Summary: A look at the nature and use of power in the early church and how it applies to a believer today
This week in the Arab states, there are ongoing struggles between the official government forces and those who want change. It is a struggle about power. It is a struggle about who has the power. It is a struggle about the legitimacy of those who would rule. At the bottom of the mess, there is the question, What is it that gives someone the right to rule? Is it that those who have the strength have the power? Or is it those who want a better life for all. We ourselves are no stranger politically to this struggle. This very week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has questioned the legitimacy of our own coalition government and the results of its policies. He has shone a light into the rushing dark of wholesale changes to the fabric of our society. And even his right to say these things has been challenged by the governing power. His concern for the effects of the changes on the disadvantaged has been ridiculed, even. It is all question of power, and who is qualified to use it. Let me suggest that it is the purpose to which the power is used that qualifies those who are to use it.
As Charles Colson writes in GOD & GOVERNMENT, nothing distinguishes the kingdoms of man from the kingdom of God more than their diametrically opposed views of the exercise of power. One seeks to control people; the other seeks to serve people. One promotes self; the other prostrates self. One seeks prestige and position; the other lifts up the lowly and despised. With great power comes great responsibility!
And when we join Peter and John in their trial before the Sanhedrin, we can clearly see this at work. Peter and John have been preaching the power of the resurrection in the temple, which was their right. They had also healed a crippled beggar at the temple through the power of the risen Jesus Christ. They were not officially qualified to teach and they certainly were not part of the ruling class. The Sanhedrin were the ruling body. They were controlled for the most part by the Sadduccees, a group of Jewish thought who denied that there was an afterlife. There were also the Pharisees who did believe in an afterlife. Paul would use this to divide his accusers, but that comes later. The power behind the Sanhedrin were the high priests family Caiaphus and Annas, along with Alexander and another John. We’ve met these before. They were the very ones who had decided to crucify Christ and crush those who would disturb their comfortable relationship with the Romans. And they get right to the question in verse 7
“By what power or what name did you do this?”
The English does not preserve the structure of the original language here. In the Greek it might read
“Where did the power come from that gave people like you the right to do this?”
People like you. Peter and john were not well lettered. They had no degree from the Theological University of Jerusalem. They were not Roman. They actually worked for a living. They did not belong to a professional organisation who backed them. They were, to all intents and purposes, unqualified amateurs. There is also the meaning of magic involved. By what name, by what incantation, by what spell did you do this healing? And this accusation craftily implies that Peter and John were involved in witchcraft, punishable by death. It is a legal minefield that Peter and John find themselves. While the Sanhedrin technically have no power to give a death sentence, mob rule could easily take the lives of such men. We know that Stephen will be stoned to death. It seems that Peter and john were up against the best learned minds. This Sanhedrin was well used to the practices of the court. The unfamiliar often intimidates. It can lead us into saying the wrong thing, damaging credibility, and this case a wrong word could lead to a conviction. Knowledge is power. The Sanhedrin had that. Force has power. The Sanhedrin had that too. Qualifications have power. The Sanhedrin were the most qualified.
And to this array of power, Peter stands, filled with the Holy spirit. Politely he addresses the earthly authority
Ruler and elders of the people; and then he presents his evidence, gift wrapped in purpose. The cripple has been healed, yes. But the act was an act of kindness. Such a subtle change in the circumstances. If the Sanhedrin were to imply witchcraft, Peter is implying that the Sanhedrin were not kind. Acts of kindness were, and still are valued, an important part of the practice of being a Jew, a practical qualification. If someone performs an act of kindness it has a power far beyond any other. And Jesus himself, when he talked about the judgement in Matthew 25, said that it would be those who performed those small acts of kindness who would qualify for the kingdom of heaven. The cup of cold water. The kindness to strangers. The visitation of the sick and imprisoned. And we begin to see the contrast between the kind of power that is used for good or not. We know the previous use of power by the Sanhedrin has been for the crucifixion of Christ, and Peter reminds them of this.