Acts 4 records the fallout of the healing of the crippled man (Acts 3). As Peter and John teach the gathered crowd about Jesus and proclaim “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (2), temple guards come and arrest them (and the newly healed man). The following day they stand trial before the religious leaders. Peter, filled with the Spirit, boldly links the miracle to the resurrected Christ and pins the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion on these men. The leaders, aware that it is politically incorrect to punish people for doing an “outstanding miracle” (16), command Peter and John “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (18). Peter acknowledges their authority as rulers but doesn’t agree to their demands. Back with the other believers, the apostles unite their hearts in prayer. They affirm God’s sovereign control and sovereign work through Christ and pray for boldness to witness for Christ as ask for more miraculous evidences of God’s power. The room where they are praying is “shaken”, the believers are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they continue to speak “the word of God boldly” (31).
I’m drawn to examine the mentions of courage and boldness in this chapter: “when they saw the courage of Peter and John” (13); “enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (29); “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (31). All three verses use the term parrésia. According to an excellent article in The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Logos Edition), the word is used in the gospels (almost exclusively of Christ) as meaning to speak with freedom, candor and clarity. In the book of Acts, it carries the twin nuances of speaking with both confidence (assured of truth) and courage (audacity to proclaim truth). Peter speaks with parrésia on the Day of Pentecost (2:29) and before the Sanhedrin (4:13). Paul proclaims Christ with parrésia in Damascus (9:27-28), Pisidian Antioch (13:48), Iconium (14:3), Ephesus (19:8) and before Agrippa (26:26) and while in prison in Rome (28:31).
The boldness in witnessing was a direct result of the filling of the Holy Spirit: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them” (8); “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (31). The word Luke uses for filled is a word that has the idea of filled up. It can refer to a physical filling (satisfied with food after eating) or of a spiritual filling (filled with the Holy Spirit).
The filling of the Spirit is given for the purpose of empowering a witness for Christ; the filling enables bold speaking. In this chapter, the filling of the believers comes as a direct result of the believers’ prayers for “great boldness” in testifying for Christ (29, 31). We are not expressly told that Peter had prayed for boldness when he and John spent a night in prison prior to their trial before the Sanhedrin. However, it’s not hard to imagine that they did pray for God’s strengthening to speak for Christ, especially in light of Peter’s previous failure the night Jesus was arrested.
Theologically, the filling of the Spirit in Acts is a special empowering by the Holy Spirit that enables believers to bear witness for Christ (in line with Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8). This filling is episodic, given at the point of need. This filling comes as a gift from God (“give to your servants”—29) in response to prayer. This filling of the Holy Spirit is the dynamic that turns natural fears into faithful proclamation. For example, in verse 29 Peter and John tell the Jewish leaders: “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” However, there was a recent time when Peter did not speak about what he had seen and heard. Although he had seen Jesus do many miracles (greater than the healing of one crippled man), he went silent and even denied Christ three times (Luke 22:54-62). So just seeing and hearing Jesus’ do the miraculous was not enough, in itself, to give “boldness” to his witness. The reality of what he saw and heard had to be combined with the filling of the Spirit to make silence impossible—especially in the face of hostility.
Application: If I hope to have “great boldness” (29—literally “all boldness”) in my witness for Christ, I will need the filling of the Holy Spirit. As such, I will need to pray for the gift of this filling, expecting the Lord to answer. The result is that I will be enabled to speak with confidence and courage, even when facing skeptics or those hostile to the faith. My witness should be bold, not tepid or apologetic. How people respond is beyond my control. The Sanhedrin rejected Peter’s bold witness. Others in Jerusalem believed and joined the church.
The believers’ prayer, recorded in verses 24-30 is a rich blend of theology, biblical insight, faith, and kingdom-oriented petition. The prayer is founded on a sturdy understanding of God’s ultimate rule over the rulers of the world as its creator and master (“Sovereign Lord”). They already evidence an understanding that the Scriptures point to Christ, quoting Psalm 2 as a prophetic prediction that human leaders would conspire to fight against the “Lord and against his Anointed One” (26). Their prayer evidences a nuanced theological understanding of the way God’s will is done through human wills (a compatibilist view of the world): “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (28). Instead of asking for protection and safety, they ask for courage to speak “with great boldness” (29) and for God’s affirmation of their witness through “miraculous signs and wonders” done through “the name of your holy servant Jesus” (30). God answered their prayer by shaking things up (“the place where they were meeting was shaken”—31) and filling them with the Spirit so they could speak “the word of God boldly” (31).
Application: O Sovereign Lord, may my (our) prayers be more like this prayer. May they be richly shaped by a grand theological vision of your greatness, based on a biblical, Christ-centered view of life, and focused on asking for the power to be Your witnesses in the world. Shake us and fill us and use us for Your glory. I ask this in the name of your holy servant, Jesus.