I’ve been reading for a few minutes every day — really every night, just before turning off the lights — in the Greek text of Acts, slowly going through a chapter each week. So, with that background, I offer a few rather obvious comments today on Acts 4. For my English text, simply so that it will be slightly fresh, I use the English Standard Version or ESV:
4 And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.
- The transformation in Peter and John is nothing short of astonishing. They had been village fishermen along the northwestern shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee, as it is often slightly miscalled by Christians) — “uneducated, common men” (ἄνθρωποι ἀγράμματοί . . . καὶ ἰδιῶται), as 4:13 terms them — and, on the Saturday following Christ’s crucifixion, they had been hiding out in Jerusalem, waiting to be arrested. Now, they’re preaching in the most public place in Jerusalem, indeed in all of Palestine. And what are they preaching?
- If the account in Acts is at all accurate — and something like what it records must have happened, since Christianity did in fact survive and spread — they are preaching Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. The chronologies that I’ve consulted all suggest, quite reasonably in my view, that this is taking place within roughly a year of the execution of Jesus, and it’s happening in Jerusalem, where the place of Jesus’ burial would have been widely known. If his body were still in the tomb, somebody could simply have pointed it out and that would have been the end of the matter. To ancient Jews, resurrection meant bodily resurrection. If the tomb is still occupied, Jesus is not risen.
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, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.”
- Here they are, speaking before “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” (4:1), and they’re not holding anything back: “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” The opposition between God, on the one hand, and the priests, temple captain, and Sadducees, on the other, could scarcely have been more starkly expressed. You want to know in whose name we worked this miracle? We did it in the name of Jesus, whom you murdered but whom God restored to life and, thus, ratified to your condemnation.
11 “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.”
- Again, the opposition of Jerusalem’s elite to God, and of God to the elite, could hardly be clearer. You’re the builders. You rejected this stone (Christ) for the building that you’re constructing. But God overruled you: He not only accepted the rejected stone, he’s made it the cornerstone of the whole structure.
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.”
- In the face of the very men, many of them the religious leaders of the Jewish establishment, who had recently supervised the judicial murder of Jesus — including Annas and Caiaphas, no less (4:6) — Peter and John testify that Jesus is the only pathway to God.
13 Now when they saw the boldness (παρρησίαν) of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men (ἄνθρωποι ἀγράμματοί . . . καὶ ἰδιῶται), they were astonished.
- And we should be astonished, too. What is it that has effected this transformation? What has made these rural Galilean fishermen fearless public figures, willing to confront the elite of their nation in their national capital and at the most prominent place in Judaism? The change demands an explanation.
- 4:13 goes on to say “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” That is, the chief priests and others had not recognized Peter and John as leaders of the Christian movement until the apostles essentially came right out and identified themselves. This was daring.
- The vocabulary behind “uneducated, common men” (ἄνθρωποι ἀγράμματοί . . . καὶ ἰδιῶται) is worth noting: The Greek term ἀγράμματοί (agrammatoi) is clear enough: The “alpha privative” (a-) is familiar even in English, where we have asymptomatic, apathetic, atheistic, apolitical, asocial, and a host of other examples. It means “not,” or “without.” The word agrammatoi means “without grammar,” or maybe “unlettered.” The apostles are plainly contrasted with the γραμματεῖς (grammateis, “scribes”) of 4:5. But ἰδιῶται (idiōtai, “common [men]”) gives me a chuckle. Our English word idiot derives from Greek idiōtēs. But idiōtēs originally meant something like “private.” We still see that sense in words like idiom and idiosyncratic. (I chuckled, likewise, when reading πρεσβυτέρους (4:4) and πρεσβύτεροι (4:8, 23), which could be quasi-accurately but wrongly translated not as “elders” but as “Presbyterians.”)
18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.
- The most powerful men in Jerusalem had already kept Peter and John overnight in prison, and now they threaten them further. Are the two apostles intimidated? Not at all. They are defiant. They announce their intention to continue preaching. Where, before, they had been terrified of the authorities, now they have no fear at all. Again, what has changed them?
29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
- “Boldness” is a recurrent theme of Acts 4. Peter and John were already described as preaching with “boldness” (παρρησίαν) at 4:13. Now, at 4:29, the disciples more generally pray to speak “with all boldness” (μετὰ παρρησίας πάσης). And, at 4:31, we’re told that they did in fact proclaim the Christian message “with boldness” (μετὰ παρρησίας). Without the resurrection of Christ, how is this to be explained?