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Acts 4

Scripture: Acts 4:1-31

Highlights:

  • After Peter heals the beggar, the priests are annoyed that the apostles are preaching something they don’t believe in (see below for more)
  • When asked “by what name” the apostles did this miraculous act, Peter tells them “We did this in Jesus name (yeah, that Jesus, the guy you killed two months ago).” (paraphrase)
  • Peter also tells them that Jesus is the messiah (see below for more), and that Jesus saves
  • The Jewish leaders are flustered and the best they can come up with is, “Stop it, or… or else.” (paraphrase)
  • Peter says, “Yeah right. We’re going to go on talking about what we’ve seen God do.” (mega paraphrase)
  • The apostles go back and apply Psalm 2 to their situation, and ask God for boldness.
  • The apostles get filled up on some Holy Spirit and keep doing their thang.

Historical Context:

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were one of four major religious sects in first century Judaism (the others being the Zealots, Pharisees and Essenes). They were aristocratic monarchists (vs. the Pharisees who were eclectic, popular, and more democratic), and they generally ran the temple. No one’s exactly sure where they came from, and there are several theories. I prefer the theory that “they were named after Zadok, a disciple of Antigonus of Socho. Antigonus taught Boethus and Zadok; his teaching stressed that they should serve God with no thought of reward; because of this… they concluded that he did not believe in resurrection or life after death. Boethus formed the Boethusians, who may have been the Herodians of the New Testament… The other disciple, Zadok, would have been one of the early leaders in the party that took his name.”

Politically, they regulated domestic affairs (running the Sanhedrin–the high court of its day, collecting taxes, mediating disputes), and foreign affairs (equipping the army, maintaining the relationship with Rome).

Theologically, the Sadducees believed in the Torah alone (the first five books of the Old Testament), which was in contrast to the Pharisees who believed in the Oral Law as well. As a result of only holding to the Torah, the Sadducees didn’t believe in promises of the resurrection of the dead* since this doctrine emerged from later books like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.  In addition, they believed there is no fate,  God does not commit evil, man has free will, the soul is not immortal (i.e. no afterlife), and there are no rewards or penalties after death.

The Resurrection of the Dead

The apostles preaching “the resurrection of the dead” wasn’t just preaching that Jesus had come back to life. In fact, Jesus wasn’t the first person declared to have come back to life. During his own ministry, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8), and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7). In the Old Testament, Elijah raised the son of the Zarephath widow from the dead (1 Kings 17), Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman from the dead (2 Kings 4), and a man was raised from the dead when his body touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21). The “resurrection of the dead” referred to the raising of the body into an immortal state. This type of resurrection would mark the coming of God’s ultimate judgment, Israel’s ultimate victory and the renewal of the world (i.e. a return to Eden).

This teaching about resurrection wasn’t just a belief that the soul was immortal, or that there was an afterlife, or that people would be “spiritually renewed”. It was that God would reanimate the human body with his spirit (vs. just a soul). Note the stories of Jesus after his resurrection show how he has physical presence (he eats with his disciples, they touch his wounds), but a supernatural one as well (he “appeared” in the upper room, despite the doors being locked). When the apostles were talking about the resurrection of the dead they weren’t saying that heaven would be a final destination for dead peoples’ souls, rather they were preaching a belief that heaven was about to come to earth. Ultimately, mankind wouldn’t go away to live with God, instead God would come live with man, permanently.  This mirrored Jesus’ preaching that the kingdom of heaven (i.e. God’s reign) was at hand.

The Stone the Builders Rejected

Peter is quoting Psalm 118 when he says that Jesus was the stone the builders rejected.  There is an old rabbinic tale about the building of the first temple in which the stones were crafted far away from the temple site and shipped over, one at a time. One of the first stones to arrive was the capstone (you know, that stone that goes at the pinnacle of the arch and holds it all together), but the builders didn’t know what it was for, so they put it aside. Years later when the temple was ready to be completed they realized the stone they had initially rejected was the very piece they needed for it to be complete (read a more articulate account of the story here).  Peter was also reusing the same scripture Jesus had previously used to foretell his unfriendly reception and ultimate death at the hands of his own people (read the parable of the tenets: Luke 20). There is some likelihood that many of the”chief priests and teachers of the law” who heard Jesus’ original application of Psalm 118 were in the Sanhedrin audience when Peter retold it. So, not only was it a reminder that the messiah would be overlooked initially but ultimately exalted, but also that Jesus had already told them who he was.

Why Do the Nations Rage?

During their prayer, Peter quotes Psalm 2:1, a passage understood as foretelling the Messiah’s suffering. The Psalm makes reference to a united, rebellious, conspiring, yet ultimately futile hostility against the Lord’s “Anointed One” by the “nations” and “peoples,” “kings” and “rulers.” The believers apply this to Jesus’ suffering at the hands of a king, Herod (Luke 13); a ruler, Pilate; the Romans (the nations); and the people of Israel. Coffman observes, “The implication, although not stated so bluntly, is that the Jewish religious leaders in the Sanhedrin were representatives of other rulers and of the children of Israel.” This is a radical interpretation that shifts the opponents of the Messiah not just those residing outside Israel (i.e. Gentiles), but within Israel as well, which sets the stage for the church to redefine “God’s people” as children of faith in his Son, not simply blood relatives of Abraham.

Observations:

  • “By what power and what name?” is a question derived from Deuteronomy 13:1-8 in which it is outlined that a prophet performing signs (not just fake ones, but really spectacular stuff) but who advocate following another god must be killed. A false prophet who could genuinely performs miraculous signs was considered a test from God.  Note also that the Jewish leaders also asked Jesus the same question, and though Jesus simply gave them the runaround, he did follow up with a parable, then use Psalm 118 to redefine himself, just as Peter would do in Acts 4.
  • What was it that made Jesus’ resurrection so notable and so emboldened his followers? Peter and John are facing the same group of men who condemned Jesus to death less than two months ago. It wasn’t that he was simply “no longer dead,” it was that he had been transformed into a new creation. His body would not die again. Wounds that were fatal before were no longer a problem. Something other than reanimation had happened here–it was recreation, which signaled the World to Come was in the process of coming. Death, the curse administered to Adam and Eve as a banishment from God’s presence, had been eliminated by a “new Adam.”
  • If ever there was a time to disprove Jesus’ resurrection, this was it. The highest court of the land (the Sanhedrin) who had handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion just weeks ago was now being openly defied by his followers. Not only did they not believe in Jesus’ claims, they also refused to believe that this type of resurrection was possible or even “biblical” (i.e. not in the Torah). Jesus resurrection could’ve been the easiest controversy to squash, and they had the power to do it. So why didn’t they? Why such a helpless response on their part? Why did they just tell them to be quiet? In the next chapter, they get more aggressive with their discipline, but their response is still essentially, “Let’s hope this thing goes away.”

Discussion:

  • Why were Peter and John so unafraid? These leaders were the same ones who condemned Jesus to death not more than two months ago. What made them so bold now?
  • What was it about Peter and John’s presence and presentation that indicated that they were “unschooled” and “ordinary”? What does this say about how God prefers to operate? What does this say about our current “evangelistic strategies” and theological educations?
  • How do we see Jesus’ resurrection? Is our understanding of its importance different than what the apostles thought? Does it still have the same ability to motivate us?
  • What does salvation mean in this context? Is it about more than just saying you’re sorry for sinning?

Resources:

*Interesting side note: Jesus used the Torah to prove to the Sadducees that they could still believe in the resurrection of the dead. Read his smack down in Mark 12:26-27

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • Paul uses his personal testimony often in his preaching. Peter, who would have a nice story of redemption to tell as well (i.e. he denied Jesus/was forgiven by Jesus), doesn’t use his personal testimony. What is the template for telling others about Jesus? How important is it to “share your story”?
  • When Peter says “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” he’s answering the question (“by what power or what name?”) with both the name and the power it carries. He’s saying Jesus is God, and that his side is the only winning side in this fight. Following anyone else is what the Sanhedrin had implied the apostles were doing–leading people towards false gods. Peter turned their accusation back on them.
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