The First Persecution of the Church
Acts 4:1-22
And as they spoke to the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came on them,…

The authorities were offended because —

I. The apostles TAUGHT. This is emphatically true of the priests, who looked upon themselves as the only lawfully constituted teachers.

1. They considered that the apostles were not personally qualified (ver. 13). "Unlearned" means they had not been trained in Rabbinical lore — they were not brought up to letters — they were agrammatoi. Men in every age lay undue stress upon "Grammar." Not to have been trained in the public schools is of itself almost fatal to any man who aspires to the office of a teacher. But were not the priests right? It is necessary we should distinguish between scholarship and learning. Scholarship is proficiency in words and forms and opinions; learning is a large sympathy with life, and a deep insight into the eternal truth of things. In the priest we see scholarship; in the apostles learning; and the learning of the latter is infinitely preferable to the scholarship of the former. But the men of scholarship looked down contemptuously upon the men of learning. Does that surprise you? It has been repeated over and over again in the history of our own country. Did not the clergy sneer at the ministers of Dissent — Bunyan and his contemporaries — whom they now indeed emulate each other to honour? The best thing is to honour the living prophets, the next best thing is to respect and perpetuate the memory of the dead. One fact the history of the Church has indisputably demonstrated — that scholarship alone, however valuable it may be as an accessory, is not a sufficient qualification to teach the people. But though scholarship alone is not a sufficient qualification, yet learning is; and better still to have both scholarship and learning. The ministry of the apostles was characterised by learning, the ministry of the middle ages by scholarship; let us hope Chat the ministry of the future will be distinguished for its happy combination of the two.

2. They considered that the apostles had no official right to teach. They were idiotai — men of no profession, private individuals, in a word, laymen. And the professionals were very indignant that parties outside the sacred pale of the sacerdotal order, and not commissioned, should set themselves up as teachers. Laymen were considered very ignorant men; the idiotai suggested idiots. The priests claimed an exclusive right to teach. This, however, had not always been the case in Jewry. The ceremonies of religion had been entrusted to the priests, the teaching of the people to the prophets. But prophecy had long died out, and the priesthood had stepped into its place; and having once possessed themselves of the power they guarded it most jealously. Does this seem strange? The same thing has occurred over and over again. The now famous pedlar of Elstow was charged with insolence, irreverence, and disloyalty for daring to stand up to deliver himself of the truths burning in his soul. The police came suddenly upon him and immured him in Bedford gaol for twelve long years. Why? What evil had he done? This — that he, a layman, one of the idiotai, should venture to trespass on the prohibited preserves of the priests! This mischievous spirit is still smouldering.

II. The apostles taught THE PEOPLE.

1. Some felt vexed on personal considerations, for the apostles, labouring to enlighten and convert the people, were indirectly undermining the power of the priests. The heyday of priestcraft is generally the "times of ignorance," and it naturally desires the prolongation of those times. Peter and John held out the lamp of knowledge, and the authorities rushed upon the lamp-bearers and endeavoured to break the lamp. With what result? With the simple result of smashing the glass and letting the flame burn more intensely than before, and kindle five thousand other lamps.

2. Others felt annoyed on ecclesiastical grounds. The priests knew, through the instinct of self-preservation, that the enlightenment of the people meant virtually their deposition. The people had to receive implicitly and unquestioningly the word of priests and rabbis as to what the will of God was; or worse still, their interpretation of it. This monopoly plunged the people into an elaborate system of lifeless traditions and burdensome superstitions. And when the apostles demanded back the key of knowledge and desired to lead the people into the hidden dwelling place of truth, with what reward did they meet? They were cast into prison. Does that surprise you? No; for this history has been enacted over again in Christendom. The key of knowledge was taken away from Europe, and the Scriptures were allowed to lie in an unknown language. Luther on the Continent and Wycliffe in England endeavoured to unlock the treasures, to translate the Scriptures into the popular language, and to scatter broadcast the knowledge of the Divine will; and they were vilified, excommunicated, and hunted about for their pains. Nevertheless the translation of the Bible caused the Papal hierarchy to topple to its ruin in Germany and England. Mark that well. Priests still forbid laymen to peruse and expound the Scriptures — they must believe on authority. The essence of Romanism is to believe on authority. The essence of Protestantism to believe on proof.

3. Others felt annoyed on civil grounds. They would say as all despots have in effect said — "Knowledge is power. If you educate the people you put into their hands a weapon which they have not the wisdom to use. What if they use it for revolution? To avert the evil, we will refuse the good." That has always been the language of despotism; and forthwith it proceeds to fetter, and if need be, to kill the champions of popular education. No doubt knowledge is a tremendous power — especially religious knowledge; and often, alas! it has been converted to mean, vulgar ends. But are we to reject the use of a thing because of its abuse? Do not have fires, and you will have no conflagrations. Light, no doubt, does multiply the shadows; shall we on that account declaim against the sun?

III. They taught the people, through, Jesus THE RESURRECTION FROM THE DEAD.

1. The teaching reflected deep discredit on the tribunals of the nation. The leading members of those courts had crucified Christ; but yet God had raised Him up from the dead. Now the Resurrection was a complete vindication of Christ's character; but to vindicate His character was to brand the character of His judges. Therefore those judges were irritated beyond measure. In their furious madness the infant Church saw the fulfilment of the prophecy (ver. 25). You have seen a spirited unmanageable horse snorting wildly and plunging desperately — his eyes flashing fire, his nostrils breathing thunders. That is the very figure used in this chapter to describe the raging of the Jewish authorities against the gospel — they were like wild beasts, filled with foolish and unreasonable fury.

2. The teaching was new. The Pharisees were very much in love with the old, and were deemed wiser than their descendants. The Pharisees were the champions of orthodoxy, and in confederacy with the other sections of the Jewish Church put the apostles on their trial for healing the lame man. The Sanhedrim assembled — the court had to decide between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The miracle they could not deny. The question was, "By what power or by what name have ye done this?" The whole trial turned upon that hinge. Were the apostles orthodox, yea or no? You know the conclusion they arrived at — the apostles were branded as heretics, and forbidden to heal or to preach any more in the name of Jesus. We should never forget that the apostles and the Saviour Himself, were charged with heresy and persecuted to death on account of it. This teaches us two lessons.

(1) That we should be careful not to reject any doctrine because of its novelty, nor call the advocates of new opinions by bad, unpopular names. Every truth — of science as well as theology — was considered heresy on its first promulgation. The heterodoxy of one age is the orthodoxy, of the next. Truth is first crucified, then raised from the dead, then exalted to the throne and adored.

(2) Not to refute what we deem heresy by imprisonment. Jesus Christ argued with the people of Jerusalem, and they took up stones to cast at Him. It is a very easy but a very foolish way to meet an argument with a stone. And yet it has been the universal practice till recently. The Christians hold certain views concerning life and death, and the Jews persecute them. Among Christians again, certain parties hold views different from the majority and they are burnt. Mankind are slow to learn than it is a cowardly thing to kill a man for an opinion.

3. Their teaching, moreover, flatly contradicted an influential section of the hierarchy. The Sadducees probably prided themselves on how little they believed. They would no doubt style themselves broad thinkers; but certainly they were not broad believers. Breadth of thought is in our time, too, preferred to breadth of faith. But there is something fundamentally wrong with the man whose broad thinking leads to narrow believing. Broad thinking should always lead to broad believing, and where the faith is feeble, it is to me a proof positive that the thinking is not broad, but lax. Anyhow, the Sadducees conspired to suppress the teaching of the apostles. In the Gospels the merciless hostility of the Pharisees is in the forefront; but in the Acts the fierce enmity of the Sadducees; for there the fact and the doctrine of the resurrection find a more prominent place. Scepticism knows how to imprison and behead its opponents as well as superstition. Unbelief, not faith, is the real source of persecution. Let men believe in God, and that He is stronger than the devil; in truth, and that it is more potent than error; in right, and that it will and must prove triumphant over might, and they can afford to be patient, they will see the futility of resorting to physical force. The truth of liberty is based in religion. What has unbelief done on behalf of liberty? It has written. What has Christianity done? It has bled. Infidels have pleaded for it, but Christians have died for it. Did their imprisonment check the mighty progress of the gospel? Nay, "many of them that heard the Word believed." Times of persecution are generally times of much spiritual prosperity. Some of the early martyrs had for their mystic symbol a candle surrounded by a crowd of angry men puffing as hard as they could to blow it out; but the harder they puffed the more brightly burnt the candle. The English Reformers were sorely harassed, but did they abandon the cause of Protestantism? No; some of them devised an anvil for their coat of arms with the striking motto "This anvil hath broken many hammers." "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

(J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them,

WEB: As they spoke to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came to them,

The First Persecution of the Apostles
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