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"Apostles vs. Sanhedrin - Round 1."

MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 10, 2010 FROM ACTS 4:1-22

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Read Acts 4:1-22

          This week, we continue our series from the book of Acts.  Last time, we were in chapter three where Jesus, through Peter heals a man who had been lame from birth.  In response to the miraculous healing, large crowds assembled outside the temple and Peter preached to them his second sermon recorded in Acts.  As we heard a few minutes ago, many Jews believed in Jesus as a result and at this point a total of 5000 men had trusted Christ with probably many other women.  Within a couple of hours of the healing and Peter’s message, word gets out to the Jewish religious authorities and they are not happy.  In many ways, this scene is an echo from the ministry of Jesus.  How many times in the gospels do we see Jesus perform a public miracle and then meet with opposition by the Jewish religious leaders who would confront him.  Jesus in turn then exposes their pettiness through sometimes stinging rebukes.  That pattern is more or less repeated here. The only difference is that the apostles are taking Jesus’ role of healing and rebuking.

          As is often the case in the gospels, the two main characters are the Jewish authorities and Jesus—who in this case is represented by Peter and John.  This morning, we want to look at this text by dividing it along these two groups.  First, we want to look at two characteristics of the Jewish leaders and then three characteristics of Peter and John and from those, see what this text can teach us.  As we turn to the Jewish leaders, Luke wants us to know that this healing and Peter’s message were of great concern to them.  We know that because the most prominent spiritual leaders in Judaism become involved in this situation.  Those who show up a short time after the healing are listed in verse one as “…the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees…   

The captain of the temple would have been the head of the temple police who came upon the scene because the large crowd has drawn his attention.  The Sadducees were a group overshadowed in the gospels by the Pharisees because the stricter, more conservative Pharisees were constantly in conflict with Jesus.  But, it was the Sadducees who possessed most of the political and religious power within Judaism.  These were men of wealth and position in society.  The High Priests were always Sadducees during this time of Jewish history and many on the ruling council called “the Sanhedrin” were Sadducees as well.  They were also Bible teachers, but were distinguished by the fact that they were not looking for a Messiah--they were closely aligned politically with the Roman authorities because they liked having the clout that that association brought them and perhaps most importantly (as we see in the gospels), the Sadducees rejected any notion of resurrection.

So Peter is preaching a resurrected Jesus whose resurrection established him as the Messiah.  It’s easy to see why the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in a Messiah and who didn’t believe in a resurrection) were–to use Luke’s words, “greatly annoyed” by this message Peter was preaching.  These men placed Peter and John in jail because it was too late in the day for a trial.  The following day, the real power brokers of Judaism show up.  Verse five says, “On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” The “rulers” would have been the 71 members of the Sanhedrin who had obviously been notified and have come to rule on this matter.  The “elders” would have been the Jewish civic leaders—heads of families and tribes.  The “scribes” would have been religious teachers of one sort or another.[1]  Finally, we see the high priest, Caiaphas and a former high priest Annas—who led the opposition against Jesus.  And we also have all the rest of the high priestly family.  This group held all the religious, political and social power within Palestinian Judaism—the executive, legislative, judicial and cultural Jewish leaders are here gathered and its before these leaders that these two disciples were to make their defense.  I see two characteristics of this group of Jewish leaders manifest in this passage and we would do well to learn from their negative examples.

          The first characteristic of the Jewish leaders is:  Their jealous coveting of spiritual and religious authority.  As they begin the trial, their one and only question of Peter and John is in verse seven, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  That’s the crux of the matter for them.  A great miracle has been done—a man lame from birth is up walking, leaping and praising God—the Jews are awed by this clear work of God done by two men who take no credit for themselves and their question about the miracle is “By what power or by what name did you do this?  This tells us a great deal about them, doesn’t it? They really don’t care about this man, whose life has been radically changed for the better.  They really don’t care about the fact that God has done something marvelous in their midst, or that the Jews they are shepherding are rejoicing in God because of this miracle.  Their main concern is one of authority.  The question in the Greek is worded as if to say, “Who are YOU to do this?”

          This is not a new concern for these people.  We see it in how they related to Jesus in places like Luke 20.  1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”  Both of these cases indicate that the Jewish religious leaders were in the most literal sense, godless.  The reason is because it would have been clear to anyone genuinely seeking the truth, in both the case of Jesus and the apostles, that the authority behind the miracles was God.  As we said last time, at this time in history, only God was doing these kinds of miracles.  We know from the gospels that the Jewish leaders really did recognize that Jesus was from God, but they refused to openly acknowledge it because in the end, God and his plan were not nearly as important to them as protecting their authority.  Nicodemus in John 3 was doubtless speaking for many of the religious leaders when in verse two he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Deep in their hearts they knew Jesus was from God and they killed him anyway.  Ultimately, these men didn’t care that his authority came from God, they wanted to BE God and as a result they held a jealous, white-knuckle grip on their exclusive authority in these matters.  What’s behind this in both the case of Jesus and the apostles is the jealous question, “If God is going to do miracles, why isn’t he doing it through US?”  To them, they were the obvious choice for any miracle making from God.

          We see this self-centered concern all the time in the political realm in both parties.  Something potentially damaging—a scandal of some sort happens to a particular party. The response is almost never—it seems—do an open inquiry of the matter with the genuine intent of knowing the truth, honestly report it, and admit all areas of culpability.  Instead, we see the scandal erupt and immediately they kick into “damage control mode”.  The party officials begin circling the wagons and distributing carefully worded, but highly evasive party line messages.  And their sole motivation in how they handle the matter is to preserve their political power and position. Perversely, that’s what is going on here—damage control.  It’s not about truth or a sincere concern about a possible abuse of authority—it’s about these Jewish leaders doing what they need to do to hang onto their power.

          Sadly, you hear about this happening in churches as well.  A matter comes up that impacts the church and a decision is made by the leadership.  Certain people will always resent that decision, not because of its merits, but because they didn’t get to decide.  To some, the most important question in their minds is not—what are the merits of the decision, but rather—who gets to make the decision.  The hard hearts of these leaders are seen in their jealous coveting of spiritual and religious authority and we must be careful of that as well.  Another example of their hard hearts is: Their stubborn refusal to admit the obvious.  The self-centered agenda of the religious leaders is transparent in their response to this miracle.  They want to shut this entire Jesus movement down.  They doubtless assumed that once they killed Jesus, that would have “cut the head off the snake,” so to speak.  What they didn’t count on was that Jesus would be resurrected and his followers would come back and preach in his name.[2]  Now, they were faced with a potentially worse problem than they had with Jesus because Jesus had in effect, multiplied himself.

          Jesus had check-mated them here.  In verse 14 we read, “but seeing the [healed] man standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.”  They couldn’t.  All the evidence was against them.  God had clearly done something and the presence of a bona-fide miracle completely trumped any objection they might make.  In verse 17, the leaders say in response to the miracle and the teaching of Peter, “…in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”  They liken the influence of Christ to a disease, the spread of which they must stop.  There’s no thought given to God’s will—the agenda is to control the situation.  Notice in all of this that these Sadducees—who reject the resurrection, never argue with Peter about his claim that God raised Jesus from the dead.  Though these men had tried to make the resurrection of Jesus look as if the body had been stolen, they don’t float that suggestion here.  They know Jesus was raised from the dead.  They stubbornly refuse to admit the obvious. 

As unflattering as this portrayal is of the religious rulers, we can and do act the same way.  We get into a disagreement with our spouse or a close associate and they are clearly in the right.  Instead of admitting that, we stubbornly hang on to our position, go down in flames, and often unnecessarily hurt others.  The religious leaders had dug in their heels in the face of obvious evidence against them.  We must allow their negative example to warn us here of our stubborn pride.  That’s the religious leaders’ examples.

          In the case of Peter and John, we want to look for the positive examples they leave for us to follow.  As you think about this chapter, put yourself in their sandals for just a moment from a human perspective.  Only a couple of months before this incident, they had seen this same group of religious leaders conspire together to crucify their Master in the face of far greater evidence that he was a man of God.  Peter and John doubtless knew that if the council would oppose Jesus, who had developed a large following, they would oppose them with the same lethal force.  So, they are arrested and have a night in jail to think about the events of the past few months.  They stand in what may have very well been the same place they saw their Master stand on the night that he was betrayed and before the same powerful people.  Apart from the grace of God, these men have every right to be paralyzed with fear.  But their response does not betray one iota of fear, but instead tremendous, Holy Spirit-inspired courage.  The first example of this we could call—Their unflinching willingness to confront sin.  We see this in verses 10-11 as Peter, filled with the Spirit says, “let it be know to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.”

                    These Jewish leaders, on a human level, had the power of life and death over Peter and John.  Only a short time later, some of these same members of the Sanhedrin would execute Stephen.  Yet, Peter when he is on trial very quickly moves from the defense to the prosecution as he takes control of this trial by, to their face, charging them with the unjust murder of Jesus Christ.  In Peter’s very first mention of Jesus Christ to these men, he refers to him as the One “whom you crucified.”  There is nothing subtle, diplomatic or politically correct here.  This is amazing boldness on the part of Peter.  Not only does Peter, to their face, accuse them of the unjust crucifixion of Jesus, he explains who Jesus is in a way to highlight their own cosmic foolishness.  Peter identifies Jesus in verse 11 as  “…the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 

                   This would have cut these leaders like a knife in several ways.  First, because Peter condemns them from their own Scripture, quoting Psalm 118:22.  By choosing this verse, which Jesus also used to refer to himself, Peter exposes what a sham these leaders were.  The reason is because in the original historical context of the Psalm, the “stone” that was rejected was the righteous, rejected king of Israel, but those who rejected him in the context of the Psalm were those evil, pagan nations that opposed Israel.[3]  These Jewish Bible scholars would have gotten the message and knew that when Peter calls them the builders who reject the righteous king, he was putting them in the place of those pagan nations who opposed God and his people.  This would have been a very infuriating charge for these leaders who believed they were God’s anointed--Israel’s best and brightest.  Beyond that, the masonry metaphor makes them look like fools when you think about it. The cornerstone was the largest and most important stone in the building.  It holds up two intersecting walls[4] and establishes what is plumb and right for the rest of the building.  If the cornerstone is good, the building can be well established.  If it is bad, the building will be uninhabitable. 

                   Those who should have been the most qualified to make a sound judgment on the fitness of the cornerstone were the builders—these leaders.  It was their business to know what qualities make up a good cornerstone.  Yet these builders look at the perfect cornerstone—the righteous King Jesus…and reject him as unfit.  This condemns them as spiritual leaders because when it comes to choosing the most important piece in God’s building temple—they utterly blow it.  For a builder to reject a perfect cornerstone would clearly indict him as incompetent.  Yet, that is precisely what Peter is implying in his condemnation of them through this Psalm.   And we must remember that the people of Peter’s day would have seen him and John as unlearned fishermen.  Successful businessmen perhaps, but hardly qualified to stand toe-to-toe on spiritual matters with Bible scholars who had given their lives to the study of God’s word and who had been rigorously educated and trained by brilliant teachers.  Yet, here they are--delivering a knock-out punch that sent these leaders reeling.  This is another of the many David and Goliath type accounts in the Bible.

We see this in verse 13.  Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.” Then Luke adds, “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.  It’s amazing how much theological sophistication and wisdom you can get by just “being with Jesus” and these men had spent the better part of three years with him.  That truth should not be lost in a church where we train many of our pastors without the benefit of seminary education. The apostles didn’t have advanced degrees, but they had been with Jesus and as a result they were unflinching in their willingness to confront even the sin of these religious scholars and authorities.

          A second example of their boldness is seen in--Their brazen declaration of the exclusivity of Christ for salvation.   After Peter by implication declares these leaders unfit because they rejected Jesus, he continues in verse 12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Within his message, Peter is here explaining what it means for Jesus to be the cornerstone.  The cornerstone of God’s people is the One who saves God’s people and just as there is only one cornerstone, there is only one Savior. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  This claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation is the great stumbling block of the gospel today in our society that prides itself on its “open-mindedness.”  We saw this just this past week when journalist Britt Hume, an evangelical Christian, in response to a question about Tiger Woods, urged Tiger to accept the “`forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith.” At the same time he compared Buddhism unfavorably to the redemption that can be experienced through Christ.[5]

          As you can imagine, Hume was savaged in the press for what one journalist called his “truly embarrassing” remark and especially for claiming that Christianity was superior to Buddhism.  To claim today that Jesus Christ is superior to other religious leaders, or to hold that Biblical Christianity is the only way to God is perhaps the quickest way for you to be written off as an insensitive, intolerant, sanctimonious nutjob.  But Peter had seen Jesus crucified—he had watched him be crushed by his heavenly Father while he was on the cross. And he knew that if there was any other way to salvation, then that hideous crushing of the Son by the Father would have been the grossest injustice of all time.  If salvation could be won or found in any other person, then Jesus’ heavenly Father is guilty of divine child abuse.  Jesus would simply have not needed to suffer in that manner if there would have other ways to salvation.  Jesus asks the Father in Gethsemane if there were any other way and there wasn’t.  This was it and the cross of Christ ALONE purchases sinners for God.  The cross ALONE brings forgiveness to rebels like you and me.  The cross of Christ ALONE defeats the power of sin and death and hell.  The cross of Christ ALONE satisfies the wrath of God that sinners duly deserve.  The cross of Christ ALONE is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan begun before the foundation of the world and the cross of Christ ALONE brings to light the glory of God by showing the indescribable love and grace and justice he displayed there.

          If you are ever tempted to join the open-minded, pluralistic crowd that believes all paths to God are equally valid, remember what worldview implies for the Father crushing the Son on the cross.  If Jesus Christ isn’t the only way to God, then that negates the underlying truth of all Scripture, which is that God can be known by rebel sinners only by means of his redemptive plan and work in Christ.  We must not allow the prevailing hostility to that truth intimidate us from unapologetically declaring that Jesus is the only way to God.  We mustn’t stick our finger up in the air to help us know what to say on this matter.  We must, like Peter—brazenly declare the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation and let the chips fall where they may. 

A final example the apostles set for us is found in verse 16.  The religious leaders had forbidden them to speak or teach in Jesus’ name.  That was the best plan they could come up with because the Jews were so astonished by the healing, it would have been impossible for the Jews to kill Peter or John at this time.  In response to that prohibition, Peter says, “…Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.  Again, the rulers try to put the apostles on the defensive with this prohibition, but Peter refuses to stay in that place.  He says in effect, “Look, you seem to want to make a judgment here.  So decide this question—Is it right for us to obey you or God?  And while you are deliberating that question, we’re going to be out preaching Jesus because we can’t stop telling what we have seen and heard.”  Peter brazenly declares the exclusivity of Christ for salvation and in so doing sets a badly needed example for us who live in this world that despises that message.

          A final example of these apostles worth following is similar and that is--Their impassioned desire to please God and not man.  The apostles establish a crucial precedent at this very first moment of persecution.  They make clear that there is nothing the rulers can do to them that will cause them to shut up.  It was crucial to establish that early.  They are clearly not afraid of these rulers and, as they assumed with Jesus, its clear even from these earliest moments of the church that in order to silence these apostles…the rulers will have to kill them.  Oh, would that that could be said of us.  “You know, you’ll never get her to shut up about Jesus unless you kill her.”  The result was that these Jewish leaders find that in their first attempt at damage control over an incident which clearly threatened them, they failed dismally.  For their part, the apostles had doubtless remembered Jesus’ promise to them in Luke 21:14.  Jesus is speaking of what the apostles are to do when they find themselves delivered over to the authorities for persecution and says, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.”   

          This incident, like so many of the others we will read in the book of Acts, demonstrates that God is faithful to his promise.  That is precisely what happened here.  We must know that ultimately this is not at all a story of the apostle’s intestinal fortitude, but of God’s faithfulness. He was faithful to fill Peter with the Spirit and enable him the boldness and wisdom to shred these godless Jewish religious leaders.  They were, as Jesus promised, unable to “withstand or contradict” him.   Peter and John were in so far over their heads here, but if God is for us, who can be against us?  The rulers weren’t fighting Peter and John, they were fighting Jesus!  That is also true for us as we face the opposition that comes as we try to live faithfully to Christ in a world that is hostile to the gospel.  I don’t know what opposition you are facing now, but the example of these apostles tells us that no matter how intimidating the opposition, we are more than able to overcome as we go in the strength and power of Christ, stepping out in faith and trusting in his promises.  May God give all of us the grace to speak and live boldly in this world that opposes Christ.


[1] Bock, Acts, p. 189.

[2]Inspired by a similar expression used by Bock, Acts, p.188.

[3] Bock, Acts, p.193.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Washington Post—Michael Gerson, Friday, Jan 8, 2010. http://www.washintonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/07/ARC101000703244.html?nav=rss_opinion/columns .

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