Speaking truth to power (part 1)

Anglican scholar N. T. Wright tells of a bishop who once complained that his ministry wasn’t having the same effect as that of the first apostles. “Everywhere Saint Paul went, there was a riot,” he said. “Everywhere I go, they serve tea.”

I get it. But truth be told, I’d rather have the tea.

In Acts 4, a new wrinkle is added to the ongoing story of the apostles. Acts 2 tells of the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That miraculous display provides Peter with the opportunity to preach his first sermon; thousands believe and begin to form a Spirit-filled and loving community. Acts 3 then tells of the miraculous healing of a man who had been crippled from birth, an event which provides Peter yet another opportunity to preach to the curious crowd.

But into this burgeoning success story comes an element of opposition. Jesus himself had drawn both devoted followers and dangerous opponents; so it had to be with the apostles. Peter’s second sermon, delivered from Solomon’s Portico, was rudely interrupted as temple officials converged angrily on Peter and John and hauled them away.

Though not to the extreme of Gethsemane, it was hardly a fair fight. On one side: Peter, John, and possibly the man who had been healed. On the other: “the priests, the captain of the temple (police), and the Sadducees” (Acts 4:1, NRSV). It was a show of force by those in charge. The apostles were to be brought before the Sanhedrin. But it was already evening, so they were kept in official custody until a hearing could be convened the next day.

Peter, therefore, didn’t get to deliver some punchy concluding remarks. No matter. He had already called for repentance, and people believed, increasing the number of believers from 3,000 to 5,000 (or even 8,000, depending on how you take Luke’s words).

And that’s just counting the men. Not bad for a bit of impromptu and unfinished preaching.

The next day, the Sanhedrin was convened. Caiaphas, the reigning high priest, would have presided. His father-in-law Annas, the former high priest, was also there, as were other members of their family.

Peter, John, and the man who had been healed were dragged before the council. “By what power or by what name did you do this?” they demanded (Acts 4:7). The scene is reminiscent of the gospels. Jesus would do a miracle, the people would be amazed, and then they would begin to ask each other if he could be the Prophet or the Messiah. But the people in power wanted to know who gave Jesus permission to run around healing people and ridding them of demons. (How dare he?)

That’s bureaucracy for you. Do a miracle and they want to see your permit.

By what name had Peter healed this man? It’s a simple question, with an equally simple answer. We already know the story: Peter had taken the man by the hand and proclaimed, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6).

But as we’ll see in the next post, Peter’s answer will not be simple. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he will surprise them with his eloquence and speak truth to power.