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Acts 4:1-22 - The First Persecution of the Church: Lessons for Christian Service

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This is the first persecution of the church. In this portion of Scripture we will see several challenging lessons for Christian service.  Many times in our walk with the Lord, when circumstances are not going the way we think they should go, we ask the Lord to “take these bad circumstances away.”  But…I think that we should also pray, “Lord, help me to see what you want me to learn through these circumstances.” 

In the following passage, we see how Peter and John are put into custody for teaching the people and preaching about Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. 

A.                 Peter and John arrested and tried (v.1a).

1.                  “As they spoke to the people… they came upon them… laid hands upon them…” (v.1a; 3:1).

a)                  For preaching (3:1f) (v.1a).

(1)                 So here we see they were arrested “as they spoke,” that is, while they were preaching.
(2)                 Thousands had rushed to see the cripple who had been healed and to hear the message being proclaimed by the two men who had such power.
(3)                 The temple was a massive building which could hold thousands (Acts 4:5). The excitement and noise were bound to attract the attention and bring the temple authorities to the scene.
(4)                 They thought they had eliminated the “Jesus movement” eight weeks earlier when they had crucified Jesus. Now these two men (Peter and John) were publicly preaching the rumor that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And they were preaching, of all places, in the temple precincts.

b)                  The temple.

(1)                 The temple sat on top of Mt. Zion and was thought to have covered about thirty acres of
land. It consisted of two parts, the temple building itself and the temple precincts or
courtyards. The Greek language has two different words to distinguish which is meant.
(a)                 The temple building (naos) was a small ornate structure which sat in the center of
the temple property. It was called the Holy Place or Holy of Holies, and only the High
Priest could enter only once during the year, on the Day of Atonement.
(b)                The temple precincts (hieron) were four courtyards which surrounded
the temple building, each decreasing in their importance to the Jewish mind. It is critical to remember that great walls separated the courts from each other.

(i)                   First, there was the Inner Court of the Priests. Only the priests were allowed to enter this court. Within the courtyard stood the great furnishings of worship: the Altar of Burnt Offering, the Brazen Laver, the Seven Branched lampstand, the Altar of Incense, and the Table of Showbread.

(ii)                 The Court of the Israelites was next. This was a huge courtyard where Jewish worshippers met together for joint services on the great feast days. It was also where worshippers handed over their sacrifices to the priests.

(iii)                The Court of the Women was the third Courtyard. Women were usually limited to this area except for worship. They could, however, enter the Court of the Israelites when they came to make sacrifice or worship in a joint assembly on a great feast day.

(iv)               The Court of the Gentiles was the last courtyard. It covered a vast space,
surrounding all the other courtyards, and was the place of worship for all
Gentile converts to Judaism.

!!!! c)                  Three facts need to be noted about the Court of the Gentiles.

(1)                 It was the courtyard farthest removed from the center of worship, the Holy of Holies which represented God’s very presence :

Paul said how Jesus Christ broke these walls down, he said "For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall," (Ephesians 2:14, NASB95)

(2)                 A high wall separated the Court of the Gentiles from the other courts, disallowing any Gentile a closer approach into God’s presence. There were, in fact, tablets hanging all around the wall threatening death to any Gentile who went beyond his own courtyard.
(3)                 It was also in the Court of the Gentiles where so much commercialism took place.

2.                  The priests… the captain of the temple… and the Sadducees…” (v.1b).

a)                  By the leaders of the temple (v.1b).

(1)                 Priests: all the male descendants of Aaron were priests. In the time of Christ there were over twenty thousand priests. Since there was only one temple (located in Jerusalem), the priests were divided into groups. There were twenty-four groups, and each group served in the temple for one week twice a year
(2)                 Temple Captain: this was the right-hand man, the chief executive officer or chief of staff to the High Priest. He was probably what Scripture calls the chief officer or “the ruler of the house of God”. He was responsible for the administration of the temple which meant he was held accountable for the order and any disorder that took place within the temple precincts.
(3)                 Sadducees: the religious and political liberals of Christ’s day. They were the wealthy, the governing class of leaders in Israel. Many Sadducees served on the nation’s governing body, the Sanhedrin.

B.                They suffered abuse because they preached the resurrection (v.2-4).

1.                  “They taught… and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead…” (v.2).

a)                  Jesus Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3).

(1)                 The words “first of all” mean that the very first thing Paul ever preached to the Corinthians was the death of Jesus Christ.
(a)                 The death of Christ is so important that it must be the first thing preached. It is the very foundation of a person’s salvation.
(b)                Apart from the death of Jesus Christ there is no salvation; therefore, the fact of Christ’s death must be the first subject proclaimed.
(2)                 Christ died for our sins.” The word “for” (huper) means for our benefit, for our sake, in our behalf, in our stead, as our substitute.  This means at least three things:
(a)                 Christ died as our sacrifice

Paul said that "Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed." (1 Corinthians 5:7, NASB95)

Jesus Christ "Died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf." (2 Corinthians 5:15, NASB95)

God the Father “Made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB95)

To the Ephesians, Paul said to "Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma." (Ephesians 5:2, NASB95)

The writer of Hebrews says that "It was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself." (Heb.7:26-27)

Peter says that Jesus "Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed." (1 Peter 2:24, NASB95)

!!!!!! (b)                Christ died as our ransom to redeem, to deliver by paying a price.  The word is used 3 ways in the New Testament:

(i)                   It means to redeem (agorazo): to deliver; to set free from the slave market of sin, death, and hell.

Paul says that we "Have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body." (1 Corinthians 6:20, NASB95)

Speaking about false prophets, Peter says that "False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves." (2 Peter 2:1, NASB95)

(ii)                 It means to redeem out of (exagorazo): to deliver out of the enslavement to sin, death, and hell. It means to be delivered out of and never returned.


2.                  “They laid hands on them… put them in custody until the next day…” (v.3).

a)                  They were arrested (v.3).

(1)                 The authorities arrested Peter and John. It was late afternoon, too late for a trial, so they jailed them for the night.


a)                  They bore fruit: 5,000 converts (v.4).

(1)                 But note a significant fact: before Peter was arrested, he had shared enough of the gospel for the crowd to respond. Five thousand men (not counting women and children) made decisions for Christ.

(2)                 Persecution did not stop the Word and the Spirit of God from working. Souls (fruit) were saved despite the abuse and opposition. What a lesson for believers to keep on in their preaching and witnessing no matter the opposition.

Isaiah 55 says “My Word shall not return to me void” (Isaiah 55:11).

Paul said in 2 Timothy that “The Word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9).

C.                They credited Christ with the power to heal and to change lives (v.5-10).

1.                  “Their rulers, elders, etc… set them in the midst of them…” (v.5-7).  

a)                  The Sanhedrin Court (v.5-7).

(1)                 The term “rulers, elders, and scribes” means the Sanhedrin. It was the ruling body, both the governing council and Supreme Court of the Jews.
(2)                 The question the court asked was straight to the point. “By what power or by what name have you done this [healed the man]?”
(a)                 The court was doing exactly what God had said to do. God had instructed Israel to try every man who claimed to be a prophet and worked signs and wonders among the people (Deut.13:1-5). If the man was not a true prophet, he was to be executed.
(b)                But there is more to their questioning than this.
(c)                 They knew Peter was preaching the resurrection through Jesus Christ. They had to stop it or risk losing the loyalty of the people and their position and livelihood, so they were seeking opportunity to accuse and stop Peter and John.

2.                  “The Peter filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (v.8).

a)                  God equipped them with the Holy Spirit (v.8).

(1)                 Note how quickly God came to the rescue: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit.” Peter had not even had time to speak, and God was present, filling Peter with the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit was ready to take over and give Peter the words to say.
(2)                 Thought 1. The believer who is ready to proclaim Christ will never be left alone. The Holy Spirit will be present to speak through him.

Jesus said to the disciples "You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." (Matthew 10:18-20, NKJV)

Similarly He said in Mark 13 "But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit." (Mark 13:11, NKJV)

3.                  “”By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, by Him this man stands here whole…” (v.10).

a)                  They credited Christ with the power to make men whole (v.9-10).

(1)                 It was by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (v.10a).
(a)                 Peter was declaring that men must know that Jesus is the true Messiah, and there must be no doubt which Jesus:
(b)                it was the Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Messiah, the Savior whom God promised to send to the world.
(c)                 Note the word “whole”. The man was made whole in both body and soul. Who did it? Jesus Christ, the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth; He alone had made this man whole.
(2)                 It was the Jesus whom “you crucified” (v.10b).
(a)                 Remember Peter was speaking to the top leaders of the nation. He charged them with killing not only a man, but the Messiah.
(b)                What an indictment! To be charged with killing the Son of God Himself!
(3)                 It was the Jesus whom God raised from the dead (v.10c).
(a)                 Peter was declaring that it was the power of the resurrected and ascended Messiah, the Lord of heaven and earth who had such power.

D.                They proclaimed salvation in Christ alone (v.11-12).

1.                  “This stone has become the chief cornerstone…” (v.11).

a)                  Christ is the Head (v.11).

(1)                 Jesus Christ is the Head, that is, the Chief Cornerstone of God’s building (Psalm 118:22).
(a)                 Peter identified the chief cornerstone in the NT as Christ (Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7).
(b)                In the parable of the vineyard, the rejected son of the vineyard owner is likened to the rejected stone which became the chief cornerstone.
(c)                 Christ was that rejected stone. Jewish leaders were pictured as builders of the nation.
(2)                 Matthew 21:42 this is referring to Christ’s crucifixion.  So Jesus was telling them that the son who was rejected and thrown out of the vineyard was also the “Chief cornerstone.”

The Lord God says in Isaiah 28 "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed." (Isaiah 28:16)

!!!! b)                  Christ is the foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11).

(1)                 A foundation in Scripture can be illustrative of…
(a)                 Christ (Is.28:16; 1Co 3:11).
(b)                Doctrines of the apostles (Eph 2:20).
(c)                 First principles of the gospel (Heb 6:1, 2).
(d)                Decrees and purposes of God (2 Timothy  2:19).
(e)                 The righteous (Proverbs 10:25).
(f)                  Hope of saints (Ps 87:1).
(g)                Security of saints’ inheritance (Heb 11:10).

2.                  “Nor is there any salvation in any other…” (v.12).

a)                  Christ alone saves (v.12).

(1)                 Our salvation is the most important issue we will ever deal with in this life time.  The choice to either receive Christ or reject Him will result in our eternal life. 
(2)                 Let’s look at some passages that reveal Jesus Christ as God (Isaiah 45:18-22):

The Lord speaking in Isaiah 43 says "I, even I, am the Lord, and there is no savior besides Me." (Isaiah 43:11, NASB95)

Listen to the way the NASB renders John 3:36 "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”" (John 3:36, NASB95)

Speaking of a mediator, not Mary, but Jesus… Paul says "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time." (1 Timothy 2:5-6, NASB95)

The apostle John says it clearly "And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life." (1 John 5:11-12, NASB95)

Jesus has eternal words "But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom we shall go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68, NKJV)

And Jesus himself said "That you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins." (John 8:24, NKJV)

E.                 They gave evidence that they had been with Jesus (v.13-14)

1.                  “They realized they had been with Jesus…” (v.13b).

a)                  Boldness and power (v.13).

(1)                 To call them unschooled did not mean that they were ignorant.  There was a basic knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures that was imparted to most men in the synagogues, and Peter and John certainly had that fundamental Jewish education.
(a)                 They both wrote letters to the churches, which we have in our New Testament, and they are letters of ability, exhibiting considerable knowledge.
(b)                The Gospel of John especially is a great literary achievement, and Peter’s letters radiate a warm, charming vitality.
(c)                 Besides, the apostles had spent three years in the best seminary the world has ever seen. They had been traveling with the Master himself.
(d)                He had taught them, not only by precept as he unfolded the Scriptures to them, but also by example. He modeled the gospel for them.
(e)                 They were slow learners, just as we would have been. But they were on the way.
(2)                 So when the text says that they were unschooled it means only that they had not been to the rabbinic schools.  These two fishermen  stood before the Sanhedrin without fear and gave the testimony.

2.                  “Seeing the man who had been healed, they could say nothing against it…” (v.14).

a)                  The healed man (v.14).

(1)                 It is hard to miss seeing that Luke used this word “standing” intentionally, for emphasis.
(a)                 He could have said merely, “They could see the man who had been healed with them.” But this was a man who previously couldn’t stand.
(b)                And there is this too. The Greek word for “resurrection” is anastasis. The basic part of anastasis, stasis, is the word for “standing.” To the Greek mind resurrected people were people who were standing up, as opposed to dead people, who were lying down.
(c)                 So there was a sense in which this “resurrected” man was a symbol of the very gospel Peter and the others were proclaiming.
(2)                 Look what they say in (v.16, 21).
(3)                 So the enemies of Christ could not refute the claim. The claim was backed up by the evidence of a miracle, of a changed life: a man made whole.

F.                 They suffered threats (v.15-18)

1.                  “They commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus…” (v.18).

a)                  The persecution.

(1)                 The court had Peter and John escorted from the council chambers so they could discuss the matter and reach a verdict.
(a)                 They acknowledged that a clear and unmistakable) miracle had been done. The man was made whole.
(b)                All the people knew the man had been transformed.
(c)                 They could not deny the miracle. They would have but the man stood before them.
(2)                 When a man is truly transformed, the world cannot deny it.  The power of Christ stands within them as evidence that He is the risen and exalted Lord.

"But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak," (2 Corinthians 4:13, NASB95)

"but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;" (1 Peter 3:15, NASB95)

"what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." (1 John 1:3, NASB95)

G.                They refused to compromise their message (v.19-20).


a)                  Defense 1: God is to be obeyed before men (v.19).

(1)                 The highest authority must always be obeyed. This is the very basis of men and their laws.
(2)                 Christ had commanded them to preach time and again (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; John 20:21). They had to obey Him.


a)                  Defense 2: A man must testify to what he has seen and heard (v.20).

(1)                 Note that the two disciples were claiming to have seen and heard Jesus after His resurrection as well as during His ministry.

H.                The result: All men glorified God (v.21-22).

(1)                 the result of such a dynamic witness was that men glorified God; that is, they kept on glorifying Him. Why?
(2)                 Because the power of Christ had taken a man who had been helpless for forty years and made him whole, completely whole.

"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16, NASB95)

"My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples." (John 15:8, NASB95)

"Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name." (Hebrews 13:15, NASB95)

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