The First Persecution of the Apostles
Acts 4:1-22
And as they spoke to the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came on them,…

To the tempter God said, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed." But the hatred reigns in the breasts of the children of the devil, "he that is born after the flesh persecutes him that is born after the Spirit," while those who are "counted to the Saviour as a seed" are told to love their enemies. The first-fruit of the enmity was the murder of Abel. The first-fruit of this enmity towards the Apostolic Church was the imprisonment of Peter and John. But it belongs to the disciples of a crucified Saviour to do good and receive evil.

I. THE IMPRISONMENT OF THE APOSTLES (vers. 1-4). Peter had said to Christ, "I will go with Thee to prison " etc., and our Lord had said to the sons of Zebedee, "Ye shall, indeed, drink of the cup that I drink of." And now we see —

1. The first act of violence, which was the arrest of Peter and John. "While they were speaking to the people" gracious words there was a rush in the assembly, and an iron hand was laid on the preachers, not by "rude fellows of the baser sort," but the priests, of whom Hosea said, "As troops of robbers wait for a man, so the company of the priests murder in the way by consent." The Sadducees were then in possession of authority, which they employed to indulge in the enjoyment of this life, as they believed in no other, and were cruel to all who disturbed their ease. They were, therefore, "vexed that the apostles preached, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead." For if He who was known to have been put to death was alive again, He was that "Man by whom came the resurrection of the dead." What was there in this to grieve any one? Is the present life so long that we should not wish for another? Or were these rulers so wicked that they suspected a future life must be to them a state of punishment? To wish to die like a dog belongs to those who wish to live like a dog. But, whatever men might think or say of the Resurrection, the question with magistrates should have been, What injury will this do to society? Will men be worse neighbours, or subjects, for believing that, after this life, they will rise, and be judged for the deeds done in the body? And yet, how many have felt the rude hand of violence for no other crime than preaching, through, Jesus the resurrection from the dead!

2. The first night which the apostles passed in prison is full of interest. See them led along to where criminals are lodged, the healed man following, not leaping for joy, but asking in sorrow, "Is it a crime, then, that they have made me walk?" Arrived at the gaol, the authorities demand entrance for two prisoners, who have done — what? good to body and to soul. Shall we pity them? No; save your pity for their persecutors. For, if you say, "But what must it be for pious men to pass a first night in a gaol?" I answer, but they are in a good .cause, with a good conscience, and in good company; and with these three attendants a man may lie easy on a cold, hard, stone floor; and in a dreary dungeon pass a pleasant night. For now Peter blesses his Lord, that, instead of denying Him, he can suffer for Him; and John feels that he is indeed the disciple whom Jesus so loved, as to hand from His own lips the cup of suffering, that His "beloved may drink also." Call them not prisoners; their spirits are not imprisoned, but mount together to the mercy-seat, in prayer for grace to suffer well. And they knew that "the Word of God was not bound," that the Church now numbered five thousand. If the apostles were kept from sleep, it was for joy of such triumphs. But "He giveth His beloved sleep," which often refuses to shed its balm on royal eyelids, while it rests sweetly on theirs who, exhausted with labours and devotions, sink down, and, like Jacob, though with a stone for a pillow, see visions of God, heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending, in attendance on the:heirs of salvation. Thus Bunyan, passing through the wilderness, lighted on a den, where he slept, and saw what myriads have gladly kept awake to read.


1. The court is particularly described, as of importance to the narrative. The great men lived in the suburbs, and now called a general meeting in the city. The rulers were probably the president and vice-president of the Sanhedrim; the elders the body of the council; and the scribes, the persons who acted as counsel, and clerks of the court. Annas was the high:priest, as Caiaphas had been. Alexander's name intimates a heathenish Jew; but he was then a man of note. John is thought to have been the Ben Zacchai, celebrated in the Talmud, who, forty years before the destruction of the temple, saw the gates open spontaneously, and said, "I know thine end"; for Zechariah prophesied, "Open thy gates, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars." "All the kindred of the high priest," who were a species of nobles, were now assembled, as if their dignities were at stake. Listen to the examination: "By what power, or by what name, have you done this? — you?" For the last word stands as if it were uttered in scorn: "You, fellows, to have done this!" See how "God taketh the wise in their own craftiness, and turneth the counsel of the wicked headlong." For they venture not to deny the fact. The more contemptuously they treat the apostles, as unequal to such a work, the more they glorify Christ. But who ever heard of trying men for the crime of healing in a moment? Who would think of accusing a physician for curing thoroughly and speedily? They ask, what name has done it; as if alluding to the Jews' notion of a magic virtue in the name of Jehovah, which modern Jews have affirmed Jesus learned, and by it wrought His miracles. Had the apostles themselves dictated the examination, they could scarcely have made it more to their mind; for it elicited —

2. The defence which they made (vers. 8-12). "It was done in the name of Jesus, the Messiah of Nazareth, whose name we pronounced ere we wrought the cure. You, indeed, condemned Him to die on the Cross; but God raised Him from the dead, of which the proof is before you." The rulers had asked after the wonder-working name, and they now know more than they wished; for what a stab must this have been to their pride! What a thunder-bolt to their consciences I They, aware that Jesus promised to rise again, had set a guard to prevent, and now are told that a miracle has proved it true. But see how Peter turns their attention from healing bodies to salvation for the soul. Who sees not here the fulfilment of Christ's promise to His apostles, "be not anxious what ye shall say, for the Holy Spirit shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say"?

3. The council's embarrassment arose from the sight of the apostles and of the man they had cured. "Seeing the freedom of Peter and John," who spoke like men at their ease, and "conceiving them illiterate and private" men, the rulers could not account for their unembarrassed air. They were not among the literati, nor in any public office, but in private secular life; and they were known to have been with Jesus, who was neither in high station Himself, nor attended by those who were; for it was asked, "Have any of the rulers or Pharisees believed on Him?" But the man who was healed was another embarrassing sight, to which the council had nothing to reply. This embarrassment induced them to order all others out of the hall, ashamed to say before them, "What shall we do to these men?" It is, indeed, difficult to know what to do with men who are tried for their good deeds; and still more with men who can work miracles. Often have persecutors seized their victims and then knew not what to do with them. Hence, with a confounding coolness, they plot to smother a miracle, that it may not spread further, as if it were an infectious plague. Thus commenced a long course of threats and orders, not less impious than vain. This was overruled, to bring out to view the great principle of religious liberty. From this time Christ is declared to be the paramount Ruler in religion. "It is impossible for us not to speak what we have seen and heard." Not to speak at all to any man in the name of Jesus! Bid us, neither breathe nor think! A religion of ceremony may be put down by brute force; but to hide the love of Jesus is as impossible as to "hide the ointment of your right hand." Having, therefore, threatened again, they let the apostles go; the people made it dangerous to punish (ver. 21). Thus ended the first act of persecution, and thus commenced the triumph of religious freedom.


1. On earth, the two confessors, "being let go, returned to their own company" (vers. 23-30). A night in gaol, and fierce threats, had wrought no change, except to increase their attachment to a cause that could not be gainsaid; and when restraint was taken off, as the bird whose string is cut soars away to its nest, they returned to their own company. Of the sufferings of a night in gaol, they say, they think, nothing. The threats, however, call forth a united prayer to God, expressing their submission to His Sovereign pleasure, and their confidence in Him as the Almighty Creator. They had astonished the enemy by their very courage; but they knew themselves too well to trust to this; for he that was a hero in the last battle may turn coward in the next; and therefore they ask for boldness. "He giveth more grace"; and they who ask it are the men who endure to the end. The apostles ask that "God's hand might still be stretched forth to heal"; though one such display of power had cost them one night in gaol. Attention to an apostolic prayer becomes us. Mark its Scriptural character; a large portion is the Word of God; its high rationality; for the Psalm quoted is not misapplied; its deep humility, with its lofty bearing; its superiority to self; with its consecration to the Divine honour; and then say whether these men were either deceivers or deceived? If we pray like apostles, shall we not wisely adapt our prayers to occasions as they arise?

2. Heaven responded to earth; for, they having thus prayed, a second Pentecost followed. As in the first, a mighty sound, like a roaring wind, roused attention; so now, an earthquake, which shook the place where they were assembled, spoke the descending God. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, in new and more abundant measures. Rich recompense for bonds and imprisonments.Conclusion:

1. Let their testimony sink into your hearts, that "there is salvation in no other name, but that of Jesus the Crucified."

2. When you have believed, and found salvation in it, you will show the attraction of affinity as they did, who, "being let go, returned to their own company."

3. Triumph is the testimony of Jesus against all the terrors of persecution; which is a blunt weapon, that has ever failed of its object, from the hour that these apostles were let go, to this moment.

(J. Bennett.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them,

WEB: As they spoke to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came to them,

The First Persecution
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