A Question of Authority

A Question of Authority

A Question of Authority
Text: Acts 4:1-21

Main Idea: Spiritual authority flows from a person’s wholesale allegiance to Jesus Christ (and his revealed Word), not their “position of authority” in the religious community.

Sermon Outline:

I. The Conflict (Acts 4:1–4)
II. The Courtroom (Acts 4:5–12)
III. The Notable Contrast (Acts 4:13–22)

As we turn to Acts chapter four this morning, we are turning to an important transition in the book of Acts. Up until this time, Luke has been focused on three primary things: the authoritative witness of the apostles, the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the manner in which Jesus and his church fulfill God’s OT promises to Israel. But, if you have been following the story line closely you may have noticed a fourth emphasis emerging in the story, in fact from recent conversations in our small group I know that some of you have recognized Luke’s increasing focus on the temple.

  • In chapter 2, the early church attended the temple together day by day to listen to the apostles’ teaching.
  • In chapter 3, Peter and John went to the temple at the hour of prayer and met a lame man who was laid by the temple gate every day to beg. After he was healed, he ran into the temple. And Peter preached to the crowd in the temple.
  • And as we get to chapter four, we discover that these events in the temple have not gone unnoticed. The captain of the temple and Israel’s religious authorities arrive on the scene to arrest Peter and John for their unsanctioned teaching in the temple.

What I want you to see is that while chapters four through seven describe the rising opposition and persecution against the church, Luke is using these stories of conflict to highlight the monumental transition of authority that has just occurred in the ascension of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.[1] And the inescapable irony in our passage today is this: Israel’s Old Covenant “authorities” are more concerned with preserving their positions of power, than they are with examining and embracing the authoritative work of God in their midst through the apostles!

The Conflict (Acts 4:1–4)

The Source of the Conflict (4:1–3)

Notice, we are picking up exactly where we left off last week in chapter 3. Peter and John are actively proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to a large crowd in the temple that is utterly amazed (3:10) at their ability to instantly heal a man who had been lame since birth. But, as chapter four begins, the unreserved celebration and amazement of the crowds is quickly displaced by the “great annoyance” of the Sadducees (4:2).

Don’t miss this, the Sadducees do not demonstrate an ounce of compassion or joy in the lame man’s healing. Neither do they readily acknowledge the fact that this mind-blowing miracle was an obvious work of God. No. They are “greatly annoyed” because Peter and John are proclaiming “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” Which, as we have seen in the last two chapters, is not just the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. But the gospel proclamation that a person’s experience of future resurrection and everlasting enjoyment of God in the new creation is not a matter of ethnic identity and obedience to the Mosaic Law BUT repentance and faith in rejected and resurrected Jesus Christ. This is why they haul the apostles off to jail for the night.

The Power of the Gospel (4:4)

Yet as the apostles are locked away in a prison cell for the night, what does Luke want us to see? He wants us to see that Jesus is actively working through his authoritative witnesses!

Acts 4:4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

Notice, what is the reason for this rapid growth? It’s not the miracle (in and of itself) nor it the apostles’ abilities. It’s the faithful proclamation of the Word— the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Martin Luther famously remarked about his role in the Protestant Reformation: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip or my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a Prince or Emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”

And I do not think that Luther is just trying to be modest here. I think he is emphasizing a fundamental gospel truth that Paul highlights in Romans 1.

Romans 1:16–17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

This is important because it helps us see the power for our effective witness as Christians or effective ministry in the church has more to do with our persistent faithful witness to God’s Word than our personal abilities. In fact, this becomes even more clear as we transition to the courtroom scene in verses 5–12.

The Courtroom (Acts 4:5–12)

The Spiritual Authorities of Israel Assemble (4:5–6)

Let’s pause here for a moment. Because if we do not, we could miss the monumental gravity of this situation. Peter and John are not just answering to the Sadducees, they are answering to the highest court in Israel, the Sanhedrin. A court that consisted of seventy-one men covering the highest levels of political, social, academic, religious, and ecclesiastical life within the Jewish state. Peter and John are standing before the highest authority in the land apart from the Roman empire (including the high priest and his family)! But that is not to say that the members of the Sanhedrin always agreed with each other. Rather, they tended toward one of two ends of the religious spectrum.[2]

On the one hand, the Sadducees were what we might call the religious liberals of the day. Sure, they looked to the law of Moses and believed morality was a necessary component of civic order, but they did not believe in any other part of the Bible. They did not believe in the supernatural. They didn’t believe in miracles. They didn’t believe in resurrection. They didn’t believe in afterlife. They didn’t believe in a spiritual world at all. They’re what we today would call religious moral rationalists.

On the other hand, the teachers of the law (comprised mostly Pharisees) were the religious conservatives. They were hyper-religious when compared to the Sadducees. The embraced the entire OT. They believed in miracles. They believed in the resurrection. They believed that obedience and purity brought glory to God.

What I want you to see is that this group didn’t have very much in common in terms of religion or philosophy. In fact, the only thing that they seem to have held in common was their common hatred of Jesus Christ. After all, it was this very assembly that had gathered in the early hours of a (not too distant) Friday morning to condemn Jesus to death. Just think about it, if this court convicted Jesus to death; what hope do two insignificant fishermen have of escaping the same fate?

The Apostles Authority Called to Question (4:7–12)

The first thing that I want you to see in these verses is that the Sanhedrin is going out of its way to emphasize it power and authority by openly disparaging Peter and John. What I mean by this, is that, in the original Greek sentence the pronoun “you” is placed at the extreme end. Therefore, their question could sound a little more like this: “What power or authority gave this right to you, you insignificant nobodies?[3] And what do we see in this? The Sanhedrin is not looking for real answers to the lame man’s healing, they are simply looking to put the apostles in their place and shame them into silence.

The second thing I want you to see is the authoritative manner in which Peter answer’s their question by the power and authority of the Holy Spirit. Peter begins by clarifying the reason for their hearing. They haven’t done anything wrong in the eyes of God. They are on trial because they performed an act of unmitigated kindness, for a hopelessly crippled man. And then in one swift step, he turns the entire hearing on its head. As one commentator puts it: “The accused has become the accuser. And the judgment seat of the Sanhedrin is [instantly] transformed into the judgment seat of God!”[4]

They are the ones that sinfully conspired to put Jesus to death even though his life and ministry was marked by nothing but good deeds. They are the ones who forfeit their rightful authority in their in their rejection of Christ. But even more God rejected their unified verdict! He raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate his life and ministry in the eyes of everyone. This is “the power” through whom the lame man was healed. And it is why the apostles were proclaiming the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

But Peter does not stop at their initial question. He backs up his assertions about Jesus with a citation from Psalm 118:22.

Psalm 118:19–24 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. 22 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. 21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 23 This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Observations: The psalmist’s goal is to give thanks to “the LORD.” Why does he want to give thanks to “the Lord”? Because God has saved him. In what way did God save him? He saved him through a supernatural reversal, the “rejected stone” has become the “cornerstone.”

In the original context “the rejected stone” was Israel’s King and “the builders” were kings of the surrounding nations who were trying to absorb Israel into their kingdoms. Therefore, in the original context, Psalm 118 was a celebration of God’s faithfulness to Israel’s king. Yet, in the present context, Peter (by Jesus’ own teaching and the power of the Holy Spirit) is showing the Sanhedrin that Psalm 118 anticipated a much greater reversal in the rejection and resurrection of Jesus the promised Messiah.

  • Jesus is the rejected stone that has become the cornerstone.
  • The Sanhedrin are the builders.

The significance is this: Yes, they rejected Jesus as an unimportant nobody. But Jesus’ resurrection and the lame man’s healing demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah— the cornerstone of God’s New Covenant Work that he has promised throughout the entire OT. Jesus is the promised king they have been waiting for!

Now, at this point we might expect Peter to utterly denounce the members of the Sanhedrin for their rejection of Jesus. But he doesn’t, does he? No, he strips away their every hope of a right standing with God on their own merit AND points them to Jesus as their only hope of salvation. (Peter is not trying to defend himself, he is driven by the glory of Jesus).

Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Notice what was the Sanhedrin’s initial question? “By what power OR NAME did you do this?” The answer, by the NAME of the rejected but resurrected Jesus Christ. But, there is something more they needed to know. His NAME is the only NAME by which anyone can be saved from God’s judgment on the day of his arrival (Cf. Acts 2:21).

At this point in time, we might expect this counsel of the wisest men in Israel to have (at least) a few questions. Wouldn’t you? Yet for everything that Luke tells us in the text, the members of the Sanhedrin don’t have a single question NOR are interested in hearing more about this salvation in Jesus. Are they? No. All they want to do is sweep the entire matter under the rug.

The Notable Contrast (Acts 4:13–22)

Self-Serving Suppression

On the one hand, the spiritual authorities of Israel are not only “astonished” at the boldness (authority) of two uneducated men. They cannot refute the obvious miracle, because the former lame man was standing next to the apostles, and “everyone” heard that he had been healed. In fact, given his long history of begging outside the same gate, it is most likely that everyone knew who it was.

So where do the obvious facts drive the smartest men in Israel? Do the facts drive them to embrace Jesus as their only hope of salvation? The answer is clearly no… The moment they realize that they cannot deny the obvious truth, they decide to do everything in their power to actively suppress the truth. This is spiritual abuse of the highest order!

Bold Stewardship

But, on the other hand, how do the apostles respond to the direct order of Israel’s highest authority? They don’t openly disrespect their position of authority. No. They point their leaders to a well-known principle from the OT: A person’s obedience to God always trumps their God-given call to submit to their religious or political authorities. 

This is the principle that compelled the midwives to reject the Pharaoh’s command to murder any Hebrew boys that were born. This is the principle that compelled Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to risk death in the fiery furnace by rejecting Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship his golden image. This is the principle that compelled Daniel to reject the King’s command to pray to no other god but him. And it is this principle that most clearly reveals the true authority of the Apostles and the abject failure of Israel’s so-called spiritual authorities. The Sanhedrin is not interested in examining God’s Word to determine if the apostles are speaking the truth, in fact, they are not interested in honoring God. All they care about is guarding their positions of power.

Main Idea: Spiritual authority flows from a person’s wholesale allegiance to Jesus Christ (and his revealed Word), not their “position of authority” in the religious community.

Two Take A ways

Spiritual Authority is for the Good of the Flock not the Shepherd

In fact, when we put it in these terms, we can quickly see that this passage has a lot to say about the countless abuses of authority that happen every year in the church of the living God. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that authority in and of itself is evil. God has ordained every manner of authority as an expression of his common grace for mankind’s good— especially in his church. The problem is that sinful humans tend to distort and abuse God’s gifts, even the blood bought gifts that he given to his church.

All you have to do is turn on the evening news or scroll through an internet news site to see what I mean. Story after story after story of well-known teachers, pastors, or denominational leaders pressuring broken and abused people into silent submission so that they can preserve their public image or protect their position of authority. When they are the very people that, by nature of their position, should be actively protecting both their people and the reputation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is sin of the highest order when it occurs!

The church and her leaders do not exist to protect abusers from the rightful consequences of their sin. The church and her leaders exist to proclaim the gospel, to disciple believers, to comfort the broken hearted, and protect the flock from harm.

Church, your elders and pastor Ryan and I are ever-imperfect men. But this is the kind of church we are striving to be. If you have encountered spiritual abuse in the past or are enduring some form of abuse in the present, we want you to know that we are here for you.

 Spiritual Authority is always a matter of God-Honoring Stewardship

It should be incredibly clear from our passage today that spiritual authority is not simply a matter of Biblical knowledge, doctrinal precision, or ecclesiastical position. Is it? God is not glorified when Biblical truth does not increase our delight in him and overflow in a passion for other people. God is not glorified when pastors, elders, or ministry teams minister in the power of their flesh. God is not glorified when his servants are more interested in preserving their tiny ministry-fiefdoms than pursuing his glory and his kingdom.

Please hear this and it will protect our church from so many different problems. Spiritual authority is always a matter of God-honoring stewardship.

What I mean by this is that spiritual leaders (me, pastor Ryan, the elders, COM members, or ministry team leaders) cannot not be driven by the natural impulse to protect our power base or push our personal agenda, no matter how good we might think it is. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. Its mission is predetermined by Jesus Christ. And its power for ministry flows from its submission to and pursuit of Jesus Christ. Because there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

[1] Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, vol. 27 of New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson (England; Downers Grove, IL: Apollos; InterVarsity Press, 2011), 145.

[2] The following is adapted from, Tim Keller, “Unbelief” in The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 190.

[4] Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 108.