As we start with Acts 4:5, we quickly smell something very fishy. Annas is high priest and we see that he is related to Ciaphas and many others from his family are with him. It takes a little digging, but we can quickly discover what is going on here.
While Jesus condemns the Jews’ religious leaders often, we never get a full explanation in the gospels of what went so horribly wrong with them. This passage offers us a window into their dysfunction. The selection process for high priest was supposed to be done by casting lots. You can think of it as a little less random than a lottery, but it’s the same principle. Ciaphas had just been high priest when Jesus was crucified. To have two high priests from the same family in such a short amount of time seems a little less random than casting lots. And it was.
Politics had gotten involved in the selection of the high priest and under Herod the Great, he began appointing high priests so he could maintain control over his Jewish constituency. This goes against the “calling” that God had intended and turned high priest into a political appointee position. Look at how the writer of Hebrews described it:
Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.
This may help us understand why the Jewish leadership had strayed so far from the truth. One family was obviously running the show against the will of God, and they were about to stand against God again. They asked Peter and John by who’s authority they healed the man from chapter 3. Peter wasted no time with his reply.
The same boldness that got him thrown in jail comes out here again, with apparently little or no fear of the same people that had recently condemned Jesus to death. Peter tells them it was under Jesus’ authority and that they had crucified the on God had intended to be their foundation.
These same men who had condemned Jesus to death only months earlier were stunned when they saw how courageous Peter and John were. They would have liked to deal with them harshly as well, but the lame man was standing in front of them all so there was little they could do and not look like hypocrites. For some reason they thought they could ask Peter and John to stop speaking of Jesus, but the two made it very clear that was not going to happen.
What comes next is one of the most pivotal events in the book of Acts. Peter and John had acted and spoken very courageously, but they knew all too well of how capable they were of being very cowardly. Remember that Peter and John had both fled when Jesus was arrested and Peter denied he ever knew Jesus (John 18). Because they understood their own human frailty, the lead the entire company of disciples, now over 5,000 strong, in a prayer.
They asked the Lord to grant them all great boldness to speak His word. They knew this was not going to be their last encounter with hostile rulers. Jesus had assured them of that:
12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13And so you will bear testimony to me. 14But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17Everyone will hate you because of me. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19Stand firm, and you will win life.
What is most important to note about the believers’ prayer in Acts 4, is what they tied their boldness to. They asked the Lord to stretch out His hand to perform “signs and wonders” through Jesus. Peter and John knew that the healing of the lame man had given them such great boldness that it was a worthwhile model to emulate in the future. It was as if they told the people it was much easier to have boldness when you just healed someone!
God wanted to make sure that they all knew He liked the prayer very much. God put an exclamation mark on that prayer by sending an earthquake that shook the place they were.
God’s Exclamation Marks
Earthquakes do happen all the time somewhere on planet earth, but when they come at the end of a prayer like that, everyone in attendance knew why it had happened. God was letting them know He approved of their request and it was going to be something that marked New Testament Christianity for centuries.
Boldness apart from God’s supernatural intervention is very difficult, and it is one reason why the Western church is so very powerless today. We cannot divorce God’s manifest activity from His message. We would do well to continue asking for this very same thing today that the believers in Acts 4 did.
These events further increased the communal lifestyle the believers had begun living after the day of Pentecost. They sold what they needed to provide for everyone and it was an extremely joyous time. What would it look like for a church community today to have no one needy among them?
This chapter ends with Luke introducing a person who will play a key role through the rest of Acts. Barnabas was an expatriated Levite from the island of Cyprus. His name was Joseph, but the apostles quickly took a liking to him and even gave him a nickname. What an honor to be known by the nickname the Apostles of the Lamb gave you, the foundation of the eternal Jerusalem!
Barnabas is going to become one of the most pivotal figures we will see in the next several chapters of Acts, and what a nickname; “son of encouragement!”
Questions for Chapters 4:5-4:37
- Where do you see signs of corruption in God’s ordained processes today?
- What do you think it would feel like to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and have Peter’s boldness?
- Did God stop ordaining people like He used to for the high priests, or does He still do it today? Why? Where does He do that? Has God ordained you to do what you are doing now?
- What would it take for you to live communally like these disciples did in Acts? Do you think that would work in our culture today? Do you think it was normal in theirs?