The Power of Unbelief


Acts 4:1-22

Text Comment



v.2

The Sadducees were particularly annoyed by the message, for they denied the doctrine of the resurrection. That this teaching should have been spread in the Temple would have only infuriated them the more as they thought of the Temple as their special precinct.


v.4

The annoyance of the religious leadership was increased by the widespread acceptance of the message. Remember, the gospels make clear that jealousy was the driving passion behind their zeal to destroy Jesus, and here his grip on the crowds, which they thought they had broken forever, was being tightened again.


5,000 men. Here the term is the more specific term for males, so, apparently, we should add many more to reach the total number of Christians: men, women, and children. The standard estimate of the population of Jerusalem at this time is between 25,000 and 30,000, though some have argued that it was much higher. But, the population of the city swelled by several times its usual size at the pilgrimage feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles). As we already read in 2:9-11, Jews came from everywhere for these feasts.


But, whatever the population, this 10-15,000 (counting women and children) was a very large number. And to have numbers these size becoming Christians after they thought to have eradicated the sect forever must have been particularly galling.


v.6

These are "the rulers" of v. 5, the men who held the high positions in the temple administration. Some of these names are known to us from both biblical and Jewish and Roman sources and some are not. This furnishes a powerful reminder, of course, that the greatest enemies of the Church and the Gospel have usually been Christian ministers!


v.9

Peter begins skillfully by reminding them that what they are talking about was an act of compassion performed for a needy person.


v.11

Peter applies his text by adding the "you" before builders (Ps. 118:22 reads simply "the builders.")


v.12

I’m going to return, Lord willing, to this text next Lord’s Day evening, because it is such a crucial brick in the foundation of the theology of Acts and of Christianity.


v.13

"courage," lit. "boldness" [parrasian]. The source of this boldness is, of course, the present Holy Spirit, but 4:29-31 show us that it was given to the Apostles through prayer. The Puritan, John Flavel, writes: "Prayer begets and maintains holy courage and magnanimity in evil times. When all things about you tend to discouragement, it is your being with Jesus that makes you bold, Acts 4:13. He that uses to be before a great God will not be afraid to look such little things as men in the face." [In Murray, Lloyd-Jones, vol. 2, 764.]


Perhaps the Jewish leaders were remembering how difficult it had been to win an argument with Jesus.


v.15

How did Luke know what went on behind closed doors? Well, 6:7 gives us some idea: many priests eventually converted. There may already have been believers among this group, as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:42) mentioned in the Gospels.


v.18

Given the circumstances, there was probably little more they could have done anyway.


v.21

The envious are always hostage to public opinion. If you are seeking to win or preserve the loyalty of the crowds, you must undermine your competition in a way that does not reflect badly on yourself! Every politician’s problem!


Now, tonight, I want to consider this text in its entirety as a powerful illustration of the power of unbelief, of the defiant unwillingness to believe the Word of God and to see the hand of God which rules the heart of the unsaved.


We are, of course, in a sense too familiar with this history and so the scene we have had described to us does not astonish us as it might were we to read it for the first time.




  1. They do not, they cannot deny that a miracle had taken place (vv. 7,14,16-17,21-22).



  2. But they remain utterly oblivious to the significance of this fact — their only concern being a potential loss of influence and popularity with the people.


Here is sin in its full ugliness as what it is at root — the love and worship of oneself to the exclusion of others. These men would have been quite content to see this crippled man remain a cripple for the rest of his life rather than to have the credit for his healing go to Jesus Christ. Their entire course of action is dictated by their hatred of Jesus Christ, as someone likely to usurp their place — never admitted, but always at work. Augustine argued that the basic, the essential nature of sin was superbia or pride. That is what is at work here and very powerfully, blinding them to the logic of this miracle.


Their reaction is very much the same as the reaction of these same men to the resurrection of Lazarus. And we remember that the one thing our Lord never showed in the face of this obduracy, this refusal to believe even in the teeth of miracles, is surprise.


The rehabilitation of Jesus Christ in the minds of the people would, of course, put their part in his death in the worst conceivable light; it would reflect very badly on them. And so, the truth be damned, this preaching had to stop!


Now, this is fundamental to any understanding of the history of Acts, of the story of the Church in the ages since, or of the Christian faith. Men do not naturally believe the Gospel or acknowledge Jesus as Lord. They are by nature enemies of both.


Far from this astonishing healing producing faith and conviction in the minds and hearts of the Jews, it only served to make them the more determined to silence the Christians, just as Jesus’ miracles had inflamed opinion against him among the leadership of the people.


Why is that? Do not most people believe that they would quickly and readily change their opinions if someone gave them direct evidence that they were false? Is that not what we all want to believe about ourselves: that we are open-minded, teachable, ready to be persuaded of anything if only the evidence is forthcoming.


But, of course, that is not the way we are, or the way mankind is at all.


You have heard, I’m sure, of the man who thought he was dead. His concerned wife and friends sent him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, determined to cure him of his delusion, set out to convince him of one fact that would absolutely disprove his belief that he was dead. The doctor decided to use the simple truth that dead men do not bleed. He put his patient to work reading medical texts, observing autopsies, etc. He told the man that he wanted him to be sure that it was true that dead men do not bleed. After weeks of this the man capitulated. "All right, all right," he said, "enough is enough. You’ve convinced me. Dead men do not bleed!" Immediately the psychiatrist stuck the man in the arm with a needle and the blood flowed. The man looked down at his bleeding arm with ashen face and cried, "Good Lord! Dead men bleed after all!" [In Pinnock, Set Forth your Case, p. 87]


[As an aside, it is a sad irony that I took that illustration from a book by Clark Pinnock, written some years ago, during his "early" period, when he was a devoted follower of Francis Schaeffer and a Calvinist in theology. (He took the illustration, it should be said, from John Warwick Montgomery.) But, I doubt very much that Pinnock would use the same illustration today or would believe to be true what I am saying about human unbelief today — its invincibility. He no longer believes in sovereign grace or that, according to 4:12, one has to be a Christian to be saved. He too is unwilling to believe what he does not want to believe, just like the man in his story.]


But the point of the little parable is clear enough: If a person holds unsound presuppositions with sufficient tenacity, facts will make no difference at all. They will be able to create a reality of their own, separate from and untouched by, the truth.


But what would lead a man to do this? To prefer an irreal world to the real, and falsehood to the truth? People do it all the time, in large ways and small, but why? Well, because the truth is not to their liking — so they kill it, they think it away.


And no age has seen this done on a grander scale than the twentieth century, where people have been willing to believe anything, however absurd, than to believe the truth that threatens their own self-centered worldview and on a scale the vastness of which is unprecedented in human history. [Evolution (the absurdity of it reaches so very few); relativism (the inconsistency of this view bothers so very few); and in the spiritual world, universalism and other forms of religious sentimentality in which reality is refashioned to suit human tastes.] But why should a man prefer such views to the truth?


Ah, there’s the rub. Because he hates God and, since God is the God of truth, he has no choice but to hate the truth as well.


Jonathan Edwards has a powerful sermon entitled, "Men naturally God’s Enemies." In that sermon he argues that men are enemies of God in what he calls "the natural relish of their souls." They have, that is, an inbred distaste and disrelish of God’s perfections. God is not a God they would have; they do not like him; they fear him and want to have nothing to do with him. They hear that the true God is an infinitely holy, pure, and righteous Being, but this does not make him attractive to them.


He is omniscient, but they don’t like that, because they don’t want a holy God to know everything about them. He is omnipotent, but that is not good news to them for they do not wish to be subject to a holy God. He is unchangeable, but that does not please them, but that means he will always be as holy as he now is, he will never tire of condemning their sinful lives.


And it is the same with Jesus Christ [II, 139]. "They see nothing in Christ [that] they should desire him; nor beauty nor comeliness to draw their hearts to him. And they are not willing to take Christ as he is, and as he is offered to them in the gospel, and they are not willing to accept of Christ; for in doing so, they must of necessity part with all their sins; they must sell the world, and part with their own righteousness. But they had rather, for the present, run the venture of going to hell, than do that."


Well, that is what you see here. It isn’t Peter and John that the Jews are rejecting and it isn’t that they hated the crippled man — they hardly had given him a thought before this. What all of this demonstrated, however, –the miracle, the powerful preaching, the response of the crowds — in that way that the human soul instinctively recognizes — made in God’s image as it is, with a capacity to know God such as it has — was the presence of the living God. That is why they had to mount all conceivable effort against this movement, the facts be damned.


And this same determination in unbelief can be seen everywhere we look, both in history and the present.


In Michael Behe’s wonderful and very important book, Darwin’s Black Box, we are given many illustrations of the fact that the commitment to evolution on the part of many in our day is a matter of religious devotion having much less to do with so-called scientific evidence than it does an inflexible unwillingness to consider the contrary, a personal God who made the heavens and the earth, and you and me as well.


He quotes, for example, Robert Shapiro, Prof. of Chemistry at NYU and the author of the book, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. Shapiro — who does not hesitate in his book to skewer the evolutionary establishment for the faulty arguments they use to prop up their theory, nevertheless writes:


Some future day may yet arrive when all reasonable chemical experiments run to discover a probable origin for life have failed unequivocally. Further, new geological evidence may indicate a sudden appearance of life on the earth. Finally, we may have explored the universe and found no trace of life, or process leading to life, elsewhere. In such a case, some scientists might choose to turn to religion for an answer. Others, however, myself included, would attempt to sort out the surviving less probable scientific explanations in the hope of selecting one that was still more likely than the remainder. [Behe, 234]


In other words, I will never believe in a Creator! You can’t make me! Why does a man think in such a way, except he is as the Bible describes him, an enemy of God. Now, not all unbelievers are evolutionists, some are very religious as were these Jews. Defiant unbelief can take many forms, but characteristic is this hostility to any idea that commends, that justifies, that demonstrates the true and living God and his glory in the world.


In a recent book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, philosopher Daniel Dennet compares religious believers (90% of the population and a high percentage of practicing scientists) to wild animals that may need to be caged at some future point and he suggests that parents should be prevented (presumably by coercion) from misinforming their children about the truth of evolution. [Behe, 250]


What is this except exactly that state of mind the Pharisees and Sadducees exhibited here in Acts 4. Shut these people up!


Now, the point is, this should not surprise us at all! We should only be surprised if we do not find this to be true in the life of mankind. What we see in Acts 4 is the natural and inevitable state of affairs in this world. This is what unbelievers do, what they have always done, what they will always do. We should understand that. What is more, we would refuse to believe ourselves in just this same irrational way were it not for the grace and power of God at work in us. It would be the denial of our faith and of the grace of God to us for us to whine about this unbelief on the part of men, to wring our hands in despairing frustration, or to show anger to those who will not receive our message. Of course, they do not receive it. They are enemies of God, just as we were.


The Bible describes men as overtly hostile to the living and holy God and determined to read him out of their reality. They have always sought to do this. You and I still do it every day, even though we are Christians, so deeply is this tendency the nature of our sinfulness.


As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain [p. 75]:


From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it. This sin…is the fall in every individual life, and in each day of each individual life, the basic sin behind all particular sins: at this very moment you and I are either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it. We try, when we wake, to lay the new day at God’s feet; before we have finished shaving, it becomes our day and God’s share in it is felt as a tribute which we must pay out of "our own" pocket, a deduction from the time we ought, we feel, to be "our own."


No wonder that an unbeliever, with no principle of love for God and understanding of sin and redemption to check this tendency, is given over to it entirely, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. This is the nature of the inner life and thinking of unbelievers everywhere. This is what we are to understand about them. It ought to evoke not hatred for them in us but sympathy and understanding. Of course they believe in evolution or some other theory that puts God in his place. They must, sinners and rebels that they are. Our task is not to scream our anger at them for it, but to do what Peter and John did, boldly but respectfully and sympathetically to explain why we cannot agree with them, in hopes that God will use that witness to change their hearts. For, you see, that is what all of this means. If human beings will not believe because they don’t want to believe, then their only hope is that their wants should change. And that is what regeneration, the new birth, the new creation is — a revolution in the way a person conceives of God, now no longer an enemy, but a friend and savior and father. Then, all becomes suddenly clear as it would later for some of these very priests who condemned Peter and John.


Pascal once wrote: "The heart has its reasons that reason does not know… What a vast distance there is between knowing God and loving Him… Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine things must be loved to be known."


And this was Edwards’ point in his great sermon. It is grace alone that can change the loves and the desires of a human heart, that can break that natural bondage to the hatred of God that keeps people everywhere from believing in the gospel, from reckoning with the evidence of their own eyes and their own consciences.


Edwards finished his sermon, characteristically, with a concluding section entitled "Practical Improvement," ‘improvement’ being used there in the older sense of "application." And he drew two applications from the fact that all men are enemies of God by nature, hostile to God as Paul says, and that their unbelief and disobedience is the inevitable result of that hatred.


First, said Edwards, "we may learn how wonderful is the love that is manifested to us giving Christ to die for us. For this is love to enemies."


Second, "If we are all naturally God’s enemies, hence we may learn what a spirit it becomes us as Christians to possess towards our enemies. Seeing we depend so much on God’s forgiving us, though enemies, we should exercise a spirit of forgiveness towards our enemies."


The early Christians seemed very much to have concluded the same things from this fact of man’s natural enmity or hatred toward God. To love God for his love to them and to love others as they had themselves been loved — in defiance of their own hatred. And if you and I would just learn those two lessons and practice those two parts of our Christian faith, well, we might turn the world upside down just like they did!