By God’s grace, not all believers face harsh legal or physical persecution for their faith. Many of us don’t live under the threat of being beaten or hauled into court for preaching the gospel. But there are many places around the globe right now where that is the daily reality for believers. And as the world grows more hostile to the truth of Scripture, we can expect those kinds of persecution to become more commonplace.
But one of the blessed byproducts of persecution is that it often spawns courtroom ministries and prison ministries. Opposition creates opportunities to boldly proclaim the truth to persecutors (Philippians 1:12-14).
That was the case for Peter and John in Acts 4. They were arrested for preaching the gospel and healing a man who had been crippled from birth. The next day they were hauled before the Sanhedrin. That elite group of priests, scribes, elders, and other dignitaries would have seen the apostles as nothing more than troublemakers — just a couple Galilean fisherman-turned-street evangelists who threatened their authority with stories of a resurrected Christ.
Perhaps that’s why the members of the Sanhedrin unwittingly gave Peter and John a perfect opportunity to confront them head-on with the truth of the gospel. In Acts 4:7, they demanded these uneducated men answer for their teaching: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” That was all the invitation Peter needed.
The next verse highlights another response believers need to have in the face of persecution: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them …” (Acts 4:8). Just as Peter did, persecuted Christians need to find their strength in the Holy Spirit.
Thanks to rampant false teaching and abuse of the third member of the Trinity, today there’s considerable confusion about what “filled with the Holy Spirit” means. But what happened to Peter in the midst of the Sanhedrin wasn’t an emotional experience or an ecstatic exhibition.
Instead, being filled with the Spirit is setting aside your will, your wisdom, your strength, and your expertise, and instead relying on God’s. It’s yielding to the power of God at work in you through the Spirit to use you as a vessel for His truth. It’s not a passive, trance-like experience — your mind is fully engaged; it’s surrendered to the Lord, not spinning on your own steam.
In the face of strong persecution, believers may likely feel underprepared, overwhelmed, and outmatched. But in those moments, we need to remember that God uses our weakness to display His strength (2 Corinthians 12:10).
What Peter said as he was filled with the Spirit is remarkable. Boldly answering the Sanhedrin, he declared:
Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:8-12)
In the face of harsh persecution, boldness may seem counterintuitive. Most people would be more likely to try to smooth things out with an apology or some overt contrition.
But not Peter. Filled with the Holy Spirit and aware of the gospel opportunity before him, Peter pokes a verbal finger into the chests of Christ’s condemners, highlighting their hypocrisy and spiritual blindness.
Beginning in verse nine, Peter turns the tables on his indicters.
If we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by this name this man stands here before you in good health. (Acts 4:9-10)
He starts by acknowledging that they’ve been unjustly arrested for doing a good deed—healing a man crippled from birth (Acts 3:1-10). He then answers their question by declaring that it was accomplished through the power of Jesus Christ, whom they had just weeks earlier condemned to death.
Including the name “Christ” was a reference to Jesus’ role as the Messiah the Sanhedrin was supposedly looking for. This turned Peter’s explanation into a damning condemnation. While the Romans actually carried out Christ’s death sentence, Peter identifies the Sanhedrin as His true murderers.
In the face of severe persecution, Peter didn’t soften or tamp down the truth of the gospel. He remained bold and direct, in spite of the consequences. Why? Because for the gospel to take hold in a person’s life, sin must be exposed and confronted.
Some people will tell you that softening the harsh edges of the gospel—and particularly the truth about sin and hell — is a good way to make the truth more acceptable to the world. That it would make Christians less off-putting and more relatable if we just “love on people” instead of being so confrontational. But that approach only shows the world that we’re willing to compromise, and that the gospel isn’t so exclusive after all.
That was not Peter’s approach. In fact, he made sure to highlight the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12)
That’s a far cry from the claims of many contemporary preachers who foolishly say, “Who am I to say who will be accepted by God? That’s up to Him.”
Instead, with his life potentially on the line, Peter made abundantly clear the facts of the case. The Sanhedrin had conspired to murder Christ, whom they should have recognized as Messiah. Jesus wasn’t defeated by their plot or the grave – God raised Him from the dead. Only through faith in Him can anyone hope to find salvation.
Facing similar circumstances, would we have the same boldness? Regardless of our situation, we ought to be no less committed to faithfully and accurately preaching the truth of the gospel, particularly to those who are hostile to God’s Word.
Next time we’ll see how the Sanhedrin reacted to Peter’s explanation, and consider another aspect of responding biblically to persecution.
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