Boldness in the Book of Acts

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by Shane Scott

The book of Acts begins and ends with bold proclamation of the gospel. Though our translations often obscure this, the word translated “boldness” elsewhere in Acts is the same word Peter uses in his sermon at Pentecost: “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried” (2:29; the old Geneva Bible renders it, “I may boldely speake unto you”). And at the end of Acts, Paul is in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).

This term had a special connotation in the first century. It “described the right of citizens to say anything in the public assembly, openness to truth, and the courage of openness or candour” (David G. Peterson,  The Acts of the Apostles p. 194). In our culture we cherish a similar right to freedom of speech. The reason such rights are protected is because speaking so freely is not always popular. But it was a hallmark of the preaching of the apostles. 

The fourth chapter of Acts gives us an account that features the boldness of the apostles.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished (4:13).

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness (4:29).

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (4:31).

What made the apostle so bold? How can we follow their example of boldness?

In the first place, we preach a message that inspires boldness.  The account in Acts 4 is triggered by the effort of the apostles to proclaim “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (4:3). This message, combined with the miraculous healing of a man who had been born lame, “greatly annoyed” the Sadducees (who of course did not believe in the resurrection at all, much less that Jesus was raised). But Peter and the apostles were undeterred.

“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:8-12).

Peter and the apostles were witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. They were recipients of the Spirit and enabled through that Spirit to perform miracles in the name of Jesus. And they were now following Jesus’ example in their ministry just as they had followed him personally during his ministry. The resemblance was striking even to the Jewish rulers, who saw the boldness of these men who were untrained in the rabbinical schools (just like Jesus, John 7:15).

This is what fired the passion of the apostles. They were convicted about their message, and that conviction inspired boldness. The same message should motivate us to speak with boldness. The historical bedrock of the resurrection of Jesus and the living presence of God in our lives should prompt us to share the gospel with determined courage.

And such courage is needed because we face opposition that requires boldness. At this point of the narrative, the early Christians are still very popular among the people generally (4:21). But they face increasing scrutiny from the Jewish ruling class, which will eventually turn into widespread hostility culminating in the murder of Stephen. Speaking openly and freely about the gospel carried risks, risks the apostles were willing to take.

So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18b-20).

There are places in the world today where openly preaching Christ can lead to arrest, imprisonment, or even death. Here in America, we do not face that kind of violent government resistance, but we do live in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward those who profess the Lordship of Christ. We need boldness to face this opposition with cheerful courage.

But we don’t have to face it alone. We serve a God who desires boldness. When the Christians in Jerusalem heard about the release of the apostles, they prayed in gratitude for God’s deliverance and in supplication for God’s encouragement.

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus (Acts 4:29-30).

And because God desires boldness, he answered their prayer:

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

You and I have serve the same God and preach the same message. We can call upon him just as Paul requested the Ephesians to pray for him, “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). We may not always feel up to the task (just as Peter and the other apostles didn’t). But God is always up to the challenge, and that it why we can do our duty with conviction and determination.

I’ve often heard sermons that call attention to patterns in the Book of Acts, such as the pattern in the accounts of conversion, or the pattern of the work done by the churches in Acts. But I have never heard a sermon about this pattern of boldness. To paraphrase something Jesus once said, this we should do without leaving the other undone.