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Life of Peter

Conflict and Authority

Acts 4:1-31

Lesson audio

Church and State: The Theory

We must begin with the simple review of the conflict between church and state, which is with us yet.

Normal Times

A complete discussion of the relationship between church and state is well beyond the scope of a single lesson. We may, however, make three simple observations which govern the conduct of the Christian citizen during normal times.

·         The first is the recognition that the Christian citizen owes a duty to the state. The Christian is to "render unto Caesar."[1] It is our responsibility to determine what we owe to the government, and then to deliver it. Both knowing and delivering are sometimes difficult.

·         We are also to recognize the authority of the state, particularly in matters which concern keeping the order of civilization.[2] Paying taxes, obedience to the police authorities and the other duties of a good citizen are the normal concern of the Christian.

·         The Christian should recognize that belonging to the state or nation which is well governed is something for which we should be at least pleased, and perhaps even take some pride therein.[3]

Remember that when the New Testament was written the Christians were an extremely small minority. They had virtually no influence over the government; therefore, the instructions given were for those who had no choice in their government.


Of course, it sometimes happens that the times are not normal. The early Christians faced a good deal of oppression, mostly from the Jews. Occasionally the local magistrate would take a hand in this — sometimes stopping it, sometimes enforcing it. It is important for the Christian to know the difference between a government which is doing something we don't like and a government which is oppressing us. How can we tell the difference?

·         The first principle is that of the Magna Carta: the King is not above the law. If the governing authorities ignore their own laws to oppress the church, the Christian must react as the Scripture commands. As we shall see, this does not necessarily mean rebellion.

·         If the state thinks itself supreme in all matters of moral judgment ("if it's legal, it's moral") then the conflict between church and state is mortal. If the church accepts the state’s moral authority, the church is cut off from the vine of Christ.

·         Particularly in the second case, the servant of Christ will certainly suffer. This carries with it the corollary that some Christians will not have the courage to suffer.

God's Weakness

The question might well ask: "Just why is it that God wants me to suffer for this?" There are at least two reasons:

·         First, there is the principle that God's strength is perfected in weakness.[4] We can easily see how the strong prevail; when we see the week prevail, we are curious.

·         Second, the Christian witness is certified by suffering. If you want to know if someone is sincere in his beliefs, see how much he will suffer for them.

Permit me a great example. Several years ago the president of our local University decided to remove all Christian influence from the campus. He abolished all Christian organizations and forbade any Christian meetings on campus. Christ was left with precisely one witness: Curly. He didn't look like much. He weighed about 90 pounds; he had boils all over his body; he was recovering from blindness in his right eye where the surgeons had to drill into his skull to get at a tumor; he had epilepsy; he had had several strokes. Each day his friends would push him to a prominent part of the campus. Sitting in his wheelchair, unable to move, he would cry out to all who passed by, "Jesus loves you." The president of the University could not find a police officer with enough macho to arrest him for doing that. Ultimately the Christian organizations were allowed back in, but in the meanwhile Curly was Christ's witness.

By What Power

Acts 4:1-22 NASB  As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them,  (2)  being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.  (3)  And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening.  (4)  But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.  (5)  On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem;  (6)  and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent.  (7)  When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, "By what power, or in what name, have you done this?"  (8)  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers and elders of the people,  (9)  if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well,  (10)  let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead--by this name this man stands here before you in good health.  (11)  "He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone.  (12)  "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved."  (13)  Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.  (14)  And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply.  (15)  But when they had ordered them to leave the Council, they began to confer with one another,  (16)  saying, "What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.  (17)  "But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name."  (18)  And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  (19)  But Peter and John answered and said to them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;  (20)  for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard."  (21)  When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened;  (22)  for the man was more than forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed.


Key Question

You can see the problems the authorities have here. It is plain to all that what Peter has done is an act of kindness and charity towards a man who is an example of long, painful suffering. If you are going to be in conflict with authority, the starting point for the Christian is that our actions should be those of Christ. As strange as it sounds, there are communities in our nation which make it a crime to feed the poor. This is based on some distorted theory that if we don't feed them they will go away. If you're going to suffer, let it be for doing something good.

But that's not sufficient. You need to connect that good deed with the name of Christ. It is not just that I am feeding the poor, you see, is that I am feeding the poor at the command of Jesus Christ. It's not just some bright idea that I came up with. This lets the authorities know that they are not dealing with some fuzzy brained do-gooder, but a servant to Jesus Christ. The conflict is not between us and authority, but between Christ and authority.

This also determines our defense. We are not defending ourselves. It is not our purpose to tell the authorities how righteous we are, or how hungry the poor are. It is our purpose to tell them about Jesus Christ. In the process, we will tell a lot of other people too. We need always to act so that everyone understands that the conflict is not between us and the authorities, but between Christ and the authorities.

The Message

This may cause a bit of grief to some. Our message is not that we are doing good deeds, though that is exactly what we are doing. Nor is our message that we are wonderful people and should be praised for doing our good deeds. Our message is Jesus Christ. He is the cause of our good deeds, and if we appear to be wonderful people it is the reflection of his glory that the world sees.

Reaction of the Authorities

The first concern of all secular authorities is this: that you obey their authority. If you don't, they have a problem. They have tools to solve this problem — jail, floggings, putting people to death, torture, endless bureaucracy — but the challenge from the Christian makes these tools less than effective. Why? It's because the Christian is willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. Worse, the reason for this willingness is easy to explain and at the same time lifts up Jesus Christ. Peter puts it well: just who do you think we should obey? Should we obey you, or God? The answer, as the physicists would say it, is intuitively obvious to the casual observer.

It goes further than that. Remember that in intercession is always the superior who intercedes for the inferior. This is why we are commanded to pray for those in authority over us.[5] Paul makes it clear why we are to do so. It is in obedience to God's will that all might be saved — including those in authority over us. If you think about it, we are superior to them in the eyes of Christ — who has all authority in heaven and on Earth. We are the children of God; they are the children of men. It is therefore fitting and proper that we should pray for them, both that they might execute their function as they should and that they might be saved.

We need to remember just who's in charge in this universe.


Acts 4:23-31 NASB  When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.  (24)  And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, "O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM,  (25)  who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, 'WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS?  (26)  'THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.'  (27)  "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  (28)  to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.  (29)  "And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence,  (30)  while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus."  (31)  And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.


The Church's Prayer

The first thing the church does is to go in prayer to God. This is a very commendable instinct. We may learn from their prayer just how we are to react in times when the authorities trouble us.

·         The church begins with praise: they acknowledge who God is. It's a useful comparison. The local authorities think themselves supreme; it is well to remember who the creator of heaven and Earth is.

·         They acknowledge God's control of events — and by implication they acknowledge the fact that they do not know what the future will hold. How often we forget to do this! We need to remember the Providence of God as well as his love for us.

·         Next, they asked that they might be bold in speaking the word. Notice that not asking to escape the consequences of this boldness, nor are they asking to be relieved of the responsibility speaking, but they are asking that they might be given the courage to do what they are commanded to do.

·         Finally, they ask God to deliver the signs and miracles by which those in authority might be convinced. It seems these things are no longer done — but we can ask.

What They Did Not Pray for

There is a most curious omission in this prayer: they did not ask to be delivered from persecution. It's probably the first thing a modern Christian would ask for. We want to get rid of the problem. Their purpose was to preach the gospel, and therefore they saw the persecution as a tool to forward that goal. Whether or not they were persecuted made no real difference, as long as the gospel was preached boldly.

Notice also that they did not seek to reach an accommodation with the authorities. There is no sense here of trying to make a reasonable compromise. This is not always recommended; after all, if the dispute is about whether or not you stand on a street corner or sit in the storefront nearby, it may be reasonable to try to come to some accommodation. The authorities in this instance want the apostles to shut up — and that's the one thing they're not going to do.[6]

Considering that these authorities are diametrically opposed to the message of Christ, it may surprise you that the apostles do not pray for the distraction of these authorities. Neither as individuals, nor as a government do we see the apostles asking God to wipe out their opponents. It is the will of God that all might be saved – including the nasty so-and-so's who are opposed to us.

"Through the Name"

One focus the apostles had that seems to have been lost today is the concept of "the Name of Christ." The apostles were greatly zealous for this. We can easily see why:

·         The Name is the source of all authority in heaven and on Earth.[7] Once we understand this, the conflict with the local authorities becomes much easier to deal with.

·         Indeed, the apostles baptized new followers into the Name. We follow this tradition today, perhaps not thinking about it. But it was very important to the apostles, because it meant that the one person in the universe who had the authority to forgive your sins was doing so as you were baptized.

·         Finally, it is clear that at the return of Christ every knee shall bow in honor of the Name of Christ.[8]

It is just possible that we have missed something here. Perhaps in our quest to make Jesus our good buddy we have forgotten the honor, power and glory of his Name. If you want a personal relationship with someone, you must start with knowing who they are. Some of us don't really know who Jesus is.

[1] Matthew 22:16-21

[2] Romans 13:1-7

[3] See  Acts 22:27-28

[4] Second Corinthians 12:8-10

[5] First Timothy 2:1-4

[6] This lesson was prepared in May, 2012. The contemporary reader is invited to compare this situation with the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the requirements of Obama-care.

[7] Matthew 28:10

[8] Philippians 2:9-11

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