The ending of Mark’s gospel is frightening to me.
Women attended the grave of Jesus, only to find him gone. An angelic being told them that Jesus was en route to Galilee.
The women left the grave, in the words of the gospel, afraid. At once, the women realized the gravity of such an event.
The resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection for humanity, is a controversial idea. In one year, the amount of people who believe in Jesus’ resurrection dropped 13%, from 77% to 64%. Other statistics state that only 75% of those who describe themselves as “born again” believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
I tend to think it’s a threatening, for one reason. Imagine, for a moment, standing fully in the presence of the God of all, without harm. Whatever you believe about God — whether Creator or Provider or Protector — to stand in his Presence without harm is an incredible thought.
Which is why the resurrection threatens us. It speaks to our own arrogance. The message of the resurrection is that we, now, are incomplete, regardless of personal success. The resurrection confronts our own immaturity, this side of death, and that, I think, is why we have difficulty accepting it at face value.
This post, the next in a succession of comments over the New Testament book of Acts, makes us confront the resurrection, through the eyes of those who believe it, and those who are threatened by it.
What began as a time for evening prayer for Peter and John became an epic confrontation between those who were to be the true “rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel”: the apostles … or the Sanhedrin.
Peter invoked the ire of the current leadership, not because a man had been healed, but because Peter taught that because of Jesus, resurrection from the realm of the dead is a certainty. Peter didn’t try to persuade this group that Jesus’ resurrection really happened. Instead, he told them that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees a future resurrection for everyone. The Sadducees, who were there, wanted none of that – they refused to believe in the resurrection, historically, because the Torah said nothing about the resurrection. So they could never buy the idea that the Messiah of Israel had died, only to come back to life.
It’s easy to see why such teaching, and the healing of the lame man, made Peter and John viable threats, though – the people believed the apostles instead of the Jewish religious leaders. So, in an effort to damage the credibility of the two apostles, the religious leaders imprisoned Peter and John.
Their plan backfired.
The imprisonment of the two apostles was the catalyst for yet another miraculous growth, with 5,000 men counted as believers in resurrection.
But the Sanhedrin was not content. The following day, Peter and John were forced into a hearing before the Jerusalem leadership (apparently the same group that sentenced Jesus to death), where the apostles were questioned about the power that allowed them to heal the former lame man. Peter, though, saw it as a moment to share the gospel with the seditious group who killed his rabbi.
So filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter addressed the skeptical group. His words were few, but powerful. He proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and that it was Jesus’ name which provided the power to heal the man.¹
Perhaps the most startling teaching Peter shared, though, was that salvation can only be found in the name of Jesus. This is the first time the word salvation appears in Acts and it appears, not in the context of thousands of people calling on the name of Jesus and being baptized in his name, but rather it appears in the context of a lame man being healed. That’s important. The man’s healing, after all, was the point of Peter’s and John’s questioning. So salvation, at least here, must mean more than perhaps what we’ve believed, what we’ve learned, or maybe even what we’ve been taught. In this context, salvation means the total restoration of a person from every kind of brokenness and stigmatization – physical, spiritual, political, moral, and even eschatological. (That’s a pretty big word which really means an understanding of what happens after death.) The lame man’s physical condition prohibited him from enjoying full rights in any of those categories. But once healed, he was fully accepted in every category, and could now function, without reservation, in the social realm of the Jewish culture. In fact, according to Luke, every division on planet earth was controlled by the devil. Jesus, and the power of his name, erases such divisions, however they appear, and saves people from separation. This, in Luke’s world, was the meaning of the word salvation.
So, for Peter and John, the lame man found salvation, not simply healing, in the name of Jesus. His entire life was restored back to its original intention, an intention broken by his inability to physically walk, itself a result of sin in the world.
These were pretty strong words by Peter, and the council knew it, not because of Peter’s actual speech, but rather how the apostles appeared. The council watched Peter and John be transformed from just unschooled, uneducated, ordinary men, into men who spoke with boldness. The word “boldness” is an important distinction for these men — it was a Greek word often used to describe Greek philosophers. Peter and John, then, were no longer just men unschooled in the rhetoric of the Torah. They were no longer just men untaught in the skills of oration. They were extraordinary, and the delivery of their words was extraordinary, because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and had been with Jesus. In fact, the council of Jewish rulers – the very same council that had condemned Jesus to die – were speechless, could not deny the apostles’ testimony, and were unable to even mention Jesus’ name, even when they told Peter and John stop such public teaching.
Peter and John, though, chose to defy their order, because they just simply couldn’t help but talk about what they witnessed. The two men were released, not only because they had not broken any law thus far, but because the council was afraid of the people.
Peter and John “went back to their own” – meaning the other apostles, the true rulers of “the twelve tribes of Israel,” (certainly not all 8,000 believers!) – and shared the edict of the council. The first response of this group was to pray, not to be spared from persecution, but for boldness to continue to witness. And theirs was a prayer of unanimity!
They addressed God as “Sovereign Lord,” and the following words of the prayer indicated the belief that everything — creation, the words of David, and the so-called decisions to arrest and kill Jesus — happened because God decided them to happen. Even the threats the believers received were part of a divine plan. And this group did not pray for a release from the persecution, but rather prayed for boldness in the face of persecution.
A Few Discussion Questions
- Have you experienced legitimate persecution and threats because of your belief in Jesus? If so, explain.
- If you haven’t, then explain why you haven’t.
- Why does following Jesus threaten people, anyway?
- Read Acts 4:1-4.
- Who interrupted Peter and John? Why?
- Why would the resurrection disturb people? Those who deny the resurrection – what do they believe about life and purpose? Explain.
- Is the resurrection of Jesus still a disturbing thing? Explain.
- Read Acts 4:5-12.
- Peter and John healed a lame man in Acts 3. Is this sort of healing still possible today? By what power did Peter and John heal? If that power is still active, then shouldn’t healing still be possible? Explain.
- Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit (v 8). Wasn’t he already filled with the Holy Spirit? (See Acts 2:4.) So what does this mean? And how would he know? How did Luke know?
- What does “salvation” mean? What did Peter think it meant?
- Read Acts 4:13-17.
- How did the council react to Peter and John? What was different about them?
- Does being filled with the Holy Spirit produce such a dramatic change? Every time? Explain. Should it?
- Why couldn’t the council even say the name of Jesus, in v 17? Why is the name of Jesus so threatening?
- Read Acts 4:18-22.
- Peter and John refused to abide by the council’s order according to what reason?
- Does their reason surprise you? Convict you? Why do they feel so compelled to keep talking about Jesus? Do they have something we don’t? Explain.
- Read Acts 4:23-31.
- How did this group pray?
- How did they address God? The Greek word for “sovereign” is the origin of the English word “despot.” Is that an accurate depiction of God? In their prayer, for what do they credit God? Are we as eager to credit God for every single thing … even the things we determine as harmful? Explain.
- Why didn’t they ask to be spared from persecution? What did they ask for, instead? Why does that matter?
- How did they know God heard their cries? Does God still shake rooms today, because of the cries of his people? Explain.
Father, you are sovereign. We don’t tell you in order to remind you. We say that, in this prayer, because we need to hear our own mouths say that.
We ask today for courage to proclaim resurrection in your name. We know that the events that may threaten us are, in fact, ordained by you, for your own glory, and we pray, now, that we can have the freedom to proclaim the good news even in the midst of events that would cause us to suffer.
Bless your name, God!
¹Depending on translations, Jesus was referred to either as a capstone or cornerstone. The Greek word can be used interchangeably. The capstone finished and completed a Roman arch, and held the two opposing sides together. A cornerstone was the first stone of a building, the stone by which all subsequent stones were measured. Either way, the word meant that Jesus was the ultimate completion of life, or the ultimate beginning of life.