The summary of the good news told in Acts 4 is medium in length. It is longer than the several one line summaries we find (such as Acts 11:20), but shorter than the extended accounts in Acts 2, 3, 10, 13, and 17. Still, it has rich insights about the gospel and speaking it to others.
Speaker: Peter (v. 8, John was present too and seems to have spoken as well; vv. 13, 19-20)
Audience: Leaders of the Jews or the “council” (Sanhedrin) (v. 15), specifically the rulers, elders, scribes, high priest and his family (vv. 5-6)
Occasion: Peter and John had healed a crippled man, leading to an opportunity for them to tell the good news about Jesus (Acts 3). But the Jewish authorities arrested them (4:1-2) for what they were preaching. The next day the council convened for an inquiry so they could decide how to handle the threat they perceived.
Result: After hearing Peter and John’s words at the inquiry, the council was astonished that uneducated, common men would speak so boldly. The presence of the man who had been healed (4:14; cf. 3:1-11) made it difficult for them to say anything against them (4:16). Still, they sought to prevent the spread of this message by warning and charging the apostles not to speak at all in the name of Jesus (4:17-18). There were no conversions, but Peter and John refused to stop speaking (4:19-20, 23-31).
The inquiry began with the leaders of the Jews asking Peter and John by what power or name they had healed the crippled man. As in Acts 2 and 3, the occasion presented an opportunity for the gospel, and Peter saw it and made the most of it. I don’t think I’m very good at seeing opportunities yet, and I certainly would not have thought getting called on the carpet by religious authorities would be an opportunity to tell the good news. But Peter did. As before, what had taken place (the healing of the man who was crippled) is explained in terms of what God did in Jesus (4:9-10). It seems that everything about Peter’s life could ultimately be explained by God’s work in Christ, and he did not hesitate to state that connection.
His explanation specifically mentioned that they (the leaders of the Jews) had crucified Jesus, that God had raised him from the dead, and that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the name and power by which the man had been healed. As before, Jesus’ unique and special identity is again communicated by the word “Christ” (anointed one, king), as well as by the fact that his name/power is the way the man was healed. We’ve seen these same three points in the two previous messages. In the first two (Acts 2, 3) Jesus’ unique and special identity is specifically said to be based on his death and resurrection. This connection is not stated directly in Acts 4, but still there is an association of his identity with those two profound events. Once again, sharing the gospel entails telling about Jesus being killed and raised from the dead, and stating his unique and special identity as the Christ.
We’ve noted before the contrast that was made frequently between the Jews killing Jesus and God raising him from the dead. That contrast is made another way in Acts 4, namely, by saying that Jesus is the stone they rejected but that has become the chief cornerstone (that is, the most important stone in a building; 4:11). This reference ultimately goes back to the Old Testament which speaks of a stone being rejected but then chosen as the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; cf. Isaiah 28:16). The image is that of choosing appropriately sized and shaped rocks for building a house. A stone that was initially rejected ends up being the most important one. Jesus referred to this Psalm after he told the parable of the tenants. In the parable, God sent servants and then ultimately his son to receive fruit from his vineyard. But the tenants rejected them all and even killed his son. Jesus then quoted Psalm 118:22 as a way of describing what the Jews were doing by rejecting him (Matthew 21:33-42; Mark 12:1-11; Luke 20:9-17). In Acts 4, then, Peter is echoing the words of Jesus that describe his rejection by humans but affirmation by God. Though many humans did not see Jesus’ special identity and value, he is in fact the cornerstone of God’s house.
Peter also proclaimed that salvation is found in no one else besides Jesus (Acts 4:12). As Jesus himself said, he is the only way to God (John 14:6). Since this is so, it is imperative that we tell people about Jesus. If there were other ways people could be saved, it wouldn’t be nearly so urgent that we tell them about him. But since he is the only way, we must tell them.
Salvation is clearly an important part of the gospel message here and elsewhere, but we need to be thoughtful and careful about how we think and talk about it. We tend to put the primary emphasis on salvation, whereas they put the primary emphasis on Christ. Both Christ and salvation are indispensable to the message, of course, but it seems to me the emphasis is on Christ himself more so than the gifts he brings. Peter first proclaims who Jesus is and then says salvation is in him. Elsewhere in Acts the spokesmen preached that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (2:21), we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (15:11), and believing on the Lord Jesus we will be saved (Acts 16:31). They also urged people to believe in him, repent and turn toward him, and be baptized in his name, so that they would receive his gracious gift of salvation. Similarly, elsewhere, Paul wrote that God has blessed us “in Christ” with every spiritual blessing. He then emphasized Christ by repeatedly using the phrases “in him” or “in Christ” as well as “through Jesus Christ” and “in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:3-14). Christ is supreme; salvation is found in him.
This difference in emphasis may not seem to be great, but I think it is important. Have you ever had someone want your gifts or help more than they wanted a relationship with you? Did anyone ever want to date you for what you gave them instead of for who you are? Have you ever felt used in this way? Focusing on the benefits instead of the benefactor is misguided, self-centered and leads to problems. In Christianity it often leads to the distortion of wanting Jesus as Savior but not Lord.
In addition to making sure we don’t emphasize salvation more than Christ, we also need to be careful not to understand salvation too narrowly. Salvation refers especially to the forgiveness of sins and being saved from the wrath of God at judgement (Luke 1:77; 7:48-50; Romans 5:9). It refers to this especially but not exclusively. We are also saved from sin itself, including its power and practice. We must not be like children who get caught doing wrong and are sorry only about the consequences they are going to face but not actually sorry about the wrong things they did.
This broader understanding of salvation—including the need to be saved from the power and practice of sin—is clear in Scripture. Paul writes that God our Savior saved us when his kindness and love appeared in the person of Jesus (Titus 3:4). What did he save us from? The previous verse tells us: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). There’s no question that such things make us guilty before God, and that we need forgiveness for them. Here, however, Paul does not actually state the need to be saved from the consequences of sin, which leads to a question worth pondering: Do you merely want to be saved from the consequences of living like v. 3 or do you also saved from actually living that way? Do you want to be saved merely from the judgment and condemnation of sin or also the power and practice of sin? Again, we certainly need the former, but we also need the latter. To be truly saved from these sins entails not merely a “washing” but a “washing of rebirth” and also “renewal by Holy Spirit” (v. 5). We need something that will ultimately lead to our devoting ourselves to doing what is good (v. 8), instead of living how we did formerly (v. 3). Paul is here describing an understanding of salvation that is broader than we usually focus on.
We must remember, however, that, like our justification from the guilt of sin, so also our deliverance the power and practice of sin is possible only by the mercy of God, the grace of Christ and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). Christ is supreme. The early spokespersons announced the death, resurrection and identity of Jesus as the Christ, and offered a broad salvation in him and him alone.
In this series of posts we are focusing primarily on the message that was spoken in Acts, which we have outlined above. But our reason for doing so is not merely theoretical. We also want to actually communicate that message to others. So it is helpful for us to also notice some aspects of the way they communicated the good news.
First, Peter spoke boldly or courageously (4:13). The early spokespersons often faced danger, but they courageously spoke the word anyway (cf. 4:29, 31; 9:28; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 28:31). Contrary to the usual approach of Christians today, the example of the early spokespersons was to boldly speak the message about Christ regardless of whether people accepted or rejected it.
Second, Peter was filled with the Spirit (4:8). Since Peter had already been filled with the Spirit previously (2:1-4), the reference here seems to be to some kind of special filling that enabled him to speak boldly in spite of the dangerous circumstance. There are other examples of this as well, all of which occur in threatening circumstances (4:31; 7:55; 13:9; cf. Ephesians 5:18). This is not surprising since one of the primary purposes of the Spirit is to give us the power to testify about Jesus (Acts 1:8).
Third, God’s people absolutely refused to stop speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:19-20). Literally the phrase is “we cannot not speak.” I’ve noticed many of us, myself included, are very capable of not speaking. Many voices today, sometimes even Christian voices, are telling us not to talk about Jesus. But Peter and John refused to allow any human voice to stifle the instructions of God. They were determined to listen to God above all others, and that meant telling people about Jesus. Perhaps the best resource for getting to the point where we cannot help but talk about Jesus lies in the little phrase “seen and heard.” Maybe you’ve seen or heard about a restaurant, store, or movie that had such a powerful effect on you that you couldn’t help talking about it. That is the way Jesus had affected them and can affect us as well.
The brief account of the proclamation of the gospel in Acts 4 teaches us to tell others the story of Jesus being killed, raised from the dead and seen as the Christ who offers full salvation. We are to rely on God’s Spirit to boldly tell this news and never stop, regardless of how others perceive it. How does your understanding and practice of evangelism compare to this?