(1) The priests, and the captain of the temple.—For the first time in this book, we come across the chief agents in the condemnation passed on our Lord by the Sanhedrin. A few weeks or months had gone by, and they were congratulating themselves on having followed the advice of Caiaphas (John 11:48). They knew that the body of Jesus had disappeared from the sepulchre, and they industriously circulated the report that the disciples had stolen it (Matthew 28:13-15). They must have heard something of the Day of Pentecost—though there is no evidence of their having been present as spectators or listeners—and of the growth of the new society. Now the two chief members of the company of those disciples were teaching publicly in the very portico of the Temple. What were they to do? The “captain of the Temple” (see Note on Luke 22:4) was the head of the band of Levite sentinels whose function it was to keep guard over the sacred precincts. He, as an inspector, made his round by night, visited all the gates, and roused the slumberers. His presence implied that the quiet order of the Temple was supposed to be endangered. In 2 Maccabees 3:4, however, we have a “captain,” or “governor of the Temple” of the tribe of Benjamin.
The Sadducees.—The higher members of the priesthood, Annas and Caiaphas, were themselves of this sect (Acts 5:17). They had already been foremost in urging the condemnation of Christ in the meetings of the Sanhedrin. The shame of having been put to silence by Him (Matthew 22:34) added vindictiveness to the counsels of a calculating policy. Now they found His disciples preaching the truth which they denied, and proclaiming it as attested by the resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the Acts the Sadducees are foremost as persecutors. The Pharisees temporise, like Gamaliel, or profess themselves believers. (Comp. Acts 5:34; Acts 15:5; Acts 23:7.)
Preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.—Literally, preached in Jesus—i.e., in this as the crucial instance in which the resurrection of the dead had been made manifest. (Comp. the close union of “Jesus and the resurrection” in Acts 17:18.)
Put them in hold.—Literally, in custody. In Acts 5:18, the word is translated “prison.” The old noun survives in our modern word “strong-hold.”
John.—This may have been the Johanan ben Zaccai, who is reported by Jewish writers to have been at the height of his fame forty years before the destruction of the Temple, and to have been President of the Great Synagogue after its removal to Jamnia. The identification is, at the best, uncertain; but the story told of his death-bed, in itself full of pathos, becomes, on this assumption, singularly interesting. His disciples asked him why he wept: “O light or Israel, . . . . whence these tears?” And he replied: “If I were going to appear before a king of flesh and blood, he is one who to-day is and to-morrow is in the grave; if he were wroth with me, his wrath is not eternal; if he were to cast me into chains, those chains are not for ever; if he slay me, that death is not eternal; I might soothe him with words or appease him with a gift. But they are about to bring me before the King of kings, the Lord, the Holy and Blessed One, who liveth and abideth for ever. And if He is wroth with me, His wrath is eternal; and if He bind, His bonds are eternal; if He slay, it is eternal death; and Him I cannot soothe with words or appease with gifts. And besides all this, there are before me two paths, one to Paradise and the other to Gehenna, and I know not in which they are about to lead me. How can I do aught else but weep?” (Bab-Beracoth, fol. 28, in Lightfoot: Cent.-Chorogr., Acts 15)
Alexander.—This name has been identified by many scholars with Alexander, the brother of Philo, the Alabarch, or magistrate of Alexandria (Jos. Ant. xviii. 8, § 1; xix. 5, § 1). There is, however, not the shadow of any evidence for the identification.
As many as were of the kindred of the high priest.—The same phrase is used by Josephus (Ant. xv. 3, § 1), and may mean either those who were personally related by ties of blood with the high priest for the time being, or the heads of the four-and-twenty courses of priests. (See Notes on Matthew 2:4; Luke 1:5.) All these had probably taken part in our Lord’s condemnation.
They asked.—Literally, were asking. They put the question repeatedly, in many varying forms.
By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?—Literally, By what kind of power, or what kind of name? apparently in a tone of contempt. They admit the fact that the lame man had been made to walk, as too patent to be denied. (Comp. Acts 4:16.) The question implied a suspicion that it was the effect of magic, or, as in the case of our Lord’s casting out devils, by the power of Beelzebub (Luke 11:15; John 8:48). There is a touch of scorn in the way in which they speak of the thing itself. They will not as yet call it a “sign,” or “wonder,” but “have ye done this?”
Of the good deed.—Strictly, the act of beneficence. There is a manifest emphasis on the word as contrasted with the contemptuous “this thing” of the question. It meets us again in 1 Timothy 6:2.
By what means he is made whole.—Better, this man. The pronoun assumes the presence of the man who had been made able to walk. (Comp. John 9:15.) The verb, as in our Lord’s words, “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Mark 10:52; Luke 7:50), has a pregnant, underlying meaning, suggesting the thought of a spiritual as well as bodily restoration.
Set at nought.—St. Peter does not quote the Psalm, but alludes to it with a free variation of language. The word for “set at nought” is characteristic of St. Luke (Luke 18:9; Luke 23:11) and St. Paul (Romans 14:3; Romans 14:10, et al.).
Given among men.—Better, that has been given. The words must be taken in the sense which Peter had learnt to attach to the thought of the Name as the symbol of personality and power. To those to whom it had been made known, and who had taken in all that it embodied, the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth was the one true source of deliverance and salvation. Speaking for himself and the rulers, Peter rightly says that it is the Name “whereby we must be saved.” Where it is not so known, it rises to its higher significance as the symbol of a divine energy; and so we may rightly say that the heathen who obtain salvation are saved by the Name of the Lord of whom they have never heard. (Comp. 1 Timothy 4:13.)
Unlearned and ignorant.—The first of the two words means, literally, unlettered. Looking to the special meaning of the “letters” or “Scriptures” of the Jews, from which the scribes took their name (grammateis, from grammata), it would convey, as used here the sense of “not having been educated as a scribe, not having studied the Law and other sacred writings.” It does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament. The second word means literally, a private person, one without special office or calling, or the culture which they imply: what in English might be called a “common man.” It appears again in 1 Corinthians 14:16; 1 Corinthians 14:23-24, with the same meaning. Its later history is curious enough to be worth noting. The Vulgate, instead of translating the Greek word, reproduced it, with scarcely an alteration, as idiota. It thus passed into modem European languages with the idea of ignorance and incapacity closely attached to it, and so acquired its later sense of “idiot.”
They took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.—Better, they began to recognise. The tense is in the imperfect, implying that one after another of the rulers began to remember the persons of the two Apostles as they had seen them with their Master in the Temple. These two, and these two alone, may have been seen by many of the Council on that early dawn of the day of the Crucifixion in the court-yard of the high priest’s palace (John 18:15).
A notable miracle.—Literally, sign.
We cannot deny it.—The very form of the sentence betrays the will, though there is not the power.
All that the chief priests.—The word is probably used in its more extended meaning, as including, not only Annas and Caiaphas, but the heads of the four-and-twenty courses (see Note on Matthew 2:4), and others who were members of the Sanhedrin.
Lord.—The Greek word is not the common one for Lord (Kyrios), but Despotes, the absolute Master of the Universe. It is a coincidence worth noting that, though but seldom used of God in the New Testament, it occurs again, as used by the two Apostles who take part in it, as in 2 Peter 2:1, and Revelation 6:10. (See Note on Luke 2:29.) In the Greek version of the Old Testament it is found applied to the Angel of Jehovah in Joshua 5:14, and to Jehovah Himself in Proverbs 29:25. The hymn has the special interest of being the earliest recorded utterance of the praises of the Christian Church. As such, it is significant that it begins, as so many of the Psalms begin, with setting forth the glory of God as the Creator, and rises from that to the higher redemptive work. More strict, “the heaven, the earth, and the sea,” each region of creation being contemplated in its distinctness.
Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine . . .?—Neither noun has the article in the Greek or in the Hebrew. Why did nations rage and peoples imagine . . .? The word for “rage” is primarily applied to animal ferocity, especially to that of untamed horses.
Against thy holy child Jesus.—Better, as before, Servant. (See Notes on Acts 3:13) The word is the same as that used of David in Acts 4:25.
Both Herod, and Pontius Pilate.—The narrative of Herod’s share in the proceedings connected with the Passion is, it will be remembered, found only in Luke 23:8-12. So far as the hymn here recorded may be considered as an independent evidence, the two present an undesigned coincidence.
With the Gentiles, and the people of Israel.—Even here the nouns are, in the Greek, without an article. The “peoples” (the Greek noun is plural) are rightly defined, looking to the use of the Hebrew word, as those of Israel.
Thy holy child Jesus.—Better, as before, Servant. (See Note on Acts 3:13.)
Great grace was upon them.—The words may stand parallel with Luke 2:40 as meaning that the grace of God was bestowed upon the disciples in full measure, or with Acts 2:47 as stating that the favour of the people towards them still continued. There are no sufficient data for deciding the question, and it must be left open. The English versions all give “grace,” as if accepting the highest meaning, as do most commentators.
Sold them, and brought the prices.—Both words imply continuous and repeated action. It is possible that besides the strong impulse of love, they were impressed, by their Lord’s warnings of wars and coming troubles, with the instability of earthly possessions. Landed property in Palestine was likely to be a source of anxiety rather than profit, As Jeremiah had shown his faith in the future restoration of his people by purchasing the field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6-15), so there was, in this sale of their estates, a proof of faith in the future desolation which their Master had foretold (Matthew 24:16-21).