Acts 4:19
But Peter and John answered and said to them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, judge you.
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(19) Whether it be right in the sight of God . . .—The words assert the right of conscience, recognising a divine authority, to resist a human authority which opposes it. In theory, as the appeal “judge ye” showed even then, the right so claimed is of the nature of an axiom. In practice, the difficulty rises in the question, Is there the divine authority which is claimed? And the only practical answer is to be found in the rule, that men who believe they have the authority are bound to act as if they had it. If the Lord God hath spoken to them, they can but prophesy (Amos 3:8). In cases such as this, where the question is one of witness to facts, they must not tamper with the truth, if they believe themselves commissioned by God to declare the facts, for fear of offending men. When they pass from facts to doctrines inferred from facts, from doctrines to opinions, from opinions to conjectures, the duty of not saying that which they do not believe remains the same, but there is not the same obligation to proclaim what they thus hold in various stages of assent. There may be cases in which reticence is right as well as politic. And even in regard to facts, the publication—as law recognises in relation to libels—must not be gratuitous. There must be an adequate authority, or an adequate reason for disobedience to the human authority, which is binding until it is superseded by that which is higher than itself. And the onus probandi rests on the man who asserts the higher authority. Intensity of conviction may be enough for himself, but it cannot be expected that it will be so for others. In the absence of signs and wonders the question must be discussed on the wide ground of Reason and of Conscience, and the man who refuses to enter into debate on that ground because he is certain he is right is ipso facto convicted of an almost insane egotism. The words have clearly no bearing on the “froward retention” of a custom which God has not enjoined and a lawful authority has forbidden.



Acts 4:19 - Acts 4:31

The only chance for persecution to succeed is to smite hard and swiftly. If you cannot strike, do not threaten. Menacing words only give courage. The rulers betrayed their hesitation when the end of their solemn conclave was but to ‘straitly threaten’; and less heroic confessors than Peter and John would have disregarded the prohibition as mere wind. None the less the attitude of these two Galilean fishermen is noble and singular, when their previous cowardice is remembered. This first collision with civil authority gives, as has been already noticed, the main lines on which the relations of the Church to hostile powers have proceeded.

I. The heroic refusal of unlawful obedience.

We shall probably not do injustice to John if we suppose that Peter was spokesman. If so, the contrast of the tone of his answer with all previously recorded utterances of his is remarkable. Warm-hearted impulsiveness, often wrong-headed and sometimes illogical, had been their mark; but here we have calm, fixed determination, which, as is usually its manner, wastes no words, but in its very brevity impresses the hearers as being immovable. Whence did this man get the power to lay down once for all the foundation principles of the limits of civil obedience, and of the duty of Christian confession? His words take rank with the ever-memorable sayings of thinkers and heroes, from Socrates in his prison telling the Athenians that he loved them, but that he must ‘obey God rather than you,’ to Luther at Worms with his ‘It is neither safe nor right to do anything against conscience. Here I stand; I can do nothing else. God help me! Amen.’ Peter’s words are the first of a long series.

This first instance of persecution is made the occasion for the clear expression of the great principles which are to guide the Church. The answer falls into two parts, in the first of which the limits of obedience to civil authority are laid down in a perfectly general form to which even the Council are expected to assent, and in the second an irresistible compulsion to speak is boldly alleged as driving the two Apostles to a flat refusal to obey.

It was a daring stroke to appeal to the Council for an endorsement of the principle in Acts 4:19, but the appeal was unanswerable; for this tribunal had no other ostensible reason for existence than to enforce obedience to the law of God, and to Peter’s dilemma only one reply was possible. But it rested on a bold assumption, which was calculated to irritate the court; namely, that there was a blank contradiction between their commands and God’s, so that to obey the one was to disobey the other. When that parting of the ways is reached, there remains no doubt as to which road a religious man must take.

The limits of civil obedience are clearly drawn. It is a duty, because ‘the powers that be are ordained of God,’ and obedience to them is obedience to Him. But if they, transcending their sphere, claim obedience which can only be rendered by disobedience to Him who has appointed them, then they are no longer His ministers, and the duty of allegiance falls away. But there must be a plain conflict of commands, and we must take care lest we substitute whims and fancies of our own for the injunctions of God. Peter was not guided by his own conceptions of duty, but by the distinct precept of his Master, which had bid him speak. It is not true that it is the cause which makes the martyr, but it is true that many good men have made themselves martyrs needlessly. This principle is too sharp a weapon to be causelessly drawn and brandished. Only an unmistakable opposition of commandments warrants its use; and then, he has little right to be called Christ’s soldier who keeps the sword in the scabbard.

The articulate refusal in Acts 4:20 bases itself on the ground of irrepressible necessity: ‘We cannot but speak.’ The immediate application was to the facts of Christ’s life, death, and glory. The Apostles could not help speaking of these, both because to do so was their commission, and because the knowledge of them and of their importance forbade silence. The truth implied is of wide reach. Whoever has a real, personal experience of Christ’s saving power, and has heard and seen Him, will be irresistibly impelled to impart what he has received. Speech is a relief to a full heart. The word, concealed in the prophet’s heart, burned there ‘like fire in his bones, and he was weary of forbearing.’ So it always is with deep conviction. If a man has never felt that he must speak of Christ, he is a very imperfect Christian. The glow of his own heart, the pity for men who know Him not, his Lord’s command, all concur to compel speech. The full river cannot be dammed up.

II. The lame and impotent conclusion of the perplexed Council.

How plain the path is when only duty is taken as a guide, and how vigorously and decisively a man marches along it! Peter had no hesitation, and his resolved answer comes crashing in a straight course, like a cannon-ball. The Council had a much more ambiguous oracle to consult in order to settle their course, and they hesitate accordingly, and at last do a something which is a nothing. They wanted to trim their sails to catch popular favour, and so they could not do anything thoroughly. To punish or acquit was the only alternative for just judges. But they were not just; and as Jesus had been crucified, not because Pilate thought Him guilty, but to please the people, so His Apostles were let off, not because they were innocent, but for the same reason. When popularity-hunters get on the judicial bench, society must be rotten, and nearing its dissolution. To ‘decree unrighteousness by a law’ is among the most hideous of crimes. Judges ‘willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,’ are portents indicative of corruption. We may remark here how the physician’s pen takes note of the patient’s age, as making his cure more striking, and manifestly miraculous.

III. The Church’s answer to the first assault of the world’s power.

How beautifully natural that is, ‘Being let go, they went to their own,’ and how large a principle is expressed in the naive words! The great law of association according to spiritual affinity has much to do in determining relations here. It aggregates men, according to sorts; but its operation is thwarted by other conditions, so that companionship is often misery. But a time comes when it will work unhindered, and men will be united with their like, as the stones on some sea-beaches are laid in rows, according to their size, by the force of the sea. Judas ‘went to his own place,’ and, in another world, like will draw to like, and prevailing tendencies will be increased by association with those who share them.

The prayer of the Church was probably the inspired outpouring of one voice, and all the people said ‘Amen,’ and so made it theirs. Whose voice it was which thus put into words the common sentiment we should gladly have known, but need not speculate. The great fact is that the Church answered threats by prayer. It augurs healthy spiritual life when opposition and danger neither make cheeks blanch with fear nor flush with anger. No man there trembled nor thought of vengeance, or of repaying threats with threats. Every man there instinctively turned heavenwards, and flung himself, as it were, into God’s arms for protection. Prayer is the strongest weapon that a persecuted Church can use. Browning makes a tyrant say, recounting how he had tried to crush a man, that his intended victim

‘Stood erect, caught at God’s skirts, and prayed,

So I was afraid.’

The contents of the prayer are equally noteworthy. Instead of minutely studying it verse by verse, we may note some of its salient points. Observe its undaunted courage. That company never quivered or wavered. They had no thought of obeying the mandate of the Council. They were a little army of heroes. What had made them so? What but the conviction that they had a living Lord at God’s right hand, and a mighty Spirit in their spirits? The world has never seen a transformation like that. Unique effects demand unique causes for their explanation, and nothing but the historical truth of the facts recorded in the last pages of the Gospels and first of the Acts accounts for the demeanour of these men.

Their courage is strikingly marked by their petition. All they ask is ‘boldness’ to speak a word which shall not be theirs, but God’s. Fear would have prayed for protection; passion would have asked retribution on enemies. Christian courage and devotion only ask that they may not shrink from their duty, and that the word may be spoken, whatever becomes of the speakers. The world is powerless against men like that. Would the Church of to-day meet threats with like unanimity of desire for boldness in confession? If not, it must be because it has not the same firm hold of the Risen Lord which these first believers had. The truest courage is that which is conscious of its weakness, and yet has no thought of flight, but prays for its own increase.

We may observe, too, the body of belief expressed in the prayer. First it lays hold on the creative omnipotence of God, and thence passes to the recognition of His written revelation. The Church has begun to learn the inmost meaning of the Old Testament, and to find Christ there. David may not have written the second Psalm. Its attribution to him by the Church stands on a different level from Christ’s attribution of authorship, as, for instance, of the hundred and tenth Psalm. The prophecy of the Psalm is plainly Messianic, however it may have had a historical occasion in some forgotten revolt against some Davidic king; and, while the particular incidents to which the prayer alludes do not exhaust its far-reaching application, they are rightly regarded as partly fulfilling it. Herod is a ‘king of the earth,’ Pilate is a ‘ruler’; Roman soldiers are Gentiles; Jewish rulers are the representatives of ‘the people.’ Jesus is ‘God’s Anointed.’ The fact that such an unnatural and daring combination of rebels was predicted in the Psalm bears witness that even that crime at Calvary was foreordained to come to pass, and that God’s hand and counsel ruled. Therefore all other opposition, such as now threatened, will turn out to be swayed by that same Mighty Hand, to work out His counsel. Why, then, should the Church fear? If we can see God’s hand moving all things, terror is dead for us, and threats are like the whistling of idle wind.

Mark, too, the strong expression of the Church’s dependence on God. ‘Lord’ here is an unusual word, and means ‘Master,’ while the Church collectively is called ‘Thy servants,’ or properly, ‘slaves.’ It is a different word from that of ‘servant’ {rather than ‘child’} applied to Jesus in Acts 4:27 - Acts 4:30. God is the Master, we are His ‘slaves,’ bound to absolute obedience, unconditional submission, belonging to Him, not to ourselves, and therefore having claims on Him for such care as an owner gives to his slaves or his cattle. He will not let them be maltreated nor starved. He will defend them and feed them; but they must serve him by life, and death if need be. Unquestioning submission and unreserved dependence are our duties. Absolute ownership and unshared responsibility for our well-being belong to Him.

Further, the view of Christ’s relationship to God is the same as occurs in other of the early chapters of the Acts. The title of ‘Thy holy Servant Jesus’ dwells on Christ’s office, rather than on His nature. Here it puts Him in contrast with David, also called ‘Thy servant.’ The latter was imperfectly what Jesus was perfectly. His complete realisation of the prophetic picture of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah is emphasised by the adjective ‘holy,’ implying complete devotion or separation to the service of God, and unsullied, unlimited moral purity. The uniqueness of His relation in this aspect is expressed by the definite article in the original. He is the Servant, in a sense and measure all His own. He is further the Anointed Messiah. This was the Church’s message to Israel and the stay of its own courage, that Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed and perfect Servant of the Lord, who was now in heaven, reigning there. All that this faith involved had not yet become clear to their consciousness, but the Spirit was guiding them step by step into all the truth; and what they saw and heard, not only in the historical facts of which they were the witnesses, but in the teaching of that Spirit, they could not but speak.

The answer came swift as the roll of thunder after lightning. They who ask for courage to do God’s will and speak Christ’s name have never long to wait for response. The place ‘was shaken,’ symbol of the effect of faithful witness-bearing, or manifestation of the power which was given in answer to their prayer. ‘They were all filled with the Holy Ghost,’ who now did not, as before, confer ability to speak with other tongues, but wrought no less worthily in heartening and fitting them to speak ‘in their own tongue, wherein they were born,’ in bold defiance of unlawful commands.

The statement of the answer repeats the petition verbatim: ‘With all boldness they spake the word.’ What we desire of spiritual gifts we get, and God moulds His replies so as to remind us of our petitions, and to show by the event that these have reached His ear and guided His giving hand.Acts 4:19-20. Peter and John — Feeling themselves animated in this arduous circumstance with a courageous zeal, which would not permit them to be silent, lest that silence should be interpreted as a promise to quit the ministry; answered, Whether it be right — A righteous thing; in the sight of God — To whom we are all accountable; to hearken unto you — That is, to obey you; more than God, judge ye — Ye cannot but know in your own consciences on which side the superior obligation lies; and you must therefore expect that we shall act accordingly. As these rulers professed to believe the being and infinite perfections of God, they must, on their own principles, easily see the absurdity of expecting obedience to their commands from good men, who believed themselves divinely commissioned. Was it not by the same spirit that Socrates, when they were condemning him to death for teaching the people, said, “O ye Athenians, I embrace and love you, but I will obey God rather than you; and if you would spare my life on condition I should cease to teach my fellow- citizens, I would die a thousand times rather than accept the proposal.” For we cannot but speak, &c. — For though we respect you as our civil rulers, and are heartily willing to obey you, as far as we lawfully can, yet, since God hath charged us with the publication of this important message, on which the eternal salvation of men depends, we dare not be silent; and therefore are free to tell you, that we must speak the things which we have seen and heard — Which God hath manifested in so miraculous a manner, and which he hath commissioned us to declare.4:15-22 All the care of the rulers is, that the doctrine of Christ spread not among the people, yet they cannot say it is false or dangerous, or of any ill tendency; and they are ashamed to own the true reason; that it testifies against their hypocrisy, wickedness, and tyranny. Those who know how to put a just value upon Christ's promises, know how to put just contempt upon the world's threatenings. The apostles look with concern on perishing souls, and know they cannot escape eternal ruin but by Jesus Christ, therefore they are faithful in warning, and showing the right way. None will enjoy peace of mind, nor act uprightly, till they have learned to guide their conduct by the fixed standard of truth, and not by the shifting opinions and fancies of men. Especially beware of a vain attempt to serve two masters, God and the world; the end will be, you can serve neither fully.Whether it be right ... - The apostles abated nothing of their boldness when threatened. They openly appealed to their judges whether their command could be right. And in doing this, they expressed their full conviction of the truth of what they had said, and their deliberate purpose not to regard their command, but still to proclaim to the people the truth that Jesus was the Messiah.

In the sight of God - That is, whether God will judge this to be right. The grand question was how God would regard it. If he disapproved it, it was wrong. It was not merely a question pertaining to their reputation, safety, or life; it was a question of conscience before God. We have here a striking instance of the principle on which Christians act. It is, to lay their safety, reputation, and life out of view, and bring everything to the test whether it will please God. If it will, it is right; if it will not, it is wrong.

To hearken - To "hear" and to "hearken" are often used to denote to "obey," John 5:24; John 8:47, etc.

Judge ye - This was an appeal to them directly as judges and as men. And it may be presumed that it was an appeal which they could not resist. The Sanhedrin acknowledged itself to have been appointed by God, and to have no authority which was not derived from his appointment. Of course, God could modify, supersede, or repeal their authority; and the abstract principle that it was better to obey God than man they could not call in question. The only inquiry was whether they had evidence that God had issued any command in the case. Of that the apostles were satisfied, and that the rulers could not deny. It may be remarked that this is one of the first and most bold appeals on record in favor of the right of private judgment and the liberty of conscience. That liberty was supposed in all the Jewish religion. It was admitted that the authority of God in all matters was superior to that of man. And the same spirit manifested itself thus early in the Christian church against all dominion over the conscience, and in favor of the right to follow the dictates of the conscience and the will of God. As a mere historical fact, therefore, it is interesting to contemplate this, and still more interesting in its important bearings on human liberty and human happiness. The doctrine is still more explicitly stated in Acts 5:29, "We ought to obey God rather than man."

18-22. Whether it be right … to hearken to you more than … God, judge ye. Peter and John answered; both spake by one and the same Spirit, and agreed in one and the same answer; they are not solicitous what will best bring them off at present, but

said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God, from whom nothing is hid, and who is the avenger of all wrong, to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. The apostles seem to refer to a commonly received rule amongst their rabbins, which also they make use of, Acts 5:29, We ought to obey God rather than men. In the greatest matters of our most holy religion, God hath not left himself without a witness, or a thousand witnesses, in our own breasts and consciences, Amos 2:11. But Peter and John answered and said unto them,.... With great boldness and courage, and without any fear of man, but in the true fear of God

whether it be right in the sight of God; who is omniscient, and sees, and knows all things, all the actions of men, and the springs of them; who is holy, just, and true, and sits and judges among the gods, that which is right:

to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye: it is not denied that magistrates are to be hearkened to, and obeyed: but not more than God, or in things that are contrary to his nature, will, law, honour, and glory: whatever is agreeable to the law and will of God, commanded by magistrates, should be attended to, and cheerfully obeyed; but what is not should be disregarded, whatever follows upon it: and this was so just and reasonable, that the apostles appeal to the sanhedrim, or council itself, to determine.

{7} But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.

(7) We must obey men to whom we are subject, but especially and before all things we must obey God.

Acts 4:19-22. Ἐνώπ. τ. Θεοῦ] coram Deo, God as Judge being conceived as present: “multa mundus pro justis habet, quae coram Deo non sunt justa,” Bengel. We may add, that the maxim here expressed (founded on Matthew 22:21) takes for granted two things as certain; on the one hand, that something is really commanded by God; and, on the other hand, that a demand of the rulers does really cancel the command of God, and is consequently immoral; in which case the rulers actually and wilfully abandon their status as organs of divine ordination, and even take up a position antagonistic to God. Only on the assumption of this twofold certainty could that principle lead Christianity, without the reproach of revolution, to victory over the world in opposition to the will of the Jewish and heathen rulers.[158] For analogous expressions from the Greek (Plat. Apol. p. 29 D; Arrian. Epict. i. 20) and Latin writers and Rabbins, see Wetstein. The μᾶλλον ἤ is: rather (potius, Vulgate) than, i.e. instead of listening to God, rather to listen to you.[159] See Baeuml. Partik. p. 136. The meaning of ἀκούειν is similar to ΠΕΙΘΑΡΧΕῖΝ, Acts 4:29.

ΓΆΡ] Acts 4:20 specifies the reason, the motive for the summons: ΚΡΊΝΑΤΕ in Acts 4:19. For to us it is morally (in the consciousness of the divine will) impossible not to speak (Winer, p. 464 [E. T. 624]), i.e. we must speak what we saw and heard—namely, the deeds and words of Jesus, of which we were eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses.

ἡμεῖς] we on our part.

προσαπειλησάμενοι] after they had still more threatened them, namely, than already in the prohibition of Acts 4:18, in which, after Acts 4:17, the threatening was obviously implied. Comp. Sir 13:3, ed. Compl. Dem. 544. 26; Zosim. i. 70.

μηδὲν εὑρίσκοντες τὸ πῶς κ.τ.λ.] because they found nothing, namely how they were to punish them. The article before whole sentences to which the attention is to be specially directed. Comp. Kühner, II. p. 138; Mark 9:23; Luke 1:62; Acts 22:30.

πῶς is not, with Kuinoel and others, to be explained qua specie, quo praetextu; the Sanhedrim, in fact, did not know how to invent any kind of punishment, which might be ventured upon without stirring up the people. Therefore διὰ τὸν λαόν, on account of the people, i.e. in consideration of them, is not to be referred, as usually, to ἀπέλυσαν αὐτούς, but to ΜΗΔῈΝ ΕὙΡΊΣΚΟΝΤΕς Κ.Τ.Λ.

] So much the greater must the miracle of healing have appeared to the unprejudiced people, and so much the more striking and worthy of praise the working of God in it. ΠΛΕΙΌΝΩΝ ΤΕΣΣΑΡΆΚ. Comp. Matthew 22:23; Plat. Apol. p. 17 D, and Stallb. in loc.; Lobeck, ad Phryn. p. 410 f.

[158] Comp. Wuttke, Sittenl. § 310. Observe withal, that it is not the magisterial command itself and per se that is divine, but the command for its observance is a divine one, which therefore cannot be connected with immorality without doing away with its very idea as divine.

[159] Inconsistently the Vulg. has, at v. 29, magis.Acts 4:19. Parallel sayings may be quoted from Greeks and Romans, and from Jewish sources, see instances in Wetstein, cf. Plato, Apol., 29, ., the famous words of Socrates: πεισόμεθα τῷ θεῷ μᾶλλον ἢ ὑμῖν, and Livy, xxxix., 37; Jos., Ant., xvii., 6, 3; xviii. 8, 2; on ἐνώπιον see Acts 4:10; ἀκούειν = πειθαρχεῖν, Acts 5:29, and cf. Acts 3:22, Luke 10:16; Luke 16:31; μᾶλλον = potius, cf. Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 7:21.—κρίνατε: this appeal to the Sadducees could only be justified on the ground that the Apostles were sure of the validity of their own appeal to a higher tribunal. No man could lay down the principle of obedience to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king or to governors, more plainly than St. Peter (1 Peter 2:13, cf. Romans 13:1), and he and his fellow-disciples might have exposed themselves to the charge of fanaticism or obstinacy, if they could only say οὐ δυν.… μὴ λαλεῖν; but they could add ἃ εἴδομεν καὶ ἠκούσ., cf. Acts 1:8. The same appeal is made by St. John, both in his Gospel (Acts 1:14) and in his First Epistle (Acts 1:1-2), in vindication of his teaching; and here the final answer is that of St. John and St. Peter jointly.19. Peter and John] Both alike express their determination to publish the news of Christ’s life and resurrection. The reason why both names are here mentioned may be that each was separately appealed to for a promise to desist. For an instance of like firmness in a good cause cp. 2Ma 7:30.

judge ye] Come to whatever decision you please. “We are not careful to answer you in this matter.”Acts 4:19. Ἀποκριθέντες, having answered) openly and in plain terms. They employ no artifice, with a view to being let go.—ἐνώπιον τοῦ Θεοῦ, in the sight of God) The world accounts many things as right, which in the sight of God are not right: and vice versâ.—ἀκούειν) to hearken to, for to obey. He who does not comply, even hears with reluctance.—μᾶλλον, rather) On the part of the courageous saints the authority of those rulers (high priests) alone is respected, who establish or command nothing that is contrary to GOD.—κρίνατε, judge ye) The figure Communicatio [leaving the judgment of a matter to the hearers, or even to the very adversaries themselves]. The world cannot readily maintain their own laws against the cause of GOD with so great perverseness, as that natural equity should be utterly stifled.Verse 19. - Rather for more, A.V.
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