This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
I once had the privilege of starting a debate program in a small Christian school. After coaching, viewing, and judging numerous debates I learned why something called clash is so important. Clash is the intentional and meaningful conflict of ideas. Without clash debates are boring and rarely move either position forward, like a boxing match where the opponents dance around each other. But when two rival ideas clash, truth can engage error and prevail.
God intends for his people to contend with the world. Avoiding conflict doesn’t advance the kingdom. Playing it safe and sheltering Scripture is not God’s plan for his spiritual army. The three parts of the story of Peter and John’s conflict with unbelieving leaders in Acts 4:1–31 can help guide us as we clash with the world today.
As Peter preached after healing a lame beggar, two things happened. First, the Jewish authorities became “greatly annoyed” as they listened (Acts 4:2). In particular, the apostles’ message irritated the Sadducees—rationalists who rejected the supernatural. Despite the apostles’ “good deed” (Acts 4:9), the Sadducees were intolerant of the message of the cross and the resurrection. Even good deeds, when hitched to the gospel, are offensive to enemies of Jesus.
Second, many in the crowd were coming to faith in Christ. There wasn’t a more controversial message in Jerusalem at that time than that Christ arose. But through simple Bible preaching activated by the Holy Spirit, many believed the message. God’s word hardens some and softens others. Some people will despise the gospel no matter how much good believers do. That can’t be helped. But through your testimony in word and deed, God can change lives.
The authorities arrested Peter and John, placing them under armed guard. The previous arrest recorded in the New Testament was that of Jesus Christ. At that time Peter, John, and the others ran away. But this time, filled with the Spirit, “they had clear vision, absolute certainty, strong passion, and unflinching courage” to follow Jesus into necessary spiritual conflict.[i]
From the start, the prosecution tried to intimidate and silence Peter and John. “All who were of the high priestly family” showed up (Acts 4:6). Gulp! And their question was provocative: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7). They knew. Peter had commanded the cripple to rise up “in the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 3:6). But that was at a prayer meeting; this is in court. The church’s opponents wanted the apostles to go home and be quiet. Do good, but not in Jesus’s name.
In his defense Peter argued that he and John were suffering for doing a good deed (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18). And Peter boldly tied his piety to Jesus. God proved the saving power of Jesus’s name by raising him from the dead. There is none greater!
During the deliberation, the prosecutors realized several facts. Peter and John had been changed by their time with Jesus. They lacked ivy-league religious credentials. But Jesus had rubbed off on them. The Jewish leaders also admitted that the man had truly been healed. Even the crowds—who were not loyal to Christ—were witnesses of the healing. The evidence that Jesus is the Christ is compelling. Sadly, the builders rejected the chief cornerstone (Acts 4:11).
Here’s their verdict: Do not use Jesus’s name. In response, the apostles promised to disobey. They respected the Jewish leaders’ right to judge, but they committed to following Jesus whatever the cost.
The church reacted to opposition by calling a prayer meeting. This is Luke’s emphasis in the passage—not the report of the rulers’ hypocrisy but the church’s prayer. First, the believers acknowledged God’s power and greatness. They approached him as their “Sovereign Lord” (Acts 4:24). As Lord over all things, he knows our problems and will address them by his mighty arm.
Second, they listened to how Scripture identified their suffering with the suffering of Jesus. Psalm 2 reminded them that God is on their side. The enemies of God once raised themselves up against Christ, and now his followers were facing the same outrage. Opposition against the church can confirm that we are on the Lord’s side and draw us closer to Christ.
Finally, their experience of union with Christ enabled them—and can enable us—to make bold requests: Lord, look upon the threats of our enemies. Strengthen your servants. Give boldness for faithful witnessing. Show your strength through signs and wonders. This prayer is a direct response to the threats of God’s enemies. The church did not back down. With God’s help, they rose to the challenge.
How to Clash Like a Christian
What can this message do for us? We want to be faithful, but we don’t necessarily want to clash with the world. We want to be accepted by both God and by the world. We are tempted to harmonize the message of the Bible with the attitude of our age. But if we aren’t clashing with the world for speaking God’s truth and doing good, we are unrecognizably different from our Lord and from his first followers. Jesus called disciples—students who will be like their master. To follow him well we must realize that he’s leading us through enemy territory on our way to the celestial city. But, as his disciples, we are convinced that Jesus is worth following, fully, because in his name alone is salvation.
[i] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, 119.