As I write these words, we are in the midst of a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 threat. Resurrection Sunday was very different, not because it is different from any other Sunday (every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection) but because the majority of Christians, both in South Africa and internationally, were unable to gather with one another to celebrate that Jesus is alive. He has risen indeed, but we were unable to say it together. But, as someone reminded me recently, though churches were empty, so is Jesus’ tomb.
Though isolation during Easter is unusual, I am persuaded that this Easter was potentially a remarkable one, which we will remember for a long time to come. This is not only because we “gathered” via livestream from our own homes, either alone or with family. Rather this Easter was potentially memorable because, more than perhaps more traditional Easters, there was opportunity to experience the reality of the resurrection in a profoundly personal way. That was my prayer for my church.
We are not the only generation which has faced the Lord’s Day confronted by a challenge. In the text before us, we read of the first new covenant church and their response to serious difficulties. At the centre of their challenge was the risen Christ, just as it must be for us.
The key verse in this passage is v. 33: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” This a somewhat self-explanatory statement. There is not a great deal of difficulty in exegeting these words. Simply, the apostles delivered their testimony that Jesus was alive. And they did so with great force, persuasiveness, and effectiveness.
Witnesses Before Who?
Until quite recently, I always read v. 33 as a statement concerning the ministry of the apostles in the temple and in the Jerusalem community. I thought of this verse as speaking of the apostles on mission, preaching the gospel, powerfully and persuasively testifying to unbelievers that Jesus is alive, with people responding in faith.
But as you read these verses in context, including verses before and after this statement, it becomes clear that the apostles were also powerfully giving witness before the church. After all, it is contextually the church, and not the unbelieving world, that responded to the message of the resurrection with great grace and graciousness (vv. 33bff).
This has many lessons for us on this. There are two simple questions we will ask and answer from this text: (1) Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? and (2) how can you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? May God help us to experience the answers, for the testimony of the apostles is one to remember.
The new covenant church had been established. Jesus had been crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead. After his resurrection, “He presented himself alive to [the apostles] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). After commanding them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit (who would empower them to take this message to the world), he then ascended to the right hand of the Father (1:4–11). Jesus, ascending to the Ancient of Days on the prophesied cloud, received his kingdom and the new age began (Matthew 26:64; cf. Luke 21:27 with Daniel 7:13–14; Revelation 1:7).
In Acts 2, the promised Holy Spirit descended, the gospel was preached, and people were convicted, repented and called on the name of the Lord. These believers in Christ were baptised into his body (1 Corinthians 12:13), then baptised in water, and three thousand converts became the first members of the new covenant church. There was great devotion to Christ and to one another. Their impact upon Jerusalem was significant (2:14–47).
In chapter three, the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of Peter and John, healed a man who had been lame from birth (3:1–10). This led to an amazed large crowd to whom the apostles preached the gospel. They proclaimed that the crucified Son of God—whom they had crucified—had risen from the dead. As witnesses of the risen Lord (v. 15), they appealed to the crowd to repent and to believe on him (vv. 16–26).
While doing so, the same religious leaders who had recently crucified Jesus came on the scene. We are told that they were “greatly annoyed because [Peter and John] were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (4:1–2). This was precisely the message they did not want to get out (Matthew 28:11–15). They therefore arrested them (4:3). But it was too late, for “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand” (4:4).
Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin, including the high priest Annas and Caiaphas. These were, again, the same men who had unjustly condemned Jesus to death. They demanded an explanation, which Peter gladly provided (4:5–12). His explanation, though irrefutable, was not irresistible. The Sanhedrin, refusing to be persuaded by the facts, “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:13–18).
Peter and John, however, had received another charge, from a much higher authority: the one who has all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18–20). The risen Lord, whom these enemies of the gospel were rejecting, had told them to preach this gospel in Jerusalem. They were obeying him. And they told these men so (4:19–20).
The religious authorities threatened them and reluctantly sent them on their way (4:21–22). They headed straight for “their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” I think they were a bit unsettled. But soon the place where they were gathered would become unsettled as these believers prayed to the sovereign Lord and he responded with an encouraging sign. With boldness, they “continued to speak the word of God” (4:23–31). Presumably, they continued to speak the word of God, this gospel message, to the assembled crowds at the temple (5:12–42).
In what immediately follows, the scene shifts to a summary of what was happening with the church corporate (4:32–37). If the previous part of the chapter described the experience of two of the apostles and a small group within the church, the chapter closes with an account of the experience of the body corporate, the wider congregation of the church at Jerusalem. It is both exciting and educational. May it be emulated.
We are informed both unity and empathy characterized this congregation for they “were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (v. 32).
This was not an embryonic form of communism as many suggest, rather, it was a gospel-driven Christian communion. They were displaying what it means to be in fellowship with one another.
The word fellowship means to share in common or to be in partnership. The word “common” in our text is in fact the root for “fellowship.” These people had Jesus Christ “in common.” They held the gospel “in common.” They held the apostles’ doctrine “in common.” They shared the Lord’s Supper “in common.” They prayed “in common.” They rejoiced in the Lord “in common.” It was therefore a small thing for them to hold their material goods “in common,” which may be easier said than done.
Have you ever read this passage and asked yourself, “Why don’t we see more of this kind of love and joy and sacrificial care in the church?” I have, and I still do.
It seems like so many of us who call ourselves Christians are self-absorbed. We build walls, not only around our lives but also around our possessions. But as we read the accounts of the early church (Acts 2; 4; 11; 2 Corinthians 8–9; Philippians; etc.) we get the distinct impression that they were different. What explains, for instance, the Macedonian believers who gave out of their deep poverty (2 Corinthians 8:1–5)? What explains the church in Syrian Antioch giving sacrificially in the midst of their own financial trial to help the church in Jerusalem? What explains the church at Philippi sacrificially caring for Paul? Perhaps there are several interrelated factors, but surely the greatest influence was their conviction that Jesus Christ had risen and was very much alive! This is clearly what we see in this passage before us.
Resurrection at the Centre
When we are told that, “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” it is right in the middle of a passage speaking of the behaviour of the local church. We are told, in association with this, that “great grace was upon them all.” Who was this? That is, upon whom was this grace so great? The immediate context, both before and after v. 32, makes it clear that Luke is speaking about the church. In other words, this reference to the apostle’s testimony concerning the risen Lord is not a statement about their evangelistic ministry in the community, or even at the temple courtyard, but about the powerful testimony of the risen Lord to their church.
It is for this reason—because of this conviction that Jesus Christ is risen—that they behaved in such a selfless, sacrificial, and truly spiritual way.
The Apostles’ Doctrine
When we read in Acts 2:42 that the church in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostle’s doctrine,” this means more than what it merely means to many today. That is, these Christians weren’t simply loading up on Bible studies so they could argue a point. Their devotion to doctrine was not primarily polemical. Their devotion to doctrine was not merely to accumulate facts. Rather, their devotion to the apostles’ doctrine was out of a desire to be devoted to the apostles’ Lord.
Yes, I understand that these need not be mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t be. But as I have often thought and taught before, their learning from the apostles was intimate; they wanted to learn all they could about the Jesus with whom they had spent three and half years before his death and resurrection and with whom they had been for forty days after his resurrection. They wanted to learn all they could about their Lord and Saviour. In the words of the later apostle Paul, when it came to knowing the apostles’ doctrine, they wanted to “know him and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).
This is precisely what was happening here in Acts 4. And it is precisely what needs to happen today. As we have seen, the context of this passage is one of conflict (with much more to come!). For the church to strive and thrive in those days, it needed the expositional and experiential knowledge that Jesus Christ was alive. The apostles’ testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus was the means to equip the church for supernatural living. It still is.
For us to more fully appreciate this statement and its practical and powerful impact, we should define some terms.
First, they gave their testimony “with great power.” The word translated “power” is usually used in the context of miraculous, supernatural power (Matthew 11:20; Acts 1:8; Romans 1:16). The apostles testified, with great force, effectiveness, and ability—with the Spirit’s power (1:8)—concerning Jesus’ resurrection. We might put it this way: they were spiritually persuasive.
With great power, they were “giving their testimony.” Simply put, they were telling what they knew to be true. The word “martyr” is derived from the word translated “testimony.” They “staked their life on it.”
When we gather as a church, the service leader regularly says, “He is risen,” and the church responds, “He is risen indeed.” This affirmation has a long track record in church history. And it is important, but this is the message that the church gathers to proclaim.
Can we with “great power” give “testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”? That is, are we able to give testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus? Do we believe in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus? Are we believable about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus?
Do we believe in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus? I don’t mean intellectually, or as a part of our statement of faith. I mean, do we, in how the Puritans put it, experientially believe that Jesus Christ is risen? The way to answer that question is to ask another one, what difference does it make in how we live? Really? Practically? Does the testimony of our life give credence to our profession of faith?
I am not trying to guilt people with this question. I am actually seeking to properly goad us to fuller Christian living. If we believe in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ then, like the disciples, it will show in our behaviour, boldness, bending the knee and belonging. We might say, is our professed belief in the resurrection of Jesus believable? The disciples’ belief was believable, and they helped their local church to believe and to be believable. May it be so with you and me.
Those legally and morally responsible for the murder of Jesus were deeply concerned about his oft repeated claim that he would rise from the dead three days later. Though they didn’t believe his claims, they were fearful that his disciples would make a plan to raid his tomb and take his body with a view to disseminating the belief that he had risen. Their concern was paranoia for, in the light of the disciples’ behaviour at his arrest, trial and crucifixion, it is clear they had abandoned ship. None of them was bold enough to attempt an exhumation.
When the women came and told the disciples that he was risen, they were very doubtful. It should be noted that, had they believed he would rise from the dead, they would have been early at the tomb themselves. Instead, they were in hiding to avoid further conflict.
When Jesus appeared to them in the upper room, they didn’t initially believe. Only when Jesus ate with them were their eyes opened (Luke 24:30–31). Even after this, when Jesus appeared to them in Galilee, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:16). It’s clear, from both the pre- and post-resurrection accounts in the Gospels, that the disciples were not initially believers in the resurrection. Only later did they believe. And their belief was manifested in how they behaved.
It is a biblical axiom that belief affects behaviour. Belief is a strong determination of behaviour. And nowhere perhaps is this seen more clearly than when it comes to the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. Consider how their behaviour changed.
From fearfully gathering, the resurrection moved them to gathering in anticipation. In John 20:19 they hunkered behind locked doors. In Acts 1:4–15, they gathered—still in Jerusalem—with great anticipation of what he would do.
From hesitant and inconsistent obedience, they were now characterised by faithful obedience (see Acts 1:9–26).
Peter shows a remarkable change as he assumes leadership of the group, having previously been on the verge of defection (see John 21 with Acts 1:15ff).
We can conclude that, having been persuaded by the Lord’s many infallible proofs, the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive and the evidence was in their hopefulness (cf. 1 Peter 1:3, 13, 21; 3:15).
How hopeful are we? Especially in these days of lockdown and the uncertainty it invites? Media and social media are exhaustingly hopeless. We must be careful. We who profess to believe in the resurrected Christ cannot allow ourselves to give into hopelessness.
What is remarkably clear in the change of behaviour of the disciples is their boldness. As we have seen, they moved from cowering to boldly declaring truth. We see this on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
Peter boldly told a multitude of his fellow Jews that they were guilty of killing God’s Messiah. He boldly asserted that Messiah had risen from the dead. He boldly asserted the lordship of Jesus Christ. He boldly asserted the need for his people to repent. He, and I assume the other apostles, boldly baptised three thousand converts. Have you ever considered the danger they were inviting with this obedience?
We see this again in 3:11–16. Peter and John once again boldly charged the “men of Israel” with the murder of the Author of life, followed by their bold declaration that “God” had “raised him from the dead” (vv. 11–15). They then fearlessly and boldly proclaimed that this same risen Jesus had healed the formerly paralysed man.
In 3:17–26 they continued to expound the Old Testament words that point to Jesus Christ as God’s Saviour. Think about this. They were boldly assuming the role of God’s faithful shepherds taking the place of the unfaithful rulers of Israel. They even had the bold audacity to call these wayward shepherds to repentance from their wickedness. Small wonder that the Jewish leaders were so angry (4:1–12)!
It’s interesting that, when the enemies of Jesus and his church noted “the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognised that they had been with Jesus” (4:13). This statement indicates their surprise at the change of their behaviour. They knew how these men had behaved beforeand immediately after the crucifixion but now they saw a boldness they had not seen before. Something had made a difference. What was it? The answer is that the disciples knew factually and experientially that Jesus was risen!
Later, in chapter 4, as we have seen, these same apostles were threatened and, rather than caving to the fear of man, they boldly professed their loyalty to their God and Saviour (4:13–22). Twice in the verses that follow we have further record of their boldness in proclaiming the risen Lord (vv. 31, 33).
If we truly believe that Jesus is risen, we will be marked by a holy boldness. It will not be brashness but a godly boldness. A young man in our church—head boy of his school—recently released a video on his school’s social media channels encouraging fellow students and their parents in the face of the current lockdown. He boldly asserted his allegiance to Christ and his word in his message. It was a blessing to behold.
I recently read the account of Costi Hinn’s conversion. Costi is the nephew of Benny Hinn and heir apparent to his uncle’s legacy and ministry. But God grasped him by his grace and today he boldly speaks out against the abuses of the prosperity gospel in which he was captivated for so long.
There is one more evidence of their experiential assurance of the resurrection, and this is found in vv. 23–30. They prayed believingly.
When Peter and John were released, they made a beeline for some believing friends. They shared their recent adventure and then prayed together. They did so praying Psalm 2, making the biblical connection with the Lord Jesus.
The point we glean from this, for our purposes, is that their persuasion of the resurrection made the Bible all the more relevant to them. In fact, it made it all the more believable to them. And this strengthened faith drove them to their knees—and then to their feet! As it should you and me.
The fact that Jesus has risen empowers us with a new conviction concerning the truth of God’s word. It empowers us to believe what otherwise seems impossible (see Acts 26:6ff). What promise from God are you having a hard time believing? Consider God’s promise of the resurrection of his Son and your faith will increase.
As we grow in our conviction that Jesus is risen, so our prayer life will be strengthened. After all, we are praying to and through the living God—the Author of life (3:15), as Peter and John put it. As we face these very trying times, what will keep us praying, and doing so with real hope is the experiential awareness that Jesus Christ is risen. Indeed! Pray for the growth of the church in these days. Pray for conversions. Pray for an end to this pandemic. Pray for daily bread. Pray!
So, do we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? If so, it will show in our behaviour, our boldness, and our bended knees. And we will be believable to the degree that we believe. We will have a testimony that is powerful in the sense that it is believable.
How Can We Believe?
The apostle spent forty days with Jesus post resurrection. That would have provided them with a certain assurance that Jesus Christ was risen. A hallucination that lasts for an hour is one thing. Forty days of experience is another thing.
John appeals to the testimony of having handled the flesh of Jesus (1 John 1:1–2). All the apostles confirmed by experience that they had seen Jesus after his resurrection until he was taken up from them (Acts 1:21–22).
But as important as this was, it’s clear from what transpired in the book of Acts that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is what gave them continued certainty that Jesus Christ has risen (see Acts 1:4–5).
The significance of Pentecost was the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit of God would come and the new covenant age be inaugurated with the formation of the new covenant church. But, of course, this was inseparable from the good news concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Messiah. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, no one would believe the gospel for no one would believe that Jesus had risen (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Yes, the apostles had plenty of evidence that Jesus was alive (why else would they obey him in Acts 1?) before the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, but his coming did something radical to their belief: He empowered them to continually believe that Jesus is alive. This is exactly as Jesus had told them in his extended discourse in John 14–16.
One might argue the exceptionality of the apostles and wonder, how do we come to believe that Jesus has risen? Well, like them, we need the convincing ministry of the Holy Spirit. But this occurs concurrently with the message of the apostles.
Again, it was by devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42) and by the influence of their powerful testimony (4:33) that the early church believed. The same is true for you and me. We need continual exposure to the apostles’ doctrine and testimony, recorded in Scripture, that Jesus is alive. A huge means to this is exposure to effective, convincing exposition of the word of God. We need to gather and hear the gospel. We need to remember what Paul calls “the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
How we look forward to gathering again! Perhaps we will appreciate this privilege all the more.
But a fair question to be addressed is this: What evidence is there that this local church believed in the resurrection? That is, how do we know that the ministry of the apostles, testifying of Jesus’ resurrection, was effective? Verses 33b–37 reveal the final evidence that one truly believes in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It needs to be noted that, immediately after commending the powerful testimony of the apostles, we are told that “great grace was upon them all.”
From what follows, as well as the antecedent, the “all” is not the apostles but the congregation of which the apostles were a part. This statement speaks of divine enablement, divine empowerment as in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It’s clear that that the reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus strengthened the early church. And in this context, it did so amidst trials. It also prepared them for trials (see chapters 5ff). It brought them closer together. It united them. It gave them a sense of belonging and therefore a willingness to let go of their belongings. This so relevant and so helpful for us in these days.
Our trial is not the same as the one they faced. But it is a trial that is testing our faith. We are faced with the physical trial concerning a pandemic. Will we get sick? And if we do, will we die from it?
These are serious questions and very real concerns. But by remembering the testimony that Jesus is alive—by remembering the gospel of God—we are empowered to live with confidence and joy despite that challenge.
We face serious economic and financial challenges. Some in our church face unemployment: an April without a paycheque or one that is greatly reduced. Some are faced with the concern about making their rent or their house payment. These are very serious and very real concerns. May I encourage you to remember that Jesus is alive? He is with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. Your biggest problem has been solved. May the gospel of the grace of God empower you with the grace of God.
But the passage does not end with an undefined, feel-good statement that God’s grace was with them. Rather, in what follows, we see evidence of this grace: They sacrificed their goods for the good of others. We are informed about something extraordinary: “There was not a needy person among them.” This was not because of a government bailout but because of a congregation where Jesus Christ was so real to them that they were not enslaved to their possessions.
When you experience the presence of the one who has all authority in heaven and earth, who is the creator and sustainer of all, is experientially present, you don’t worry about stockpiling. Instead, you are enabled to part with what he has given to you. The Antioch church displayed the same grace in Acts 11:26–30 and 2 Corinthians 8–9 shows the same expectation for all churches everywhere.
Jesus, when taunted by four different groups of people to save himself by coming down from the cross, refused. He could not save himself and others. His sacrifice was necessary for the welfare of others. But he did not die as a mere martyr. No, he knew that if he died, he would rise again. The promise of the Father that he would bring him back from the dead in return for his obedience to death empowered Jesus’ selfless sacrifice. The reality of the resurrection empowered Jesus to give his life as a ransom to deliver sinners, to meet their need. Remember that Jesus never spoke of his death apart from his resurrection. It was a package deal.
Knowing he was in the hands of the Author of life’ Jesus gave himself unreservedly to him, on behalf of others. Brothers and sisters, God has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to put this into practice. Rather than saving ourselves we can save others in their hour of need. Knowing that Jesus is risen provides us with the grace we need to be gracious.
We will no doubt be called upon in the months ahead to put this into practice. Imagine all the good that can come from living like Jesus is alive! Though everything has changed, the main thing has not changed. We still need 20/20 vision for 2020 concerning our mission. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need the vision of our risen Saviour.
Whatever else happens this year, I and my fellow elders aim to remind the church that Jesus Christ is alive. We desire to powerfully bear testimony to this truth. My prayer is that it will result in great grace among us all.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus has risen. Therefore, grace and graciousness to you.