In Acts 4:12, the apostle Peter boldly tells the Jewish Supreme Court about the name of Jesus Christ, “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.” We moderns are offended by exclusive religious claims because we’re confident that nobody has the truth about spiritual matters. So what do we make of Peter’s statement? Was he just speaking to the people of his time and place?
Darrell Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), tackles the issue of Peter’s intentions:
Since Peter, just like anyone else among the early Christians, could not have known the sheer size of Earth or the number of its people groups and how long it would take to reach the whole world with the gospel, it has been suggested that ‘under heaven’ ought not to be taken to mean that Jesus is the only way people can be saved. Might it just be that Jesus is the only means of salvation among the Jews and the people groups his ministry touched?
Witherington (1998, 194) correctly observes, ‘Peter is no advocate of modern notions of religious pluralism’ (also John 14: 6; 1 Tim 2: 5; Heb 2: 3). The consistent message throughout the NT is that Jesus is the only Savior for humanity. Human ignorance about the size of Earth’s landmass and human population has no bearing on the central facts of humanity’s need for redemption and the one means of redemption that is provided. Of course the exclusiveness claim offends many readers, and they seek to avoid it by noting the primitive geographical understanding of biblical times. Two considerations speak against such an argument.
First, the Roman Empire was like a sponge when it came to religion. Romans accepted all kinds of gods and religious ideas that came from the far corners of their vast empire. A trip to Caesarea Philippi, a locale where Jesus did some of his ministry, shows the presence and awareness of many of these gods. So Peter and the other apostles were well aware of the plurality of religions, and they understood that many of these originated in faraway places they would never visit. They preached the exclusivity of Christ within the context of the religious melting pot that was the Roman Empire, and so the fact that there were other world religions about which they were ignorant does not mitigate their claims about the exclusivity of Christ.
Second, and more importantly, the claim was that Jesus meets an internal need all people everywhere have. Their claim was not that other people did not seek to be pious; they knew that virtually all people are religious. Their claim was instead that Jesus alone can remedy what is wrong with us. The disciples were so committed to this idea and its exclusiveness that they devoted themselves to getting the word out as far and wide as they could. The claim of there being no other such saving name under heaven indicates how comprehensive a solution Jesus is in the apostle’s view.
There is an exclusiveness to Jesus’s work that is not popular today. It is seen in our culture as a blow against religious diversity as well as the cause of great religious and political strife throughout history, especially in European history up to the Enlightenment. But a key point is often missed. It is when religion is imposed that it does damage. Here we see apostles making an appeal and leaving the decision and consequences to individual response. There is no effort to impose the faith, only to inform about it and to stress the responsibility every creature ultimately has to be responsive to the living God.
In addition, the offer of Jesus is made to all without discrimination. Thus the exclusiveness of the benefit is directly related to one’s willingness or unwillingness to be connected to the benefits. The church’s call is to be loyal to God in sharing the message and doing so in such a way that its impact on believers’ lives is evident. The call is not to impose the gospel on others. Some will not welcome such a testimony. They are left to go their own way with its tragic consequences. To others, however, the gospel will supply the sweet savor of real life and will open new vistas to how one can live and have fellowship with God.