All bark and no bite

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Organizational bullies. You know the type. They’re accustomed to dominance, to throwing their weight around. They have power and they’re not afraid to use it; they’ll do whatever it takes to advance their agenda. They don’t always have as much power as they would like — but that doesn’t mean they’ll back off the dominance behavior.

It’s like some parents of teenagers. When their kids were younger, the parents were used to bossing them around, threatening them with punishment if they didn’t do as they were told. Most of the time, it worked.

And then, one day, it didn’t.

They keep trying, of course, because it’s all they know how to do. Everyone knows it’s all bark and no bite. But man, that barking can get loud.

The apostles Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin, the powerful Jewish ruling council. The council probably hoped that the interrogation itself would be intimidating enough to make these upstarts shut up and go away. But no: they stood tall as Peter answered them with a Spirit-fueled confidence and cogency they didn’t expect. It so surprised them that they had nothing to say.

Luke tells us what happened next:

So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. (Acts 4:15-18, NRSV)

(Some scholars have wondered how Luke would know what had been said in that closed meeting. By the standards of his time, it would not have been out of order for Luke to simply put words in their mouths, based on how things turned out. But some have noted that the revered rabbi Gamaliel was both a member of the Sanhedrin [Acts 5:34] and the mentor of Saul of Tarsus [Acts 22:3] — the one who would become the apostle Paul. Might Paul himself have been at that meeting? Possibly. But at the very least, he may have known about it through Gamaliel, and passed the story on to Luke.)

The council, at a loss for words, sent Peter and John out of the room so they could deliberate in private. Luke summarizes the conversation succinctly: Peter had performed a remarkable sign, the news had already spread throughout the city, and there was no chance of plausible denial, since the man who had been healed was living proof and known to many.

Their only option, therefore, was damage control. If they could get the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, maybe the whole incident would eventually be forgotten, like an inconvenient dream. Let’s threaten them! Maybe that’ll work.

Were they secure in their decision? Somehow, I doubt it. They had already been shaken by Peter’s surprising boldness. And I’m struck by both the similarity and the difference between this conversation and the one in John 11:47-53. The similarity: in both cases, the Sanhedrin were wringing their hands over the consequences of a miraculous sign. In Acts, it’s Peter’s healing of the lame beggar; in John, it’s Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

The difference: Caiaphas. As high priest, he presided over the Sanhedrin, and he is mentioned by name in both stories. In John 11, his arrogance is palpable. He sneers at his esteemed colleagues’ anxieties, saying with derision, “You know nothing at all!” — and sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus.

In Acts 4, however, he seems silent. What could the high priest have been thinking, hearing that Peter was doing miracles and preaching resurrection in the name of the person whose life Caiaphas had dismissed so cavalierly? Did his arrogance go unabated? If he said anything, Luke doesn’t record it. At the very least, we know that he didn’t say, “Oh, stop your whining. We killed the ringleader, and we can kill his minions too.” In the end, all the council could do was issue threats.

Woof, woof, woof.

And again, as we’ll see, Peter was not impressed.