The First Trial of Christian Preachers in a Court of Judgment
Acts 4:4-22
However, many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.…

A few words of an historic character lay for us the scene of this trial, put us in possession of the question at issue and of the parties, as between whom, if not really so, it is to be settled. We are, however, justly at liberty to take note of certain silence as well as of certain utterance and preparations for utterance. Those who" laid hands" on Peter and John, "and put them in ward" last night, were silent then as to the reason why. No such thing as a civil uproar was hinted at, as matter of apprehension; and no sufficient ecclesiastical reason could, it is evident, be so much as formulated into a proposition capable of representing either morals or law. "Being grieved (!) that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead," is all their case showed last night. And this morning the Sanhedrim - who as much for moral as for civil reasons ought to have been examples of something different from this - render themselves collectively amenable to the same remarks. It was well for all of them that Peter and John were not Romans, either by purchase or by birth (Acts 16:37; Acts 22:28). On the other hand, the silence of Peter and John themselves on this matter is worthy of notice. They remembered something of that great gift, greater grace of their Master, and were now learning in practice some lessons of him. Sometimes the very achievements of silence are great, and great often the rewards of it shall be. They were silent, for the injustice of their imprisonment had been inconvenience personal to themselves, but just as likely advantage to their Master's cause. They were silent, rather than waste time and waken temper as well as prejudice toward them in their would-be judges. And they were silent, on the very wise principle of letting "these men alone," that they might run out the more quickly and self- condemningly their humiliated career. And it was not long before it was seen to what undignified shifts they were brought, Notice -

I. THE VERY ILL-SHAPED INDICTMENT (Ver. 7) It were indeed only by courtesy that it could be dignified with the name of an indictment at all. The Sanhedrim greatly stood in need of a word from the governor Porcius Festus of just thirty years later, when he said to King Agrippa, in reference to Paul, "For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal signify the crimes laid against him" (Acts 25:27). The Sanhedrim are guilty of this very unreasonableness.

1. They interrogate instead of indicting. They are going the way to make themselves beholden to their own prisoners for some information and instruction.

2. There is this prima facto weakness in the very interrogation, that it is not directed to the character of what has been done, but simply as to how something has been done, that is all the while tacitly admitted to be unchallengeable in its nature.

3. However, though their course be ever so much at fault for informality and for worse reasons, it has one commanding excellence about it. It does go at once to the point. It goes home to what was in their own heart. They cannot, in the nature of things, find fault with Peter and John for relieving of his lameness a man now "above forty years old," and who had never been anything but lame. And they cannot find fault with them for doing this on a sabbath day, because it was not the sabbath. So it is only left them to try and find something to take hold of, in "the kind of power," or "the kind of name," by or in which they had "done this thing;" which, it is noticeable, they do not choose to call here by its right name, "a notable miracle" as they do immediately afterwards in their secret conclave (ver. 16). And, further, they may hope to find something to take hold of in "the kind of answer the two apostles may proffer. But this does not prove to be the case; for their discretion, silence, temperateness, cannot be surpassed. If the picture, then, of this trial shows the court put in a foolish position, it shows the accused or the prisoners in an intrinsically proud position. They are masters of the position, strange to say.

II. THE DEFENCE. (Vers. 8-12.) Notice in this defense:

1. That the method of it may be justly assigned to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Peter is emphatically described as filled with the Holy Ghost."

2. That, nevertheless, it is of the simplest character. It might be said to be of nature's simplest style.

(1) It consists of a mere statement of facts. "You ask," says Peter, "of a deed, a 'good deed, done to an impotent man.' You ask by what, by what virtue-call it 'power' or call it a 'name 'as you will - that impotent man has taken the advantage of what is contained in that good deed." And Peter continues, without a word, or tone, or sign of apology, "Be it known to you, and to the whole nation beside, that it is by the virtue of One whom you and they know but too well - Jesus of Nazareth, whom you and they crucified, and - wonderful contrast of rebuke - whom God raised from the dead. Here standing before you, and beside us, your prisoners, is a man, who is more to be remarked upon for the fact that he was made whole by that Name, than simply for the fact itself, that (as none can deny) he has been made whole - genuinely made whole."

(2) It consists, further, of a quotation from the Old Testament, of words most personal to the court listening to Peter, and the application of which to them Peter minces not at all. Peter speaks just as though it were one of those cases in which truth must and will out. There can have been no effrontery in the manner of Peter's utterance, nor any appearance of intentional affront, else we cannot imagine that his sentence would have been allowed to come to an end. Often as wrong manner prejudices the interest of welcome truth, the present was an instance of the converse how truth of the most unwelcome kind got its fair force, being unprejudiced by any flavor of bitterness, spite, taunt, or malignity.

(3) It consisted of a word of genuine universal gospel as well. Now does even Peter speak a more catholic gospel than he is at the moment conscious of. He anticipates in one breath the apostle of the Gentiles, who was yet to come. But independently of this, and stopping short of it, Peter's aim is to speak of that Name of Christ as the Name of the only Savior, rather than to speak of the universal sweep of his dominion and virtue. He has got his foot in; he sees the narrow end of the grand wedge in; he seizes the priceless opportunity, and uses it. The defense had the seeds of triumph in it, and it triumphed.

III. THE EMBARRASSMENT OF THE COUNT. (Vers. 13-18.) This was, in very deed, a most pronounced embarrassment. It is spoken by the historian in five plain enough statements The signs of it, also, were probably only too plain, or otherwise the case was a great exception to a very general rule.

1. Those who sat in the seat of authority were, unfortunately for the position they filled, stricken with amazement. "They marveled" at the imperturbed flow of speech and resolute wielding of argument which proceeded from two men who, as being "unlearned" and unprofessional men, ought rather to have been overawed in the presence of such as themselves - as they thought. In the midst of their amazement, however, they either remembered the fact, or saw in the very bearing of the men the fact, that they were old associates of Jesus.

2. They were fairly stricken with silence. There, present before them - there, at the very side of the prisoners, proffering himself as a living monument of their last evening's work - was the veritable healed man himself. Such a juxtaposition of facts ties into silence very perverse-wayed tongues. "They can say nothing against it."

3. They are stricken with an idea that a private conference with one another may suggest a way out of their undignified difficulty. There is always something very suspicious, ominous of impending disaster, if the men that love the broadest daylight of public glare suddenly are for retreating into the unloved shade.

4. Retired from public gaze, they find themselves still stricken with a perplexity that grows no better for deliberation and secret conference. For one thing only do we seem able to admire in any sense these men. They have eyes to see, and they have not got to the point of seeing facts to deny them. They will not hazard themselves into the position of denying a "notable miracle manifest" to all the rest of the world that lives in Jerusalem. But their perplexity is the greater, what they shall do.

5. Because they are fearful of the one thing, truth, which should have made them fearless, they are stricken with love of an expedient simply so insane in its certain working that it at once worsened their whole case and plight. They will forbid the tide. They will command, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." They will bid to flow back a river that shows an unmistakable force and breadth and depth of current. They will threaten and prohibit. Whether they are counted as legislators, or statesmen, or judges, they are childish and incompetent.

IV. THE DECISION AND FOLLOWING ACTION OF THE COURT. (Ver. 18.) "They command" the apostles "not to speak at all nor to teach in the Name of Jesus." Thus began the struggle between civil command and human conscience, not indeed in the history of the world, but in the history that has ever shown it in most intensified form, of the Christian Church. Notice:

1. The parties to this struggle. Traced home, they resolve themselves into the wish of some against the conscience of others.

2. The intrinsic and even notorious inequality of these. That wish, it is true, will be said to be founded upon opinion, judgment, experience, consent of many. But this is equivalent to an open betraying of the proportionately easy access to it, of disturbing causes - causes that lay it actually open to suspicion, and render it unreliable. Wish notoriously sins in being the victim of feeling, and none can be "ignorant of its devices." A hundred elements, each one of which is a possible avenue of error, go to form that wish or will of the some which then presumes or endeavors to impose upon the conscience of other some. On the other hand, conscience, whether it be allowed to be more or less of an original faculty or principle of human nature, owns to and justly claims a native prerogative, the prerogative of the judge. And it may err. It will be liable to err, and has in point of fact often shown itself liable to err - on one side, through being uninformed, or ill informed. Yet, whoever flouts it (whether the owner of it himself or another for him), is guilty of flouting pro tern. "The powers that be," and those powers, powers that "be of God." Say whatsoever may be said to the derogation of the individual conscience, that man stands on perilous ground indeed who risks what is involved in neglecting his own conscience, or who takes in hand to supersede that of others, by his own fiat, under whatsoever name or misnomer it may endeavor to pass muster. To very different moral zones of being do the voices of external command and of internal command belong. As once a whole world was on one side, and Noah and the Divine command on the other, so it is quite possible that the whole world might be on one side, and an individual man and his conscience be on the other side, and these be in the right. And it was something like this, though not this, that was to be seen now. The whole authorities of a nation were in this court on one side, and Peter and John on the other; and these were in the right, and the real strength of position lay with them.

3. The unconquerable deep facts of human nature and life to which these phenomena conduct. For we get here a suggestion and a glimpse of the idea according to which God has provided for the security of his mighty grasp on the mighty mass of mankind. There is left no doubt which is the mightier. This method of securing a certainty and even facility of hold upon the vastest bulk of mankind, to disintegrate it if one corrupt mass, or gradually to reintegrate it, without recourse to flood or deluge or any physical force, invites most grateful and reverent study. The analogies of physical nature, more and more laid bare to light by science, offer many an inferior harmony with it. God's moral hold upon the great mass depends on and is regulated by his hold upon the individual and the individual conscience; and often exhibits itself in this shape - that one conscience touched will prevail against ten thousand men, will suffice to make "a divided house," and put a wonderfully centrifugal tendency into the constituent parts of what seemed a very compact whole. While, on the other hand, thousands and all the influence they could wield, and all the torture they could apply to martyrdom itself, will leave the conscience unharmed and unmoved. "Command," then, and "threat," varied only by "threat" and "command," are the singularly weak weapons to which this embarrassed and undignified court now resort. And these soon enough crumble to their touch.

V. THE REBUFF SUSTAINED BY THE COUNT. (Vers. 19-22.) This rebuff contains not a few points which make it remarkable.

1. It is no doubt uttered in a respectful tone and manner, but for decision of language and firmness of front it wants nothing. It distinctly emphasizes the subordinate character of the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrim; it distinctly emphasizes their prisoners' knowledge of it; and as distinctly it emphasizes the intention of the prisoners to continue to do the things they were commanded not to do, and respecting which they were threatened.

2. The rebuff administered by Peter and John contains a reiteration of that which was so often the unconcealed strength of the apostolic message - the doctrine and impulse of "God," the matters of fact, such as they themselves had "seen and heard. Three forces sustained (and should still sustain) the Christian preachers - that they spoke things within their own knowledge, that they found themselves irresistibly moved to speak of these things, and that their undying conviction was that those things were the things of God. Upon what a platform of unassailable strength do they now stand, who hold this reply only to prohibition and threat, Whether it be right in the sight of God, to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye: for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard"! The implications are manifest. That the apostles must do what is right; that by right they mean what is so in the sight of God; that this may utterly traverse and contravene the criterion of right with the Sanhedrim; and that they are cognizant of a call to speak which they cannot and will not disobey.

3. The rebuff so fits in to truth, to time, and to circumstance, that there is nothing left for those most smitten by it but to sit down quietly under it. Except for the inanity of "further threatening" Peter and John, those who now smart are also like certain others, "speechless" (Matthew 22:12). So sometimes does God cover with the shield of his wondrous protection his servants. They are without a shred of worldly position, of influence, of wealth. They sit on no throne, can summon no legions, nor wield one weapon. Yet are they themselves kept safe as "the apple of his eye." They gaze, too, with the light of the Divine eye on human hearts, darkened with guilty tumult because unloyal to the truth. And it is entrusted to them to wield the weapon of unanswerable rebuke. Many a victory falls far short of what it seems. Greater than all, it showed, was the victory of Peter and John, when the Sanhedrim, after enduring keen rebuke and blank rebuff, nevertheless" let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men glorified God for that which was done." It is so, God protects and exalts and all in one honors his servants with highest service in his Name. - B.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.

WEB: But many of those who heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

The Impotence and Benefit of Persecution
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