J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on ActsActs 4
We would naturally, at first thought, expect to find the parties to
this violent proceeding identical with the chief persecutors of Jesus,
supposing that the same motives which had excited opposition to him
would perpetuate it against his disciples. But the Pharisees were
most bitter enemies, the Sadducees being comparatively indifferent to
his pretensions, while here we see the Sadducees leading the attack
upon the apostles, and we will soon see the leader of the Pharisees
interfering to save them from threatened
death. [Acts 5:34 below.]
In order to appreciate
this unexpected change in the aspect of the parties, we must note
a little more carefully the ground of opposition in each case.
The supposition sometimes entertained that Jesus was hated by
men simply because there is in human nature an innate aversion to
truth and holiness, is not less false to the facts of history than to the
nature of fallen men. It is disproved by the fact that it was not the
mass of his cotemporaries who hated him, as the supposition would
require, but chiefly, and almost exclusively, the Pharisees. That portion
of the people who were most depraved, according to external
appearances, heard him gladly, and delighted to praise him, while the
Pharisees, who were most of all noted for their piety, were the men
who hated him most. Neither were they actuated simply by an
aversion to his holiness; for they had a more substantial, if not a
better reason for hating him. If he had been content merely to go
about doing good,
and teaching righteousness, "letting other people
alone," he might have passed his days in peace. But such was not
his sense of duty. He knew that his teaching could not have proper
effect unless the erroneous doctrines of the Pharisees, who were then
the chief teachers of Israel, were dislodged from the public mind, and
the mask of hypocrisy, which had secured them their great reputation
for piety, were stripped off. He undertook, therefore, an offensive
warfare upon their doctrinal tenets and their religious pretensions.
The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains an epitome of this
warfare on his part, than which there is not a more withering philippic
on record in all literature. Such denunciation necessarily provoked
the most intense hatred on the part of such Pharisees as were
too deeply imbued with the prevailing spirit of the party to be reached
by the truth. By this very fact, however, they made it more evident
to the people that they deserved all the denunciation which he hurled
against them. On the other hand, the Sadducees were so well pleased
with his successful assaults upon their hereditary and too powerful
enemies, that they forgave, in some degree, his known opposition to
their favorite doctrine, and felt for him some friendly sympathy.
With the apostles the relations of these parties were as naturally
reversed. Instead of assaulting, in detail, the doctrinal tenets of any
party, they confined their labors, at first, to testimony concerning the
resurrection and glorification of Jesus. This confirmed the chief distinctive
doctrine of the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection, and
it left their other tenets, for the time being, unnoticed. But the whole
force of this preaching was leveled against Sadduceean infidelity in
reference to the resurrection, and it therefore aroused this party
to an activity never exhibited before. They rushed in and arrested Peter
and John, "being indignant that they taught the people, and preached,
through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead." They were seconded
in this violent movement by the priests who were at the time officiating
in the temple, and who were either identified with the Sadducees,
or were enraged because the apostles, in the very midst of the
temple, were drawing away the people from waiting upon their services.
The "captain of the temple," with his guard, was doubtless
subject to the orders of the chief of the officiating priests, and executed
Just at this point in Peter's discourse:
(1) "And while they
were speaking to the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple,
and the Sadducees, came upon them,
(2) being indignant that they taught
the people, and preached, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead.
(3) And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next
day; for it was already evening."
This sudden disturbance of the
interested audience, by a body of armed men rushing through their
midst and seizing Peter and John, is the beginning of a series of persecutions
with which Luke is about to follow the account of the first
peaceful triumphs of the apostles.
The audience who had been listening to Peter must have been
thrown into intense excitement by the arrest, and the disciples among
them, doubtless, expected to see re-enacted, in the persons of Peter
and John, the murderous scenes which had terminated the life of their
master. Notwithstanding this excitement, however, the words
of Peter were not without a decided effect upon the hitherto unbelieving
portion of his hearers; for Luke says:
(4) "But many of those
who were hearing the word believed, and the number of the men became
about five thousand."
Whether this number includes the three thousand
who were added on Pentecost or not, has been a matter of some dispute,
but it is generally agreed by critics that it does. If those who believed
on the present occasion were alone intended, the writer would have said
the number en,
was, instead of
became, about five thousand.
Verses 5, 6
The prisoners having been arrested late in the afternoon, all
further proceedings were adjourned till the next day, and Peter and
John had the quiet of a night in prison for reflection and mutual encouragement
ere they were brought to trial.
(5) "And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers and
elders and scribes,
(6) and Annas
the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John and Alexander, and as many
as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together in
This assembly was the great Jewish Sanhedrim,
and the parties here named are the different officials who constituted that
tribunal. Who John and Alexander were is not now known. Annas
and Caiaphas are historical characters, conspicuous in the history
of the trial of Jesus, and also prominent on the pages of Josephus.
Between the latter and Luke there is an apparent discrepancy,
in reference to their official position at this time, Luke calling Annas the
high priest, and Josephus attributing that dignity to Caiaphas. According
to Josephus, Valerius Gratus, the immediate predecessor of
Pontius Pilate, had removed Annas from the high priesthood, and
after having appointed and removed three others, one of them, Eleazar,
the son of Annas, finally left Caiaphas in office, when he was
superseded by Pilate. [Jos. Ant. B. xviii, chap. 2.]
The Apostle John informs us that Caiaphas
was son-in-law to
Annas. [John 18:13-24.]
According to the law of Moses the high
priest held office during life; hence, in deposing Annas, the Roman
governor violated the Jewish Law, and the act was religiously null
and void. Annas was still high priest by right, and for this reason
is so styled here by Luke. The Jews, also, recognized his right, by
taking Jesus before him for trial, though he, not daring to claim the
office, sent them to Caiaphas. In his former narrative, Luke also
mentions them both as being high priests at the same
time. [Luke 3:2.]
best explained by the fact that one was rightfully entitled to the office,
and the other was exercising it by illegal appointment.
The "kindred of the high priest" embraced not only the chief
members of his immediate family, but also some of the deposed high
priests, who were all, in great probability, connected with the one
high priestly family, and thereby entitled to seats in the Sanhedrim.
When the court was assembled, the prisoners were introduced,
and the cripple, who had been healed had the boldness to appear by
(7) "And placing them in the midst, they asked, By what
power, or by what name, have you done this?"
This is not the first time that Peter and John had been together
in the presence of this august assembly. As they gazed around for
a moment, and recognized the faces of their judges, they could not
fail to remember that terrible morning when their masters stood there
in bonds, and they themselves, full of fearful misgivings, stood in a
distant part of the hall, and looked on. The fall, and the bitter tears
of Peter, on that occasion, were now a warning and a strength to
them both, and their very position brought to mind some solemn
words of Jesus which had never acquired a present value till now.
"Beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and
they will scourge you in the synagogues, and you shall be brought
before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and
the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or
what you shall speak; for it shall be given you in the same hour
what you shall say. For it is not you that speak, but the spirit of
your father that speaks in
you." [Matthew 10:17-20.]
Cheered by this promise, they now
stand before their accusers and judges with a boldness unaccountable
to the latter.
The prisoners had been arrested without a formal charge being
preferred against them, and the court was now dependent upon what
might be extorted from them, for the ground of their accusation.
The question propounded to them is remarkable for its vagueness.
By what power, or, in what
name, have you done
might have been the answer. Done this preaching? or this miracle?
or what? The question
specified nothing. There was no one particular
thing done by Peter, on which they dared fix attention; but
they frame an indefinite question, in attempting to answer which they
evidently hoped he would say something on which they might condemn
They could not, however, have asked a question which suited
Peter any better. It left him at liberty to select any thing he had
done as the subject of reply, and, therefore, he chose to select that
deed, which, of all that had been done, they were most unwilling to
hear mentioned. He frames his answer, too, with a more direct reference
to the other terms of their question, than they either desired
(8) "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to
them: Rulers of the people, and elders of Israel,
(9) If we are examined
this day concerning the good deed done to the impotent man, by what
means he had been saved,
(10) be it known to you all, and to all the people
of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified,
whom God raised from the dead, by him doth this man stand before
This statement needed no proof, for the Sanhedrim
could not deny, with the man standing before them, that the miracle
had been wrought, nor could they, with plausibility, attribute the deed
to any other power or name than that assumed by Peter. To deny
that it was a divine power would have been absurd in the estimation
of all the people; but to admit that the power was divine, and
yet reject the explanation given by those through whom it was exercised,
would have been still more absurd.
Verses 11, 12
Realizing the advantage which he had now gained, Peter
pushes his adversaries into still closer quarters, by adding:
(11) "This is the stone which was despised by you builders, which
has become the head of the corner.
(12) Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other
name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved."
In this passage, he places his proud judges in the ridiculous
attitude of searching about vainly for a stone to fit the corner of the
foundation, while persistently rejecting the real corner-stone, without
which the building can be reared. And, leaving the figurative
language of David,
he more fully declares, that there is no salvation
for man except in the name of the very Jesus whom they had crucified.
This proposition is universal, and shows that the redemption
effected by Jesus will include every human being who shall finally
Verses 13, 14
Instead of answering evasively and timidly, as was expected
of men in their social position, when arraigned in such a presence,
the apostles had unhesitatingly avowed the chief deed of yesterday's
proceedings, with the name in which it had been done, stating all in
the terms most obnoxious to their hearers.
(13) "Now, seeing the
freedom of speech of Peter and John, and perceiving that they were
illiterate and private men, they were astonished, and recognized them,
that they had been with Jesus.
(14) But beholding the man who was
healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it."
total silence for awhile, when Peter ceased speaking. Not a man in
the Sanhedrim could open his mouth in reply to Peter's brief speech.
He had avowed every obnoxious sentiment on account of which they
had been instigated to arrest him, yet not one of them dares to contradict
his words, or to rebuke him for giving them utterance. The
silence was painful and embarrassing.
Verses 15, 16
Finally, the silence was broken by a proposition that the
prisoners be withdrawn.
(15) "And having commanded them to go
aside out of the Sanhedrim, they conferred among themselves,
What shall we do to these men? For that, indeed, a noted miracle has
been wrought by them, is manifest to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we
can not deny it."
This admission, in their secret deliberations, shows
the utter heartlessness and hypocrisy of their proceedings, and it is
astonishing that they could any longer give each other countenance
in such a course.
The real motive which controlled them, and under the influence
of which they kept each other in countenance, was an unconquerable
desire to maintain their old influence with the people. This is manifested
in the conclusion to which they came.
(17) "But, that it may
be spread no further among the people, let us strictly threaten them, that
they speak, henceforth, to no man in this name."
The man who made
this proposition no doubt thought that he had most satisfactorily
solved a difficult problem, and the majority were too well pleased to
find some means of escape from their present awkward predicament,
to look very shrewdly into the probable success of the measure proposed.
It was a safe course, if not a very bold one, and as there was
no obstacle in the way but conscience, the could find no difficulty
in pursuing it.
The resolution was no sooner formed than acted upon.
(18) "And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all, nor
teach in the name of Jesus."
How Luke learned the particulars of
the secret consultation which resulted in this injunction, we are not
informed, though it is not difficult to imagine. Gamaliel, Saul's
and perhaps Saul himself, was present as a member of the
Sanhedrim; and a great company of the priests themselves afterward
became obedient to the
faith. [Acts 6:7, below.]
These and other conversions from the
ranks of the enemy opened up channels for such information in
Verses 19, 20
The apostles, if at all anxious concerning their personal
safety, might have received this stern command in silence, and retired
respectfully from the assembly.
(19) "But, Peter and John answered
and said to them, Whether it is right, in the sight of God, to
hearken to you rather than to God, do you judge.
(20) For we can not
but speak the things which we have seen and heard."
This was an open
defiance of their power, with a direct appeal to their own consciences
for a vindication of it. The apostles were not willing that their silence
should be construed into even a momentary acquiescence in such a
command, and they spoke in such a manner as to be distinctly understood.
Verses 21, 22
It was a sore trial to the haughty spirits of the Sanhedrim
to brook such defiance; but a desire to conciliate the people, mingled,
no doubt, with a secret fear of the consequences of putting to death
men who had exercised such power, restrained their wrath.
"And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, not finding
how they might punish them, because of the people; for all glorified
God for what was done.
(22) For the man on whom this miracle
of healing was wrought was more than forty years of age."
The apostles had now humbled the pride of their adversaries,
and went away from the assembly in triumph. But they were
uninflated by their present prosperity, as they had been undaunted
by their recent danger. They had now attained that lofty degree of
faith and hope which enables men to maintain a steady calmness
amid all the vicissitudes of life. The course they immediately pursued
is worthy of remembrance, and of all imitation.
(23) "And being
let go, they went to their own company, and reported what the high
priests and the elders had said to them.
(24) And when they heard it,
they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said: Sovereign
Lord, thou God who hast made the heavens, and the earth, and the sea,
and all that is in them;
(25) who through the mouth of thy servant
David hast said, Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people imagine vain
(26) The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered
together against the Lord and against his anointed.
(27) For, of
a truth, against thy holy son Jesus whom thou hast anointed, both Herod,
and Pontus Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were
(28) to do what thy hand and thy counsel determined
before to be done.
(29) And now, Lord, behold their threatenings; and
grant to thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word,
(30) by stretching out thy hand to heal, and that signs and wonders
may be done through the name of thy holy son Jesus."
was uttered by one of the brethren, and the expression, "they lifted
up their voice with one accord," indicates the perfect unity of sentiment
with which they followed the words of the leader.
In all the prayers of the apostles, we observe strict appropriateness,
in the ascription to God with which they open, and a remarkable
simplicity in presenting the exact petition, and no more, which the
occasion demands. On a former occasion, they had set before him
two men, that he might choose one for the apostolic office, and they
addressed him as the "heart-knower;" now they desire his protecting
power, and they style him the "Sovereign God who made heaven and earth,
and the sea, and all that is in them." They remind him that, according
to his own words by David,
kings and rulers, in the persons
of Herod and Pilate, had risen up against his anointed while
the people and the Gentiles were imagining vain things; and they
pray him to "behold the threatening," and grant to his servants
boldness to speak the word in defiance of all opposition.
In these days of passion and war, in which it is common for prayers
to be filled with earnest entreaties for victory over our enemies, and
sometimes with terrible maledictions against those who are waging
war against our supposed rights, it is quite refreshing to observe the
tone of this apostolic prayer. These men were not in danger of losing
some mere political power or privilege, but the dearest and most indisputable
right they had on earth was denied them, and they were
threatened with death if they did not relinquish it; yet, in their prayers,
they manifest no vindictive nor resentful spirit; but, in reference
to their enemies they simply pray, Lord, behold their threatenings.
Their gentle spirits never could have conceived that unblushing impiety
which now so often brings men upon their knees for the very
purpose of pouring out in the ears of God those violent and destructive
passions which he has forbidden us to allow a place even within
our hearts. By such prayers men seek to make God a partisan in
every angry contention among men, as though he were nothing more
than themselves. Much needs to be said upon this unhappy theme,
but it can not be said here.
In praying for boldness the apostles give an intimation of the manner
in which they expected it to be imparted to them. It was not by
some direct and internal spiritual impact, but by external manifestations
of his continued presence and favor: "by stretching out his hand
to heal, and that signs and wonders may be wrought through the
name of Jesus."
The prayer for boldness was answered at once, and in the way
they had requested.
(31) "And when they had prayed, the place in
which they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled
with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness."
shaking of the house, attended by a conscious renewal of the miraculous
power of the Holy Spirit, gave them the boldness for which they
prayed, because it assured them that God was still with them.
From this brief account of the first conflict of the young
congregation, Luke again turns, to view more minutely the internal
condition of the Church. Their religious life was now more fully
developed, than at the period glanced at in the close of the second
chapter, and his description is more in detail.
(32) "Now the multitude
of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did
one of them say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own,
but they had all things in common.
(33) And with great power the apostle
gave testimony concerning the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and
great favor was upon them all.
(34) Neither was there any among them
who lacked; for as many as were possessors of lands, or houses, sold
them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
(35) and laid
them at the feet of the apostles; and it was distributed to each, as any
one had need."
Considering the immense numbers of this congregation, and that
they were so suddenly drawn together from every class of society, it
is certainly remarkable, and well worthy of a place in this record,
that they were "of one heart and of one mind." But the most signal
proof of the power of the gospel among them was the almost entire
subsidence of selfishness. Among the heathen nations of antiquity,
systematic provision of the wants of the poor was unknown; and
even among the Jews, whose law was watchful for the welfare of the
poor in many respects, those who became insolvent were sold into
temporary bondage to pay their debts. It was, therefore, a new thing
under the sun, to see a large community selling houses and lands to
supply the wants of the poor. It could but give additional weight
to all that was said by the apostles, and for this reason Luke breaks
the thread of his statements concerning it, to throw in the remark,
that "With great power the apostles gave testimony concerning the
resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was among all."
This remark does not mean that the testimony of
the apostles was more distinct or positive, or that it was sustained by
more signal miracles than before; for neither of these is possible. But
it means that their testimony had more power with the people; and this
is attributed to the harmony observed within the Church, together with
their unheard-of benevolence, which combined to give them "great favor"
with the people.
The fact that distribution was made to each as he had need, shows
that it was only the needy who received any thing, and that there
was no equalization of property. The sale of property and consecration
of the proceeds was voluntary with each individual, and
not an established law of the Church. This is evident from the question
of Peter to Ananias, below: "While it remained, was it not your
own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own
control?" [See also 6:1.]
Verses 36, 37
After stating that many brethren who had property sold it, and
gave up the proceeds, Luke now gives an individual instance of this
liberality, introduced, no doubt, on account of the subsequent celebrity
of the individual.
(36) "Now Joses, who was surnamed Barnabas
by the apostles, (which is, when translated, son of exhortation,) a Levite,
a Cyprian by birth,
(37) having land, sold it, and brought the money, and
laid it at the feet of the apostles."
This surname was given to Joses
on account of his excellence in horatory address, and not on account
of the consolation which he afforded by his liberality. The
original term paraklesis, rendered
consolation in the common version,
is a verbal noun used to express both the act of the verb
and the effect produced by it. We have no one word in English to
represent it in these two senses; but exhortation expresses the act,
and consolation the effect. We have, therefore,
exhortation eight times
in the common version, when the paraklesis is connected with the
agent, [13:15; Romans 12:8,1Co+14:3,1Th+2:3,1Ti+4:13; Hebrews 12:5; 8:17.]
but always consolation when the reference is to the recipient.
As Barnabas is contemplated at the agent, in this case, it should be
consolation. This criticism is confirmed by the history
of Barnabas. When the Church in Jerusalem heard that a congregation
was planted in Antioch, they sent Barnabas thither, who
"exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they should cleave to
the Lord." [Acts 11:23.]
being the object for which he was sent,
his selection for the mission indicates his superiority in that kind of
talent. Perhaps it was chiefly on account of this talent, in which
Paul was deficient, that Barnabas became the traveling companion
of this apostle. It is a talent much more rare than mere logical
power, and has always been highly prized by the Churches.
It is quite probable that the land sold by Barnabas constituted his
whole estate. Having no family dependent on him, he consecrated
his life to unrequited missionary
labor. [1 Corinthians 9:6.]