We often think of boldness and courage as breaking the rules, but in a fallen world, it is often just the opposite. True boldness is submission to God’s rules when the world wants to rebel. Jesus was the courageous one who submitted to His Father in order to save the world.
“And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead…” (Acts 4:1–22).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
We pick up our text in the middle of the commotion over the healing of the lame man at the gate of the temple (Acts 3:2-8). After Peter concludes his sermon, inviting everyone to receive the forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in the resurrection of Jesus, the leaders of the Jews lay hold of Peter and John and put them in jail (Acts 4:1-3). By this point the number of believers had swelled to five thousand (Acts 4:4). The next day, the rulers conducted a hearing, and asked the apostles how they had performed the healing (Acts 4:5-7). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, began preaching Jesus, crucified and risen, the Messiah, and the only name under Heaven given for salvation (Acts 4:8-12).
This boldness was remarkable and reminded them all of Jesus, and given the fact that the healed man was right there with them, they privately conferred, agreeing that they couldn’t deny the miracle but they needed to squelch the message (Acts 4:13-17). When they called Peter and John back before them, they threatened them and commanded them that they should not speak or teach in Jesus’ name anymore (Acts 4:17-18). After Peter and John politely declined, pointing out that it was more important to obey God than them, they threatened them again, finding no way to punish them because of their popularity with the people, and because everyone knew what had happened to the man (Acts 4:19-22).
THE GIFT OF CONTROVERSY
Part of the point of the book of Acts is that God grows His church through controversy. This is fundamentally the case because in a dark, fallen world, the Light of salvation offends the sensibilities of fallen sinners. We have already seen the Pentecost commotion and immediately following that, the Holy Spirit has created another controversy. Part of this continues to confirm that Jesus is alive, and it is His Spirit at work because wherever Jesus went, there were crowds and commotions. Of course, it is not enough to create trouble and blame the Holy Spirit. Achan was a “troubler of Israel” for his disobedience and sin (Josh. 7:25). But Jesus taught His disciples that all who follow Him should expect trouble (Mt. 5:10-12, Lk. 6:22, Jn. 15:18). Taking up “your cross” and following Jesus is taking up the scorn and hatred of the world (Mt. 16:24). A cross implies a public spectacle and controversy. And here, we see that in the midst of controversy, the gospel goes forth, and thousands more are added the church (Acts 4:2-4).
THE BOLDNESS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Because it is the plan for the gospel to go forth in the context of controversy, boldness and courage are necessary. The word here for “boldness” is PARESSIA, which means plainness, clarity, and boldness. The idea isn’t loud or bombastic. The idea is simple, straightforward, and plain. And notice that Peter is mostly repeating himself: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, God raised from the dead (Acts 4:10, cf. 2:23-24, 3:13-15). But also notice that Peter does not shy away from the collision and confrontation, and he identifies Psalm 118:22 as referring to the Jewish leaders who oversaw the execution of Jesus: the stone which the builders rejected. So the boldness of the Holy Spirit centers on talking about Jesus and Scripture.
OBEDIENCE TO MAN OR GOD?
This text is important for rightly understanding obedience and disobedience to authorities. When Peter and John are threatened and commanded to stop preaching the resurrection of Jesus, they say, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19). First, notice that the apostles appeal to the “sight of God,” which relativizes all human authority. All human authority is under God and answers to God. Second, the apostles clearly state that the greater authority must have the greater obedience. The basic principle would be that we may obey human authorities so long as they do not command what God prohibits or forbid what God commands. Another area which requires real wisdom would be in matters where authorities are being disobedient to God. The Bible teaches that we may obey authorities in those circumstances if it isn’t requiring us to sin and it is often good to do so, but we don’t have to (Mt. 17:24-27, 1 Pet. 2:18ff, Acts 9:23-25, Acts 12:17).
Controversy is a gift but only if we know what spirit we are of. Remember the apostles at one point wanted to call fire down on the Samaritans, who really were confused theologically, but Jesus said that was not His Spirit (Lk. 9:51-56). Jesus came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them. This means we are not revolutionaries; we are reformers. We are in favor of true life-saving surgery, and we hate all demented life-deforming surgery.
Practice your boldness on yourself first. Deal with your own sin plainly, directly, without excuses or compromises. This is what had to happen with Peter. Remember it was only a 6 weeks earlier that Peter was cursing and swearing about being associated with Jesus, and now it’s a badge of honor (Acts 4:13). But he only got there because he repented and was completely restored. Never wield a sword on anyone else you haven’t first practiced on yourself. This isn’t a ban on boldness; it’s an exhortation to true boldness.
Practice submission to lawful authority. Understood rightly, submission to true godly authority is the only path to true authority. This begins with submission to the exclusive claims of Jesus: There is no other name given under Heaven whereby we must be saved. We live in a land in desperate need of real leaders, and this is what happens when everyone “does what is right his own eyes,” when everyone is their own god/savior. But Jesus is the cornerstone that holds everything together. Submission to Him establishes you in your place.