Commentary on Acts 3-4 (Peter and John Arrested)

Sometime after Pentecost, Peter and John, who have been living in Jerusalem, walk to the temple around 3 pm for one of the daily prayer times. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, observes that it

was also the time of the evening Tamid, one of the two sacrifices held daily in the temple. These had become prescribed times of prayer, and people would come to the temple at the sacrifice times to observe the ceremony and pray. The largest crowds would thus have been found at the times of sacrifice, as Peter and John must have been well aware; for they went to the temple for prayer and for witness.

As they approach one of the massive gates that connect an outer court to an inner court of the temple complex, a crippled man is begging for money. The text informs us that the man has been disabled since birth and we later learn that he is forty years old.

The gate at which the man begs is called the Beautiful Gate in the text. Polhill provides background on the gate:

Josephus spoke of ten gates in the sanctuary. Nine, he said, were overlaid with silver and gold; but the tenth ‘was of Corinthian bronze and far exceeded in value those plated with silver and set in gold.’ So massive was this gate that when it was closed each evening, it ‘could scarcely be moved by twenty men.’ This seems to be the same gate identified in the rabbinic literature as the Nicanor gate.

There is some discrepancy between the sources about the exact location of this gate. Josephus placed it at the far eastern access to the sanctuary, leading from the court of the Gentiles (the outer courtyard) into the court of the women. The rabbinic sources place it at the eastern access to the court of the men of Israel, thus between the court of the women and that of the men. Many scholars see Josephus as giving the correct location, since he was writing from living memory, whereas the rabbinic writings date from a period long after the destruction of the temple. This seems to be the most likely spot for Peter’s encounter with the lame man. He lay at the beautiful gate with its magnificent doors of Corinthian bronze, begging at the entrance to, but still definitely outside, the sanctuary.

When the crippled man asks Peter and John for money, they stop and ask him to look at them. Peter tells the man that they do not have money to give him, but they have something else. Peter heals the man and performs the healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter pulls the man up from the ground on his newly strengthened feet, and the man follows Peter and John into the inner court of the temple. Since disabled people are not allowed into the inner court of the temple, the man had never been here before (see Lev 21:17–20; 2 Sam 5:8). Luke reports that he walked, leaped, and praised God. All the people in the temple courts were amazed at the miracle that had just occurred.

We skip now to chapter 4.  Peter and John have been preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus in the inner courts of the temple, and they have attracted a large crowd because of the miraculous healing of the lame beggar.  While they are preaching, some Levite priests, the Levite captain in charge of security in the temple, and some members of the Sadducees confront and arrest them. They leave them in prison overnight because the Sanhedrin is not allowed to convene until daylight. Luke notes that at this point in their ministry five thousand Jewish men have come to believe in Jesus.

Why would the Sadducees arrest Peter and John? Polhill explains that the

Sadducees were clearly the powers behind the arrest of the two. Josephus listed them as one of the three ‘schools of thought’ among the Jews of the first century, along with the Pharisees and Essenes (Ant. 13.171). The origin of their name is disputed but may go back to Zadok, the high priest in Solomon’s day. The Sadducees of the first century represented the ‘conservative’ viewpoint. They rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees and considered only the written Torah of the Pentateuch as valid. They considered the concepts of demons and angels, immortality and resurrection as innovations, believing in no life beyond this life.

More important than their theology, however, was their political orientation. Coming largely from the landed aristocracy, they were accommodationists with regard to the Roman occupation of Israel. Possessing considerable economic interests, their concern was to make peace with the Romans, preserve the status quo, and thus protect their own holdings. In return the Romans accorded the Sadducees considerable power, invariably appointing the high priest from their ranks, who was the most powerful political figure among the Jews in that day. The prime concern of the Sadducean aristocracy, of whom the high priest was the chief spokesman, was the preservation of order, the avoidance at all costs of any confrontation with the Roman authorities.

But the question remains: how does the preaching of Peter and John threaten peace with the Romans? Polhill continues:

Note the wording in v. 2: not ‘they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus’ but ‘they were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ The idea of a general resurrection was an apocalyptic concept with all sorts of messianic overtones. Messianic ideas among the Jews of that day meant revolt, overthrow of the foreign overlords, and restoration of the Davidic kingdom. There had been such movements before (cf. 5:36–37), and the Romans had put them down. There would be many more in the future. In fact, the worst fears of the Sadducees were indeed realized when war broke out with the Romans in a.d. 66, with terrible consequences for the Jews. Here, with the large crowds surrounding Peter and John, their fears were aroused. The notes of Peter’s sermon alarmed them: resurrection, Author of life, a new Moses. These were revolutionary ideas. The movement must not spread. It must be nipped in the bud.

The next morning the Sanhedrin gathers together to question Peter and John. They ask them by what power or name they healed the lame beggar. Peter’s response is bold and confident because the Holy Spirit is guiding him, just as Jesus promised (see Matt. 10:19–20; Luke 12:11–12; 21:15).

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you 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 is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Peter proclaims that the name by which the lame beggar was healed is the name of Jesus, the very man they had sent to Pilate for crucifixion. Peter then refers to Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus is the chief cornerstone and the Jewish leadership are the builders. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, notes that “Peter learned this use of Psalm 118:22, cited here in verse 11, from Jesus; see Luke 20:17.”

Finally, Peter’s speech climaxes with an exclusive claim. Not only was Jesus’ name responsible for the healing of the beggar, but Jesus’ name is the only name by which any person can be saved from the day of judgment.

The Jewish council members are astonished that men with no formal religious education are speaking so openly and boldly about the things of God. Given the fact that the forty-year-old man was clearly healed by Peter and John, the council members are unable to say anything in response.

Their only recourse is to threaten Peter and John if they continue to preach about Jesus. Peter and John, however, respond that given a choice between obeying the Sanhedrin and following God, they must choose to obey God. Given the public nature of the healing miracle, the Sanhedrin cannot hold Peter and John any longer, for they are simply too popular. The council dismisses them.