Acts 4:1-35

A Bible Study led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

February 26, 2009


(Acts 4:1-35)


In our last session we saw that the idyllic early days of the church were soon interrupted by the attacks of Satan from both within and without the new fellowship.  Beginning in Acts 4, we encounter a series of events in which the young church comes under attack.  These events include:

·         The arrest of Peter and John after the healing of a lame man in the temple (Acts 3 & 4)

·         The attempt of Ananias and Sapphira to deceive the apostles (Acts 5)

·         The arrest, miraculous release, re-arrest, and release of the apostles (Acts 5)

·         The controversy between the Hellenistic Jews and native Hebrews (Acts 6)

·         The death of Stephen, the first disciple to be martyred and the subsequent persecution of the church led by Saul (Acts 7 & 8)

How the young church responded to these events provides us an excellent model for dealing with the attacks of Satan in our lives.


When Peter and John healed the lame man who was begging alms by a temple gate (Acts 3:1-10), that caught the attention of a great crowd of people who witnessed the once lame man “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8).  When Peter used the occasion to proclaim that the miracle was performed by the authority/power of Jesus and that Jesus, the One they crucified but Whom God raised from the dead, was the long awaited Messiah, that caught the attention of the temple authorities.  Acts 4 tells the story of what happened.  Luke relates the story in four main movements:

1.      The arrest of Peter and John (Acts 4:1-4)

2.      The trial of Peter and John (Acts 4:5-22)

3.      The response of the church (Acts 4:23-31)

4.      The state of the church following the event (Acts 4:32-35)


The arrest of Peter and John (Acts 4:1-4)

Verse 1“And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees came upon them…”

“And as they were speaking…” – The implication is that Peter and John were not finished.  They were interrupted, almost as if in mid-sentence.  Perhaps the reference to their “wicked ways” in the last verse of chapter 3 was the last straw.  It is certainly possible that all the commotion caught the attention of the temple authorities and as they listened to Peter’s words they became more and more disturbed the longer he spoke.  Finally, they had heard enough and they silenced him.

“…the priests and the captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees…” – This actions seems to have been instigated by the Sadducees.  They were one of two main sects in first century Judaism, the other being the Pharisees.  The Sadducees:

·         Were the priestly aristocracy and controlled the administration of the temple and thus the temple guard.

·         Rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees and accepted on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as their religious authority.

·         Did not believe in the resurrection, the existence of angels, or the existence of demons because those teachings did not appear in the Pentateuch.

·         Pursued a policy of accommodation with Rome.


Verse 2 tells us the authorities were “greatly disturbed” by Peter and John.  This phrase has been translated “highly incensed” or “sorely troubled” or “grieved” or “annoyed.”  The root meaning of the word is to labor or work until one is worn out.  The root meaning of the word carries the idea of laboring until one is worn out.  Peter and John “wore them out” with their preaching!  They were “greatly disturbed” because Peter and John were:

“…teaching the people…” – From the viewpoint of the authorities Peter and John did not have the proper credentials.  They had not attended the rabbinic schools. 

…proclaiming is Jesus the resurrection from the dead…” – This directly conflicted with the teaching of the Sadducees.


Verse 3 tells us what they did.

“…laid hands on them…” – They physically took them into custody.

“…put them in jail until the next day…” – It was three in the afternoon (“the ninth hour” – Acts 3:1) when Peter and John went to the temple.  The day ended at 6:00 p.m.  Since it was already late in the day and since according to Jewish law trials were not to be held at night (even though they made an exception in the case of Jesus!), Peter and John were kept in custody until the next day.


Verse 4 tells us that many responded to the responded to message about Jesus.  Many commentators view the 5000 men mentioned in this verse as a cumulative number added to the church to that point in time.


The trial of Peter and John (Acts 4:5-22)

Verses 5-6 describe the make-up of the court before which Peter and John appeared.  Even though the word is not used, it is generally assumed that this was the Sanhedrin (the word means court) which was the Jewish high court which dealt with both religious and political matters.  The Sanhedrin consisted of the high priest and seventy others.  It is referred to as “the Council” in Acts 5:21 and “the Council of elders” in Acts 22:5.  Sometimes, as in the case of these verses, it is referred to by the groups which made up the court.  The court was made up of three groups:

“rulers” – Probably a reference to the Sadducees who were in the majority.

”elders” – The heads of key families.  While this term describes all the members, it may also be a reference to those who were neither rulers or scribes.

“scribes” – These were the professional interpreters of the law and were mostly Pharisees.

Four individuals are mentioned by name:

“Annas the high priest…” – Some contend that Luke made an historical error in identifying Annas as the high priest.  They point out that he was appointed as high priest in 6 A.D. and served in that position for only eight years.  However, Luke was correct in identifying him as the high priest because was the real power behind the position.  Annas had five sons who served as high priest and the current high priest, Caiaphas, was his son-in-law.  While he was removed from office by the Romans, the Jews still considered him the rightful high priest.

“Caiaphas” – Served as high priest from A.D. 18-36, longer than any member of Annas’ family.

“John” – Some identify him as a son of Annas who followed Caiaphas in the office of high priest.

“Alexander” – His identity is unknown.


Verse7 sets forth the basic accusation against Peter and John.

“…placed them in the center…” – The Sanhedrin was arranged in a semi-circle and the accused was placed in the middle for questioning.

“By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” – The pronoun “you” is placed at the end of the question in the Greek.  The connotation is that of scorn or contempt.  The idea is, “How was this done by people like you?”


Verses 8-12  contain the defense of Peter and John.  The verb tense of “filled” in the phrase “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit…” indicates a special moment of inspiration.  The idea is that he was filled with the Holy Spirit for this special occasion.  This is a fulfillment of what Jesus promised His followers in Luke 12:11-12.  Notice:

·         The biting sarcasm of Peter in verse 9 – “…if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well…”

·         The boldness of Peter in verse 10 – “…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, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands before you in good health.”  They were guilty of putting God’s Son to death, as we all are.  John R.W. Stott wrote:

We ourselves are also guilty.  If we were in their place, we would have done what they did.  Indeed, we have done it … We too sacrifice Jesus to our greed like Judas, to our envy like the priests, to our ambition like Pilate … We may try to wash our hands of responsibility like Pilate.  But our attempt will be as futile as his.  For there is blood on our hands.  Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading to repentance). [John R.W. Stott, quoted in The Book of Acts, the Smart Guide to the Bible series]


·         The proclamation of the gospel by Peter in verses 11-12 – Quoting Psalm 118:22 Peter points out they had rejected the very one God sent as the Messiah, the only one in whom is salvation.


Verses 13-22 describes the deliberation of the court, the decision of the court, the response of Peter and John, and the conclusion of the event.

·         The deliberation of the court (vv.13-15)

“observed” (v.13) – Suggests a deliberate contemplation.  They studied Peter and John.

“uneducated and untrained men” – Peter and John had not received the appropriate theological education in the rabbinical schools of Jerusalem.  Ironically, the court did not recognize they had been disciple by God, Himself!

“they were marveling” (v.13) – This reaction is similar to the way the people in the temple reacted to the healing of the lame man (see Acts 3:9).  The members of the court knew that something miraculous had happened and they knew that Peter and John had a part in the event.  They simply could not reconcile those two indisputable facts.

“began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” – Maybe someone pointed it out or maybe their Galilean speech gave them away or maybe their composure reminded them of when Jesus was before them.

“they had nothing to say in reply” (v.14) – The presence of the healed man took away in a option they had to discredit Peter and John.  They could not deny what was apparent to all!

·         The decision of the court (vv.17-18) – The Sadducees were unpopular with the multitudes and, at this point, Peter and John were revered by those who witnessed the miracle.  So, the court was powerless to do anything except warn Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (v.18) which means they were not to speak or teach on the basis of Jesus’ name or in the authority of Jesus’ name.  In other words, they were not to talk about Jesus.

·         The response of Peter and John (vv.19-20) – Again the biting sarcasm of Peter and John is evident in these verses.  In effect they said, “You are the ones with the great theological education.  We’ve been told by God to share these things.  You can argue about whether it is right for us to obey God or to obey you.  As for us, the choice is easy.  We are going to obey God!”

·         The conclusion of the event (vv.21-22) – Because they had no legitimate reason to continue holding Peter and John and because the people were buzzing over the miracle that occurred, all the court could do was to threaten them further and then let them go.


The response of the church (Acts 4:23-31) – These verses contain the first recorded prayer meeting of the church after the Day of Pentecost.  There were obviously others, but this one had special significance.  The church faced a crisis.  To continue speaking in the name of Jesus meant disobeying the Jewish authorities.  To not continue speaking meant disobeying God.  There was no question which path they would take, but they needed God’s strength to walk that path.  So, “they lifted up their voices to God with one accord…” (v.24). They were moved by a common impulse, a unity of spirit to turn to God in prayer.

Verses 24b-30 give the content of the prayer.

·         It is addressed to God.  The prayer begins with the word despota which the NASB translates “O Lord” and the RSV translated “Sovereign Lord.”  The normal Greek word for Lord is kurios.  The word despota carries the idea of a master/slave relationship.  God is the Master and we are to follow His will.  God is acknowledged in this prayer as Creator (24b) and the author of Scripture (v.25a).  In comparison to a God like that, the Jewish high court did not seem so intimidating!

·         It included the use of Scripture.  Two Old Testament passages are quoted in the prayer.

o   The phrase “…didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them…” in verse24 comes from Nehemiah 9:6 and Psalm 146:6.

o   Verses 25b-26 are a direct quote of Psalm 2:1-2 from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament).  Verses 27-28 apply the quote from Psalm 2 to the 1st century.  It seems that Luke equates the “Gentiles” and “kings” in Psalm 2 with Herod and Pontius Pilate.  The “rulers” seem to represent the Jewish leaders before whom Jesus appeared and before whom Peter and John appeared.

·         It was characterized by a deep confidence in God.  They made three specific requests of God in this prayer in verses 29 & 30.

o   They asked that God would take note of the threats made against them (v.29).  Notice they did not tell God how to respond to the threats.  With complete trust they left that in His hands.

o   They asked God to grant them boldness to continue speaking His word (v.29).

o   They asked that God would verify their witness with healings, signs, and wonders.  The word translated “heal” in v.30 is a medical term used only three times in the New Testament.  It appears twice in the Gospel of Luke and in this passage.


Verse 31 tells us the results of their prayer.  Three specific results are mentioned.

·         “…the place where they had gathered together was shaken…”They prayed to God as Lord of creation and in response God gave them an external sign of His power over creation.

·         “…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…” – It is interesting that this is not that for which they had they prayed.  Nowhere in Acts does anyone pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Their request was for boldness to speak God’s word.  They were filled because they were submissive to the will of God. This is the third reference to the disciples being filled with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:4 and 4:8).  This experience is one that can and should be repeated.  One person writes:

We may be sure that it is proper, indeed desirable, for believers to ask for the Spirit continually (Luke 11:13), but it is not necessary to do so in so many words in order to have the Spirit’s presence or assistance … We may be led, in fact, to believe from Acts 4:31 that wherever there is the prayerful desire among Christians for the service of Christ there is the full gift of the Spirit. [F.D. Brunner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p171]


·         “...began to speak the word of God with boldness…” – The word translated “boldness” is parresia.  It is from a preposition meaning “all” or “every” and an noun meaning “speech.”  It is the same word translated “confidence” at the end of verse 29.  It is also used in verse 13 to describe Peter and John before the Jewish court.  The word means freedom of speech or freedom to speak.  This was a direct answer to that for which they had prayed in verse 29.


The state of the church following this event (Acts 4:32-35) – This is the third of the nine summary passages in Acts describing the state of the church at particular points in time (see Acts 1:14; 2:43-47; 4:32-35; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31).  This passage is very similar to Acts 2:43-47 at which we look in session 5 of this study.  During these days the young fellowship was characterized by:

·         A spirit of oneness and harmony – “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and sould…” (v.32)

·         A spirit of sharing – “…and all things were common property to them … there was not a needy person among them…” (vv.32 and 33)

·         Faithful witness – “…with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” (v.33)

The statement in verse 33 that “…abundant grace was upon them all…” sums up the state of the church at this point in time.  One writer says of that statement:

Wherever you went you found “grace” – mercy, kindness, acceptance, honesty, forgiveness, generosity (Acts 4:33).  The way Jesus’ followers lived together was powerful proof he was alive.  This visible evidence added impact to the Christian’s claim that Jesus had risen and was living in them. [The Book of Acts, the Smart Guide to the Bible series]


Practical Application from Acts 4:1-35

1.      God can and does use people that others think are unusable.  The Jewish leaders could not believe that God would choose to speak through common people such as Peter and John.


2.      God empowers us for life’s most difficult and challenging moments.  That does not mean we sail through those times with no difficulty or pain.  But it does mean that we get through them.


3.      This passage gives us a formula for making it through those times of difficulty.


a.       Seek the help, support, companionship of spiritual people.  That statement in Acts 4:23 is instructive – “And when they had been released, they went to their own companions…”  We need to be a part of a fellowship of believer, a community of faith to which we can turn in times of need.

b.      Turn to God in prayer.  Prayer is not some kind of magic formula which makes our trouble disappear.  It certainly did not for the disciples in this case.  As the story unfolds, we will see that the pressure on them actually intensifies.  But prayer keeps us in touch with God, helps us see things from His perspective, calms our spirit, and gives us strength for the challenge.

c.       Keep on doing the right things.  The disciples kept on doing what they knew God wanted them to do.  They did not give up or quit or drop out.


Where did they learn this formula for making it through difficulty?  No doubt, they saw it modeled in Jesus, Himself!  He turned to His companions in time of need (especially to Peter, John, and James).  He turned to God in prayer, often slipping away for extended times of prayer.  And He kept on doing the right things, even when it was most difficult and led to the cross.