Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 4:1-12

The Jerusalem Ministry of Peter and John
Acts 3:1-4:22, continued

Sadducees vs. apostles (4:1-2)

Luke now begins to develop an important theme of Acts: the reason for and extent of the Jewish opposition to the gospel message. He tells how the apostles and evangelists who preached about Christ came into conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, first in Jerusalem and then in other major cities of the Roman Empire. As chapter 4 begins, a group of priests and Sadducees enter the scene and interrupt Peter’s speech. (John is mentioned six times in this chapter as participating in the events, but Luke doesn’t record a word of what John said.)

The religious leaders are accompanied by “the captain of the temple guard,” and probably some of his policemen (4:1). The captain and his officers (who were Levites) patrolled the temple grounds and kept order in the temple precincts. For example, they would make sure that no Gentile entered the parts of the temple forbidden to Gentiles. They guarded the temple gates and treasures. The captain, a priest, was an influential person and was next in rank to the high priest. [Josephus, Wars 2:409-10; 6:294.]

The Sadducees, one of the sects or divisions of Judaism, are mentioned three times in Acts (4:1; 5:17; 23:6-8). Most of the high priestly families belonged to this religious party. Every high priest from the reign of Herod until the war of A.D. 66-70 were Sadducees. The high priests held their position by the permission of the Roman government, and they benefited from the status quo. Hence they collaborated with the Roman authorities, and were opposed to any religious or national movement that might threaten their position (John 11:47-48). They were descended from the Hasmoneans [The Hasmoneans were Jewish priest-kings who successfully rebelled against the Seleucid Empire and ruled an independent Jewish kingdom 140-63 b.c.] , and looked back to them as the family who inaugurated the Messianic Age. [Jubilees 23:23-30; 31:9-20; 1 Maccabees 14:4-1541.]

The Sadducees claimed to be guardians of orthodoxy and they opposed innovative teachings. They refused to speculate about angels or demons, and refused to accept the doctrine of the resurrection (Mark 12:18Luke 20:27Acts 23:8). Josephus gives us important details about how this sect’s theology differed from that of the Pharisees. [Josephus, Wars 2:119, 164-166; Antiquities 13:171-173, 297-298; 18:11, 16-17. There is no surviving evidence from the Sadducees themselves about their beliefs; they were apparently all killed in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70.]

Apostles imprisoned

Given the position and beliefs of the Sadducees, it’s easy to understand why they opposed Jesus and brought about his death. They wrongly perceived him as a revolutionary who would bring reprisals from Rome on the religious leaders and the nation (John 11:48). Not only that, Jesus seemed to be encouraging a fundamental change in the function of the temple (Luke 19:45-48John 4:2123). The Sadducees thought they had gotten rid of Jesus by having him crucified. But here were his followers — the apostles — teaching about Jesus and the resurrection of the dead (4:2). It’s no wonder the Sadducees are exasperated.

For one thing, the apostles are “teaching the people.” The Sadducees thought that teaching should be done only by people who were specially trained and authorized. In their eyes, the apostles are teaching a heresy (the resurrection). To make matters worse, Peter and John are encouraging people to become followers of Jesus, whom the leaders had only recently succeeded in getting out of the way.

To put a stop to this situation, the Sadducees order the temple police to seize Peter and John. The Roman government allowed the Jews limited jurisdiction over temple matters, and this included imprisoning and punishing people who violate its regulations. Because it was late in the day (4:3), the fate of the apostles could not be immediately decided, so they were held in the jail administered by the temple police. In spite of being interrupted in their preaching, the apostles’ message found fertile ground, and many believed the message about Jesus. Luke says “the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand” (4:4).

Luke probably does not mean that 5,000 men were converted that day. Rather, Luke is saying that the believers now totaled about 5,000 men. [Luke used the Greek word andron, which refers specifically to adult males, as opposed to anthropon, which would mean “people.”] The congregation would have included several thousand women and children, too (see Matthew 14:21), perhaps totaling about 20,000. Some commentators say that this figure seems to be way out of proportion to the population of Jerusalem at the time. Estimates of Jerusalem’s population range between 25,000 and 250,000. [Josephus claimed it was over 2.5 million, but this is thought to be far too high (Wars 2:280-283; 6:420-427).]

It’s doubtful that we can fix Jerusalem’s population with any certainty. Doubting Luke’s figure on the basis of dubious population estimates seems pointless. Perhaps Jerusalem’s population was larger than suspected, or a larger portion of the city was converted than assumed. It’s also possible that Luke’s estimate of the number of believers included the country districts and surrounding villages.

Sanhedrin meets (4:5-6)

The next day, the council of Jewish religious and civic elders met to decide what to do with Peter and John (4:5). The Sadducees may have been the official rulers over Jewish affairs, but they were a minority party. They could govern only through the Sanhedrin (synedrion, “council”), the supreme court and senate. Though the Sadducees made up the majority on the council, Josephus tells us they often had to defer to Pharisaic opinion. [Josephus, Antiquities 18:16-17; Acts 5:34.] That’s because the Sadducees were disliked by the common people, while the Pharisees were held in high regard.

The Sanhedrin was composed of three groups of people. The first were the rulers, the high priests. The second were the elders, men of high community standing. The third group was composed of teachers of the law, usually Pharisees or scribes. The Sanhedrin had 71 members. It included the high priest and 70 other influential members of the Jewish religious community. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction in cases involving matters relevant to Jewish affairs. Where capital punishment was to be administered, the Sanhedrin was required to receive the permission of the Roman procurator (John 18:31).

Luke makes the point that the Sadducean element that was about to condemn the apostles was heavily represented in the Sanhedrin. The early opponents to the gospel message came mainly from the priestly and Sadducean ranks (5:26). Annas the high priest was there, as well as Caiaphas, John, Alexander and other men of the high priest’s family (4:6). Annas was high priest for nine years, from A.D. 6-15. He continued to have great influence for many years after his years in office were over. The New Testament writers show him to be the real power behind the scenes (Luke 3:2John 18:13-24).

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. He was high priest for 18 years (A.D. 18-36). He had the title of high priest when the events of Acts 4 took place. But Annas was of such influence that he seemed to be making the important decisions. Annas, though he did not then have the title of high priest, may have (as the head of the family) retained the presidency of the Sanhedrin. The ruling high priest was usually the president. [Acts 5:177:19:122:523:2424:1.] Whatever the case, Luke calls Annas the high priest, perhaps in the sense of a high priest emeritus (4:6). Annas is making the decisions the high priest would make, at least as Sanhedrin president. Now, he and the other Sanhedrin members are about to judge the apostles.

By what power? (4:7)

As people interested in political power, it is not strange that the Sanhedrin members ask Peter and John: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). In other words, “Who said you could do this — who is your leader?”

The apostles are faced with the same issue as Jesus had been. Jesus had also been teaching at the temple when he was confronted by the same general group of chief priests and teachers of the law. They had asked Jesus: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things…” (Luke 20:1-2). Now, months later, the priests and teachers are faced with “the Jesus question” all over again, even though the ringleader had been killed.

The Sanhedrin is not too pleased with the apostles, but on what grounds are they to punish Peter and John? They can’t accuse the apostles of faking a healing. The evidence of the lame man jumping and leaping is incontrovertible. He is known by everyone, for he was over 40 years old, and had been begging at the temple for many years (4:22). His sudden loss of lameness can’t be explained away as a delusion or secret healing process. Perhaps the apostles have an unlawful agenda in mind (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Perhaps they are healing through the power of the devil. This is what Jesus was accused of doing (Luke 11:14-20). Thus, the Sanhedrin’s question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7).

There is an irony in the apostles’ arrest. Peter and John are arrested for teaching about Jesus’ resurrection, but they are questioned about the healing. The Sanhedrin did not want to discuss the resurrection of Jesus, partly because Pharisees were a significant minority of the Sanhedrin, and they believed in a resurrection. Although they did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected, they couldn’t disprove it. Too many strange events surrounding Jesus’ life and death — including the empty tomb — would be sure to come up if they opened up this can of worms. F.F. Bruce wrote:

It is particularly striking that neither on this nor on any subsequent occasion did the authorities take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation — the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how eagerly would the opportunity have been seized!… The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the resources at their command could not produce it. The disappearance of his body, to be sure, was far from proving his resurrection, but the production of his body would have effectively disproved it. [Bruce, The Book of Acts,The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 96.]

Healed by the name of Jesus (4:8-10)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers the Sanhedrin’s questions and accusations by facing the council with the reality of a glorified Christ. This recalls Jesus’ saying, that when they are brought before kings and governors, he will give them a wisdom none of their adversaries can gainsay (Luke 21:12-15).

Peter denies that he and John perform magic, or that they are involved with evil spirits, or that the cure was a hoax. The man was healed by the “name of Jesus Christ,” pure and simple (4:10). Peter pulls no punches, and he accuses the leaders of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He again insists that Jesus had been resurrected, and it is through his power that the lame beggar was healed. In short, Peter’s speech became another declaration of Jesus’ messiahship.

The “stone” rejected (4:11-12)

Peter next cites an Old Testament scripture as a “proof-text” that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected…” (Psalm 118:22). Jesus used the same scripture to refer to his messiahship (Mark 12:10-11Luke 20:17-18), setting the example for the apostles. This stone motif is used in other New Testament writings as well. [Romans 9:331 Corinthians 3:11Ephesians 2:201 Peter 2:4-8.]

In its original setting in Psalm 118, the “rejected stone” may have referred to Israel, hated by the nations but chosen by God. The builders who rejected the stone as unfit would most likely be other nations who built their own empires and worshipped their own gods. But Jesus, and Peter here in Acts, brands the Jewish religious leaders as “the builders.” They had built their own religious structures, beliefs and empire, and now they were rejecting the truth about salvation and the One who brought its message, Jesus.

“The cornerstone” is more literally in Greek “head of [the] corner,” kephale gonias. It refers to the capstone or keystone that joins the sides of an arch at the top. This stone is essential for holding the arch together, and is placed at its highest point and head. This capstone or “cornerstone” is essential for completing the arch. Just as there is only one capstone in an arch, Jesus Christ is the unique person who makes salvation possible. Apart from Jesus, there is no spiritual building, or church, because there is no salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else,” insisted Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12).