While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.
This is a tale of three powers. We had the earthly power of the Romans and of the Jewish hierarchy, embodied in their supreme court, the Sanhedrin. The power exercised by the Sanhedrin was only possible because the Romans were very tolerant of local ways in most things unless they incited public disorder, when they were totally merciless. And finally we have the power of God as demonstrated through Peter and John. So, the Sanhedrin were exercised by two things; firstly, that they did not agree with resurrection in general, or for Jesus in particular, and secondly, they were trying to avoid public disorder. If they did anything to Peter and John, the people could create a disturbance which would cause the Romans to respond ruthlessly and then to be less tolerant towards the ongoing governance of the Jews.
Here we see the Sanhedrin trying to curtail the actions of Peter and John through threats and intimidation. The Sanhedrin must have been a very intimidating body, combining as it did the rich and priestly Sadducees, the well-educated and fanatical Pharisees and the respected Elders of the community – basically the Who’s Who of the Jewish community. Peter definitely displayed his rock-like qualities when he withstood all the threats and would not be silenced. Like John Knox, Peter feared God so much that he didn’t fear mortals.
I’m pleased I haven’t been tested in the way that Peter and John were, but many in our history have been. I remember reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship with its vivid comparison of cheap and costly grace. Dietrich knew all about costly grace as he was martyred by the Nazis in one of their final acts in 1945.
Lord, we thank you for all the women and men who had held steadfastly onto their faith in the face of intimidation, violence and death. We see your power at work as much in their confidence and calmness as we do in miraculous healings. We pray for all who today are persecuted and suffer violence and personal hardship on your behalf; be with them, keep them safe and let them be a beacon for us all. Amen
Alan Yates is the Moderator of General Assembly 2016 to 2018