Confronting the Sanhedrin

Categories: Church › History › Founding Holy Spirit › Baptism and Indwelling Holy Spirit › Fulness in Christian Life Christian › Persecution Missions › Great Commission

_______ is a church leader in China. He came to Christ in 1989 when a street preacher came into his town and was preaching to the crowds. He said that he missed those good old days when nobody bothered to take precautions and when virtually every Christian had been jailed for his or her faith. He himself has been tortured so much for his faith that he can hardly see out of either eye, cannot stand for long, and had to be helped as he walked. But he was full of the joy of the Lord, and just as bold as ever in advancing the cause of Christ. In the early days he felt guilty if he wasn't arrested along with the others, but he was so much trouble to the police and led so many people to Christ in jail, that they were leaving him alone. So he would wait outside the jail till the police chief would come out and would preach to him as he left the station, and when he returned would preach to him there.

And he said that one of the police officers sons started singing with the prisoners, much to the consternation of that officer. Later, the police chief himself came to the Lord when _______ prayed for healing for his daughter who had Leukemia. He had heard that many people had been healed and he begged ______ to come and pray for his daughter in law. She was miraculously healed, and it led the family to faith. Well, we have the same kinds of odd things happening in the book of Acts. We have the leaders visciously persecuting the church, yet in Acts 6:7 it says, "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith." The very Saduceean persecutors were becoming Christians. Later, some of the Pharisees and other leaders became believers. And so, every level of society was being impacted.

We covered verses 1-4 last week. Let's begin at verses 5-6: "And it came to pass, on the next day, that their rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem." So this appears to be the convening of the entire Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel. And lest we miss that fact, in verse 8 Luke notes that Peter addresses them as "Rulers of the people and elders of Israel." And then in verse 15 Luke explicitly calls them the Sanhedrin (which is the Greek word for council there). So this is a remarkable gathering. It's not often that you get the Supreme Court of Israel to deal with an issue on such short notice. For them to be taking original jurisdiction shows that they considered this to be an incredibly serious threat.

And it was! It was serious for two reasons: 1) First, the high numbers of people who were becoming Christians in these weeks after Pentecost. Verse 4 says that "the number of the men came to be about five thousand." The word for "men" means an adult male and is often translated as "husbands." So if there were 5000 married heads of household that had joined the church, then you have a minimum of 15,000 Christians. This is why every liberal commentator that I own claims that Luke is exaggerating – that there is no way that that many people could have become Christian. For example, James Dunn says, "Numbers in ancient historians tended to be more impressionistic (or propagandistic) rather than to provide what we today would regard as an accurate accounting. We may compare the obviously inflated numbers reported by both sides in the Iran/Iraq War of the early 1980's. But even so we can be confident that there was a large initial movement of successful recruitment…" (p. 34). Now obviously we believe that Dunn is wrong and the Bible is right, but if you understand why liberals are skeptical of this number, it will give you a good feel for why these rulers are in a panic. These were huge numbers.

Here's a chart that shows the various estimates given of the population of Jerusalem in 30 AD. The first estimate is the most widely accepted by liberal and evangelical scholars. I don't agree with it. But Joachim Jeremias says that the population was between 25,000 and 30,000. He said that there were 20,000 inside the walls and 5,000-10,000 outside the walls. I don't accept his figure, but if he were right, then what has happened is nothing short of staggering. 50% of the population has been converted. And even if you count the million or so pilgrims that came to the festivals, most of those have gone home already, and to have 15,000 people gathered in the temple day after day who are following Jesus, and are listening to anti-government propaganda, would have been unnerving to the rulers, to say the least. But like I say, Jeremias is a liberal, and I am amazed that so many evangelicals take his figure as Gospel truth. If Pohil's figure of 55,000 is correct, than 27% of the population are Christians. If Edersheim is correct, then 7.5% of the population has converted. That's an enormous social change to happen within days or at most, weeks of Pentecost. None of the commentators I have believes the ancient historian Tacitus, when he said that the ordinary population of Jerusalem was 600,000. I have no reason to question his first hand account. But even this would mean an enormous 2.5% change in a few days.

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So the first reason these leaders are very concerned is that unprecedented social change is at hand. Most evangelical commentaries say that the equivalent of 27% of Jerusalem's population has been converted. I favor Edersheim's estimate of 7.5%. But that is huge.

The second reason these leaders think that they have to act quickly is that they have been publically accused of murdering Jesus, and that Jesus has been raised to the right hand of God. Them's fighting words.

Let me tell you a little bit about this council and I think it will give you insight into why they considered a simple speech like Peter gave as threatening. Annas was high priest from 6AD to 15 AD. The position of high priest was biblically for life, but Rome ignored that and deposed him at that time, but he continued to rule from behind the scenes no matter which person Rome appointed to be high priest. Annas was the defacto ruler. And Rome usually appointed the person who bid the highest amount of bribe money, and since Annas one of the wealthiest people in Israel, he was able to keep his own family in there for the most part. Five of his sons, one grandson, and a son-in-law (Caiaphas) were appointed by Rome to be high priest at one time or another. But Annas was behind them all. And Annas amassed a fortune through his positions. I'll just give you one example, and this was one that was particularly repulsive to the common people. Previously there was a free market that exchanged money and provided temple-quality animals for sacrifice. There was one on the mount of Olives. But Annas managed to get the leaders to agree to rule out these other markets and to force all people to buy and sell from his market place, newly established in the Court of the Gentiles. These "bazaars of Annas" as they were called, were driven out of the temple twice by Jesus, much to the delight of the crowds, and much to the enragement of this family. And he had many other similar rackets that hauled in the money. So the family mentioned in verse 6 was an incredibly powerful family. Caiaphas was high priest when Peter preached (though Annas still retained the title – and so the New Testament speaks of high priests plural). Caiaphas (the 2nd one mentions) reigned from 18-36 AD. And John and Alexander were high priests that followed. If you bucked them, you not only bucked them, but you bucked Rome. The people hated this Sadducean nepotism, and it wouldn't have taken much to make an insurrection. In the Gospels the high priests were constantly worried about exactly that happening. And so Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas were instrumental in the crucifixion of Jesus (John 11; 18), because they perceived him as a threat.

So you have 1) a huge growth of the church, 2) an accusation that the Jewish rulers were guilty of murder, and 3) Annas' powerful family has a lot at stake and a lot that is hated. 4) Fourth, it is unnerving to think that you have gotten rid of Jesus, only to find that an invisible Jesus has popped up and people are preaching in his name and healing in his name. No wonder they are jumping on the stick and trying to stamp this out immediately. This is as direct an attack upon their whole system as you could get. And even though the apostles are submissive where they can be, and are not trying to bring a revolution, you can understand why these people are fearful of that. It's the same fear that drives the Chinese leadership to persecute the church.

Verse 7: "And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, "By what power or by what name have you done this?" The word "this" refers to the miracle of healing (and according to verse 14, the former lame man was in their midst – maybe they were even pointing at him). So you get the impression that they can't bring themselves to admit the healing. So they just say "this." The evidence that they have in front of them is damning evidence, so they avoid that and they bring up a different question: the question of authority. "By what power or by what name have you done this?" In modern lingo that would be like asking, "Who gave you the authority to be doing healings in our temple? I don't recall giving you permission. Give me the name of the person who authorized this." That's in effect what they were saying. This was an attempt to intimidate these apostles into silence. And these apostles know full well that these were the very men who had crucified Jesus not too many days before. They are probably thinking that their own days are numbered. To be surrounded by such an intimidating and angry group of powerful people is enough to make most people lapse into compliance. But these rulers are shocked to see that they are dealing with a boldness they had not anticipated.

Verse 8: "Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…" It was this filling of the Spirit that gave Peter boldness that he did not have just a few weeks early. It gave to him an energy in speaking that stopped the mouths of his adversaries. So I want to spend just a little bit of time in analyzing what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Most scholars agree that in the Greek there is a sharp distinction between being filled with the Spirit (which is an act of empowering for a given task – it's not ongoing) and being full of the Spirit (which is an ongoing Spirit-likeness that reflects character rather than empowering). In the book of Acts, people who are already full of the Spirit are said to be filled with the Spirit again and again. For example, look at verse 31. "And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness." These believers were already full of the Spirit, and in Acts 2 they had been filled with the Spirit, but filling happens over and over again. And thus, Ephesians 5:18 uses the ongoing tense when it says, "be filled with the Spirit." The tense indicates the idea of keep getting filled. This just follows the Old Testament pattern of special leaders who were said to be full of the Spirit, but when a specific task came up that they needed assistance with, they were filled with the Spirit. This new filling gave them empowering. So there is a distinction in the Greek between being full of the Spirit (that deals with our character and our Spirit-likeness) and being filled with the Spirit (that deals with our empowerment).

Where the disagreements come is what the results of such filling are. Many charismatics insist that every filling automatically results in prophetic speech. They say, "You can't claim to be filled with the Spirit if you don't have some miraculous utterance like tongues or prophetic utterance like prophecy." And even some non-charismatic scholars have recently been adopting that view. One non-charismatic scholar claimed the Luke always used being filled with the Spirit to refer to inspired prophecy. I don't agree. The verse we just read could be taken that way. But it could also simply mean that they spoke this written Biblical word with boldness. In Acts 9:17 Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and does not seem to do any speaking for several days. Instead, he was strengthened in body. Only after he has been strengthened for several days does the next verse say, "Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God" and he goes on to argue with them powerfully from the Scriptures. There is no mention of the prophetic. Chapter 2:4 is prophetic, chapter 4:8 may possibly be (though I don't think it needs to be) and chapter 13:9 definitely is. So, three of the five times that it occurs in Acts, it could have resulted in the prophetic. But that is a far cry from saying, this is the only way it is used.

Elsewhere in the New Testament it is clearly used of common things like worship and submission to one another. Three of the five times that the identical Greek phrase is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it has reference to the Spirit enabling people to do the physical labor of craftsmanship in a way that was beyond natural abilities and skills. One of the times, it refers to God filling Joshua for the task of leading Israel and giving Joshua wisdom by that filling (Duet. 34:9). Only one passage could have any reference to prophetic: Micah 3:8 where Micah says, "But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the LORD, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin." So I think that it is better to stick to what is clear: that God's people need the filling of the Holy Spirit for empowerment (period). That is clear. And I think it is just as clear that not just New Testament prophets needed the filling of the Spirit. According to Ephesians 5:18 we all need it. It doesn't matter what the task may be, you can call out to God to fill you with the Spirit and enable you to do a task that you cannot do in your own strength. You may need this infilling to be able to counsel your children through a tangled web that they have gotten themselves into. How many times has the infilling of the Spirit enabled my wife and I to cut through such issues in counseling our children or others. You may need this infilling to strengthen your body as Paul's first infilling strengthened his body in Acts 9. I have experienced this many times. George Whitefield and Wesley expressed this over and over and over. Whitefield was so weak on occasion, that peopel had to lift him onto his horse. But when he got up to preach, he would sense an energizing that would give him power and strength. You may need infilling to give you the ability to do skilled artisanship (as in Exodus 29:3) or you may need the infilling to effectively teach others to do that work (as in Exodus 35:30-35). And so that passage indicates that infilling even relates to effective teaching. You may need this infilling to give boldness and success to your preaching (as in Acts 2), or power to your witnessing (as in Acts 4:31), or in true spiritual worship (as in Ephesians 5:18-21) or in the ability to submit to your husbands and minister to them (as in the verses that follow). You can see that it is a wide variety of things that are covered. To focus on prophecy is to miss out on 99% of what the Spirit provides – every day. It's to shortchange God's people.

But what an encouragement it is to know that the Spirit is not only given to change our character, but He is also given to empower us to do what we have been called to do. Isn't that what Acts 1:8 promised the Spirit for? "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;" We need His power day by day. Every day I ask for His filling. And I know the difference between operating in my own strength and ministering from the compulsion and energy of the Spirit's filling.

Well, Peter was given a power in his words that went beyond ordinary words. And he said, "Rulers of the people and elders of Israel"; notice, that despite the fact that they are guilty of murder and horrendous crimes, he still acknowledges that they are his rulers. And I think this instructs us in what kind of testimony we can bear against the murderers of babies in Washington DC and those who in other ways cast off the laws of Christ. We cannot be anarchists. We must still acknowledge that they are our rulers. We must still honor them. But that does not mean that we must sit by and excuse their sin. And it seems as if evangelicals have gone to one of two extremes: they either focus on the honoring of our governors so much that they never call them on their sins. Or they emphasize the calling them to account for their sins so much that they act as if these people are no longer their rulers who must be honored. We can affirm both. Peter honored them and submitted to them when he could.

Verse 9. "If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man," That word "if" implies that even the leaders should be embarrassed for calling them on the carpet. As Derek Carlson puts it, "Peter asks if things have deteriorated to such a degree that people in Israel are now judged for their good deeds and acts of mercy?" Do you see what Peter is doing here? Peter is not allowing his opponents to totally frame the debate. The Sanhedrin wants to frame this debate as an authority question. Actually, they don't want debate. They just want an answer that they can hammer. Peter reframes the question so that they can see how stupid it is. The real issue is that he is being judged for doing good deeds. Do you have to ask permission to help a lame man?! You've got to be kidding?!?

And we need to take our cue from Peter in our debates with this world. When abortionists try to label us as anti-choice, they are trying to define terms and frame the question to thri advantage. We need to make it clear that it has nothing to do with choice, since they are not giving the baby any choice, or us any choice. It has to do with murder. They are baby-murderers, not pro-choice. When people speak of homosexual orientation, we must speak of deviance from a Biblical standard – or as one person put it, sexual disorientation. When homosexuals ask for equal rights, we must make it clear that they already have all the rights that we have. What they are actually asking for is special rights, not equal rights. And it's sometimes helpful to quote their own documents which explicitly say that they want to destroy some of our rights – for example, our free speech and our rights to call homosexuality sin. So Peter sets the record straight on what the real issue is. He reframes the question. And I think it is helpful for us to do that in our debates as well.

But then he goes on to say, "by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole." What a mouthful! If you were present in that room, and if you were not cringing in your seats at this point waiting for the ax to fall, it would have been because you too were filled with the Spirit and had the same boldness. It's incredible the way Peter stood up to these people. Most Christians would have been sweating nails at this point. And yet, I have read the testimonies of Christians standing before a judge who have been given a similar boldness, and they were surprised at themselves. God had filled them and given them the ability to boldly speak; to speak clearly and convictingly.

But Peter knows that there can be no conciliation. This is not an issue that can be compromised. HE can't work out a backroom deal that the apostles will leave Jerusalem alone if they can have Galilee. He calls for full freedom of speech, and nothing less will be acceptable. Nor is he willing to limit who it is that he will speak to. He says, "let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel…" The Sanhedrin is not laying down the terms. Peter is.

Nor is Peter willing to do His ministry without mentioning the name of Jesus. In verse 17 the rulers said, "let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name." But already Peter has made up his mind that he must speak in the name of Jesus. And Peter doesn't soften the punch, by politely forgetting about the fact that this same crew had crucified his Lord. "That by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole." The Sanhedrin was hoping to charge Peter, but Peter is charging them with murder, with rejecting their Messiah, and with resisting the one whom God has honored. This is the kind of Holy Spirit boldness that God has given to pro-life when they have been in court. It's a great gift of God.

And Peter no doubt wondered if he would die just as Jesus did. But we must not allow fear of what people might think about us, say to us or do to us to keep us from speaking the truth. As Derek Carlson said, "It is utter foolishness to deny the source of life in an attempt to hold onto our earthly life." "He does not fear what men might do to him. The truth burns in his heart and is more important to him than life in this world." (p. 83). It's easy for us to say in this room. But what would you do if you were in communist China? Which is more important to you? The life to come or this present life? The praise of God or the praise or men? Safety in Christ or safety in men? Which drives you more: the fear of God or the fear of man? If you do not settle those questions, you will be constantly prone to compromise, to giving in on principle and to silence. Scripture says that the fear of man is a snare. It needs to be dealt with in your life. Sometimes it's a fear of what your peers will say about you.

So Peter points to Jesus, points to the confirmation God gave raising Him from the dead, points to the former lame man as a testimony, and says that it was by Christ's authority and power that this man was made well. There is a lot we'll skip over because I have addressed it in previous sermons.

In verse 11 he continues his confrontation by appealing to the Scripture. Quoting Psalm 118:22, Peter says, "This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, whch has become the chief cornerstone." This is the seventh time since the beginning of Acts that Peter appeals to the Scriptures as the basis for what he does. If you want to see what true Holy Ghost preaching is, you don't need to look beyond the book of Acts. It is the bold exposition of and the application of the Word of God. It's not giving impressions. It's not saying, "I think the Spirit wants us to do xyz." No. It is unapologetic because it is Scripture and Scripture alone that He preached.

And what a verse to confront these rulers with! He takes it from a Messianic Psalm which commands the priestly orders to look to Christ's mercies. Psalm 118 starts by saying:

Let Israel now say, "His mercy endures forever." Let the house of Aaron now say, "His mercy endures forever." Let those who fear the LORD now say, "His mercy endures forever."

It's commanding these very people to give glory to God when Messiah comes. And then the psalm goes on to say that it is better to put your trust in the Lord than to put your trust in princes. Why? Because these princes have persecuted the Lord. But (the psalm goes on to say) the stone (Messiah) which these builders have rejected has been made the chief cornerstone of a new building. These leaders would have memorized this Psalm. They had to as part of their job. So Peter's quote would have fallen like a bombshell as to the implications that Peter was making. According to that Psalm, these leaders were supposed to be the builders of the nation, but they have cast away the most important piece of the building: the cornerstone. Without the cornerstone, the whole building will come crashing down. So this is a veiled warning that if they do not repent and trust in the sacrificed Savior that the same Psalm goes on to talk about, they will be crushed by Him in judgment and replaced with a new house. Talk about confrontation of their persecutors. This is the kind of quick, concise statements that the Lord enables us to make in emergencies when there is no time for an extended explanation.

But there is one more thing that Peter wants to make clear in verse 12. There is no room for pluralism. And this is a theme that you find all through the book of Acts. "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." As one commentator said, "These builders had made a grave mistake, for they had tried to destroy the only source of salvation there is." This means that being religious is not enough to get you into heaven. You could not have been more religious than this group of people. Yet they were lost. Why? Because they had rejected Jesus. Yet even here, hope is offered by Peter to those who will repent. And there will be some of these priests in the next chapters who are so cut to the heart that they do repent and believe. God had a harvest, even at this trial! We must never underestimate the power of the boldly preached Word.

But (in contrast) do not expect a whole lot of exciting things to happen if all that we have the courage to do is to promote wimpy religious pluralism. And you see this pluralism everywhere. The polls everywhere show evangelicalism treating Christianity as an option. This is good for me and that is good for you. Evangelicals are now being coached on how to pray before Congress and how to pray at the White House. "Don't use the name Jesus. That is offensive to muslims. That's offensive to Jews. Let's pray more generically." Well, let me tell you – God doesn't hear generic prayers. He insists that we approach His throne in the name of Jesus. In fact, we saw several weeks ago that absolutely everything we do must be in the name of Jesus. Christ says that if we are ashamed of Him, He will be ashamed of us. The praise that God gives to the church of Philadelphia says it all: "See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name." In one mayor's prayer breakfast that I was invited to, I was disheartened to see evangelical leaders who not only did not mention the name of Jesus in their prayers, but who deliberately avoided offense to the Jewish rabbi who was invited, calling him brother. That is a form of religious pluralism. We are afraid to say that there is only one right way.

What evangelicals are good at doing today is saying right things, without denying their opposites. They want to say, "We value marriage," without saying "We abhor homosexuality." That's not a nice to say, and so they avoid it. They want to say, "We value life from conception," but are reluctant to say, "we oppose abortion in any situation, including rape and incest, including birth control methods that cast off a fertilized egg." Oh! That makes people too nervous! Christians were all thrilled when the mayors office came out with a carefully crafted document on strengthening marriages. And people were saying, "Wow! This is so cool." And granted, much of it did look good at first glance. In fact, I would say that it wasn't what it said that was so problematic, as what it was unwilling to say. And I asked one of the evangelicals who worked on the document why it was so ambiguously worded at places and why it was not addressing the hard issues that needed to be said to really save marriages. And he told me something that hadn't even dawned on me to that point. He said that he and the others were trying not to address the homosexual issue. In other words, it was a nice, say-nothing document that didn't even rule out homosexuality. And most people missed that. Pastor Glenn caught it and crafted a letter to the board of what should have been said. And if confronted the evangelicals will. But most peopel are afraid of antithesis nowadays.

Years ago Francis Schaeffer was warning the evangelical church that they would lose the battle unless they started maintaining antithesis. Why do I keep preaching on this? Because we have the same fears. Let me defend my antithesis. Antithesis is making a clear distinction between A and non-A; between truth and error. He pointed out that you have not fully defended the truth if you only state what is true. You must also deny the truth of the opposite. He said, "To the extent that anyone gives up the mentality of antithesis, he has moved over to the other side, even if he still tries to defend orthodoxy or evangelicalism." (vol. 1, p. 47). Let me repeat that. Frances Schaeffer said, "To the extent that anyone gives up the mentality of antithesis, he has moved over to the other side, even if he still tries to defend orthodoxy or evangelicalism." That is where we are at today. The evangelical church has joined the other side of relativism because it is willing to affirm A, but not willing to say that A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time. Peter did not make that mistake. He spoke the truth, and denied the possibility of the opposite. If we are to have Reformation in our own day, we need leaders with the same boldness as Peter.

This is what I love about the Coalition on Revival documents. I am hopeful that these documents will make a difference. These 70+ church leaders are calling the church to repentance and back to the Word. They are making thousands of affirmations and denials. I love the denials. Those denials keep closet liberals from being able to sign the documents: there's no wiggle room. It keeps cowardly evangelicals from pretending to be Reformers. But above all, it makes it clear what we believe and what we do not believe. We affirm this, and we deny the opposite. And such clear thinking is absolutely essential. Pray that these documents would make a difference in our society. They have been discussed and refined in America and Latin America. They are now moving to get key leaders to work through this process in other countries. Pray that God would raise up Calvins, Luthers and Knoxes with the courage of the Holy Spirit to confront the idols of our day and to confront the compromised leaders of our day. Nothing less than this will save the church from irrelevance and defeat. May we be a church that is filled with the Spirit, holding to antithesis and willing to lovingly confront the confronters on their own turf. Amen.


  1. Life and Times, Vol. I, p. 116

  2. Historiae, v, 13, 4

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