[4:1-22]. Effects of Peter’s second preaching.
The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection irreparably delegitimized the ruling class and could create great confusion, so they began to take the first precautions, by arresting and putting Peter and John in prison, and subsequently there was a meeting of all the Jewish leaders to decide what to do.
It is interesting how the events follow a similar pattern to that which occurred for John the Baptist and for Jesus, who began with a preaching that gathered popular favour (Mt 3:5; Luke 21:45-46; Acts 2:47), but not that of the leaders, who understandably wanted to keep the old system they had developed, thus opposing the new course. In order not to antagonize the people, however, they did not oppose in a decisive way, showing an uncommon calmness and a wait-and-see tactic: they hoped that the new movement would deflate itself, while in the meantime, studying the situation to see if there was any favourable opportunity to exploit.
In the case of John the Baptist, Herod had managed to eliminate him (Mt 21:24-27), with leaders who had even tried to be considered as his disciples (Mt 3:7-9)! With Jesus, on the other hand, seeing time was playing against them, they discussed the danger presented by Rome, not being concerned with retaining their role but with saving the people (Jn 11:47-50).
Similarly with the apostles, seeing the popular favour, the Jewish leaders used a wait-and-see tactic and proceeded very carefully. After two brief arrests without particular consequences, the apostles were released precisely because of popular favour (Acts 4:21; 5:26). The occasion to solve the problem would be given to the leaders by some Jews who did not agree with Stephen, leading him before the Sanhedrin with false accusations, whereby they first cut everyone off from him (6:11-14), and then stoned him (7:57-58). The leaders did not miss the favourable opportunity, unleashing a persecution upon the whole Church, which drove believers away from Jerusalem (8:1).
Having neutralized John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles, the leaders again became unchallenged masters of Jerusalem, but then the messianic expectations of those who rejected Jesus made the movement of the zealots flourish, and it came to pass that they, who also departed from that same Galilee from which Jesus departed, thought they might openly defy Rome, which brought the Jewish people to their greatest catastrophe.
It is interesting that the leaders asked Peter and John: «With what power or in whose name have you done this?» (v. 7). A sentence of their answer remains engraved: «Judge whether it is right, before God, to obey you rather than God» (v. 19). The apostles declared that they had acted «in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene», adding that «there is no other name under heaven that has been given to men, through which we must be saved» (vv. 10-12). Also, in other parts of Acts the “name” of Jesus is exalted (3:6; 9:15; 16:18; 19:17; 21:13) and this brings Jesus closer to YHWH, whose “name” in the Bible is undoubtedly central (e.g. Ps 20:1; 54:1; Mt 6:9). The apostles, in short, avoid explicitly explaining the divinity of Jesus, which, however, is here and there veiledly implicit.
We are told here that Peter and John were «uneducated people» (v. 13), while we saw earlier that they were also without money (3:6): how many of us think that, in these conditions, one can do nothing? Peter and John, on the other hand, are unstoppable: «We cannot but speak of the things which we have seen and heard» (v. 20). Sometimes we think we should talk more, but perhaps we need to see more of the power of God and listen to him more.
[4:23-31]. The prayer reaction of the Church.
The prayers of 1:24 and 7:59-60, as we have mentioned, appear to be addressed to Jesus, while here it is clear that “Lord” refers to the Father, because Jesus is referred to as «His Christ» (v. 26) and His “holy servant” (vv. 27 and 30). Of course, the title of “servant” does not make us think of a Son, but here it is combined with “holy”, which undoubtedly associates him with God. In the light of other biblical passages, however, the contrast between Jesus as a servant and Jesus as the Son of God is only apparent. For Jesus placed himself among men «as one who serves» (Luke 22:27), but that certainly did not mean that he was inferior. On the other hand, while he was washing the apostles’ feet, he reiterated that he was «the Master and the Lord» (Jn 13:14). But It is a verse in Malachi that does the most for us (3:17), because it shows that a true son is one who serves the Father.
We would think that the apostles, being threatened, would pray for themselves, instead they asked God to grant them to continue to preach the Gospel in freedom (v. 29), even if this would still have exposed them to persecution. God liked that prayer, to the point of manifesting it with a small earthquake and filling all with the Holy Spirit (v. 31).
In v. 27 there is a description to note: «Against your holy servant Jesus, whom you have anointed, Herod and Pontius Pilate gathered together, together with the nations and with all the people of Israel». For the crucifixion of Jesus, some give all the blame to the “treacherous Jews” and so they forget their own betrayal. This verse shows us how hostility towards Jesus also involved «the nations» (that is, we) and the pagan authorities. Moreover, Luke himself, in his Gospel, had already pointed out that this hostility to Jesus could become a “unifying element”: in fact, Herod covered Jesus with ridicule, sending him back to Pilate, and it was precisely this complicity that made these two rulers pass from enemies to friends! (Luke 23:12). Anti-Christianism has unfortunately been also elsewhere, and in other times, a common glue.
Jesus asked Saul, «Why do you persecute me?» (Acts 9:4). If persecuting and killing Christians is equivalent to persecuting and killing Christ, in how many nations in the world have the followers of Jesus never been persecuted at least to the same extent as in Jerusalem?
[4:32-35]. «Everything was in common among them».
For this “communism” of Christians we refer to the notes on 2:44-45.
[4:36-37]. The first “casual” mention to Barnabas.
In these two verses it is told how a certain Barnabas also did what many others did, that is, he sold a field and gave the proceeds to the apostles. This positive example emphasizes the negative one of Ananias and Sapphira, reported soon after, but it was not necessary to mention the name of Barnabas, nor to describe any of his characteristics. The fact that the immediate context does not require certain clarifications, however, leads us to think that there are other objectives, as will become very clear afterwards.
In short, with these two verses on Barnabas, the “filigree design” to which we have alluded begins to emerge and which we will now begin to describe. To grasp the details, however, one needs to have an idea of the landscape in which they fit and free oneself from certain prejudices that prevent understanding. The questions to be raised are very complex and we certainly cannot deal with them in detail here, but it is essential to mention a few of them, which we are going to do with three specific Further Insights.
Further Insight n. 1
SUBJECTIVITY OF HISTORY
The modern rationalist and scientist pride, with the self-elevation of historians, has spread the idea that History can be “objective”, to the point of calling it “historical science” and thus give the impression that History is on the same level as Physics or Chemistry. One can argue whether it is appropriate to call historical research “science”, but there is no doubt that – if it is science – it is not an “exact science” like Physics, therefore the use of the same term (science) for two different realities creates confusion and perhaps it is precisely the ambiguity that is wanted, so as to pass along a principle of “historical objectivity” that is absolutely unsustainable on the logical level. This is demonstrated by the two verses of Luke concerning Barnabas: many were those who sold their properties and shared the proceeds, so why then mention only Barnabas and dwell on him?
Every newspaper editor finds himself with a much greater amount of news than those that can enter the pages he has available; the first inevitable subjectivity is to choose which news to publish. Then there is to decide how much space to give to each, where to place it, the title to give it and the frame in which to insert it. This is why two newspapers, although reporting both the facts of the previous day, can also be very different from each other, showing with all evidence how to tell the facts is an inseparable mixture of objective elements and subjective assumptions.
Exploration n. 2
THE “PAULINE” POINT OF VIEW OF LUKE
The fact that the Bible writers are inspired by the Holy Spirit does not erase their human dimension: to appreciate this, it is enough to compare the various prophets (for example, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah), but also the Gospel of Matthew with that of John. God obviously chose Luke to tell the story of the Church’s beginnings, inserting it in the New Testament, but this does not alter the fact that Luke writes from a precise point of view, which is that of Paul, of whom he seems to have been the most intimate collaborator in the last period; this can be deduced from the fact that he was the only one left at his side, when he was about to suffer martyrdom in Rome (2 Tim 4:11).
Luke entered Paul’s circle quite late, for it is from Acts 16:10 that he begins to use the “we”, but he remained with Paul during the adventurous journey to Rome and the next two years of “house arrest” (Chap. 27-28). Luke therefore had all the time necessary to retrace with the apostle the meaning of the work of God in general and in particular the part entrusted to Paul thereof.
While today we speak of “Peter and Paul”, placing them on the same level, in the context of the New Testament the emergence of Paul was late and antagonised: late because Paul entered the Church when it was already well under way (Chap. 9); antagonised because at the beginning the evangelist-apostle’s gift could not be deployed, to the point that he was sent home by the Twelve (9:26-30), coming into play only later in the shadow of Barnabas (11:25-26). In short, the clear revelation of the task entrusted by God to Paul takes place only after his first missionary journey, for which Barnabas was primarily responsible (Chap. 13-14). Even after he had manifested the great abilities given him by God, however, he had to stand alone against Peter, Barnabas and all the others (Gal 2:11-14), receiving full legitimacy only when Peter, in the end, realised that Paul was like one of the ancient prophets, testifying it in writing to all (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Paul was not part of the Twelve Apostles, publicly chosen and commissioned by Jesus, who therefore had an undoubted function of direction; he therefore repeatedly had the need to defend the work entrusted to him by God and to justify his function as an apostle (Gal 1:11-12; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:8-10; 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11). He had a great desire to preach in Rome and had been preceded by his own substantial letter summarising his teaching, but if his authority had been challenged by a church at Corinth which he had given birth to and instructed (Acts 17:9-11; 1 Cor 4:18; 2 Cor 10:10), how much more could it be from those of Rome. Here, then, is a sub-trace of the book of Acts: making it clear to those of Rome who that prisoner with a mild appearance (1Cor 2:3; 2Cor 10:1) really was, to whom God had given the task of continuing the work begun by Peter and the Twelve.
For us all this is clear and a precondition for future comments. We only ask those who read to take note of it as a thesis to be verified and wait till the end to judge its validity.
Exploration n. 3
INTRODUCTION TO THE IMPORTANCE OF BARNABAS
Barnabas’ statement in Acts 4:36-37 seems to have almost been placed there by chance, and we only talk of him again after almost five chapters, in another more significant, but not in itself decisive, passage, which shows how Barnabas immediately accepted and understood the value of Saul/Paul (9:27). These first two hints will be very important when Barnabas fully enters into action (11:22) and assumes the function of carrying forward God’s strategic plan for a while.
The differences between Peter and Paul were many, starting with age: when Peter was already married (Mt 8:14), Saul was still a little boy (Acts 7:58); while Peter was aware that he was lacking before God (Luke 5:8), Saul was striving to observe the law of Moses in the most rigid manner, to be blameless (Acts 26:5; Phil 3:6); while Peter was one of the people (Mt 4:18; Acts 4:13), Saul was accustomed to high-level meetings, being at ease with both the high priest, with the Greek cultural environment and with the Roman political one (Acts 9:1-2; 17:18-20; 25:9-12). God took into account the differences between Peter and Paul, assigning them two distinct fields of action (Gal.:7-9), but in the end they came together in full harmony (as we shall see attested by Acts).
Barnabas’ overall function was to act as a bridge between Saul and Peter. The first attempt failed (Acts 9:27-30), but he prepared the insertion of Saul into the church of Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). The examination of the validity of the experience in Antioch, which was the first church of uncircumcised, occurred during the meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), in which it will be more Barnabas than Saul (as we shall see) to interact with Peter and James, in order to find an agreement that recognised the legitimacy of the new church, as well as the way of evangelising put in place by Barnabas and Paul.
Let us now analyse some details – seemingly random – that Luke introduces in his first quick presentation of Barnabas (4:36-37). First of all, one wonders why Barnabas is mentioned so soon, as his role will be highlighted much later. The probable reason is that, in nascent movements, “seniority gives rank”, so the entry of Barnabas at that point qualifies him as one of “the first hour”.
«Nicknamed by the apostles Barnabas (which translated means: Son of encouragement» (4:36a). If the nickname with which he was called had been given to him by the apostles, it meant that he was their trusted collaborator (it therefore indicated the position of Barnabas). The function was instead clarified by the meaning of that nickname, which indicated a particular ability to be close to people, welcoming them and encouraging them: just what Barnabas would do with Saul.
«Levite, Cypriot by birth» (4:36b). The Levites were the helpers of the priests in the service of the Temple (Num 3:5-13). Being many, they were on duty according to particular shifts and therefore they could also live far from Jerusalem. As a Levite, Barnabas presumably knew better than others the law of Moses but having grown up in Cyprus (that is in the Greek area) he also knew well the world outside of Judaism, finding himself inevitably in the need to harmonise the two ways of living and thinking. A mixture not coincidentally similar to that of Saul, born in a Greek-speaking city (Tarsus of Cilicia, Acts 21:39) and a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29), but educated in strict observance of the law of Moses (Acts 22:3).
«Having a field, he sold it, and gave it up, and laid it at the apostles’ feet» (4:37). Not only had Barnabas entered the Church early, but he had done so in the best way possible.
All of this does not in itself have great relevance, but for Barnabas it constitutes a basis for subsequently playing that crucial role that we’ll see later on.