The big question for many in approaching this passage is whether or not Peter is waving the Jesus flag over all other religions, arguing that Jesus is the only way. A more responsible reading reveals that the Jesus flag is specifically being waved over Peter’s own religion, and furthermore over the political powers of his time and place. While further deductions could be drawn, we should be careful to keep our focus in line with the text.
It’s important to understand Acts 4:5-12 in light of the larger pericope that begins in chapter 3 with the healing of the lame man. (Perhaps you remember the story-song from Sunday school, “Silver and gold have I none…He went walking, and leaping, and praising God…” That’s the one!) Peter and John healed the lame man “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” and he entered the temple “walking and leaping and praising God” just as the song proclaims. This led to a crowd gathering around them, and Peter proclaiming his message about Jesus. Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:11-26 is the proclamation that gets him jailed for the night, along with John, and brought before the authorities the following day.
May it not be lost on us that the message Peter and John proclaimed was a message that directly confronted the political and religious powers of the day. While we may be more comfortable casting Peter’s statement over rival religions, when we do that we’re in danger of missing the point. The religious and political leaders of Peter and John’s own religion and home, both claiming in their own ways to be the true path to peace and salvation for the people, had come together to crucify Jesus, to silence him once and for all, but God had raised him up. The one they rejected, the way they rejected, the good news they rejected, was what God was using to build God’s kingdom, a building project that rivaled their own.
If we read all the way through 4:31, it helps us to grasp the emphasis of the gospel writer on boldness. The once tongue-tied Peter who denied Jesus three times on the night of his crucifixion has now found his voice, and he, along with John, cannot and will not be silenced. With the resurrection and the powerful presence of the Spirit of God, these disciples have been transformed, their fear and silence replaced with hope and boldness. Once, they trembled and hid, fearing that Jesus’ fate would be their own. Now, they directly confront the powers that be, calling them out for crucifying Jesus, the Christ, and informing them that God has acted in a way that undermines their authority and questions their claims.
What kind of salvation were the people seeking? And what kind of claims did the political and religious leaders make that salvation through Jesus was proclaimed over and against? They were concerned about the message of resurrection from the dead, perhaps because if people no longer feared death they lost their power over them. Certainly there are ways that our political leaders today, or even our religious leaders, make claims about the way to salvation that depend on our fears and function to keep them in power, claims that are threatened by the true nature and way of Jesus. Only today, rather than try to keep the Jesus story quiet, we find power-hungry leaders twisting Jesus into their own image, fooling many into thinking that their way of salvation is actually the Jesus way.
As you preach and teach, may you be filled with the boldness that comes through faith in resurrection and the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit within you. And may you proclaim salvation through the way of Jesus the Christ, over and against the very political and religious powers to which we are tempted to give our allegiance, who claim to hold our salvation within their own hands.