God didn’t give you a spirit of fear.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 4:1-13
When God performed a great miracle through Peter, Peter took the opportunity to point people to salvation in Jesus. And when challenged by the authorities, Peter told them the same thing. We should be just as bold when we are challenged to defend our faith in Jesus.
“By what power or in what name have you done this?” Acts 4:7
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
So . . . I decided to look up “courage” on the internet. Scary. I found some really helpful things and some really problematic things. I actually think this would make for a good icebreaker if you know you can control the direction your group will try to take it. I found these quotes in several different places (and they were the better ones). My guess is that our people would like them.
Here is the Webster’s definition: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” And I think that a lot of people would take that approach to courage: the ability to act in spite of your fear.
But let me make some things clear for your discussion: courage is not (1) foolhardiness, (2) stubbornness, (3) ignorance of danger, (4) underestimating warnings, (5) bravado, or (6) recklessness. Does that make sense? So here’s where I put my caveat: courage is the trait of doing what you believe is right in spite of real opposition.
We’re going to talk about the courage of the early church. And that day is coming when we will need to be more and more courageous in our own church today.
What Is Courageous? Then, here would be the fun part of your icebreaker. Once you have agreed on the definition of courage, ask what they have seen that they think is courageous? Or what have they done in their life that they would consider courageous? I think of the peaceful resistance at Tiananmen Square. Or what the peaceful supporters of the Civil Rights Movement experienced. Or those who helped Jews during the Third Reich. Or Ghandi’s development of civil disobedience. Dunkirk. The Alamo. Black Hawk Down. 9/11 first responders. There are lots of examples of people who (in my opinion) demonstrated courage. And the way I define it, I always conclude that true courage is admirable—even if I disagree with the action or the purpose. It is something that I always find praiseworthy or inspiring.
Courage doesn’t have to be “big.” If no one brings up the countless day-to-day acts of courage all around us (the single mother trying to raise her children the right way, the cancer patient facing treatment, the average Joe standing up for what he believes), be sure to do so. Then finally ask your class in what areas of their lives they need to be courageous? Do they need help, support, encouragement (which is what that words means, of course)? Rally your class toward courage.
This Week's Big Idea: Lots and Lots of Jewish Types
There are quite a few Jews mentioned in these few words! We have priests, temple police, Sadducees, rulers, elders, scribes, a high priest, and members of the high priestly family. Yikes! Here’s a very brief primer on what to know:
Priests oversaw the sacrifices and usually only “worked” two weeks a year (they had other jobs the rest of the time). They were assisted by Levites who served year-round in purification, music, and gate-keeping.
Temple Police were also made up of Levites. They did not have the authority of a modern police force but more like that of bank security or the like. They simply enforced the rules and desires of the Jewish leadership.
Sadducees were generally the wealthy, long-term priestly families. They were in charge of the Temple activities, did not believe in resurrection or angels, and followed a literal interpretation of the Law. Jesus directly acted against them when He “cleansed” the Temple.
Rulers and Elders generally referred to both actual community leaders (public officials not associated with the Temple) and the heads of the most wealthy and influential Jewish families. They sympathized with the Sadducees.
The Scribes were a unique group that taught the Law, recorded important events, and copied Scripture (they were called “rabbis” and “lawyers”). In teaching the Law, they also interpreted it and kept careful records of the various schools of thought about Jewish law. Many scribes were Pharisees . . .
Pharisees are not mentioned in this list but were an important part of Jewish life. They were conservative, pious Jews who kind of appointed themselves as teachers of the people. They were so influential that even the Sadducees (who disagreed with many of their ideas) had to pay them lip service. Because Jesus interacted with the people, He had to speak against them often.
The High Priest offered the annual atonement. It used to be an inherited position, but in Jesus’ day was a political reward from the Romans. This person also presided over the powerful Sanhedrin . . .
The Sanhedrin is not mentioned in this list, but it needs to be recognized as the highest legal body in Israel (the arrest would have been made at their behest). It consisted of 70 leaders plus the High Priest: some elders, some rabbis, and some “chief” priests . . .
Chief Priests included the High Priest, any past High Priest, and several influential priests. One of these served as the captain of the guard and the “backup” to the High Priest.
As we will learn in Acts, the Jewish leaders did not see eye-to-eye on many things. (think Republicans and Democrats and Independents), and those differences could be exploited. But the fact that such disparate groups as scribes and elders came together to arrest and try the Disciples proves that Jesus was a real, real concern to them all.
The Context of Acts
So we’ve established a few key characteristics of this early church. They were entrusted by Jesus with a mission and then empowered with the Holy Spirit to complete it. That was the occasion for Peter’s first public sermon out of which thousands were saved and the church began spending a lot of time with each other. But Luke keeps the focus on the leaders; he goes into a story where Peter and John heal a lame man at a temple gate in the name of Jesus. The healing, as we will see, was not problematic (it wasn’t a Sabbath), but Peter went on to explain to the crowd that the miracle took place because of Jesus and also shared the gospel with them. That got the attention of the authorities, and then . . .
Part 1: The Challenge (Acts 4:1-7)
Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example. So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000. The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family. After they had Peter and John stand before them, they asked the question: “By what power or in what name have you done this?”
Start with a couple of questions (depending on how well you know your group). What’s the biggest “trouble” you’ve ever been in (doesn’t have to be with the law), what caused it and what happened? Keep it light and fun—don’t let it become a gossip session. My guess is that this is the biggest trouble Peter has ever been in. But then ask another batch of questions. What’s the biggest trouble you’ve ever been in for being a Christian? What caused it and what happened? If someone wants to tell stories of persecution happening all over the world, let them do so for a bit, but make sure to bring the focus back to here in Georgia. If you haven’t faced any trouble for being a Christian, you need to hear stories of local persecution so when that time comes, you won’t be completely traumatized.
Peter has been speaking publicly in favor of Jesus and against the authorities, and that got him put in jail overnight. Then (as now), such attention probably helped his message spread and more and more people were convinced that Peter wasn’t making this stuff up. Thousands more have believed. So various Jews (see the previous page) get together and interrogate Peter and John. And they ask a very simple question: by what name have you done this? They are not questioning the miracle or doubting its authenticity.
What’s amazing is just how seriously these Jews took Peter and John. What does it take Republicans and Democrats to come together under? Muslims and Christians? Apple and IBM? (That’s the range of Jews mentioned in these verses.) Something critical. I mentioned that Sadducees denied any kind of resurrection, but Pharisees believed in it, so the simple teaching of “resurrection” wasn’t the big problem (but see how Paul used this topic to stir the pot in Acts 23). Rather, the text literally reads, “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” Taken with everything else Peter said, they realized he was speaking of the messianic kingdom with Jesus as its king. Resurrection implied the end being near (certainly that’s how the people would interpret it) - that would mean the end of their earthly power and might just cause the people to rise up and revolt, which would likely bring the wrath of Rome down upon them. Peter had started preaching around 3, and it was near dusk by the time the Sanhedrin met and ordered their arrest. They had them jailed for the next day’s interrogation.
Somebody asked a great question with respect to this passage. Look at your own life. When a great thing has happened in your life, would someone on the outside have to ask “how” it happened? Do you know which “power” is the most influential in your own life? Do you even claim Jesus’ power on a daily basis? Peter and John certainly did, and it attracted a lot of attention.
Aside: The Beautiful Gate
This is where Peter healed the lame man that started the chain of events. Peter kept walking to the large porch called Solomon’s Colonnade where he gave his great sermon and was then arrested. But where is the “Beautiful Gate”? The Old Testament and Jewish literature do not mention a gate by that name. Clearly this was a nickname for one of the gates. Consequently, some say it was the Golden Gate on the outer east wall. An early historian said it was the Nicanor Gate (made of bronze) on the inner wall to the Court of Women (that’s the one labeled “Beautiful Gate” on the diagram). Solomon’s Colonnade ran along the outer wall just outside of the Nicanor Gate, so you could easily get there from either of the gates suggested.
I’m going to say that the Beautiful Gate was the Nicanor Gate because they met the beggar while both were going up to the temple, but they never made it there because the now healed man made a huge scene that attracted a lot of attention apparently at Solomon’s Colonnade. That would make the most sense if they were heading toward the inner gate.
Bonus Aside: The Sanhedrin
I already mentioned the Sanhedrin in an earlier section, but they’re important enough for their own sidebar. What was the real extent of their authority? What did Rome allow them to do? Well, apparently, as long as taxes were paid and order was kept, Rome gave them a lot of slack. That’s why they were so concerned about the public disturbance cause first by Jesus and then by the Disciples. Although they had their own police force and could try some criminal cases, they did not have jurisdiction over anything that might possibly involve Rome. They could oversee religious disputes and disagreements between Jews, but that seems to be it. They had to go to the Romans for permission to execute Jesus; the Romans were certainly inclined to use capital punishment—that’s how James was killed in Acts 12. That’s why the death of Stephen was so shocking; the Sanhedrin would have had to keep that very quiet so as not to get in big trouble. (Note that Josephus said that the Sanhedrin also killed James the brother of Jesus after a similarly heated trial.) Those actions were not only in violation of their agreement with Rome, but also in violation of their own rules. They could only hear a capital case during the day, and they could not render a verdict until the following day. And they certainly could not execute the sentence themselves! As with our own government, not every member had to present for a session to make decisions. It is quite possible that the Sanhedrin purposely excluded its more reasonable members from those proceedings to make sure that they could achieve their purpose without interference.
Part 2: The Answer (Acts 4:8-12)
Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man—by what means he was healed— let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.”
Of course I wonder what the disciples talked and thought about while in prison that night. When I know I have to testify or take an oral exam or speak publicly, I think about it long and hard. But Peter needn’t have worried; just as Jesus promised (Luke 21:12-15), the Holy Spirit was there to help. Peter recognized that they had been asked a very vague question (likely intended to get them to incriminate themselves) and clarified it: they were talking about a deed that everyone universally declared good and right (a healing). That established, Peter confidently pointed them to Jesus.
When people asked “in what name?” in those days, they were talking about authority. Peter gave them that by calling Jesus “Christ” (which was the equivalent of Messiah). Seeing as how most (if not all) of the men on the Sanhedrin were the same who recently condemned Jesus for taking that title, Peter knew exactly what he was doing. Nevermind all of the other events of recent days—the simple fact that Peter performed a miracle in the name of Jesus had to give them pause that maybe Jesus was more than they thought. A dead man has no power in this world! And Peter pounds that in: yes, you killed Him, but God raised Him from the dead! And this was in fulfillment of Scripture (Psalm 118:22), a very same verse Jesus had quoted to them. This would be the equivalent of Nathan pointing at David saying “You are the man!” And finally Peter takes it to the conclusion they did not expect: rejecting Jesus meant rejecting salvation. Jesus had told them that being a Jew (by physical descent) did not give them credit with God, and Peter made it clear what He meant. Some scholars interpret this as an offer of hope; I call it a condemnation.
More than anything else, make it clear that Jesus is the hero in this passage. If you didn’t do a lot of this at the beginning, talk about courageous or brave things your class members have done. What helped them do it? Peter had no trouble being bold because he was following Jesus, and he knew Jesus had forgiven him, restored him, and commissioned him. I would suppose that it’s easier to stand up to a bully if you had Chuck Norris by your side, or to go to court with Thomas Jefferson as your lawyer. Well, that’s what we have in Jesus: the ultimate courage.
Aside: Peter’s Method of Preaching
There’s actually a lot of debate whether or not Peter’s discourses recorded in the book of Acts were “sermons” or just “speeches.” I think that’s a fair question, and it completely depends on your definition of “sermon.” MLK’s “I Have a Dream” lines were delivered in his church and considered a sermon, but the version we know that was delivered on the Capital steps is usually called a speech. (And let’s be honest, I’m pretty sure that quite a few things aid by pastors on Sundays behind pulpits are probably just speeches called sermons.) A sermon is a form of religious communication based on (for Christians) biblical truth which involves explaining said truth, drawing conclusions from said truth, and applying said truth to the hearers’ lives. Peter certainly did that in his “speeches”! In Acts 2, he quoted the Old Testament, explained how that pointed to Jesus, then exhorted the people to repent. He does the same thing in our sermon today.
Peter will take a slightly different approach when he addresses the Sanhedrin in Acts 5 and 5, and yet a different approach when he speaks to Gentiles in Acts 10. But that ‘s just good communication skills. His messages were clear, simple, and dominated by undisputable facts. He preached with urgency and called his hearers to make a response. The fact that all of his sermons were impromptu and powered by the Holy Spirit just added to the electricity of the moment. His power was not in his education or training but his relationship with Jesus. If we broaden our definition of a sermon, we can see the place for such communication in many times and places! But if we ever attempt to give such a sermon, let us do so only in the power of the Spirit, with much grace and humility, in true care for our hearers, and only based on the truth of the Bible.
Part 3: The Recognition (Acts 4:13)
When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus.
And that’s what got the attention of the Jews. They couldn’t explain Peter’s boldness on their own terms. When Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit spoke, and that must have really concerned them. Peter had no training, no money, no standing, no education, but he just lectured the most powerful group of God’s people on the most important subject they would ever discuss.
If you have time, go through the rest of Acts 4. The Sanhedrin tells the disciples to stop talking about Jesus, and they refuse. And then the disciples get together and pray out of Psalm 2 that God would take note of all the people who have denied Him and His Son Jesus and give them the boldness and power to speak truth and spread the gospel. I’ll put that prayer on the back page because I encourage all of you to pray it as a class at the end of your time together.
So there are a couple of key things to summarize at the end:
We should expect opposition to our message about Jesus. We should expect people to challenge our beliefs. We shouldn't get discouraged when opposition comes.
Ask if your group is ready to defend their faith in Jesus. If someone were to challenge them (“why are you still part of that sad old religion?”), what would they say? Today, those challenges come at us through social issues, like homosexuality, abortion, alternative religions, and socialism. What do we say about them?
Most importantly, we can depend on the Holy Spirit to help us stand up for Jesus. Claim that hope!
Walk through memorizing Acts 4:12, then have them pray together the prayer at the end of Acts (which I copied on the back page). Our culture is getting less and less willing to tolerate us which means that we will need to be bolder and bolder to accomplish the same ends. But that’s exactly what Jesus wants of us, so no worries!
Closing Thoughts: Acts 4:23-31
After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they all raised their voices to God and said, “Master, You are the One who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David Your servant:
Why did the Gentiles rage and the peoples plot futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers assembled together against the Lord and against His Messiah.
“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that Your slaves may speak Your message with complete boldness, while You stretch out Your hand for healing, signs, and wonders to be performed through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness.