Opposition and disagreement to the apostles’ preaching was always there, but it was not always expressed. At the conclusion of Peter’s second recorded sermon that opposition quickly rose to the surface.
The historian records, “And as they spoke unto the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came up them, being sore troubled that they taught the people and proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in ward unto the morrow, for it was now eventide” (Acts 4:1-3).
It had been a long day for the apostles. They had gone to the temple at the ninth hour of the day (3:00 p.m.) and now it was dark. They had spent 3-5 hours in the events recorded in Acts 3 as they healed the lame beggar and preached to the people. Such a large gathering could scarcely have gone unnoticed. The preaching of the men in Solomon’s porch not only captured the attention of the temple officials, it caused their anger and resentment to rise to expression.
The record says the officials were troubled because the apostles taught the people and proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. The ire of these officials could have been because the temple was “their territory” and they resented others teaching there. Jesus taught in the temple and was asked, “By what authority do you do these things and who gave you that authority?” (Matthew 21:23). But were these authorities angry because Jesus taught or because He had driven out those who had made the temple a “house of merchandise” and a “den of robbers” (John 2:16; Matthew 21:13)? It could have been both with Jesus and it could have been the same with the preaching of Peter and John. One thing is certain. These were Sadducees, so they did not believe in the resurrection. They resented men teaching contrary to their doctrine. They would not have approved the apostles teaching “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead”. We will see later that they resented the apostles’ teaching that they were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 5:28). Whatever their motive, they “laid their hands upon them and put them in ward” (Acts 4:3).
From the circumstances in which the expression says, “they laid hands on them”, it is clear what that expression means in that passage: the apostles were arrested. And this shows the importance, always, of considering the setting in which a word or phrase is found, for in some instances a word or phrase may have an entirely different meaning than it does in another passage. It certainly does with this expression: “lay hands on”.
“To arrest” is not the meaning of “laid hands on” in Mark 16:18. There Mark said the apostles would lay hands on the sick and they would recover. In Acts 8:17 Luke tells us that Peter and John laid hands on recent Samaritan converts of Philip and they were given the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17-18). The same meaning is found in Acts 19:6 when Paul laid hands on about a dozen men in Ephesus. “To arrest” is not the meaning in these latter two passages. When the church had chosen seven men to minister to the needs of the widows, they “laid their hands on them”: they set them apart to a special work (Acts 6:6) just as certain brethren set Barnabas and Paul apart to a special work when they laid hands on these two men in Acts 13:2-3). Again, “laid hands on” doesn’t mean “to arrest” in this latter two verses. All of these distinctive, different acts or works, described by the same phrase “laid hands on”, teach us we must always consider the setting in which a word or phrase is found to get the real significance of what the narrative is saying.
Paul and John were arrested — for preaching a message they knew to be true. The punishment meted out to them on this occasion was light in comparison with what they would receive later on. At this time they were merely warned and commanded not to teach in the name of Jesus any more (Acts 4:17, 21). However, as opposition intensified, the punishment would become more and more hurtful, growing in severity to the point that they would be put to death for the message they preached. This was the fate of James, the brother of John (Acts 12:1-2). Jesus prepared these men for the misfortunes that would affect them, but He assured them their heavenly reward would far outweigh the suffering they would experience in this present life (Matthew 10:17-22).
While the apostles were spending a night in jail for preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the proclamation of their message had borne fruit: “But many of them that heard the word believed and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). Preach the Word!