The resurrection of the dead
(Act 4:1-2 ESV) And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.
The Sadducees were closely tied to the priests and were likely largely Levites. The Romans gave the priests a degree of authority in Jewish affairs, which led to many priests adopting a compromised Judaism — as they were compromised Jews.
The Sadducees rejected the resurrection — indeed, any form of afterlife.
The Pharisees and Christians, however, taught a bodily resurrection. The Christian view is that the “body” is a radically transformed body and that the resurrection of Jesus is a prototype of the resurrection that his followers will enjoy. Hence, the Christians taught that we’ll have a resurrection body much like the body Jesus has after his resurrection (see 1 Cor 15).
As N. T. Wright has shown through his historical studies, resurrection was unheard of in the ancient world, other than among the Jews —
All, however, were agreed: There was no resurrection. Death could not be reversed. Homer said it; Aeschylus and Sophocles seconded it. …
In Greek thought, the living could establish contact with the dead through various forms of necromancy; they might even receive ghostly visitations. But neither experience amounts to what pagan writers themselves referred to as “resurrection,” or the return to life, which they all denied. Thus, Christianity was born into a world where one of its central tenets, resurrection, was universally recognized as false.
Except, of course, in Judaism.
Therefore, the teaching of resurrection on the Temple grounds was a threat to the authority of the Sadducees, who thought they had exclusive authority there. To preach resurrection was to undercut their expertise as official teachers of the Law.
(Act 4:3 ESV) 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.
The Jews has established the Temple guard: kind of a Jewish police force to protect the Temple. After all, they certainly weren’t going to let Gentile Romans protect the Temple! And these guards were under the priests.
Evidently, the apostles’ teaching was so effective that the priests and Sadducees felt threatened — not in terms of military power but in terms of credibility. If enough people came to doubt their expertise, they’d lose their ability to control the people.
(Act 4:4 ESV) 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
But the number of converts increased to 5,000 “men” — the word is gender specific, meaning adult males. We should take this as the rough equivalent of “families,” meaning the total would be more than twice that.
(Act 4:5-7 ESV) 5 On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
What an interesting question: “By what power or by what name”! They were thinking in terms of earthly authority and power — because they felt their own authority and power to be under attack. Therefore, they wanted to know who was behind this obvious effort to undermine the power they’d so carefully accumulated under the Romans.
(Act 4:8-10 ESV) 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by him this man is standing before you well.”
Being the prototypical preacher, Peter takes every opportunity to preach a sermon. And he begins — audaciously — by announcing that he heals and teaches in the name of Jesus the Messiah, “raised from the dead.” That is, he leans squarely into the punch by insisting that Jesus has been resurrected.
To a Hellenistic mind — such as the Sadducees — the claim is laughable, long ago dismissed by the Greek philosophers. They sneer — even though the ordinary Jew and the Pharisees would have cheered this claim.
Now, N. T. Wright points out that one major theme of Acts is the assaults on Christianity launched by worldly powers. After all, the resurrection threatens all worldly power because it shows that even death cannot stop God’s Kingdom.
Therefore, the kingdoms of the earth — beginning with the Jewish authorities — reveal their opposition to God’s Kingdom by seeking to silence preaching of the gospel. (And the powers continue to do the same thing today.)
We must learn to see Christianity as essentially a threat to those who cling to power for the sake of power. Indeed, those powers that seek to silence the gospel reveal themselves to be enemies of God himself. Thus, even the Jewish priests and elders revealed their true loyalties by attacking God’s own Kingdom.
The name of Jesus
(Act 4:11-12 ESV) 11 “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 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.”
Peter refers to Psalm 118 —
(Psa 118:19-24 ESV) 19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. 20 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.
— a Messianic prophecy.
He then asserts that “salvation” is found only in Jesus — implicitly declaring his judges damned. Peter was no politician!
Of course, Acts 4:12 is a critically important verse when some claim that salvation may be found by those who lack faith, asserting that they may be saved by the power of Jesus although ignorant of Jesus.
But the grammar denies this: “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Peter was preaching to God-fearing Jews, men who’d dedicated their lives to Torah and the service of God, even serving at his Temple! And they stood damned for their lack of faith in Jesus. They sought salvation by the wrong name. Now, not even the name of YHWH could save!
To be saved by a “name” is to be saved by claiming that person’s authority and salvation. You can’t be saved by the name of Jesus if you don’t know his name. That’s how the idiom works.
Consider these parallels —
(Act 2:21 ESV) 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ [a quotation from Joel]
(Act 2:38 ESV) 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
(Act 3:6 ESV) 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”
(Act 4:10 ESV) 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by him this man is standing before you well.
(Act 4:18 ESV) 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
(Act 4:29-30 ESV) 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
(Act 5:40 ESV) 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
This could go on much longer. Imagine in any of these examples someone claiming that X had happened in the name of Jesus by someone ignorant of the name of Jesus. How could someone preach in the name of Jesus without knowing his name? How could someone do miracles in the name of Jesus ignorant of the name?
No, the thought of Acts 4:12 is parallel with —
(Act 22:16 ESV) 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
(1Co 6:11 ESV) 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1. Do we preach the resurrection of the dead? A bodily resurrection? Would today’s preaching threaten the Sadducees?
2. Peter’s declaration that he would obey God rather than man is frequently quoted. But do we live it? In what ways does the US government oppose obedience to God? [I’m not talking about how the government is disobedient but how the government might urge us to be disobedient.] If you were a soldier and commanded to commit a sin against God, would you? Would you submit to the draft to fight an unjust war? Or are all American wars necessarily just?
3. Can someone be saved without ever hearing of Jesus?
4. If not, what should be our response?
5. Did the apostles and early Christians live as though salvation could be found only in Jesus? Or did they live as though honest pagans, ignorant of Jesus, could be saved without knowing the gospel? Which view did Paul live?