Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2015
Acts 4:5-12 Commentary
Comments and Observations
If only the Common Lectionary had gone on just one more verse! Stopping shy of verse 13 deprives us from seeing one of the great passages of the Bible. Because it is there that the ruling authorities—who are seeking to hush up the apostles—find themselves powerfully impressed that the people doing all these things are, all things being equal, hicks and unlettered rubes.
The word often translated as “unschooled” literally means “unlettered” (Greek: agrammatoi) which might mean unschooled but seems closer to “illiterate.” These guys were illiterate idiots. Yet they now possess a boldness and an eloquence for which there was no good explanation except maybe—just maybe, possibly, outside chance—that it had something to do with another thing the authorities take note of: these men had been with Jesus.
They had been with Jesus.
Would that fact alone account for their ability to heal a crippled person and then be able to speak so eloquently about it? Well, not if Jesus had himself been no more than an ordinary man. Something else was going on here, but the Sanhedrin could not bring itself to acknowledge the obvious: namely, that the “something” that was going on here smacked of a divine movement and a divine presence that quite probably validated—or at least leant a gargantuan amount of credence to—the claims these men were making.
And what were those claims? Well, they were on the grand side of things and they were not the kinds of claims that brooked much by way of nuance and compromise. Jesus equals salvation, and apparently he’s the only One who brings that salvation, too. He is the key to the entire salvific edifice God has been building all along. In fact, Acts 4:11 is one of the earliest New Testament uses of that verse from Psalm 118 about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the head of the corner.
As I have noted in other sermon commentaries on this website, very few if any casual—or even rigorous—readers of the Book of Psalms would have tumbled to Psalm 118:22 as a likely candidate to become the most oft-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Yet that is exactly what Psalm 118:22 is. No other single verse from the Hebrew Scriptures comes up more often in the New Testament than this one. It beats out more familiar and loved psalms, including Psalm 23 (the Psalm lection for this same Sunday). It beats out Psalm 150, Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 42, or any other psalm whose words get embroidered on counted-cross-stitch wall hangings and printed inside of Hallmark greeting cards or emblazoned on the bottom of Precious Moments figurines.
Just what was it about that odd verse that so attracted the attention of the apostles? In some ways, Psalm 118:22 is itself a little like the rejected stone that verse talks about: it’s a tiny and obscure verse that is easy to cast aside and yet it is a verse that has gone on to encapsulate a central move and fact of salvation. Somehow the New Testament writers knew that as it turned out, the key to understanding God’s salvation was not going to be found chiefly in pieces of soaring rhetoric or in demonstrations of world-class divine power. It’s rather like Elijah finally finding God not in howling winds, storms, or earthquakes but in a still, small voice that tickled the back of his eardrums like the whirring of a gnat’s wings. Somehow God was going to do what he had been doing all along (for those with eyes to see) and that was to lift up and elevate and glorify not the obvious candidates for divine election but the least likely folks: childless old Abram and Sarah, sneaky Jacob, stuttering Moses, spineless Jonah, Mary and Joseph’s boy Jesus (of Nazareth of all places!)
God has a penchant for rejected stones. He specializes in glorifying the unlikely. And something about that gracious and surprising work of God is captured in Psalm 118:22 and fits the ministry of Jesus perfectly. Salvation is always surprising because it’s always by grace alone (and if you don’t think grace is surprising . . . then you don’t understand grace at all). And so when the apostles, like Peter in Acts 4, found themselves “filled with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Acts 4:8), the Spirit led them to a lowly little textual nugget embedded deep inside one of the lesser known of all the psalms and prompted Peter to use that little verse as the perfect summary of what God’s ways are all about.
It was not an obvious claim. It was not a claim anyone would make unless convicted deeply by the very Spirit of God. But once a person is so convicted and so says the kinds of things Peter declares in Acts 4, any reasonably functioning person would know that it would do no good—as the Sanhedrin goes on to try anyway—to tell such a person not to talk about Jesus any more (cf. Acts 4:18).
Compared to the soaring power of Peter and John’s words in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin’s words looked like an attempt to hold back a roiling wave on the ocean by thrusting your hands out in front of you. It’s just not going to work. There’s far too much power behind the wave.
Yet somehow it all stemmed from the fact—so innocent-looking on the face of it—that these otherwise illiterate fools had “been with Jesus.” There’s transformation that comes from being in the presence of Jesus.
Although in a different way, we latter-day disciples who now have God’s own Holy Spirit living right in our hearts, connecting us to our living Lord Jesus, have been with Jesus, too. We’ve been with Jesus. We are with Jesus. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it to the Philippians. Here’s hoping and praying that this fact alone is enough now and then to make others look at also us and wonder what all accounts for the hope and the grace and the joy we exude.
“Maybe it’s because they’ve been with Jesus,” folks might conclude about also us.
And what a fine thing that would be for someone to conclude!
When you think about it, the claim Peter makes that salvation can be found in no one other than Jesus is not only remarkably strong, this bold assertion comes remarkably early in the story of God’s new people. Think of it: the Roman rubbing out of Jesus—their neat crossing-out of his very existence—had taken place within months of the events recorded in Acts 4. Jesus’ death had been a public event that no one disputed. He had died. He had been buried. And really recently at that.
Just imagine someone today claiming that Joe Kleinfelder from Topeka, Kansas—who died and was buried just before Christmas 2014—had become the single more significant figure in the world such that everyone’s destiny was now tied to Joe. Who could believe it!?
Such a very short time after Jesus’ very public demise and people were running around the Mediterranean Basin to claim that a carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire and who had been duly dispatched by the might of that same Empire had become so awesomely powerful and important that he alone can secure a person’s eternal destiny. This Jesus of Nazareth was anything but ordinary—the claims being made about him by these uneducated former fishermen and such brooked no middle ground between being true or false.
If what Peter claimed was true, it was the dearest truth anyone would ever hear. If it was false, it was the biggest piece of lunacy anyone would ever hear. A couple thousand years later people still go toe-to-toe to debate that very point, and not a few folks of the Richard Dawkins variety get downright angry over those who believe in religion of any kind, much less this loopy stuff about Jesus.
But the men who made those claims would not have always made those claims, not even across the years they spent in Jesus’ physical presence. But something happened to change them and make them proclaim what they did. And precisely because the claim is so huge, even all these years later it’s really not finally something you can meet with indifference.
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