In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and brought before the high priest and some of his associates. In the previous two chapters Luke has described the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and just after that time. He and the twelve seem to have gone regularly to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus to groups of religiously minded Jews who were also in the Temple for prayer and worship.
In both cases God does a miracle which demonstrates that the messianic age has begun (the descent of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man), and in both cases Peter’s sermon is based solidly on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. Both sermons show that Jesus was the messiah, and that while he was crucified in ignorance, that ignorance will no longer be overlooked, judgment is coming. In each case they have great success with thousands of people believing that Jesus is the messiah and that he will return soon to establish his kingdom. As Ben Witherington comments, it is in this chapter that we “see the beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people.” (Acts, 189).
Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit as he addressed the meeting. That Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit is an indication that Luke sees this speech in the tradition of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Luke is presenting Peter as giving a prophetic speech like Isaiah or Jeremiah, directly to the leadership of the Jewish people, calling even the High Priest to repent of the sin of killing the Messiah.
The words which follow are therefore a prophetic speech of condemnation, which amazes the listeners. But it is not Peter’s skills as an orator which is important, but that the words come through the Holy Spirit. In fact, Luke uses this phrase in a number of places in his gospel and in Acts before a prophetic speech.* In each case, the target of the speech is Jewish; 9:17 refers to Paul receiving the Spirit, 11:24 refers to Barnabas as a man “full of the Spirit.”
Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not. If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God. The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God. If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem: Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!
The last line of his defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ. There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life. If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.
There is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism. The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation. If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.
Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple. Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!
*See Luke 1:15, 1:41, 1:67; 4:1, Acts 2:4, 4:31, 6:3-5, 7:55, 9:17, 11:24, and 13:9.