Acts 4 follows immediately, seamlessly, from the narrative in chapter three. After Peter and John finish preaching the gospel to the people, the Jewish leadership comes to them and seeks to prosecute them in a Jewish court for proclaiming Christ. The chapter discusses how Peter and John, and by extension all believers, can faithfully proclaim the message chapter three revealed. If chapter three deals with the message, chapter four deals with the method—how the message is to be proclaimed. Spirit-filled believers testify to the reality of the truth they proclaim and defend because the Word by the Spirit changes them to live out the truth they know. The substance of the message is of utmost importance because we fellowship with what we believe and practice, and if one of these is suspect then we are in fellowship with error. As such, local churches and obedient believers must be careful to powerfully proclaim the name of Jesus, exclusively Jesus, and fully Jesus.
A. Powerfully proclaim (vv. 1-4)
Because Peter and John’s ministry was accompanied by supernatural works of the Spirit, one might be tempted to think there was something in these men that gave power to what they preached. This is not the case, as they forcefully admit (3:12). They were a means for God to exercise His sovereign power. Then, could it be the miracle that made the message powerful? Well, the miracle was undeniably a display of the power of the ruling Christ, given authority by His Father to unite heaven and earth, to affect earth with the will of heaven in a dynamic, decisive, and eschatological way. And the miracle did give the apostles a hearing for the message. But no, what made the proclamation powerful was what and Who was proclaimed—the faithful, Spirit-filled, unapologetic declaration of truth is the means the Holy Spirit has chosen to work through in this age. That is where the power of God is. Does God still work miracles, answer believing prayer, and manifest His goodness and personal power in countless ways? Yes, and these are the birthright of those who know Christ and follow Him. But in order to exalt His Word, and the One about whom it speaks with such truth and clarity, God has bound Himself to the proclamation of His truth in a way like nothing else. God is at work in and through the Word, for we are saved by believing and loving the truth (2 Thess. 2:10, 12), which we can neither believe nor love if we do not know it. The Jesus to whom we entrust ourselves is a real Jesus; there are things that are true about Him (such as His deity and sinless humanity), and not true (such as saying He is a created being or was not really fully human). To savingly believe Jesus we must believe in her true Jesus and we have to know who He is to do so. This is why God honors and exalts His truth so much. He works through His truth to save, sanctify, and bless.
The Word is deeply powerful. It overcomes blindness and deadness and unwillingness in the unregenerate and carnality and pockets of self-will in the saved. When believed it is effectual for all things God intends to do by it, and it has the very power of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). Christ is so tied to His Word that in many places the gospel/Scriptures are called the word of Christ, or to preach them is to preach Christ Himself (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 4:20; Col. 1:28 [lit. “whom we preach”], 3:16; 1 Tim. 6:3). This word, because of Whose it is, was irresistible to those thousands saved that day, and would remain so for the rest of their lives. As it would do throughout Acts, the Word would prevail in their lives to the glory of God (Acts 19:20; Col. 1:6; cf. Isaiah 55:8-11). Despite the humiliation their apostles would shortly go through, these people had experienced a supernatural conversion that would preserve them despite the persecution and suffering following Christ would bring.
B. The Name of Jesus (vv. 5-10)
The key here is verse 7: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” The Sadducees and the priests and other leaders recognize the connection between name (which encompasses authority) and power. One pastor explained it this way: Power is the ability to accomplish something, particularly that which you will. Authority is the right to use the power you possess. There is an interesting juxtaposition in this section between the self-asserted authority of the Jewish leadership—which accomplishes nothing—and the effectual, dynamic authority of the living Christ, which powerfully and unmistakably changes things. The tactics of the leaders in verses 5-7—gathering everybody there, leaving the apostles in prison overnight, even putting them in the center of the room so they were surrounded—are all keyed to make them look powerful and intimidating. Perhaps this is because they sense the effective power of Christ in the miracle that has just taken place, and they feel threatened. Perhaps they are simply proud and wish to give a show of power to assert themselves. At any rate, this section demonstrates true, effective power is found only in the name of Christ.
“Name” in Scripture encompasses the notion of character and personhood—the person is tightly identified with their name. The name also means their character—it encompasses something about them or that is hoped to be true of them. An interesting note on this point is in 2 Timothy 2:19—to “name the name” of the Lord is to ask Him to be who He is, and all that He is, for you. Paul does not say that because the Hebraism of “naming” would convey the same idea, as name and character are so tightly woven.
Peter identifies himself boldly and clearly with the name of Jesus. In humility he admits it is not him, but his risen and ruling Lord who has healed the man. He encapsulates the gospel in the person and works of Christ in one sentence, and connects Christ’s sovereign power in healing with His substitutionary death and His glorious resurrection (which in NT theology is tied to the ascension). As the risen and ruling One, Jesus can affect the souls and bodies of those on earth. Peter exalts Jesus’ power in the faces of those who killed Him.
C. Exclusively Jesus (vv. 11-16)
The exclusivity of Christ is a deeply important part of the gospel and as such is frequently under attack. One obvious way to do this is deny the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation, whether through a pluralistic notion (God has revealed Himself equally in every religion and followers of all religions can be saved while never leaving that religion), or inclusivism (Jesus is indeed the only Savior and people can only be saved through His cross work, but one does not have to consciously trust in Him to be saved by Him). This is increasingly becoming a problem in missiology and evangelism, as more and more “evangelicals” are softening the strict exclusivist posture of the NT. However, a subtler way to undercut the exclusivity of Christ is by adding something to His person and work. This is especially important for those who rightly affirm the necessity of perseverance and fruit-bearing for final salvation. While the New Testament is clear people cannot be finally saved apart from perseverance and obedience, it is a mistake to make this the ground or cause of salvation. Jesus and His perfect work and righteousness are the ground of our justification, and faith alone is the instrument that unites us to Christ and thus imputes His perfect work and righteousness to our accounts. Certainly the evidence that we have walked through this narrow gate is our obedient lives, and the narrow gate opens onto a narrow path on which we must finally stay if we wish to walk all the way to heaven from a fallen world. But every act of surrender and fruit-bearing in our lives comes from Christ, who works in us by His grace to produce that which pleases Him (cf. Titus 2:11-14; Heb. 13:21), and whose perfect righteousness, which alone makes us flawlessly acceptable to the Father, is granted to us by that repentant faith which alone unites us to Him and is itself the gift of God’s grace. May we never compromise an iota on the exclusivity of Christ, for therein is our—and the world’s—only hope for salvation.
D. Fully Jesus (vv. 17-22)
To fully preach Jesus does not mean to only discuss the facts of the gospel, as important as those are. Rather, it means to unfold Christ’s will for the new believer and to show how to live according to it. For present-day believers, this is a large purpose of the Epistles, which unpack, apply, and connect the facts of the gospel to the things Christ wants from us in response and the things He will yet do in our future hope. But for these believers, the Epistles had not yet been written, so they relied on “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). I believe this is part of what the Apostles are doing here—they are modeling for the new believers what a righteous response to persecution looks like. Or, in keeping with the label for this point, they are fully preaching Christ’s will for this particular situation.
Since intimidation did not work, the Jewish leadership tries a second tactic—threats (v. 21). This is after outright commanding the apostles to not preach Christ (vv. 17-18). The apostles respond brilliantly and beautifully—they recognized the authority of the priests over them (v. 19—the church had not yet become an entity fully distinct from Israel, so the Jewish people were to an extent still accountable to the leadership of the nation), and that as such they were free to make a determination about whether it was proper for the Apostles to disobey their orders to obey the will of God. They do not openly defy or advocate rebellion against their God-appointed leaders. But, they also do not back down from obeying the will of God (v. 20). Here is an important balance for disciples in a rebellious world: God has placed certain people over us in authority. They do not always care about the things of God, and so we may have to disobey them to obey the ultimate Authority, God. The Apostles show us how to do this properly: They recognize the authority of those over them, but still refuse to obey the One who owns their very lives. This is the will of Christ for His people, who did not utter threats or defiance when arrested and abused, but remained faithful to His Father.
The message Christ calls us to proclaim has claims upon all of our lives, including how we preach it to the saved and the lost. In Acts 4, God has inspired a practical account that teaches us how to proclaim His words with His blessing and for His glory.