The New Church
The leadership Jesus had assigned to Peter, and that Peter had partially assumed when traveling with Jesus and the Twelve, was quickly confirmed at Pentecost. And the next time we see Peter in Acts, his acts are even more impressive. While walking into the Temple with John for the prayers of the ninth hour (3 P.M.), he is accosted by a lame beggar asking for alms. Peter utters the famous line, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And the man not only makes an effort to get up, he also leaps and runs around the Temple porch, calling out like a man who has just met his Savior.
Such is the ruckus the healed man stirs up that a large crowd gathers around him, Peter, and John, asking how the man they had known as a lame beggar all his life was now whole and praising God.
Peter's response is similar to the one he made at the feast when the Holy Spirit had given the disciples the gift of tongues. He tells them the Jesus they had crucified is living again, and he is the one God had promised through all the prophets and had even said would be persecuted by those he came to redeem, “all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days. You are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant God made with our fathers. For he said to Abraham, ‘And in your seed shall all the peoples of the earth be blessed.’ Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (see Acts 3:24–26).
Then, Luke says, the rulers of the Temple sent the captain of the temple (a high-ranking official charged with maintaining order in the temple precinct), who arrested Peter, John, and the man healed from lameness, and put them in a cell for the night. But even despite this, “many who heard the word believed;” and this time, “the number of the men who believed was about five thousand.”
Witnessing to their Enemies
The next morning the chief priests and leaders of the Temple put Peter and John “in their midst” and asked them, “by what power, or by what name, have you done this?” And Peter, Luke says, “filled by the Holy Spirit,” started witnessing to these same men who had delivered Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion: “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, who God raised from the dead, even by him does this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone that was set aside as nothing by you builders, and has become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (See Acts 4:10–12.)
Free Speech Prohibited
The accusers marveled at Peter's and John's boldness and, consulting among themselves, privately admitted that a verifiable miracle had been performed by the accused on the formerly lame man. And fearing repercussions if they punished Peter and John, they commanded them not to speak any longer in Jesus' name. But again the lead apostles were fearless: “Whether it's right in the sight of God to obey you more than God, you can judge. But we cannot do other than speak the things we have seen and heard.” So after the accusers had further threatened the apostles, they let them go (see Acts 4:19–21). Peter's fame spread so much that people tried to position themselves in line with his shadow, thinking that being touched by his shadow would heal them.
The apostles continued to preach in Solomon's Porch (inside the Temple walls), to the great displeasure of the Temple rulers, so much so that the rulers eventually threw the apostles back into the Temple jail cell. But while the apostles were incarcerated, an angel released them, and told them to return to Solomon's Porch early the next morning and continue teaching the Word as they had been.
What was behind the apostles' new “holy boldness”?
Though Peter had addressed the lame man with what seems to be doubt about his own power to cure him, the man's healing was a miracle that confirmed that power and pushed the mushrooming church from 3,000 new members the first day to 8,000 the next, and similar miracles followed everywhere the apostles went, with even more growth occurring with every new event.
After they continued teaching, they were taken before the council, and when the council was about to punish them, a Pharisee and “learned teacher,” Gamaliel, rose to the apostles' defense, concluding, “If this is of men, it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, we can do nothing to stop it.” So the council agreed to ignore the apostles a while longer, and they continued to teach in the Temple.
Gamaliel was a teacher of Saul, who became Paul; and Joseph, who became Barnabas. Historians say Gamaliel was a son of Simeon and a grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel, whose teachings are still widely used in Jewish synagogues.
Throughout this growth period, Luke inserts facts about the internal working of the new church. The newly baptized shared among themselves their property and a common purse, for example, and Luke describes the need of some members for more personal ministry and help, for which reason the apostles appointed the first deacons. Among the deacons, the first named is Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”
The First Martyr
Stephen is described as doing many miracles, but because his zeal attracted opposition in several of the synagogues, his opponents conspired to have him executed by stoning, thus making him the first martyr of the church: “They threw him outside the city and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul” (Luke 7:58).
Writing after the fact, of course, here Luke foreshadows the rise of Saul/Paul by noting his presence at the stoning of Stephen. For although Luke records in the first chapter of Acts the replacement of Judas Iscariot by casting lots among names of disciples close to but not part of the Twelve, God seemed to have another apostle in mind to round out the select core of the founding church. Saul, converted from persecutor of the church and ranking “official” witness to Stephen's martyrdom, becomes the Apostle Paul in the second portion of Acts, and the main influence on the direction the church would now take, away from Jerusalem.
Stephen's sermon occupies the whole seventeenth chapter of Acts and shows the same kind of power from the Holy Spirit as Peter's sermons. It may have been because Stephen spoke in a less central location when he testified of the resurrected Christ and where converts were not yet numerous that he was executed, while Peter and John were able to escape that fate.