishing that they could any longer give each other countenance in such a course.

Verse 17.   The real motive which controlled them, and under the influence of which they kept each other in countenance, was an unconquerable desire to maintain their old influence with the people. This is manifested in the conclusion to which they came. (17) "But, that it may be spread no further among the people, let us strictly threaten them, that they speak, henceforth, to no man in this name." The man who made this proposition no doubt thought that he had most satisfactorily solved a difficult problem, and the majority were too well pleased to find some means of escape from their present awkward predicament, to look very shrewdly into the probable success of the measure proposed. It was a safe course, if not a very bold one, and as there was no obstacle in the way but conscience, the could find no difficulty in pursuing it.

Verse 18.   The resolution was no sooner formed than acted upon. (18) "And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus." How Luke learned the particulars of the secret consultation which resulted in this injunction, we are not informed, though it is not difficult to imagine. Gamaliel, Saul's teacher, and perhaps Saul himself, was present as a member of the Sanhedrim; and a great company of the priests themselves afterward became obedient to the faith.{6} These and other conversions from the ranks of the enemy opened up channels for such information in abundance.

Verses 19, 20.   The apostles, if at all anxious concerning their personal safety, might have received this stern command in silence, and retired respectfully from the assembly. (19) "But, Peter and John answered and said to them, Whether it is right, in the sight of God, to hearken to you rather than to God, do you judge. (20) For we can not but speak the things which we have seen and heard." This was an open defiance of their power, with a direct appeal to their own consciences for a vindication of it. The apostles were not willing that their silence should be construed into even a momentary acquiescence in such a command, and they spoke in such a manner as to be distinctly understood.

Verses 21, 22.   It was a sore trial to the haughty spirits of the Sanhedrim to brook such defiance; but a desire to conciliate the people, mingled, no doubt, with a secret fear of the consequences of putting to death men who had exercised such power, restrained their wrath. (21) "And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, not finding how they might punish them, because of the people; for all glorified God for what was done. (22) For the man on whom this miracle of healing was wrought was more than forty years of age."

Verses 23-30.   The apostles had now humbled the pride of their adversaries, and went away from the assembly in triumph. But they were uninflated by their present prosperity, as they had been undaunted by their recent danger. They had now attained that lofty degree of faith and hope which enables men to maintain a steady calmness amid all the vicissitudes of life. The course they immediately pursued is worthy of remembrance, and of all imitation. (23) "And being let go, they went to their own company, and reported what the high priests and the elders had said to them. (24) And when they heard it, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said: Sovereign Lord, thou God who hast made the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and all that is in them; (25) who through the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people imagine vain things? (26) The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed. (27) For, of a truth, against thy holy son Jesus whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontus Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together, (28) to do what thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done. (29) And now, Lord, behold their threatenings; and grant to thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, (30) by stretching out thy hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of thy holy son Jesus." This prayer was uttered by one of the brethren, and the expression, "they lifted up their voice with one accord," indicates the perfect unity of sentiment with which they followed the words of the leader.

In all the prayers of the apostles, we observe strict appropriateness, in the ascription to God with which they open, and a remarkable simplicity in presenting the exact petition, and no more, which the occasion demands. On a former occasion, they had set before him two men, that he might choose one for the apostolic office, and they addressed him as the "heart-knower;" now they desire his protecting power, and they style him the "Sovereign God who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them." They remind him that, according to his own words by David, kings and rulers, in the persons of Herod and Pilate, had risen up against his anointed while the people and the Gentiles were imagining vain things; and they pray him to "behold the threatening," and grant to his servants boldness to speak the word in defiance of all opposition.

In these days of passion and war, in which it is common for prayers to be filled with earnest entreaties for victory over our enemies, and sometimes with terrible maledictions against those who are waging war against our supposed rights, it is quite refreshing to observe the tone of this apostolic prayer. These men were not in danger of losing some mere political power or privilege, but the dearest and most indisputable right they had on earth was denied them, and they were threatened with death if they did not relinquish it; yet, in their prayers, they manifest no vindictive nor resentful spirit; but, in reference to their enemies they simply pray, Lord, behold their threatenings. Their gentle spirits never could have conceived that unblushing impiety which now so often brings men upon their knees for the very purpose of pouring out in the ears of God those violent and destructive passions which he has forbidden us to allow a place even within our hearts. By such prayers men seek to make God a partisan in every angry contention among men, as though he were nothing more than themselves. Much needs to be said upon this unhappy theme, but it can not be said here.

In praying for boldness the apostles give an intimation of the manner in which they expected it to be imparted to them. It was not by some direct and internal spiritual impact, but by external manifestations of his continued presence and favor: "by stretching out his hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be wrought through the name of Jesus."

Verse 31.   The prayer for boldness was answered at once, and in the way they had requested. (31) "And when they had prayed, the place in which they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness." The shaking of the house, attended by a conscious renewal of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, gave them the boldness for which they prayed, because it assured them that God was still with them.

Verses 32-35.   From this brief account of the first conflict of the young congregation, Luke again turns, to view more minutely the internal condition of the Church. Their religious life was now more fully developed, than at the period glanced at in the close of the second chapter, and his description is more in detail. (32) "Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did one of them say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. (33) And with great power the apostle gave testimony concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was upon them all. (34) Neither was there any among them who lacked; for as many as were possessors of lands, or houses, sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, (35) and laid them at the feet of the apostles; and it was distributed to each, as any one had need."

Considering the immense numbers of this congregation, and that they were so suddenly drawn together from every class of society, it is certainly remarkable, and well worthy of a place in this record, that they were "of one heart and of one mind." But the most signal proof of the power of the gospel among them was the almost entire subsidence of selfishness. Among the heathen nations of antiquity, systematic provision of the wants of the poor was unknown; and even among the Jews, whose law was watchful for the welfare of the poor in many respects, those who became insolvent were sold into temporary bondage to pay their debts. It was, therefore, a new thing under the sun, to see a large community selling houses and lands to supply the wants of the poor. It could but give additional weight to all that was said by the apostles, and for this reason Luke breaks the thread of his statements concerning it, to throw in the remark, that "With great power the apostles gave testimony concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was among all." This remark does not mean that the testimony of the apostles was more distinct or positive, or that it was sustained by more signal miracles than before; for neither of these is possible. But it means that their testimony had more power with the people; and this is attributed to the harmony observed within the Church, together with their unheard-of benevolence, which combined to give them "great favor" with the people.

The fact that distribution was made to each as he had need, shows that it was only the needy who received any thing, and that there was no equalization of property. The sale of property and consecration of the proceeds was voluntary with each individual, and not an established law of the Church. This is evident from the question of Peter to Ananias, below: "While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?"{7}

Verses 36, 37.   After stating that many brethren who had property sold it, and gave up the proceeds, Luke now gives an individual instance of this liberality, introduced, no doubt, on account of the subsequent celebrity of the individual. (36) "Now Joses, who was surnamed Barnabas by the apostles, (which is, when translated, son of exhortation,) a Levite, a Cyprian by birth, (37) having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the feet of the apostles." This surname was given to Joses on account of his excellence in horatory address, and not on account of the consolation which he afforded by his liberality. The original term paraklesis, rendered consolation in the common version, is a verbal noun used to express both the act of the verb parakalein and the effect produced by it. We have no one word in English to represent it in these two senses; but exhortation expresses the act, and consolation the effect. We have, therefore, exhortation eight times in the common version, when the paraklesis is connected with the agent,{8} but always consolation when the reference is to the recipient. As Barnabas is contemplated at the agent, in this case, it should be exhortation, not consolation. This criticism is confirmed by the history of Barnabas. When the Church in Jerusalem heard that a congregation was planted in Antioch, they sent Barnabas thither, who "exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they should cleave to the Lord."{9} This exhorting being the object for which he was sent, his selection for the mission indicates his superiority in that kind of talent. Perhaps it was chiefly on account of this talent, in which Paul was deficient, that Barnabas became the traveling companion of this apostle. It is a talent much more rare than mere logical power, and has always been highly prized by the Churches.

It is quite probable that the land sold by Barnabas constituted his whole estate. Having no family dependent on him, he consecrated his life to unrequited missionary labor.{10}

      {1} V: 34, below.
      {2} Jos. Ant. B. xviii, chap. 2.
      {3} John xviii: 13-24.
      {4} Luke iii: 2.
      {5} Matt. x: 17-20.
      {6} Chap. vi: 7, below.
      {7} See also vi: 1.
      {8} Acts xiii: 15; Rom. xii: 8; 1 Cor. xiv: 3; 1 Thess. ii: 3; 1 Tim. iv: 13; Heb. xii: 5; xiii: 22; 2 Cor. viii: 17.
      {9} Acts xi: 23.
      {10} 1 Cor. ix: 6.