Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (12)

This is the twelfth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. The first entrycovered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. The second post, found here, considered the prologue to the Acts of the Apostles. In the third column, we began to examine the founding of the Jerusalem Church.

In the fourth blog post, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of Peter’s speech was discussed. In the fifth post, the bulk of Peter’s speech was examined. In the sixth entry, Peter’s speech concludes with a successful response according to Acts. The seventh blog postdeals with the formation of the apostles and other disciples into a community and the practices of the earliest community.

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 In the eighth column Peter and John heal a man who was lame. In the ninth entry, Peter explains how the lame man was healed and what this means about Jesus and his salvific power. The tenth blog postexplored Peter and John before the Council in Jerusalem. In the eleventh chapter, their trial on the Temple concluded.

In this, the twelfth entry, Peter and John speak to their friends in the aftermath of their release.

3. Contents:

C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): The aftermath: Peter and John released by the Council (4:23-31):

23 After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, "Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25 it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: "Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? 26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.' 27 For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus." 31 When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.(NRSV)

This section begins with a transition statement, linking the events on the Temple Mount with the whole of the community of disciples, as “after they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them” (Acts 4:23).[1]Most scholars see in the “thematic unity” signs that “the scene is a Lucan composition” (Richard Pervo, Hermeneia: Acts of the Apostles, 120). Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. says that “this passage serves as a climax of the narrative that began at 3:1 and conveys Luke’s real intention: Peter and John have not been acting on their own, but rather as God’s agents on behalf of the rest of Jerusalem Christians” (Anchor Bible Commentary: Acts of the Apostles, 306). The prayer which will soon follow and its interpretation ties together in many ways all of the trajectories of Acts up until this point, especially the fact that what has taken place comes through God’s power and plan not the human plans of Peter, John or any other of the disciples.

When the community hears the report from Peter and John, they begin immediately to respond with prayer in Luke’s narrative: “they raised their voices together to God” (Acts 4:24), who they praise as the source of all (“sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them”-Acts 4:24).  In fact, the Greek translated as “sovereign Lord” (Despota) is according to the NJBC “a Hellenistic (Jewish and Christian) prayer idiom favored where God’s dominion over the cosmos is invoked” (737).

As straightforward as those two verses are, the beginning of Acts 4:25, which is the introduction to the citation from Psalm 2, is noted by every commentator as textually corrupt.[2] The phrase, “it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant,” must be teased out of the Greek by subtraction or addition to the text as it stands. The basic gist, however, seems clear: the Psalm, and all Psalms are attributed to King David in antiquity, is the voice of God speaking even now to the community in the events which have just occurred.

Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, has as its first two verses in translation from the Hebrew,

 1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed…

The Greek of Acts is taken directly from the Septuagint (LXX) and gives a similar, if not identical, passage:

25b "Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? 26 The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.'

What follows is an interpretation of this passage in prayer form, applied as a prophetic passage concerned with the death of Jesus and the events just undergone by Peter and John.

Fitzmyer says that the prayer resembles the prayer of Hezekiah found in Isaiah 37:16-20 and 2 Kings 19:15-19 (306):

15And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said: "O Lord the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 16 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 17 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, 18 and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed. 19 So now, O Lord our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone." (2 Kings 19:15-19)

Even more, Fitzmyer argues by using this Isaian/2 Kings prayer as a model,  Luke has “cunningly recast in prayer-form an early Christian exegesis of Psalm 2” in a composition of his own making (306-07).[3]

In the prayer-exegesis of Psalm 2, the disciples note that a foreign and Jewish ruler gathered against Jesus  (“for in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” – Acts 4:27). But what took place was in fact only “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). “The interpretation presumes that the conspiracy of Psalm 2 forecasts the fate of Jesus. The implied understanding is that the encounter of Peter and John with the authorities is like the experience of Jesus, who is an example for those arraigned before courts” (Pervo, 122-23). It is indeed the case that Luke presents Peter and John, guided by the Holy Spirit, as examples who continue the ministry of Jesus, even when persecuted by the authorities.  

For, as the prayer continues, they ask God to “look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). They do not ask, as Fitzmyer says, “to be spared persecution, but for parrhêsia, ‘courageous speech’” (306), a word which also appears in Acts 4:13 (see Acts of the Apostles Commentary 10). All that has taken place, especially the healing of the man who was lame, is because God is acting through them; they will speak, “while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:30). It is God who acts miraculously through them in the name of Jesus, as we have seen many times up to this point. Jesus is also once again classified here as in Acts 3:13 as pais, child or servant (see the extended discussion of pais in Acts of the Apostles Commentary 9).

Finally, at the end of their prayer, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Pervo notes that in Roman authors “at the appearance of the gods temples shake” (123), but one might also look for a parallel in the tearing of the curtain in the Temple (Luke 23:45) or the shaking of the earth in Matthew 27:51.  With the giving of the Holy Spirit to all the believers again and the ability to speak boldly now given to all (previously in Actsparrhêsia is only a gift of Peter and John), it is obvious for Luke that “the gift of Pentecost endured and, should the question arise, shows what side God has taken in the conflict” (Pervo, 124).

 

Next entry, the disciples of Jesus share everything in common.

 

John W. Martens

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This entry is cross-posted at Biblejunkies



[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Acts, sees the Greek translated here as “to their friends” (pros tous idious), literally, “to their own,” as referring to the other apostles, not the whole community. I do not see that reflected in this phrase and think Luke is speaking of the whole of the group of the disciples (90).

[2] Page, Acts, 107; Johnson, Acts, 83-84; Pervo, Acts, 122; Fitzmyer, Acts, 308. Pervo in particular speaks of the Greek in v. 25 creating stylistic, grammatical and theological difficulties. For those interested in these linguistic issues, please consult any of the commentaries listed here.

[3] Pervo, Acts, 120 raises a question about Luke’s composition here since Luke himself “does not agree with the thesis that the death of Jesus took place through a collaboration between Herod and Pilate” (120). See Luke 23.

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