Studies in the Book of Acts
Sanhedrin meets (4:5-6)
The next day, the council of Jewish religious and civic elders met to decide what to do with Peter and John (4:5). The Sadducees may have been the official rulers over Jewish affairs, but they were a minority party. They could govern only through the Sanhedrin (synedrion, “council”), the supreme court and senate. Though the Sadducees made up the majority on the council, Josephus tells us they often had to defer to Pharisaic opinion. [Josephus, Antiquities 18:16-17; Acts 5:34.] That’s because the Sadducees were disliked by the common people, while the Pharisees were held in high regard.
The Sanhedrin was composed of three groups of people. The first were the rulers, the high priests. The second were the elders, men of high community standing. The third group was composed of teachers of the law, usually Pharisees or scribes. The Sanhedrin had 71 members. It included the high priest and 70 other influential members of the Jewish religious community. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction in cases involving matters relevant to Jewish affairs. Where capital punishment was to be administered, the Sanhedrin was required to receive the permission of the Roman procurator (John 18:31).
Luke makes the point that the Sadducean element that was about to condemn the apostles was heavily represented in the Sanhedrin. The early opponents to the gospel message came mainly from the priestly and Sadducean ranks (5:26). Annas the high priest was there, as well as Caiaphas, John, Alexander and other men of the high priest’s family (4:6). Annas was high priest for nine years, from A.D. 6-15. He continued to have great influence for many years after his years in office were over. The New Testament writers show him to be the real power behind the scenes (Luke 3:2; John 18:13-24).
Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. He was high priest for 18 years (A.D. 18-36). He had the title of high priest when the events of Acts 4 took place. But Annas was of such influence that he seemed to be making the important decisions. Annas, though he did not then have the title of high priest, may have (as the head of the family) retained the presidency of the Sanhedrin. The ruling high priest was usually the president. [Acts 5:17; 7:1; 9:1; 22:5; 23:2, 4; 24:1.] Whatever the case, Luke calls Annas the high priest, perhaps in the sense of a high priest emeritus (4:6). Annas is making the decisions the high priest would make, at least as Sanhedrin president. Now, he and the other Sanhedrin members are about to judge the apostles.
By what power? (4:7)
As people interested in political power, it is not strange that the Sanhedrin members ask Peter and John: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). In other words, “Who said you could do this — who is your leader?”
The apostles are faced with the same issue as Jesus had been. Jesus had also been teaching at the temple when he was confronted by the same general group of chief priests and teachers of the law. They had asked Jesus: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things…” (Luke 20:1-2). Now, months later, the priests and teachers are faced with “the Jesus question” all over again, even though the ringleader had been killed.
The Sanhedrin is not too pleased with the apostles, but on what grounds are they to punish Peter and John? They can’t accuse the apostles of faking a healing. The evidence of the lame man jumping and leaping is incontrovertible. He is known by everyone, for he was over 40 years old, and had been begging at the temple for many years (4:22). His sudden loss of lameness can’t be explained away as a delusion or secret healing process. Perhaps the apostles have an unlawful agenda in mind (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Perhaps they are healing through the power of the devil. This is what Jesus was accused of doing (Luke 11:14-20). Thus, the Sanhedrin’s question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7).
There is an irony in the apostles’ arrest. Peter and John are arrested for teaching about Jesus’ resurrection, but they are questioned about the healing. The Sanhedrin did not want to discuss the resurrection of Jesus, partly because Pharisees were a significant minority of the Sanhedrin, and they believed in a resurrection. Although they did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected, they couldn’t disprove it. Too many strange events surrounding Jesus’ life and death — including the empty tomb — would be sure to come up if they opened up this can of worms. F.F. Bruce wrote:
It is particularly striking that neither on this nor on any subsequent occasion did the authorities take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation — the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how eagerly would the opportunity have been seized!… The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the resources at their command could not produce it. The disappearance of his body, to be sure, was far from proving his resurrection, but the production of his body would have effectively disproved it. [Bruce, The Book of Acts,The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 96.]
Healed by the name of Jesus (4:8-10)
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers the Sanhedrin’s questions and accusations by facing the council with the reality of a glorified Christ. This recalls Jesus’ saying, that when they are brought before kings and governors, he will give them a wisdom none of their adversaries can gainsay (Luke 21:12-15).
Peter denies that he and John perform magic, or that they are involved with evil spirits, or that the cure was a hoax. The man was healed by the “name of Jesus Christ,” pure and simple (4:10). Peter pulls no punches, and he accuses the leaders of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He again insists that Jesus had been resurrected, and it is through his power that the lame beggar was healed. In short, Peter’s speech became another declaration of Jesus’ messiahship.
The “stone” rejected (4:11-12)
Peter next cites an Old Testament scripture as a “proof-text” that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected…” (Psalm 118:22). Jesus used the same scripture to refer to his messiahship (Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17-18), setting the example for the apostles. This stone motif is used in other New Testament writings as well. [Romans 9:33; 1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-8.]
In its original setting in Psalm 118, the “rejected stone” may have referred to Israel, hated by the nations but chosen by God. The builders who rejected the stone as unfit would most likely be other nations who built their own empires and worshipped their own gods. But Jesus, and Peter here in Acts, brands the Jewish religious leaders as “the builders.” They had built their own religious structures, beliefs and empire, and now they were rejecting the truth about salvation and the One who brought its message, Jesus.
“The cornerstone” is more literally in Greek “head of [the] corner,” kephale gonias. It refers to the capstone or keystone that joins the sides of an arch at the top. This stone is essential for holding the arch together, and is placed at its highest point and head. This capstone or “cornerstone” is essential for completing the arch. Just as there is only one capstone in an arch, Jesus Christ is the unique person who makes salvation possible. Apart from Jesus, there is no spiritual building, or church, because there is no salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else,” insisted Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12).