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The True Meaning and Power of Peter's Boldness in Acts 4

Updated: Jun 28

Jesus is the only Savior, whether you believe that or not.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 4:8-21

Peter's third gospel presentation in Acts is to the Jewish authorities who put Jesus to death. They arrogantly believed that they could threaten him into silence, but they weren't arguing with a simple fisherman, they were opposing a messenger of God empowered by God's Spirit. But realize that Peter's boldness finds true meaning in his purpose and message.

Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide (4:19)

When We Studied This Passage Before

We studied this passage 8 years ago, and it amazes me how much the world has changed in that time.

Here are the things I talked about there:

  • Being courageous

  • The Sanhedrin

  • Peter's method of preaching

Getting Started: Things to Think About

A Time You Surprised Yourself

A common trope in movies is the "I didn't know you had that in you" kid. We all love the scene when they do the thing that nobody expected. Bill & Ted (a movie which came out before Keanu Reeves was John Wick, kids) is based on two stereotypical high school losers who wowed the school and surprised themselves and their families with a fantastic senior project. Aided by time travel.

When's the last time you surprised yourself?

Everybody has some sort of story about this. On the internet, one guy said he met his wife's family for the first time at a bowling alley, and he bowled a 200 for the first time, impressing his future father-in-law. A mom said she was determined to make her son's Halloween costume even though she wasn't crafty or creative, and it turned out well. A few years ago in a house project, I moved a vanity and had to replace some plumbing, and it didn't leak. I went back to check it every two hours for the next week. I surprised myself!

A variation on this could be a time when you surprised your spouse, or your parents.

In this week's passage, Peter stands up before the Sanhedrin and wows them, and they're shocked. They thought he was uneducated and uncultured, but he put them in their place.

Never Underestimate the Competition

This is still a central lesson in "Entrepreneurship 101" -- never underestimate your competition. There are two stories that are always told in this context, and frankly they never get old.

IBM vs. Microsoft. This one's a classic. IBM dominated the personal computer market in the 80s, and they had a crude operating system called PC-DOS. Bill Gates came along and realized that if computers were easier to use, more people would buy them. He developed a more user-friendly system called MS-DOS and sold it to IBM. Not realizing what a big deal it was, IBM let Gates enter into license agreements with other computer makers. And then Microsoft had a breakthrough with software they called Windows, and the rest is history.

Blockbuster vs. Netflix. This one's still mind blowing. In the 90s, Netflix struggled to compete with Blockbuster's domination of the video rental market. In 2000, they offered to sell Netflix to Blockbuster for $50m (!). And Blockbuster "laughed them out of the office". Well, Blockbuster underestimated the draw of not charging late fees, and Netflix slowly built market share. Netflix was also first to the streaming world. But what really turned the tables was Netflix's ability to raise investment capital, while Blockbuster kept trying to pay off debt the old-fashioned way (making money). Netflix didn't make a profit for a decade, but they outlasted Blockbuster. (And now they're doing pretty well.)

Do you have a story about underestimating your competition? Maybe this was a business rival, or a competing salesperson, or someone else in a class with you. Maybe you didn't take them seriously enough, and they got the deal, or they won the game, or whatever.

To say that the Jewish leaders underestimated Peter would be a gross understatement. They really thought that if they just threatened him, they could make Christianity go away. Uh huh.

Standing Up for What's Right

Things take a serious turn here. On the one hand, one person's "right" is another person's "wrong". (Just read the talking heads on the riots in Kenya happening right now.) But on the other hand, we don't tend to "stand up" until we believe that a matter has gotten serious.

What's a time you took a principled stand? Maybe this is something that happened in school, or in your workplace, or in your community.

(I'm careful with the use of the word "principled". A lot of college kids are claiming to have "taken a stand" in their campus behavior related to the war in Gaza, but I find it unclear how principled it was for many of them.)

And maybe looking back you would have done it differently -- that doesn't change the fact that you took a stand based on what you believed at the time.

When we read this week's passage, it seems pretty obvious to us that Peter did what he should have done -- stand up for Jesus against the local authorities. But would we do the same thing when faced with similar circumstances today?


This Week's Big Idea: Christ and Culture

This weekend, many churches (including ours) will be celebrating Independence Day, and there's a very obvious connection between church and country/culture in this week's passage. A dominant theme we will read (and thus I expect it to show up a lot in discussion) is the church standing up to secular/cultural power to speak the truth. But let me make sure that you guys are aware of how little agreement there is about what that means.

The United Methodist Church recently removed all language condemning homosexuality in their governing documents -- and certainly not because the Bible told them to. They believed it to be an important step aligning them with the culture. This photo of the new pastors at Saddleback shows them "preaching a sermon" about Toy Story. I guess it's because they thought it would help them communicate with the culture(??). You might have heard the scuttlebutt about the resolutions at the recent SBC about reproductive technologies (so much scuttlebutt -- they released a clarification about how the media misrepresented what they said); the motivation behind the resolution was to speak to an important cultural matter.

Three different church settings. Three different approaches to culture. Three extremely different responses.

Let me take us back to a seminal book from the 60s by Richard Niebuhr called Christ and Culture. (It's not expensive if you want your own copy, which I recommend.) Niebuhr believed that much of the conflict between (and within) churches existed because they didn't realize they were taking different approach to interacting with the culture around them. So, he tried to explain the most common approaches churches take to the culture. Here's the key to understanding this book: he wasn't analyzing the Bible -- he was analyzing church history. In other words, he wasn't trying to say what churches should be doing; he was trying to explain what churches were doing. (He makes some powerful observations along the way, but that wasn't his focus.) He summarized five primary views churches take toward the culture. (To save time, I'm going to quote an acquaintance who wrote about this for another website.)

[block quote begins] "

Christ Against Culture. Niebuhr’s first category is that of the oppositionist. Here, Christ is the combatant of everything you hate. Maybe, you think, Christ hates YouTube. And you are positive that he hates TikTok. You are concerned with a holy otherness, and you have neither the time nor the desire to know the social media influencers. You may even suspect that those churches do not hold to the same faith you do. The truest adopters of this position may never read this as even the device projecting the pixels onto your screen could represent a sort of apostasy. The oppositionist withdraws from culture.

The Christ of Culture. At the other end of the spectrum is Niebuhr’s accommodationist. Here, Christ is behind every good thing and that must include categories of human advancement and technology. You know that whatever God creates is good, and anything can be a tool for positivity. If Christ is a universal truth, he can fit within any cultural norm. You think it is good that we contextualize the gospel to meet people where they are, that Christ has chosen to use culture for his purposes. Large platforms are a sign of blessing, and so the accommodationist leverages every algorithm and analytic to determine the Lord’s direction.

Christ Above Culture. Others operate in medians. The first of these in-betweens is what Niebuhr calls the architectonic type, or more simply, synthesis. You understand Christ and culture to simply operate on different plains. You may be nearer opposition than accommodation, but there is no real conflict or imposition. If something is beneficial, you use it. If not, you leave it. Simply put, not everything is spiritual to you. You can work with unbelievers or enjoy things in the world and separate those things from your faith. A quasi-YouTube culture is fine in the church as long as it does not displace the church. The architectonicist uses culture to their own ends, or more pointedly, Christ’s.

Christ and Culture in Paradox. The fourth, or oscillatory, type operates in the dualism of life between two kingdoms. This is the true middle between the extremes of opposition and accommodation. You feel the polarity and tension between Christ and the world. Even reading the above responses made you somewhat uncomfortable. You would instead seek endurance. Christ and his kingdom will overtake the present world and its devices. In the meantime, doing the best you can would require obedience to contrarian institutions and a hope which lies beyond time.

Christ the Transformer of Culture. Finally, there stands the conversionist. Like those against and in paradox with culture, the conversionist sees the fallenness around them as a significant factor. You would not abandon culture, be bent by it, or simply endure through it. You would see it transformed—converted and transposed into obedience to Christ. You meet culture where it is, but not to be shaped by it. You bring and evangelistic bent of Christ’s kingdom come into all things. Here, Christ redeems more than just people. Christ redeems culture itself.

" [block quote ends]

Do you see how churches (or individual Christians) who hold differing views about how God wants us to relate to our culture would have a really hard time cooperating with one another? Or even being in the same room with one another?

So, what are Christians supposed to do? What's the right perspective?

I have one thing to say, based on what we've already studied in Acts, that I think will help us have the right discussion: Jesus didn't come to transform the culture; He came to save sinners.

Let me repeat that: Jesus didn't come to transform the culture; He came to save sinners.

I think that's the key to having a productive discussion about this topic. Everything flows from that. Will saved sinners change the culture around them by virtue of having a new moral ethic? Yep. Should churches desire to restrict access to sinful behavior that harms individuals? Yep. Should churches promote societal norms that remove obstacles to Christians sharing the gospel? Yep.

But the point of all of it is to share the gospel with lost sinners. If Christians create a utopian society where there is no crime and everybody is always happy, but most of the people still die and go to hell because no one emphasizes Jesus, what have we accomplished?

Jesus did stand against the elements of the culture that were against His kingdom, and so should His followers. (I hope you realize that there is a great deal of argument among Christians about what exactly is and is not against His kingdom.)

Jesus did work within social structures to minister and reach out to people, and so should His followers. His followers included doctors and laborers and farmers, people who worked to make the world better (in keeping with God's commission to Adam).

Jesus was above the culture; He was not bound by social norms or expectations. His people could "eat meat sacrificed to idols" if they wanted to, though Paul told us that those choices must be made with others' good in mind.

Jesus did say that His followers live "between" heaven and earth -- "in the world but not of it" -- because this world and everything in it is passing away. His followers should endure hardship and ignominy until Christ returns in power.

Jesus did change the world, and He wants His followers to change the world, as well. But He didn't do it by taking on the social structures themselves -- like slavery, Roman occupation, or Jewish legalism. Rather, He changed hearts and minds and souls, and those saved individuals inexorably changed the structures of the world.

So, sorry, not an easy answer for you. We will all be able to agree that Peter was bold and right in standing up to the Jewish authorities who wanted to silence him. But Peter's purpose -- and Luke is so clear about it -- was to declare the basic truth of salvation. If salvation comes from God, and it is through an individual's faith in Jesus, and there is no other way to be saved, then nothing else is remotely as important.

Peter wasn't sticking it to the man; he wasn't standing up for his rights; he wasn't taking on the powers; he was sharing the most important truth in history.

And the world completely changed as a result.

Does that make sense?

This Week's Extra Credit: A History of Culture and Technology

Someone shared with me this incredible website called "Calculating Empires".

That screenshot is a very small section of their overall work. They have put together a visual representation of the modern development of just about everything, from communication to medicine to empires. The creators are not Christians; however, they have said that they aren't intending to evaluate the developments, just report them.

If you're into the history of ideas, technological advancements, or cultural development, this website will fascinate you. But here's my "assignment" based on what I just shared about Christ and Culture -- where can you see the influence of Christians in these developments? In which developments does there seem to be opposition to God and His kingdom? In which developments do you think there is disagreement between Christians whether they are "good" or "bad"?


Where We Are in Acts

We're basically starting where last week's passage left off. While Peter was preaching, he drew an enormous crowd, and that got the attention of the temple authorities (as we should expect). Remember that the dominant Jewish party related to the priests and the temple was the Sadducees. And what was a key belief of that group? They didn't believe in the resurrection (which is why they were sad, you see?). And what was Peter preaching about? The resurrection of Jesus. So that put him on their radar.

[Note: yes, to be fair, John was there, too.]

Teaching outside of what was accepted dogma was a crime in that location, so the authorities put Peter (and John) in jail until they could be brought before the Jewish leaders the next day (in 4:15, we are told this group was the Sanhedrin).

Who's Who. I covered this in more detail in my previous post on this passage, but I can summarize some important points here.

  • Priests oversaw the sacrifices and were assisted by Levites.

  • Temple Police were made up of Levites; they simply enforced the rules.

  • Sadducees were generally the wealthy, long-term priestly families.

  • Rulers and Elders generally referred to Jewish officials and influential families.

  • The Scribes taught the Law and copied Scripture. Many scribes were Pharisees.

  • Pharisees are not mentioned in this passage. They were conservative, pious Jews who kind of appointed themselves as teachers of the people.

  • The High Priest presided over the powerful Sanhedrin.

  • The Sanhedrin was the highest legal body in Israel.

  • Chief Priests included any "influential" priest.


Part 1: The Only Truth That Matters (Acts 4:8-12)

8 Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: 9 If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man, by what means he was healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.”

I'll address the very-important "filled with the Holy Spirit" below. Peter, with the Holy Spirit's assistance, gave the most under-pressure message of his life.

It's very important to remember that Jesus has already prepared us for this circumstance, and Luke made sure to report that. The Lifeway material mentions this reference:

Luke 12:11 Whenever they bring you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, don’t worry about how you should defend yourselves or what you should say. 12 For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what must be said.

But I want to call attention to a later reference:

Luke 21:12 But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to bear witness. 14 Therefore make up your minds not to prepare your defense ahead of time, 15 for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will even be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will kill some of you. 17 You will be hated by everyone because of my name, 18 but not a hair of your head will be lost. 19 By your endurance, gain your lives.

If anyone has any doubts that we should think of the Holy Spirit as God in the same way that we think of Jesus as God, I hope Jesus' words put that to rest.

In other words, nobody should be surprised that Peter all of a sudden became Abraham Lincoln mixed with Billy Graham. He was speaking in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit.

[Aside: Yes, prepare your sermons. There was a strange movement in history among Baptists and other independent Protestant groups that believed that preachers should just "get up there and wing it", trusting the Holy Spirit to give them words, appealing to these passages. How might those folks be misapplying these verses in that application?]

We have now spent two weeks with Peter's first two sermons. Have you learned and remembered the similarities? He's going to do the same thing here (and it's again brilliant).

Peter starts with a non-arguable: there was a crippled man who has been healed. No one can fuss about that. No one can even be upset about that! (Btw, it wasn't a Sabbath.) But like with the first two sermons, he transitions immediately to Jesus and the implications. But this time, the reasoning is different. With the crowds, Peter points them to forgiveness and salvation. With the Jewish leaders, Peter points them to their hypocrisy and condemnation.

If this was about a lame man being healed, well that's easy. He was healed by the power of Jesus. But we all know that's not what this was about.

The Jewish leaders were writing a playbook that would be repeated by the Roman Catholic Church with Martin Luther:

We're the ones who call the shots. We're the ones who set the rules. We're the ones who determine right and wrong. You can't tell us we're wrong.

The implied conclusion is "Nobody, not even God, can tell us otherwise". This would be a sixth model of "Christ and Culture": "The Church Owns the Culture".

Peter is very direct with his audience. This is a handful of weeks after the Crucifixion, so my guess is that everybody in the room had voted to condemn Jesus. They knew exactly what Peter was saying, and they knew that he was right. But they didn't feel any shame or remorse for their actions; they believed they were justified to condemn the innocent man Jesus. Peter knew that, so he didn't shy away from his own accusations.

In fact, Peter said the same thing that Jesus did in a similar context a few chapters earlier in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' Parable of the Tenants:

Luke 20:14 “But when the tenant farmers saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him, so that the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those farmers and give the vineyard to others.” But when they heard this they said, “That must never happen!” 17 But he looked at them and said, “Then what is the meaning of this Scripture: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.” 19 Then the scribes and the chief priests looked for a way to get their hands on him that very hour, because they knew he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.

Jesus (and also Peter) quoted Psalm 118:

19 Open the gates of righteousness for me; I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 20 This is the Lord’s gate; the righteous will enter through it. 21 I will give thanks to you because you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 23 This came from the Lord; it is wondrous in our sight. 24 This is the day the Lord has made; let’s rejoice and be glad in it.

The prophets (Isa 28, Zech 10) used those verses to warn of a day when God would come and replace the wicked Jewish leaders with a selfless, righteous leader of His own appointment. The common people would rejoice, but the corrupt leaders would be doomed.

And that's exactly what is happening in Luke 20 and Acts 4.

Acts 4:12 is one of the most important verses in the Bible for its clarity:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.

This is not new with Peter -- Jesus had already said it:

  • Matt 11:27 "All things have been entrusted to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal him."

  • John 14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Christians may say, "We know this already." But think about it -- is there any more important statement ever made in history? And put it in context -- would anything be more powerful than Peter saying it at this moment to those men?

Two truths to take away:

  • Jesus came to save sinners, not to rule the culture.

  • Luke wanted the readers of Acts to know how to be saved.


Aside: "Filled with the Holy Spirit"

I hope we all remember that Peter had been "filled with the Holy Spirit" in Acts 2:4 (Pentecost). I hope we all believe that Peter had been "saved" at least by that moment.

There's a great deal of debate about exactly when the apostles had been "saved", and what that had to do with the process of receiving the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). I'm going to do the thing you don't like and say we're arguing about the wrong question. The days between Christ's crucifixion and Pentecost were unique in all of human history -- they will never be repeated again. The apostles' experience is not normative for the rest of us, so don't worry about that.

I just want to make sure that you believe that Peter was "fully saved" when he presented his message to the Jewish leaders. Nobody has any doubts about that, right?

So, what's this "filled with the Holy Spirit" talk about, then?

We talked about this in great detail when we studied Ephesians 5:

And in particular, 5:18

And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit.

We took away two critical truths:

  1. We cannot fill ourselves with the Spirit.

  2. We can fill ourselves with other things.

When we fill our lives with the noise of the world, we leave less "room" for the Spirit to dwell within us. Think about what the apostles had been doing for weeks now: praying, sharing, ministering, and learning Jesus' words.

Would you consider that "preparing yourself to be filled with the Spirit"?

And that's exactly what happened here. Peter was in a position to be used of God, and so God used him. Peter needed the Spirit's help to answer the accusations of the Jews, and so the Spirit filled him.

He wasn't "more saved". And he hadn't been "less effective" in his ministry before this moment. (!!!) But this moment demanded some "extra help" from God.

Many of you have had indescribable experiences in which you had an answer, an intuition, a strength, a conviction you didn't know you had until just the moment you needed it. Perhaps that was a time you were filled with the Spirit like Peter was.


Part 2: We Don't Care about Your Truth! (Acts 4:13-18)

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. 14 And since they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 After they ordered them to leave the Sanhedrin, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What should we do with these men? For an obvious sign has been done through them, clear to everyone living in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But so that this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in this name again.” 18 So they called for them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.

I'm going to fly through the rest of this passage because I've basically prepared you for what's about to happen. The Sanhedrin's response is so arrogant as to be flabbergasting -- they really think that they can threaten Peter (yes, and John, sheesh) into silence.

Talk about underestimating your competition!

In the bigger picture of the book of Acts, remember that one of Luke's purposes was to separate Christianity from Judaism in the eyes of Rome. And a second was to demonstrate that Christians are not subversive or rebellious elements of Roman society. Compare the behavior of the Christians with that of the Jews in this week's passage. "Rome, don't lump us in with the Jews." Even the Jewish leaders had to acknowledge that Peter had done a good thing and spoken truth.

[Important aside: this led to many generations of antisemitism among Christians! Some Christians took the wrong message from Peter and took it upon themselves to enact "God's vengeance" on all Jews for the death of Jesus. We still see that today, don't we?]

And that brings me to the power of cancel culture. It should be pretty obvious to you that the Jewish leaders were trying to "cancel Peter". And it should be equally obvious to you that Peter shouldn't have for a moment worried at all about being "canceled" by people who don't have any real say in anything from God.

So why are Christians so worried about "being canceled" today?


Part 3: The Perfect Response (Acts 4:19-21)

19 Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; 20 for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 After threatening them further, they released them. They found no way to punish them because the people were all giving glory to God over what had been done.

In my opinion, this is not only the perfect response, but these words have inspired devoted Christians like no other throughout history.

It's also inarguable. Your opponent may not believe that you are listening to God, but he won't argue the question.

And it also laid bare the Sanhedrin's perspective. They did not believe that God was speaking to Peter. They did not believe this healing was of God. They believed that they were the only ones with the authority to speak for God.

Which really makes you wonder what kind of a God (god?) they believed in.

The Perspective of an Atheist

One of our Sunday School teachers shared with me a book called

It's a collection of 100 testimonies from atheists trying to explain how their life has meaning and purpose apart from God. One, a mountain climber named Alex Honnold, said, “By not believing in an afterlife, it forces you to make the most out of this life to get the most out of the time you have.”

Well, the Sadducees didn't believe in an afterlife, so their behavior lines up perfectly with this atheist perspective.

This life is all we have, so we need to be right, and we need to be in control.

In other words, the Sadducees and the atheists are simply different kinds of hedonists -- determined to get the most of whatever they find most important. (The difference: Sadducees still obeyed an Old Testament ethic of sorts; modern atheists determine for themselves what's important and how to get it.)

These atheists would say to Peter: "That's so great that you did such a nice thing for that crippled man. But could you please tone down the religious talk? We don't care."

And thus everything comes back to the two humanity-changing verses in this week's passage:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.
Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide.

The Jewish leaders didn't get to decide if Jesus was the Messiah.

Atheists don't get to decide whether or not God exists.

And if Peter's two statements are correct, not only is his response the only right response, but it is also the only moral response. We share the gospel with atheists because they are wrong about the afterlife, and if they persist on that path, they will spend eternity in hell. We share the gospel with them because we don't want that for them. Or for anybody!

Think about what Peter has done -- he has shared the gospel with his enemies! With the people responsible for the death of Jesus! If they were to listen to him and repent, God would forgive their sin and save them. (Do y'all remember the story of Jonah? ...)

What principled stand do you need to take in your life? In what way will that stand help you promote the good news about Jesus? What can your Bible study group do to support you and encourage you?


Closing Thoughts: The Case for Christ

This post is already far too long, so I'll make this brief. Do you remember the book, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel? I hope you do.

One of the pieces of evidence he gives demonstrating the truth of Bible is the changed life of the disciples, and he points specifically to this sermon by Peter. Peter was the man who was so scared by a servant girl that he denied even knowing Jesus. And here he is, just a few months later, eloquently standing up in the Sanhedrin enduring the threat of punishment defending the truth about Jesus Christ.

The only logical explanation for this is that Peter saw the risen Christ and was changed by Him.


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