There is something very stable about the country town. Everybody fits in - whether by kinship or friendship. Everyone says "hello" to you up the street. Whatever the connection, they are all, in a sense, "your people" - for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity - if I may quote the words from the old marriage service outside their original context.
Those who have lived long enough in a small town may have seen this closeness as both its strength and its weakness. Help was always present, but you had a hard time if in some way you wanted to change where you "fitted in" to it all. All was peace provided the social status quo wasn't upset, provided everyone kept doing what was expected of them.
For those who know the musical "Fiddler on the Roof", the imagined Jewish town of Anatevka in Ukraine provides a powerful illustration of this. Everybody knew what was expected of them. The strong note of community and family tradition provided a sense of security which was shaken badly when people wanted to start acting outside the community's expectations.
Jerusalem, of course, wasn't a small country town, by any means, though it wasn't what we would regard as a large bustling city, either. It was small enough for the main players to know one another well and for everyone to have a clear idea where they were all supposed to fit in.
Indeed, it is striking that Jesus was more welcome in some of the smaller towns of Galilee than in the capital. Wherever he went, it seemed to have been the Pharisees who kept a worried watchful eye on him. The Pharisees were a group that began to develop in the time the Jews were being hard pressed to give up their obedience to the Law a couple of centuries BC - under the Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes.
It is especially in Jerusalem that we meet the Sadducees. F.F. Bruce tells us, "They claimed to represent the ancient standpoint in religion and morals, and emphasised the priestly point of view. The priestly families belonged for the most part to this party, and as the continued enjoyment of the priestly prerogatives and, indeed, the peace of the land and political existence of the people depended on Roman goodwill, they tried to co-operate as far as possible with the Roman authorities, and set their face sternly against religious or nationalist aspirations which might incur the wrath of the ruling power. They rejected as innovations belief in the world of spirit-beings (angels and demons), which appears so regularly in Jewish post-exilic literature, and in individual immortality or at least resurrection. It is natural, then, to find them in opposition to a movement based upon belief in the Resurrection."
In Acts 3, a lame man who begged daily at the Beautiful Gate had been healed "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth" (3.6). Peter preached to the crowd that gathered around, and we read in chapter 4, "Peter and John were still speaking to the people when some priests, the officer in charge of the temple guards, and some Sadducees arrived" (v. 1). The officer in charge of the temple guards was responsible for maintaining order in the temple courts. He may have had worries that the obstruction caused by such a large crowd could lead to a riot. But the priests (some manuscripts actually have "chief priests") and the Sadducees had strong objections to the content of what the apostles were preaching. "They were annoyed because the two apostles were teaching the people that Jesus had risen from death, which proved that the dead will rise to life" (v.2).
So they took action to maintain the status quo - "they arrested them and put them in jail until the next day, since it was already late" (v. 3). The Jewish ruling Council, known as the Sanhedrin, were allowed some powers of arrest. "It could deal on its own authority with offences against Jewish law, but could not carry out the death penalty without the procurator's ratification. For one particular offence, trespassing by Gentiles beyond the Temple barriers into the Inner Court, the Jewish court had the right to sentence even Roman citizens to death - an extraordinary concession, which shows how far Rome was willing to go in deference to Jewish religious sentiment" (F.F. Bruce).
In spite of their action, "many who heard the message believed; and the number of men grew to about 5,000" (v.4).
The Jewish Sanhedrin was called together. The "teachers of the Law" - the Scribes - were represented. They were mainly Pharisees. But, as F.F. Bruce notes, "the chief-priestly, Sadducean, element in its membership was specially well represented. Annas, the senior ex-high-priest, was present, and so was his son-in-law Caiaphas, the reigning high-priest, who by virtue of his office was president of the Sanhedrin. Only a few weeks had passed since they had both taken a hand in the condemnation of Jesus. Their hope that they had got rid of him was but short-lived; it looked as if they were going to have even more trouble on his account than they had had before the crucifixion."
Their direct question, "How did you do this? What power have you got or whose name did you use?" There was no question that the man had been healed. He was a regular beggar. Everyone knew him - they passed him every day when they came into the Temple. You couldn't miss him. Here he was standing in front of them completely well. (Had they detained him overnight too with Peter and John?) But how did it happen? Did Peter and John claim to have healing powers? or were they drawing on a healing power outside themselves? These Jewish leaders must surely have known that the name of Jesus was used, but just what were these men claiming?
Peter was very direct. We don't have the power to heal - "this man stands here before you completely well through the power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth-whom you crucified and whom God raised from death" (v. 10).
Jesus is alive! That is why this man stands before you completely well. We have no hidden, secret powers to heal. There is power in the name of Jesus, but it is not magic power - Jesus is alive! Jesus has healed him!
But that is not all. The name of Jesus is not just another that will be used for a time with miracle-working effect. In rejecting Jesus they have rejected the Messiah, the one God promised to send.
Peter quotes from the same Psalm the crowd had sung as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. "The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all. This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is! This is the day of the Lord's victory; let us be happy, let us celebrate! Save us, Lord, save us (Hosanna!)! Give us success, O Lord! May God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! From the Temple of the Lord we bless you" (Ps. 118.22-26).
Then he says "Salvation is to be found through him alone; in all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us" (v. 12).
In v. 9, the word "healed" is literally "saved" - as it is on a number of other occasions. But in verse 12 Peter has clearly moved to the meaning of salvation as the deliverance of sinners from judgment. One writer goes even further and suggests that "In Acts 4:12 Peter was speaking not only of individual justification, but also of national salvation, predicted in Psalm 118. The rulers were thus put on the defence! They had rejected the only Saviour of Israel and they were preventing the completion of God's building. Thus no other way of salvation is available to people (cf. John 14.6; 1 Tim. 2.5)" (Stanley D. Toussaint, BKC).
Jesus himself had said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me" (Jn 14. 6). Paul later wrote to Timothy, "For there is one God, and there is one who brings God and human beings together, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself to redeem everyone" (1 Tim. 2.5).
A few years ago Billy Graham confessed that his hands often went clammy and his knees would shake before he preached. We would not have expected that from the man who has preached the Gospel to more people than anyone else in history.
"Every time I stand before a crowd I feel so unworthy to preach the Gospel," he admitted. "I feel fearful that I may say something or do something that may mislead someone, because I'm talking to eternal souls who have the possibility of living in heaven forever."
W.C. Fields, the American actor and comedian, died in 1946. It is said that when he was on his deathbed, a visitor found him reading the Bible. Asked what he was doing, he replied, "Looking for loopholes, my friend. Looking for loopholes."
Don't look for loopholes - there is salvation only in the name of Jesus. Come and receive him for yourself. Go and offer him to others.
Back to Sermons