The gospel is the good news of what God has done for sinners through His Son. When one is confronted with this message a response is demanded. In fact, a response is inherently called for. One either accepts it or rejects it. This, of course, was precisely the mindset of Peter when he proclaimed the death, burial and resurrection in his sermon recorded in Acts 3. And as we saw, he unhesitatingly called for a response from those who heard him.
That chapter ends with the wonderful invitation of v. 26 and yet we see in chapter 4 the response to this message. The responses were basically twofold: conversion for some and conflict from others. Some responded and were gloriously saved while others rejected and sought to shoot the messenger. Thus it has always been throughout the history of the church.
As we begin our study of Acts chapter 4 I want to set the tone by highlighting what I believe is a major theme this chapter: gospel expectations.
This chapter highlights three expectations which flow from confrontation with the gospel: conflict, conversions and community. There are many other things that we can expect when we embrace the gospel but most any of them will fit into one or more of these three categories.
We begin with a brief overview of the chapter.
A Predictable Result
We have in vv. 1-22 what we might call a predictable result; predictable in that Jesus predicted people would respond in such a manner.
The people were greatly amazed at the miracle that had occurred in chapter 3 and a huge crowd had gathered. Peter and John were delighted because there had been some conversions (v. 4). But conflict was also a result of their gospel ministry.
The religious and cultural power brokers were offended (threatened) by the success of these untrained and non-degreed preachers and so they arrested them for “disturbing the peace” (their peace, that is!).
Further, they commanded the apostles to cease preaching any longer in the name of Jesus. They commanded them to cease from the Great Commission. The religious leaders, who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of the nation, commanded the disciples to disobey God.
A Prayerful Response
Upon their release from incarceration Peter and John made a beeline for the community of faith. They proved they were a community of faith by their corporate communion with God. That is, they prayed (vv. 23-31).
In the midst of the conflict (which they expected) they also expected conversions. It was for this reason, no doubt, that they prayed, and God wonderfully answered (v. 31). The church once again boldly proclaimed the gospel (although this time it was probably others in addition to Peter and John).
A Pooling of Resources
As people were converted the conflict intensified and economic hardship was faced by the church. Once again they proved that they were a genuine community of faith as they pooled their resources to meet the needs of the family of God (vv. 32-37). And this led once again to both conflict and conversions as recorded in chapter 5.
I believe that Acts 4 serves as a very relevant template of what a believer can expect once they embrace the gospel. And so let’s learn and be prepared.
We will begin by examining the predictable (because predicted) results of embracing the gospel.
One characteristic of our age is the plethora of attempts to reinvent the church—both in doctrine and in practice. Certainty about what we believe (or should believe) is trumped in favour of uncertainty, and doubt is now seen as a virtue while conviction is viewed as a vice. But of course this is nothing new. G. K. Chesterton observed this same characteristic marking British society in 1908. As he wrote about in his book Orthodoxy in a chapter titled, “The Suicide of Thought,”
What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does exert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
His point hits home, and most apropos does it fit the current state of much of the church. But such a state of affairs is nothing new. In fact J. Gresham Machen addressed a similar failure of nerve and chronological snobbery in 1922 when he wrote,
No institution is faced by a stronger hostil[ity] than the institution of the Christian religion, for no institution has based itself more squarely upon the authority of a by-gone age. . . . The fact itself is plain, that Christianity during many centuries has consistently appealed for the truth of its claims, not merely and not even primarily to current experience, but to certain ancient books the most recent of which was written some nineteen hundred years ago.
But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. My goal in this study is to touch on the gospel expectations that we see in this chapter.
The Expectations of the Church
Let’s begin by seeing what the church should expect in the world.
The Expectation of Conflict
As Peter and John continued to share the gospel with those who had witnessed the miracle of chapter 3, they soon faced some conflict.
Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.
Peter and John had been witnessing to the bystanders for some time. According to chapter 3, they initially went to the temple at 3:00 PM, the hour of prayer. By the time they were arrested (later in chapter 4) it was already nighttime. Clearly, Peter did not deliver a sermonette. They spend much time witnessing to people. The agitation of the religious leaders grew over this time, and eventually Peter and John were arrested, as recorded in chapter 4. The sermon recorded in chapter 3, then, is simply a brief snapshot of the witnessing that took place that afternoon.
I imagine that, once Peter completed his sermon, he and John (and perhaps some other believers who were present) began mingling with the crowd and engaging with them in dialogue. And “as they spoke to the people, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them.”
The phrase “came upon them” is a favourite term of Luke’s, and it often describes coming upon someone suddenly and with great hostility.
The “captain of the temple” was in charge of the temple guard, and was second in rank only to the high priest. The Romans allowed the temple police a degree of civil authority, and so they could arrest troublemakers.
The Sadducees, of course, were the religious liberals of the day. If the Pharisees are painted in the Gospels as the primary opponents of Jesus, the Sadducees are portrayed in Acts as the primary opponents of the apostles. The Sadducees accepted as inspired the Pentateuch, but denied the inspiration of the rest of Scripture. They denied the supernatural and the resurrection. Politically, they were well-connected. The group was wealthy and aristocratic. All the high priests of the day were Sadducees.
It is important to note—and we will see this throughout Acts—that the earliest opposition to the new covenant church came not from paganism (Rome) but from religion (Israel). It came from those religiously closest to Christianity. The strongest opponents of the early church were religious half-brothers.
The temple guard and the Sadducees were “greatly disturbed.” The word means “to be annoyed” or “stirred up.” And they were annoyed on at least three counts.
First, they were annoyed that the apostles “taught the people.” The apostles were unlearned men. They had not attended seminary, did not have official theological degrees. They were unlearned men. Most of them were fishermen, and included in their midst were a tax collector and a Zealot! They had no authority to teach people!
Second, they were riled that the apostles “preached . . . the resurrection from the dead.” The Sadducees denied the resurrection. Not only were the apostles teaching, but they had the guile to promote false teaching—according to the Sadducees.
Third, and perhaps worst of all, they taught and preached “in Jesus.” Jesus was, according to the religious leaders of the day, a false prophet. To be sure, He had gained tremendous popularity while He walked the earth, but ultimately He had proved to be a false messiah. They had taken care of Him by means of crucifixion. The last thing they wanted was for the name of Jesus to be promoted afresh among the general population—particularly if it meant that people would believe that He was actually alive!
And so, in great agitation, the temple guard “laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.” According to Jewish law, a night trial was illegal. Of course, that rule had not stopped the religious leaders from trying Jesus at night, but now they were more self-restrained. Nevertheless, something needed to be done to silence the apostles, and so they made their move.
Let us briefly consider some principles from this section before moving on.
First, let’s be sure that we can expect conflict from those who are threatened by the gospel. The Sadducees and the temple guard opposed the apostles because they were threatened by the good news that they preached. Jesus Christ was a threat to their position, and so their pride fuelled conflict.
Often, new converts eagerly share their faith with those closest to them—family, friends, etc.—and expect them to be thrilled. But that is not always the case. In fact, the new convert may find that those closest to him feel threatened by his faith, and are (to put it subtly) a little less-than-excited about the conversion. This can be particularly true if the convert was baptised as a baby or raised in some or other religious tradition. The family may well feel that he has rejected his heritage and thereby spurned the family.
Second, we can also expect conflict from those who are treacherous. Paul described such individuals as “savage wolves” (Acts 20:29) and “insubordinate” (Titus 1:10-11). Jude reserved strong words for them in Jude 4-15. The New Testament does not paint the Sadducees in a positive light. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. They had twisted the truth, and their treatment of the church throughout Acts clearly shows that they were self-absorbed.
There is similar conflict today from those who are treacherous toward the gospel. I think of a man like Brian McLaren, whose teaching is wildly popular today, but ultimately treacherous toward the gospel. I have read much of Brian McLaren’s words, and regardless of his popularity, he is a man who twists Scripture and ultimately denies the gospel. Not surprisingly, McLaren is constantly in conflict with those who preach the true gospel. He and his ilk are to be avoided!
As we can see from our text, the conflict was experienced in various ways, and we can expect varying manifestations of the conflict in our own day.
In v. 3, the conflict was manifested in incarceration. Many others in the New Testament experienced the same: John the Baptist, Paul and Silas, etc. Whilst most Christians in the contemporary West are unlikely to face incarceration for the sake of the gospel under present conditions, it is probably safe to say that, historically speaking, this is the exception. And whilst we enjoy a degree of liberty in our Western societies, we must understand that there are countries in our modern-day world where Christians most certainly face imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. This threat constantly hangs over the heads of Chinese Christians. I personally know an Ethiopian pastors who was imprisoned on at least three separate occasions for his commitment to the gospel.
Another form of conflict in this chapter is intimidation (vv. 5-6, 17, 21). The apostles were tried before the Sanhedrin, a council of religious leaders comprising some seventy men. They were the most learned theologians of the day. The trial in this chapter is rather reminiscent of Jesus’ own trial. Peter and John were set “in the midst” of this group. Historians tell us that, during this type of trial, the accused were set in the middle of the room and the council gathered around them in a semicircle. Clearly the intention was to intimidate the apostles.
A third form of conflict seen in this chapter is insult (vv. 7, 13). “By what power or by what name have you done this?” The question is tainted with derision. They considered Peter and John “untrained and uneducated.” And those who are faithful in gospel witness in our day know of the insult that is often hurled at the church by unbelievers.
Another form of conflict here is intrigue (vv. 14-18, 21-22). The healing of the man was proof positive of the authority of the apostles, but that would not stop the Sadducees. Instead, they resorted to intrigue. They conspired against them and masked their intrigue with a veneer of spirituality.
Satan is a conspirator, and we need to be alert to this fact. I am not speaking here of conspiracy theories like the faking of the moon landing or John F. Kennedy’s death. Satan is a wily, scheming character. He works behind the scenes to scheme and create conflict (see 1 Timothy 4:1-3). And his conspiracies should not surprise us! False religion, the emerging church, the homosexual onslaught, gender confusion, open persecution—none of these things should surprise us. Satan is actively at work to conspire against the church of Jesus Christ.
And so let us prepare for war. Let us be alert to the fact that faithfulness to the gospel will produce conflict in one form or another. And let’s be prepared to stand firm and face it, come what may.
The Expectation of Conversions
But lest the expectation of conflict overwhelm us, let us also note another gospel expectation: that of conversions. “However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (v. 4).
As a result of Peter and John’s bold witness—which doubtless fuelled the bold witness of other believers—the church soon grew to some give thousand men. Note that carefully: five thousand men. That excludes women and children. A conservative inclusion of women and children might leave us with a total membership of at least ten thousand people!
Tertullian once noted that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” No martyrs’ blood was shed in this encounter, but it was nevertheless the persecution of the apostles that resulted in the growth of the church at this point. There was grief as a result of gospel faithfulness, but the grief was tempered with great joy and growth.
We need to really expect conversions, and therefore work for conversions rather than being paralysed by conflict. Historically, the church has experienced wonderful growth—particularly during times of conflict. Sometimes the growth is more rapid than other times, but growth is nevertheless always a reality. We live in a day and age in which large segments of the church view the Great Commission with a degree of pessimism. They believe that Jesus Christ will ultimately win, but probably only at His physical return. Acts encourages us that the power of the Spirit is available for the salvation of souls even without Christ’s physical presence. In fact, the apostles experienced far more conversions from their ministry than Jesus ever did during His!
In the midst of the conflict that we are sure to face from enemies of the gospel, we must not allow ourselves to be sidetracked. Instead, we must trust God for growth. The gates of hell will not prevail against His church.
The Expectation of the World
But what does the world expect of the church? The expectation of the world can be found scattered throughout vv. 15-22.
But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, “What shall we do to these men? For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name.” So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way of punishing them, because of the people, since they all glorified God for what had been done. For the man was over forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed.
In a word, the world expects compliance. It expects the church to compromise. The world wishes to control the church, and this is the reason for the conflict. But the world can only control the church to the degree that the church compromises the gospel.
Paul was a great example of commitment to the gospel despite the pressure to compromise. At one point, in order to have a more effective gospel ministry, he urged his disciple Timothy to be circumcised. But later, when the Judaisers demanded the same for Titus, Paul refused. He understood that the Judaisers would see his compliance as compromise. To force Titus to undergo circumcision would be to cave to the Judaistic insistence that circumcision was necessary for salvation. That was not at issue when Timothy was circumcised, but it was when the demand for Titus to be circumcised was set forth. But the apostle—like Peter and John and the rest of the Twelve here—would not compromise the gospel.
Remember once again that this demand for compliance came from Israel’s religious leaders. They had been entrusted with the spiritual leadership of Israel, and yet they were demanding that the apostle disobey God!
We must contend for the faith (vv. 3-4)! Of course, we must contend without being contentious (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-26). This means that our contending must only be over the essentials. We contend for the gospel, not for every minute theological nuance. Doctrine is certainly important, but it is the gospel in particular on which we must stand firm.
I’m not quite sure of the reason for this, but in our area there has been a noticeable increase in activity by Jehovah’s Witnesses in recent months. Recently, a group of them came to the gate of the church office. At first, I didn’t want to be bothered with them, but then I was convicted that, since I have the truth and they do not, I should really engage them in some conversation with a view to sharing the true gospel with them. (Unfortunately, but the time I got outside to the gate they had already moved on.)
Those who propagate untruth ought to stop what they are teaching, but we who have the true gospel must never cave to the expectation of the world to cease our proclamation.
The Expectations of God
The apostles did not cave to the pressure laid on them by the Sadducees to quit. And the reason they did not do that is because they understood what God expected.
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be 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 this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” . . . But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
(Acts 4:8-12, 19-20)
The Expectation of Courage
The first thing that God expected from the apostles was courage. And this courage needed to be born of conviction. Their courage was to be an in-your-face courage, because they had the truth whilst their opponents had only lies.
Peter addressed the Sanhedrin with what was perhaps a hint of sarcasm: “If we this day are judged for a good deed.” Were they really being put on trial for doing good? But he also answered their question: “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” They had asked about the apostles’ source of authority, and Peter clearly set it forth.
But then came the real ouch moment: “whom you crucified.” Peter was not denying that Jesus was crucified for his sins. He was simply putting the human, political responsibility where it belonged. The religious leaders had rejected Israel’s Messiah and had seen to it that He was put to death. They needed to answer for their actions. You can imagine the great boldness that it took for Peter to point his finger at seventy of the most educated theologians of his day and accuse them of crucifying Messiah. But he did it out of allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The world today needs to see similar courage from the church. On every front, we face conflict from those who do not believe our message and who want to silence us and force us to comply. Compromise on behalf of the church is of no real help to them. God expects us to courageously declare the true gospel if we will be of any help to a world bound by sin.
Of course, if we will manifest a humble, Christ-centred courage—and this is what God expects!—we cannot take rejection personally. If we are faithful with the gospel message we will most certainly face rejection. But ultimately those who reject the gospel message reject Christ, not us. We need the courage to proclaim the offence of the cross.
The Expectation of Certainty
Peter boldly proclaimed the gospel with great certainty.
This is the “stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.” Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
He left no room for doubt. Jesus Christ was the only means by which people could find favour with God and forgiveness of sins.
Peter was certain, in the first place, about Scripture. He quotes in v. 11 from Psalm 118:22. An ancient text was his authority, and he was absolutely certain of its truth.
Contrast Peter’s certainty with, say, Brian McLaren’s uncertainty, who wrote,
Ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture . . . I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more sprints before is unseen and unimagined.1
In other words, as Christians—according to McLaren—we cannot claim to have the absolute truth. In a 2004 article in Christianity Today entitled “The Emergent Mystique,” McLaren wrote, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be ‘saved’? . . . I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy.”
Again, McLaren wrote, “I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.”2
Contrast these comments with the preaching of Peter, who considered Jesus “the chief cornerstone,” and who was certain that “there [is] salvation in [no] other.” There is nothing ambiguous about Peter’s teaching! He spoke the truth to the very religious leaders who rejected the things that he preached. They didn’t believe the resurrection, but Peter was not fazed. He proclaimed the resurrection anyway!
We must be certain where God is clear. (And God is quite clear in most of Scripture!) When it comes to gender issues, to biblical sexuality, to issues of salvation and ecclesiology, we must stand firm on the clearly revealed Word of God, despite the Sadducees of our day who demand compromise.
But, second, Peter was equally certain about salvation and about the Saviour. He quite clearly proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. Contrast this with the message of contemporary Sadducees:
Many Hindus are willing to consider Jesus as a legitimate manifestation of the divine. . . . Many Buddhists see Jesus as one of humanity’s most enlightened people. . . . A shared reappraisal of Jesus’ message could provide a unique space or common ground for urgently needed religious dialogue—and it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that the future of our planet may depend on such dialogue. This reappraisal of Jesus’ message may be the only project capable of saving a number of religions.3
Peter could not make his conviction any clearer. Scripturally, Jesus Christ—as He is revealed in the New Testament Scriptures—is the only means of salvation. Only those who are dishonest dispute this. God expects that His people will not equivocate on His Son! This means that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong when they consider Jesus a son of God but not the Son of God. And we need to be bold enough to tell them this when we engage them in conversation! They are not Christian, regardless of their claims! We must be certain and uncompromising where God is clear.
The Expectation of Civility
Throughout this encounter, whilst Peter and John were straightforward, but they were also respectful. They did not resist arrest. They answered the Sanhedrin’s questions without insult. They appear to have avoided a condemning attitude, even though they strongly disagreed with the religious leaders.
Even as we boldly stand for the truth of the gospel, God expects us to guard our lips (Proverbs 13:3) and our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) so as not to bring reproach upon Christ and His gospel.
The Expectation of Christ-Centredness
Finally, God expects us to be Christ-centred. Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he answered the Sadducees (v. 8). This phrase indicates a sudden, special, purposeful filling with the Spirit. Peter was self-controlled because he was Spirit-controlled.
To be Spirit-filled is to be so consumed with Christ that you are controlled by Him. It is to allow Christ’s Word to dwell in your richly. When we are committed to living a Christ-centred life we can certainly expect conflict, but we can also expect the God-given ability to handle it. Our war is not against flesh and blood. We are engaged in spiritual warfare, and we cannot fight in the flesh. We need the special power of the Holy Spirit to overcome in the conflict we are certain to face.
Let us be certain to live with gospel expectations, and may God be pleased with our gospel responses.
- Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 296. ↩
- McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 260. ↩
- McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Nashville: Thomas Nelson’s W Publishing Group, 2006), 4. ↩