But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God [for us] to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were radically changed. Prior to that day, the disciples had decided to serve as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21-22). Though they had a purpose, they didn’t have the power they needed to face the entrenched and hostile Jewish religious leaders.
The power for their task was supplied on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowered the church. Immediately, the Spirit’s power was evident (Acts 2:1-13) and Peter preached his first great message (Acts 2:14-36). Peter’s message reached many of the people who heard it, and the church grew by thousands (Acts 2:37-47).
Not only did God bless the disciples’ preaching with great spiritual fruit, He also performed a miracle on the temple steps (Acts 3:1-10). Those who witnessed this miracle were amazed, and Peter preached his second great gospel message (Acts 3:11-26).
Peter’s preaching and the fact of the miracle brought the disciples under the scrutiny of the religious leaders, who jailed them and questioned them (Acts 4:1-12). When the religious leaders couldn’t deny the miracle, they decided to try to contain the disciples by ordering them not to “speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:13-18). The response of Peter and John to this demand has been repeated in different ways by Christians for two thousand years. They declared, “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Describe some recent acts of religious persecution.
Transition: It has been said that more Christians have died for their faith in the last century than died altogether in the previous nineteen centuries. There is every indication in this country and around the world that the gospel of Jesus Christ is coming under a steady and determined effort to silence it. The church must be prepared to respond. The disciples’ response to the persecution they faced in
Acts 4 provides a model for Christians today. We can derive three insights from their response in Acts 4:19-20 that help us know what we should do when faced with efforts to silence us today.
We have an obligation to witness
Peter and John were not as concerned with the religious leaders as they were with God. The fundamental question that they present to their inquisitors is whether it is right to listen to them or to God. The word translated “right” is the Greek word dikaios. This word was commonly used in Greek culture to refer to something that a person was obligated to do, often in relation to the law or customs. However, the early Christians recognized two spheres of obligation—secular authorities and God.
Paul made this distinction as well. It is seen most clearly in his direction to children to obey their parents (Eph 6:1-3). Paul could have referred to social customs to impress on children the need to be obedient, but instead he says “this is right” (dikaios) and refers to the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12) as support for his claim. In other words, obeying one’s parents is right according to the more important of the two authorities—God’s, which is the ultimate authority.
Peter and John make clear which of these authorities is the most important to them by asking if it is right “in God’s sight” to stop speaking. They raise this issue with the Jewish leaders because Jesus had told them they would be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). It would be difficult to be His witnesses if they stopped speaking about Him. Obviously, the disciples felt they had no recourse but too remain faithful to God in their obligation to speak about what they had seen and heard.
We face that same dilemma. Every day we are confronted with efforts to silence our witness. Children often are discouraged from sharing their faith in school; some people threaten lawsuits against those who witness to them. In other countries, Christians are beaten, jailed, and all too often killed because of their witness, yet we are all under a higher authority—God’s.
We have a compulsion to witness
The disciples declared, “We cannot help speaking.” The disciples employ a strong negative in their response. A. T. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Acts, p. 53) translates their response as “For we are not able not to speak.” The word translated “able” is the Greek word dunameqa. It is related to the Greek word dunami”, which means power. The English word “dynamite” is derived from this Greek word.
The disciples didn’t have the power within them to resist the burden to witness to what they had seen and heard. They were like people who have discovered a great truth and cannot contain their excitement to tell others. The disciples tell these Jewish leaders that they do not have the power within them to stop talking about what they know.
Christians today are in the same situation. How could someone not tell others the greatest news there is? Christians have found the very thing everyone in the world needs. The news is just too exciting to keep to ourselves. (Share an illustration of someone, perhaps a child, who could not wait to tell what he or she knew.)
We have a responsibility to witness
The disciples declare they didn’t have the power to resist “speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Their inability to keep silent was due to the fact that they were absolutely convinced about the reality of what they knew. After all, they had been with Jesus and seen His miracles. They had seen Him die on the cross, and they had seen him alive after that (John 20).
But their witness wasn’t only about what they had seen; it was also about what they had heard. The miracles of Jesus were powerful testimony to his claims of deity, but they were only one part of what compelled the disciples to speak, even in the face of opposition. Jesus had spent three years teaching these men and women the truth about who He was and about the things of God. People not only were amazed by His acts; they also were amazed by His words. Peter confessed this truth when he declared to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Today we still witness to what they have seen and heard. Though today we do not have the benefit of watching Jesus perform miracles in the way the disciples did, we are all living proof that miracles still happen. After all, we have experienced the miracle of the new birth. Furthermore, we still witness regularly the power of God at work all around us, and we still do see Him perform miracles today. And though we cannot sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him teach His great truths, we still have the Bible. The Bible contains the teachings of Jesus. It also tells us that “salvation is found in no one else” (Acts 4:12). If Christians fail to tell what they have seen and heard, they not only forsake the Lord’s command to be His witnesses, they also withhold from others the very information they need to help them decide their eternal destinies.
Challenge listeners to rediscover the God who performed His greatest miracle by providing salvation for them, and to rediscover the truth about Jesus and man’s lost condition. Challenge them to respond to efforts to silence them in the same way the early Christians responded. Then challenge them to pray for those people in difficult places who feel as compelled to share what they know to be true as the early Christians felt. Challenge them to find ways to encourage and protect those who are persecuted for their faith, and to come to the aid of those at school, at work, or in the community who are doing what is right before God.