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Acts 4:1-22 tells the story of the repercussions which Peter and John faced following the healing of the crippled man at the gates of the temple. The response of the crowds to this miraculous healing was positive and favourable; another two thousand men believed as a result of this miracle and Peter’s preaching (Acts 4:4). Unfortunately, the response of the religious ruling classes (the priests, captain of the temple guard, Sadducees and Sanhedrin) was not as favourable. They were greatly disturbed by the idea of lay people (‘non-professionals’) teaching in the temple courts, especially since they were ‘proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ (Acts 4:2) The Sadducees in particular did not believe in the resurrection (see Matt 22:23-33) and thus they saw ‘the apostles as both agitators and heretics, both disturbers of the peace and enemies of the truth.’ (John Stott)
It is a sobering fact that opposition to the Christian message often comes from within the church as much as from without, that religious rulers can be the greatest barrier to change. Jesus reserved his most scathing rebukes for the religious rulers (see Matt 23:13-39, Matt 16:1-6). He faced great opposition from religious leaders (see John 8:58-59, John 10:31-33) and indeed, it was this opposition which had led to his trial and execution (Matt 26:57-66). The popular people loved Jesus and he was often attacked because he ate with tax collectors and sinners. (Luke 15:1)
Why should this be so? These people were those who knew the law, who studied the law, who were trained in God’s ways. Why should they be so hostile to the Son of God and to his followers?
It’s a frightening fact that religion is not the same as a relationship with God. The dictionary defines religion as ‘the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’, but so often, this becomes a ‘particular system of faith and worship’, where forms and rituals hold more sway than listening to God and responding to Him. It’s very easy for ‘religious’ people to become self-righteous and to place more weight on rituals than on relationships. Jesus reminded the Pharisees that they needed to understand mercy not sacrifice (see Matt 12:1-14), something that is always at the heart of our walk with God.
The religious rulers thought they were obeying God by opposing the apostles, and we see this most clearly in the person of Saul of Tarsus, who would go from house to house, searching for Christians to imprison (Acts 8:1-2), before being confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-19) We need to be on our guard constantly against hypocrisy, pride, self-righteousness and inflexible rigidity, because these are the characteristics which led the religious rulers to oppose the truth of the gospel.
Peter’s challenge to the opposition was that they were opposing an act of kindness shown to a lame man, something they grudgingly had to accept (Acts 4:9, 16). It’s very easy for us reading this account to identify with the lame man or the apostles or even the admiring crowd, but the fact remains that much opposition to the gospel comes from within churches. When we resist change because we can’t handle it, oppose new things because they disturb the status quo, look down on people because we think they’re not ‘nice’ enough to be saved, we are acting more like the Pharisees and Sadducees than followers of Jesus. We need sensitivity to the Holy Spirit to the wind of change He breathes on us and an ability to bend with Him as we seek to preach the gospel to a world desperately in need of the power and presence of God – not the empty form of religion (see 2 Tim 3:5).