Growth brings opposition (4:1-31)
During the centuries leading up to the Christian era (see ‘The New Testament World’), several parties had arisen within the Jewish religion. The most important of these were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The Pharisees came mainly from the common people, and tried to preserve the Jewish way of life from the corruption of foreign ideas and political ambition. They were concerned with the outward show of religion, but not so concerned with correct attitudes of heart (Matt 12:1-2; 15:1-2; 23:5,23-28). The Sadducees came mainly from the wealthy classes and were more concerned with exercising power in Jewish society than with following tradition. They were the high priestly party and had controlling power in the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council that sat in Jerusalem (Matt 16:11-12; 26:57,59; Acts 5:17).
A major difference of faith between the two parties was that the Pharisees believed in a physical resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees did not (Matt 22:23; Acts 23:8).
When the number of Christians in Jerusalem increased rapidly as a result of Peter’s preaching (the men alone numbered about five thousand), the Sadducees became angry. In particular, they were angry because all these people were responding to a message that was based on a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. The Sadducees therefore had no hesitation in using their priestly power to arrest Peter and John and bring them before the Sanhedrin (4:1-4).
Once again Peter accused the Jews, especially their leaders, of rejecting and crucifying the Messiah (cf. v. 10-11 with 2:23; 3:13-15). God, by contrast, raised him from death and gave him the place of highest honour. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament messianic promises, and if the Jews rejected him, no other way of salvation was available to them (5-12).
Although the apostles had not been taught in the Jewish law schools, they had been taught by Jesus. The members of the Sanhedrin recognized this and found it as difficult to argue with the apostles as it had been to argue with Jesus. To make matters more difficult for them, the healed man was proof that Jesus was still alive and working miracles (13-14). Since the apostles had broken no laws, and since the healing had increased the Christians’ popularity, the Jewish leaders dared not punish the apostles. They could do no more than command them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. But the apostles refused to obey (15- 22).
The apostles considered this opposition to be a continuation of the opposition that Jesus himself experienced at the hands of the ruling authorities. The Christians had learnt from the Old Testament to expect such opposition, but they prayed that through the power of God’s Spirit they would have boldness to continue Jesus’ messianic ministry of preaching and healing (23-31).
Sin, cleansing and further growth (4:32-5:16)
Believers continued to sell their property and bring money from the sales to the apostles for distribution among the poor (32-35). One example of generosity came from a Jew from Cyprus who so consistently helped and encouraged others that people gave him a name to suit his character, Barnabas (meaning ‘son of encouragement’) (36-37).
There was no rule that forced people to sell their property. When Ananias and Sapphira sold some property, their sin was not that they kept part of the money for themselves, but that they lied through saying they had handed over all the money. After the unbroken triumphs of the weeks since Pentecost, this entrance of deliberate sin into the church must have shocked the apostles. As often happened when there was deliberate sin at the start of a new stage in God’s unfolding plan for his people, God emphasized the seriousness of sin in a dramatic judgment (5:1-10). (Comparable judgments on deliberate sin occurred in the Garden of Eden, at the establishment of the Levitical priesthood and upon Israel’s entrance into Canaan; Gen 3:1-24; Lev 10:1-7; Josh 7:1-26.)
Such severe judgments emphasized the holiness God demanded. They also reminded his people that all were sinners, and only his grace kept them alive and allowed them to serve him (11).
Far from slowing down the growth of the church, the judgment removed the sin that could have hindered growth. Although people saw that insincerity had no place in the church, vast numbers continued to join the church. Meanwhile, the healing ministry of Jesus continued to operate through the apostles (12-16; cf. Matt 14:35-36).