On with the story! Today we’ll be looking at Acts 4:23-31. Have your study Bible ready as we proceed.
Peter and John had been held responsible for the crime of healing a man who had been lame from birth through the name and authority of Jesus of Nazareth. They had been jailed overnight, and appeared before the leaders of Israel who had commanded them to be silent concerning Jesus. Peter’s and John’s joint response to them was that they would obey God and not errant men and could not be silent about the things they had witnessed. Public opinion forced the Council to release them because the evidence was so clear and the Council did not want to be made out to be in opposition to God’s work.
That is where we pick up the story at verse 23, which is straight-forward and factual. Peter and John returned to the other disciples and fellow believers (the Bible says they went to their own) and reported the whole matter.
Verse 24 begins by stating, “And when THEY heard this, THEY lifted their voices to God with one accord and said…” Who was “they?” Was it only the other ten disciples? Did it include the women of the inner circle? Did it include the several thousand who had believed? This pronoun obviously points back to “their own” in the previous verse. (The NASB adds the word companions after “their own”, but it is a human addition, however reasonable.) It’s hard to imagine several thousand believers speaking “with one accord” what follows, as the verse describes. On the other hand, it does use the plural noun “voices”, so it certainly must have been more than just Peter or John. It’s possible that the prayer that constitues the rest of this passage was prayed in several successive pieces by different individuals, much like how we often pray “sentence prayers” that key off of one another on the same subject. However, the passage does not literally say that, and we are left with a picture that describes an amazing unity of mind and action — perhaps miraculous unity. But what was the content of their thoughts and speech?
- v24b: They recognized the Lord as the God who had created the heavens and the earth, quoting Exodus 20:11
- vv25-26: They further recognized Him as the one who inspired David by the Holy Spirit to speak of the end times, quoting Psalm 2:1-2
- vv27-28: They identified the current rulers in Palestine as the kings and nations David spoke of
- v29-30: They asked for confidence to speak God’s word, accompanied by miracles, in the light of the rulers’ threats
- v31: This verse describes what happened as a result of their prayer
Now we must be good students of God’s word, for at first glance this passage and prayer seem to imply that the believers in Jerusalem did indeed have a ministry vision that included the gentile nations! Does this passage finally put to rest the supposedly mistaken notion that God is only dealing with Israel in these early chapters of Acts? After all, this passage identifies nations other than Israel, and specifically refers to the Gentiles!
Consider the two passages quoted from the Old Testament, one from Moses (actually a reference to the Third Commandment, the sabbath day being equated to the seventh day following Creation, in which God rested), and one from David. Was Moses an Israelite? Was David? Do these passages come before or after Genesis 12 where the focus of the Bible turns to the nation Israel as God’s favored people? Clearly they are not only within Israel’s program, but as we learned in the previous posts, these two men are considered by the Scriptures to be prophets. What they spoke was an open telling of future events, not keeping them hidden. And prophets were always sent to Israel, not to the Gentiles. (Okay, Jonah is an exception. Humor me.)
What’s more, the quote from David, and the thinking of these believers, placed these Gentile nations and rulers under judgement, not blessing. Was this what God had in mind as “good news” for the Gentiles? Remember that we have often described this difference between programs as blessing through Israel (the Millennial Kingdom) as opposed to blessing in spite of Israel (the Age of Grace). To which program would the events described in this passage lead?
A reading of all of Psalm 2 should make this crystal clear. Please take the time to read it now before proceeding with the rest of this blog post.
Welcome back. If you will permit me, here’s a brief outline of what you just read:
- vv1-2 speak of foreign nations who arrogantly plot against God and Israel in a rage
- v3 describes Israel’s desire to cast off foreign bondage
- vv4-5 describe God’s amusement and anger toward them in judgement and belittlement
- v6 speaks of a coming King who will reign from an earthly mountain, Mount Zion upon which Jerusalem is built
- vv7-8 describe this King as a son who will receive the raging nations as an inheritance
- v9 describes the gentile nations as being severly punished, not blessed
- v10-11 warn kings and judges of the earth to revere and worship God before this comes to pass
These believers knew the full context of the passage they quoted. What’s more, they clearly saw this first run-in with their own Hebrew leaders as the beginning of the fulfillment of David’s prophecy. Interestingly, they associated their Hebrew leaders with Herod and Pilate, representatives of Rome, as falling under the same condemnation. Yes, there is a widening of the scope of Israel’s program described in this passage, but it is still Israel’s program. They knew those days would not be easy, and so they prayed for boldness while God judged their enemies.
Did God approve of their judgmental mindset? Certainly! “When they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” God certified the correctness of their understanding by granting their request!
Notice that their understanding included “signs and wonders.” They had long been taught that the coming of the King would be certified by them, and later the Apostle Paul would say of them, “For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.” (I Corinthians 1:22-23) Paul, of course, was by then speaking in hindsight from another dispensation, one that had been hidden in God in other ages and not found in prophecy. Notice also that here again they come under the full influence of the Holy Spirit, suggesting that prior to this prayer they had been in some way under His influence to some lesser degree. We’ve addressed this issue many times in previous posts, and I’ll not beleaguer the point again.
In the end, a careful study of this passage dispels any notion that this is the good news borne to the Gentiles by Israel or Jewish disciples. To the contrary, it clearly validates the idea that we are squarely in the middle of God’s prophetic plan for Israel at this point in Luke’s narrative, and it’s unfolding in the midst of these believers minute by minute with the power and approval of God. He is clearly giving them every opportunity to recognize the signs of the coming of the King. How long will God put up with Israel’s obstinacy?