Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 22, 2018
Acts 4:5-12 Commentary
What in the world got into Acts 4’s Peter? Or to put it more theologically, who in the world got into the apostle? I sometimes wonder if even his companion John didn’t blink his eyes or try to clear his ears to make sure it was Peter who was speaking.
Of course, Peter’s talking was never the problem per se. You could always count on him to speak up, even when Jesus’ other disciples didn’t know what to say. It’s just that maybe even the former fisherman was never quite sure what would come out of his mouth when he opened it to speak.
Yet it’s hard to believe Acts 4’s Peter is the same as, for example, Luke 22’s Peter. There, after all, it was a “servant girl” (56) and her friends who confronted Peter. In Acts 4 the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” confront him. In Luke 22 Peter risks only ridicule for acknowledging Jesus. In Acts 4 he risks his freedom if not life for talking about Jesus.
Given his track record (at least before Pentecost), we’d have expected Peter to wilt in the face of Acts 4’s religious leaders. They’d, after all, flexed their religious muscles by first jailing and then basically trying John and him in religious court. Peter, however, turns the defense table into a pulpit from which he boldly proclaims the gospel message of salvation that’s received only with faith in the crucified but risen Jesus.
Perhaps, though, Peter’s boldness shouldn’t surprise us. Luke 12:11-12’s Jesus virtually predicts his fellow disciples and he will be courageous. There, after all, he promised his disciples, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”
Elements of Peter’s bold reply to Israel’s religious leaders put Acts 4’s confrontation in context. In verse 7, after all, the religious leaders ask him, “By what power or name did you do this?” (Italics added). What’s more, in verse 9, Peter refers to “an act of kindness shown to a cripple and … how he was healed” (italics added). Both seem to refer back to Peter’s healing of a man who’d never been able to walk before (Acts 3:6-8).
Yet an even earlier passage may also help explain some of the religious leaders’ anxiety (2). When Peter, after all, addressed those whom the first Pentecost had dazzled, he’d begged them to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Acts 2:41 reports that some 3,000 people faithfully accept that invitation.
The religious leaders may worry that Peter’s call to repentance in Acts 3:19 will produce a similar wildfire of conversion. Their experience, in fact, bears that fear out. After all, even as the religious leaders jail Peter and John, verse 4 reports, “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.”
This “crisis” draws together some of the most prominent religious leaders in first century Judaism. “Members of the high priest’s family” (6) line up on one side of the room. “Unschooled, ordinary” Peter and John stand on the other. Ananias, Caiaphas and their cohorts seem to wield all the power. Yet Jesus’ former disciples’ ability to heal people shows that they too wield power, albeit a different and perhaps even greater kind.
The mighty religious leaders react very differently to Peter’s healing of the man with a physical disability than its first witnesses did. Those who first heard about the healing responded “with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (Acts 3:10). The powerful religious leaders demand to know “by what power or name” (7) Peter had healed the man who’d never been able to walk. The mighty religious leaders wield the power to jail or even perhaps call for the execution of (i.e. Jesus) people. Yet they also want to know from where the ordinary apostles got their power to heal people.
However, while the religious leaders at least seem mostly interested in power, that only seems to be a kind of “side issue” for Peter and John. They’re far more interested in the “name” by which they’ve healed the man was physically impaired. “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth … that this man stands before you healed” (10).
It’s a name, of course, with which the mighty religious leaders are probably all too familiar. They’d, after all, wielded their considerable power to help convince the Roman authorities to crucify the apparently powerless Jesus. Yet while those leaders assumed they’d helped blot out Jesus’ name, Peter insists the Name still lives.
He claims that while the religious leaders had helped engineer Jesus’ crucifixion, God “raised [him] from the dead” (10). The religious leaders regarded Jesus as just a worthless but troublesome “stone” (11). God, however, affirmed Jesus as the “capstone” of a whole new world.
This risen “capstone,” Peter, insists, is still at work in a variety of ways. Scholars, in fact, note that the word the apostle uses for “healed” in verse 6 is the same one he uses in verse 12 for “saved.” He’s insisting, in other words, that Jesus isn’t just startling people by using his apostles to work healing in people. Jesus’ name is also the only one by which God is graciously saving people.
The Holy Spirit may pave any number of “entrance ramps” onto Acts 4 for those who teach and preach it. One might involve the impossibility of restricting the gospel. The religious authorities imprison the apostles. Yet many who’d heard them preach believe and become part of the young, growing Church.
Later (4:18) the religious leaders tell Peter and John not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name anymore. Yet the freed apostles go out to not only report what had happened to them, but also to continue to preach and teach in Jesus’ name. After all, locked doors couldn’t keep the risen Jesus away from people. In a similar ways, not even jail cells or threats can keep the Holy Spirit from doing the Spirit’s work.
Various colleagues have suggested a number of other themes that Acts 4’s preachers and teachers might choose to emphasize. Will Willimon calls the name of Jesus “the last taboo.” It’s one even some Christians seem reluctant to use anymore, expect perhaps in profanity.
Yet Jesus’ first followers are quite generous and bold in their use of his name. What’s more, they profess that God gives Jesus’ name the power to not only heal but also save people. So those who preach and teach Acts might explore with their hearers how Jesus’ 21st century followers might reclaim the use of Jesus’ name to honor God and bless people, creatures and God’s whole creation.
My colleague Scott Hoezee notes how God’s gracious use of Jesus the stone the religious leaders rejected but which God made the capstone points to God’s penchance for using rejected “stones.” It reminds us that God has an amazing way of using unliked and unlikely people and things to glorify God and bless people. That includes, of course, not only Jesus, but also his “ordinary, unschooled” apostles like Peter and John. In fact, as Hoezee notes, God even uses obscure Scripture passages like Psalm 118:22 to teach beautiful truths about the risen Christ.
Mark Edmundson mentions boldness in his August 17, 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Why We Need to Resurrect our Souls.” He writes, “Where is compassion in our self-obsessed culture? Part of what is most startling in the world we have made is that we have abjured the virtues of the saint. We have collectively turned our backs on most versions of lovingkindness. Nor do we feel a pressing need to forge a counterfeit culture of compassion.
“Surely there are the church drives, benefits, charities, and various forms of organized pity — but many, if not most, of those are merely forms of self-congratulation. ‘Pity would be no more,’ says Blake, ‘if we did not make somebody Poor.’ We are rank with voyeuristic kindness …
“We seem to have come to an agreement that life is every man for himself, and every woman, too. The compassionate ideal is so dangerous to the self that it is not safe to put it into even displaced or sublimated form. Pressed to the wall, we affirm faith in individualism, and that is that. Jesus the preacher of universal brotherhood is all but gone, and it is best for our comfort and our entertainment that this be so.
“In Africa and Latin America, one finds bold priests and nuns and brothers who stand up for the poor. All honor to them. They have a few brothers and sisters in America and Europe, but by and large the rich Western churches have gone over to relative quietism.”
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