Commentary on Acts 4:5-12
Conflict arises in Acts for the first time in this passage.
It’s a story that follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s reading, in which Peter, with John at his side, preaches a sermon in the temple complex to a group of the people (laos) who gathered to marvel at the healing of a man who could not walk.
The first four verses of Acts 4 provide essential information, and so they deserve to be included in the reading. They tell us that the Sadducees and their allies within the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy flex their muscles and seize the two apostles. They hold them in custody. Displays of power and coercion like this are what rulers do when they don’t know what else to do.
The leaders appear to be provoked by both the content and the effects of Peter’s preaching: it’s about resurrection and 5000 men—apparently all Jews or proselytes, not counting women and children—are persuaded by what they’ve seen and heard. As we know from the New Testament (for example, Acts 23:8) and Josephus (War 2.8.14), Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. Back in Luke’s Gospel, they, along with the other temple-based elites with whom they shared a political coalition, were concerned about the impact Jesus and his message were having on large crowds (Luke 19:47-48; 22:2; 23:5). Both the apostolic teaching and its popularity were dangerous, from their point of view.1
It is crucial that congregations understand who the apostles’ antagonists are in this scene, for the narrative is rather specific. These are not rank-and-file Jews who oppose, detain, and question Peter and John. They are the leaders of the temple and the Jewish nobles whom Rome entrusted with ruling and ensuring the peace in Judea. With the high priest atop the pyramid, they are the tiny percentage of the Judean population that possessed an enormous amount of power. For the most part, they are the same people who Luke says cooperated with Pilate to do away with Jesus (Luke 19:47-20:19; 22:4; 52; 22:66-23:5; 23:35).2
I beg for precision with regard to this passage because Acts is often imprecise about characters who oppose the spread of the good news. Later in the book readers encounter groups of Jews who appear hostile and resistant. Acts includes more than thirty unspecific references to “the Jews,” and the accumulation of that rhetoric leads many readers to conclude that Acts is eager to cast judgment on Judaism as a whole.3 That is not the case in Acts 4, however. Here it is the conflict that began between Jesus and the Judean leadership that persists, now as the apostles take up the work of preaching to receptive Jewish crowds. Acts signals that Jesus’ followers inherit and continue every aspect of Jesus’ ministry—healing, preaching, serving, and also contending against the people with the power to discredit them. That’s the main story, at least for the time being.4
Once Peter speaks, his message is direct. As he did in Acts 3:12, he quickly turns attention toward Jesus and away from himself and John. The name of Jesus refers to the power of Jesus, the one crucified and raised from the dead.
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit like his Lord was in Luke 4:14, 18, quotes Psalm 118:22, just as Jesus did in Luke 20:17. The early church detected the scent of resurrection in the psalmist’s poetry about a discarded stone becoming a cornerstone or keystone—the most important stone for the structural integrity of a building or archway (see also 1 Peter 2:7). It is also significant that the psalm describes the crucial stone as being rejected by the experts, builders who would be authorities on such matters. Peter tells the religious and political equivalents of master builders that they are incompetent. The high priestly and Sadducean dynasty, by their refusal or inability to recognize Jesus for who he was, only makes the magnificence of his resurrection all the clearer to Peter. Peter then describes Jesus as the power of God’s “salvation,” employing a word that carries a lot of weight also in Luke (1:77; 2:30; 3:6; 19:9).5
Peter’s words in Acts 4:8-12 anticipate where the larger story told in Acts 4 will end: with a prayer celebrating the power of God to minimize and embarrass those who purport to hold sovereignty over human societies (Acts 4:24-30). If God has made the crucified, risen, ascended, and empowered Jesus “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36), then all Pharaohs, Caesars, and the gods we human beings construct are exposed as pretenders.
Although Acts does not reveal much about what motivates the aristocracy to intimidate the apostles, Peter’s claims about the power of Jesus’ name will eventually make it clear—at least to readers—that the leaders should have good reason for concern. Their problem, as Acts 4-5 makes clear, isn’t that something about their Jewishness makes them resistant to the apostolic message. Their problem is that they presume they have the power to put a lid on the good news.
The issue, then, isn’t a theological debate over the possibility of God raising the dead. The issue hinges on the question of whether Jesus is Lord. Easter preaching might take a cue from this story. Instead of preaching to convince people about resurrection, preach to introduce people to a God who claims the world as God’s own. Describe the salvation that the God of new life can provide. Tell the people what it means that Jesus’ inauguration of God’s kingdom continues undeterred, no matter who or what might stand in the way of it.
Willie James Jennings notes that Peter and John’s distress in Acts 4 should not have come as a surprise. Clearly the same confrontation “that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well,” as long as they remained committed to participating in “the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people.”6 Jennings continues with a sage reminder for preachers and their congregations who participate in Jesus’ ongoing work in the face of significant social and political resistance:
Real preaching and authentic teaching is inextricably bound to real criminality. Christians of the modern West have never really grasped our deep connection to the criminal mind, our mind. We should always understand ourselves as what Edward Said called secular critics who unrelentingly call into question the gods of this age, that is, the prevailing social, cultural, political, economic, and academic logics that support or are at ease with the status quo of grotesquely differentiated wealth and poverty, uneven access to the necessary resources for life and health, and forms of sublimely stubborn oppression masked inside social conventions.7
- For a short overview of the Sadducees, see: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/sadducees.aspx.
- We lack complete clarity about the members of the high priest’s family. Annas was high priest 6-15 CE. His son-in-law Caiaphas held the office 18-36 CE (see Luke 3:2). Family members named John and Alexander are not known to us from any other sources.
- As Acts moves forward, the conflict mounts and the opposition comes from a widening segment of Jewish populations. For more context, see the three passages in which Paul indicts whole Jewish communities for their resistance to his message (Acts 13:46-48; 18:5-6; 28:25-28). We need to be aware of the hyperbole and also admit that Acts itself contributes to the problem.
- A single sermon cannot undo all of the ways Acts has provoked—and deplorable interpretations have perpetuated—anti-Judaic theologies. But sermons that help congregations discover the ways in which they might have taken criticisms of specific, narrowly identified Jews (as in the current passage) and transformed them into blanket condemnations of Judaism as a whole (as throughout Christian history) are valuable corrective steps in the right direction. The process for which we all share responsibility involves ongoing repentance and reinterpretation.
- The mention of being “saved” (sōzō) in Acts 4:12 refers back to the mention of the man being “healed” (literally “saved”: sōzō) in Acts 4:9.
- Acts (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 45.
- Ibid., 45-46. Jennings refers to Said’s Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 88-89.