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Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 4:13-21

Unschooled apostles (4:13-14)

Peter is using some masterful biblical argumentation, usually reserved for trained rabbis. The Sanhedrin is astonished by this because the apostles are “unschooled, ordinary men” (4:13). People expressed the same surprise about Jesus: “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15). The Jewish leaders don’t necessarily regard Peter and John as ignorant and illiterate. The apostles are considered “unschooled” in terms of rabbinic training, that is, without professional qualifications. They are “ordinary” (Greek, idiotai) in the sense of being “commoners” or “laymen,” or “untrained” in matters of Jewish law. The religious leaders fault the people for their lack of expertise and understanding of Torah (which ironically means that their teachers were failing to do their job). In one case, the Pharisees said of those ordinary folks who believed in Christ: “this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them” (John 7:49).

Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin is getting nowhere with Peter and John. In fact, the council members are to some degree on the defensive. The apostles are using sophisticated rabbinic reasoning to force a consideration of Jesus as Messiah. How like Jesus they seemed in their ability to parry questions and avoid traps! It dawned on the council that the apostles must have learned the “tricks” of argumentation from their teacher — and so they take note “that these men had been with Jesus” (4:13).

The council has another problem: That healed beggar is still there. But why is he there the next day? Had he been arrested? Did he want to be a witness for the apostles? Luke doesn’t tell us. Whatever the case, the beggar’s presence is evidence of Jesus’ healing power. In a similar situation, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. His very presence reminded the religious community that Jesus had a power that could not be denied (John 9). Now another man born with an infirmity is healed. And he is here, still a witness. How could the Sanhedrin punish the apostles when the proof of Jesus’ power is plainly in their presence?

The Sanhedrin confers (4:15-18)

The Sanhedrin members withdraw into a private session to hammer out a plan regarding the apostles. They see the quandary they are in, and admit that Peter and John “have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it” (4:16).

Some readers today wonder, How did Luke find out what happened in the private meeting? When 70 people are at the meeting, it is difficult to keep the proceedings a secret — someone is going to talk about it, and eventually one of those people “in the know” became a Christian. Perhaps the drift of the discussion was inferred from what the council said when Peter and John were brought back. Perhaps Saul (Paul) himself was at the council, and he could have told Luke what happened. It seems that John himself had friends in the high priestly family, and he could have also learned what happened. There are many ways for “secret” information to be made public.

The apostles claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and this has been publicly confirmed by the healing of the lame man. The healing was done in Jesus’ name, and obviously a dead man cannot do anything. Luke Timothy Johnson says:

The leaders are upset because the apostles are proclaiming “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (4:2). Yet they cannot deny the evidence that the resurrection power is at work through the apostles. The man has been cured: they see him standing there, they acknowledge that the whole city knows about it. And yet when they ask “what power or name” made him whole, and Peter answers that it is the power of the resurrected Jesus, they refuse to acknowledge it. [Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), 81.]

No wonder the Sanhedrin members ask themselves, in perplexity: “What are we going to do with these men?” (4:16).

Warned not to speak (4:17-22)

The council decides to warn the apostles not to speak about Jesus again. If Peter and John do so, they will be in violation of the law. The council is providing itself with a legal basis for further action — and it will soon be needed, as we discover in the next chapter. Even now, it must be obvious to the Sanhedrin that the apostles will not go away quietly. When the council calls them in and commands them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” they are rebuffed (4:18). Peter and John tell the Sanhedrin that they will obey God, not the Sanhedrin. They will continue to witness to Jesus.

This brings more threats from the Sanhedrin, but they can’t punish the apostles because the people are praising God for a miracle. This same council of chief priests and elders had faced a similar problem in the case of Jesus. They couldn’t punish him openly, for as they said, “There may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:5).