Studies in the Book of Acts
The Church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:23-5:16)
The believers’ prayer (4:23)
So far in Acts, Luke has described Peter’s preaching to the Jews of Jerusalem. Luke now shifts his focus to give us a glimpse of the apostles’ relationship to the Jerusalem church. We see a praying and giving church, full of faith. The apostles (Peter particularly) come in the power of God, performing miraculous signs and wonders.
The next section begins in 4:23 with Peter and John being released by the Sanhedrin. The two apostles then return to the church and tell the congregation about their persecution. The response of the church is to pray about the crisis (4:24). They perceive the danger to themselves, and to their mission of spreading the gospel. The believers realize that they cannot face the power of the Sanhedrin on their own. So they put their faith in God as the Sovereign Lord and the Creator of all. This is how they address him in their communal prayer. The disciples appeal to his power to deliver the church, much in the way that King Hezekiah prayed for the deliverance of Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:16-20).
David’s prayer in Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25-27)
Luke provides a summary of how the church prayed. The congregation offers their prayer based on Psalm 2:1-2. The first thing we notice about the prayer is that God is said to have spoken it “by the Holy Spirit through the mouth” of David (Acts 4:25). David may have written the words, Luke was saying, but they were guided by the Holy Spirit.
The church understands that the threats of the council are not directed against them personally. That’s clear from their appeal to Psalm 2, which speaks of nations and kings plotting against God and his Anointed One. The Jewish persecution of the apostles was actually aimed at God and his Messiah. Psalm 2 refers to the Messiah, the Anointed One. There is some indication that by Jesus’ day this psalm was being interpreted by Jews as referring to a coming deliverer from David’s line. The church applied the psalm to those who had conspired against Jesus, who was God’s Anointed One (4:25-26 with 4:27). For the church, the unholy conspiracy involved in Jesus’ crucifixion consisted of Herod (“kings of the earth”), Pilate (“the rulers”), the Romans (“the nations”), and the people of Israel in Jerusalem (“the peoples”).
This is what is called a “pesher” (from Hebrew peser, “interpretation”). We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls the pesher method of interpreting Scripture was used in the Qumran community. The interpreter takes a text such as Psalm 2:1-2, which in context refers to ancient times, and identifies it with a contemporary figure and/or situation. He said, in effect, “This is the event and the people this scripture is referring to.”
This method of interpretation was common within Judaism during Jesus’ day, and was used by the early church. It was based on the belief that Scripture, reflecting God’s purpose and mind, had cosmic significance for all times and circumstances. It assumes that the original writers (usually prophets) did not understand the full significance of what they wrote about because they were far removed from the events to which their writings referred (1 Peter 1:10-12). The real meanings hidden in the text can be unraveled only by a divinely inspired person (or group) living in the time of the actual events. (Some modern interpreters do something similar, trying to identify contemporary events with various biblical prophecies; the result is almost always wrong.)
Prayer for boldness (4:28-30)
In this case, the church is saying that Jesus’ death and the persecution of God’s people were foretold in Scripture. Thus, it is happening with the knowledge of God, who decided beforehand that these things would occur (4:28).
The Jerusalem church’s prayer has a selfless aspect. They do not ask for relief from persecution nor judgment against their oppressors. Rather, the church wants to be given boldness to preach the gospel. They ask God to continue to heal, and perform miraculous signs and wonders, so the gospel will have attentive ears (4:29). Of course, the signs and wonders are to occur “through the name of…Jesus” (4:30). In Acts, all things are done through “the name.” The gospel is fearlessly preached (9:27), people are baptized (8:16), sins are forgiven (10:43) and demons are cast out (16:18) — all in Jesus’ name.
The idiom “name of Jesus Christ” is Luke’s expression of the presence of Christ, but not in any magical way. Rather, the preached word unleashes the power of the resurrected Christ so that the gap between the earthly Jesus and the resurrected Lord is bridged by the Spirit. [William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), page 13.]
In this instance, God answers the church’s prayer with resounding certainty. Their meeting place shakes as with an earthquake (4:31). Quakes often marked the sign of God’s presence in Scripture. [Acts 16:26; Exodus 19:18; Psalm 114:7; Isaiah 6:4; Ezekiel 38:19; Joel 3:16; Amos 9:5; Haggai 2:6.] In this case, God is signifying that his presence will be with the believers as they fulfill the commission to preach the gospel of salvation. God answers the Jerusalem church’s prayer for boldness by filling them with the Holy Spirit. The disciples already had the Holy Spirit as a life-changing force. But now they receive a special gift of confidence to proclaim the word of God with added conviction.