By Daniel H. King
When Peter and John stood before the Sanhedrin of the Jews in Acts the fourth chapter, the question directed to them by the esteemed court of seventy-one was the following: “By what power, or what name have ye done this?” Their question referred to the incident which had taken place at the Beautiful gate of the temple only the day before. A blind man had asked alms of them as they were about to go into the sacred precincts and was healed “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Peter and John had then taken the opportunity offered by the assembled multitude to instruct them in the gospel of Christ. The whole city must have been astir at the occurrence of so notable a miracle at so central a place. And, the significance of the occasion was such that the matter was brought before the high court of the Jewish nation to inquire as to the authority behind this thing which had aroused the masses. But you will notice from the context that the thing under question is not the miraculous healing which had been affected through them, although Peter and John wished to direct their attention to it and apparently succeeded in the effort. Verse two centers upon the real difficulty so far as the complainants are concerned: “the Sadducees came upon them, being sore troubled because they taught the people, and proclaimed in Jesus, the resurrection from the dead.” One versed in the doctrine of the Sadducees knows full well why these sectaries would have been up-at-arms about such teaching being done in the temple, e.g. Solomon’s portico (3:11). They traced their authority back to and were named after Zadok the priest who had served under David and Solomon (2 Sam. 20:25; 1 Kgs. 4:4). The temple was their realm. In addition, they were convinced that the Old Testament denied a future resurrection of the body, holding that the soul perishes with the body (cf. Acts 23:8). Yet Peter and John had. invaded their realm teaching the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead — diametrically opposing one of the basic tenets of their religious party. We should not wonder that they were “sore troubled.”
However, when the case was brought before the council, the question which they put to the defendants could not have been directed at the truth or falsity of the doctrine under consideration, i.e. the resurrection of the dead. The court was evenly divided between those who held to the Pharisaic belief in it and the Sadducean denial of it. Paul later capitalized on this inherent weakness of the assembly in order to force the Pharisees to take this side in the litigation following his arrest in the same city (Acts 23:1-10). Had this been the question at issue the same thing would have resulted as did in Paul’s case. Neither could it be a question as to the genuineness or veracity of the miracle. It was too obvious to allow room for debate, as they were willing to admit in private session: “For that indeed a notable miracle hath (been wrought through them, is manifest to all that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it” (4:16). Instead, the issue before the court had to be one touching the authority behind their actions of the previous day. Therefore, the question was asked, “By what power, or in what name, have ye done this?”
This question seems fairly simple. And it is. But what lies immediately behind the query and was in the mind of the questioners is the common practice among the Jews of basing one’s own views and opinions, as well as one’s consequent actions, upon the authoritative statements of famous teachers or Rabbis. Men who were trained at the feet of noted biblical exegetes came to be possessed of an authority which issued from their many years of studious reflection upon and explanation of the Bible. However, it went beyond all practical and logical boundaries. For in the course of time their words had become authoritative to the point that they were viewed as a second law in addition to the written commandments. In effect there co-existed in the minds of many Jews a written law (the law given by Moses) and an oral law (the law which was passed on from generation to generation via the renowned expositors of the biblical text). In cases where questions arose as to the exact meaning of a passage, their opinions were collated and passed on. In other instances, though, the question of whither a scripture meant what it said was raised and answered in the negative by some Rabbis. Thus, their opinions were raised in many cases to a level above the law of God. Jesus therefore condemned them for “making void the word of God because of . . . tradition” (Matt. 15:6).
To illustrate their practice let me quote from one of their collections of Rabbinic sayings called Pirqe Aboth or “Sayings of the Jewish Fathers.” This is a Mishnah tractate which has been used in the synagogues at certain seasons of the year as liturgical material, making even more obvious its place beside Scripture in the hearts and minds of the people. The sayings found in the book claim to date from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D. and most people who are “in the know” on such things tell us that there is no reason to doubt that it is genuine. If this is so, then we have in this collection many sayings that would have been circulating and would have been held to be “authoritative” by the very men who sat in judgment upon Peter and John. With this in mind, let us notice one such statement:
“Rebhan Jochanan ben Zakai received from Hiltel and from Shammai. He used to say, ‘If you have practiced the Law much, then do not claim merit for yourself, for thereunto were you created'” (2:9).
Comparable examples could be multiplied, but our point is amply illustrated in this single reference. You will note that in the quotation there is no reference of scripture cited or quoted, although scripture is alluded to. Indeed, this was as it was intended to be. That which is contained in the short saying is supposed to stand on the authority of the one who uttered it and the fact that he had “received from Hillel and Shammai,” two men of great renown in the realm of Jewish tradition. Neither of these men was inspired, but their sayings were accorded a weightiness that should only have been affixed to Biblical sayings. Moreover, they were granted this authority by the people who, ignoring their humanness and the possibility of error on their part, raised them to a level a notch above that of the common man. This is not to say that their knowledgeability was not a cut above the ordinary, there is no doubt whatever that it was. These men could have put any of us to shame by their years of incessant and dedicated memorization of Scripture. In the case of Jochanan ben Zakai, for example, his learning is described in the Mishnah tractate Baba Bathra 134a with the following laudatory remark: “at his death splendid learning ceased.” Even granting that his knowledge was immense, still it was wrong for the people to exalt him and those like him as they did. He was merely a man among men. He deserved to be heard as long as he spoke the words of God after Him. But when he or any other man presumed to speak for God when the Almighty had not imbued him with his Spirit, then he became guilty of the “great transgression,” that of presumptuousness (Ps. 19:13).
A further examination of the Rabbinic sources shows that students of the most able Jewish teachers later came to speak “in the name” of their masters. An instance appears in “The Sayings of the Fathers”:
“Rabbi Dosithaf, son of Rabbi Jannai, said in the name Rabbi Meir, ‘When a scholar of the wise sits and studies, and has forgotten a word of his Mishnah (oral tradition, they account it unto him as if he were guilty of death, for it is said, Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the words which thine eyes have seen’ (Deut. 4:9)” (3:12).
The meaning of this is explained later in the same book when Meir points out:
“The Law is acquired by forty-eight things . . . by Scripture, by Mishnah (oral tradition) . . . (he that) settles his heart to his study; asks and answers, hears and adds thereto; he that learns in order to teach, and that learns in order to practice; that makes his master wiser, and that considers what he has heard, and that tells a thing in the name of him that said it. Yes, you have learned that whoever tells a thing in the name of him that said it, brings redemption to the world, for it is said, ‘And Esther told it to the king in the name of Mordecai’ (Esther 2:22)” (6:6).
In the opinion of this esteemed Jewish teacher the Bible is only one thing in a list of forty-eight which will gain one an understanding in God’s will and satisfy his demands for obedience. To him the Rabbinic decisions and sayings rest on a par with Scripture. Further, repetition of the sayings of a Rabbi “in the name of him that said it, brings redemption into the world.” Can you imagine a system which could become so introverted as to express the idea of redemption in those terms? Probably you can, because the Roman Catholic church, with its “canon law” and “ex cathedra” decrees, has produced the same results. Likewise the other human ‘denominations with all of their humanly devised systems and humanly contrived creeds belong in the same category. And their attempts at scriptural undergirding for their doctrines and practices are no more worthy of comment than the citation of Esther 2:2 above, an obvious case of “eisegesis” or “reading into” the Bible. As in the ancient Jewish community, they have the Bible in their hands and in their heads-but not in their hearts.
But now, back to Acts four (I have not forgotten after all). When Peter and John were asked the question, “By what power, or in what name, have ye done this?”, all of the above freight was loaded into the question. The Jewish leaders who were interrogating them had been steeped in this kind of thinking since their youth. In whose name had they taught this doctrine in the temple? Who was their teacher and what gave him the right to be their teacher? Did he possess the right credentials? Was he a man grounded in the oral as well as the written tradition of the Jews? If so, then what was his name? Surely they had heard it often before? Yes, they had heard it before, but hoped not to hear it again; they had put him to death to silence his caustic condemnations of their hypocrisy and presumption. Unabashedly the Holy Spirit answered the inquiry through Peter: “Ye rulers of the people, and elders, if we this day are examined concerning a good deed done to an impotent man, by what means (or “in whom”) this man is made whole; be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ (Messiah) of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even in him doth this man stand here before you whole. He is the stone which was set at nought of you the builders, which was made the head of the corner. And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (vss. 8-12).
The Holy Spirit made it clear that their system left no room for their Messiah and his teachings, and contrariwise, the Messiah and his teachings left no room for their system. Fancy that! All of their endless hours of contemplation and memorization of Rabbinic maxims and adages had been wasted. Perfect comprehension and even perfect retention of their masters’ words would not save them. The Messiah’s name was the only name that counted. Redemption was not to be found “in the name” of any or all of their Rabbis. It was only to be had in him and in his name.
These two were accounted “ignorant and unlearned” by the educated sophisticates who judged them, but they could not deny the influence of the Master Teacher, for “they had been with Jesus.” The very idea that the Messiah had walked among them and they had not recognized him and bestowed upon him the honor that was his due! Such babbling was obviously the product of small and untrained minds! The thing to do was to threaten them “that they speak henceforth to no man in this name.” This they did but to no avail. In chapter five they were faced with the same problem. Having brought the apostles before the council a second time, they stated flatly: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name: and behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (vs. 28). And, after this second hearing they beat them and again “charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus” and let them go (vs. 40). It was “for the Name” that the apostles had suffered this dishonor (vs. 41); Luke is plain in bringing out this important point. The Jewish leaders would not recognize the name of Jesus or any authority that the apostles might claim for it.
There are two significant lessons that I think we would do well to glean from the preceeding observations. First, if we are going to please God today, then we will have to be content to do as Peter and John and the rest of the apostles did when they stood before the highest court in their land. We must speak “in the name” of the Master Teacher. Only His name will bring salvation. Moreover, His name carries with it all of the authority that we need in religion. As Paul later put it: “Whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). But, to do all in His name we must abide in what he said, personally and through his apostles and prophets and their writings (Jn. 14:26; 16:13; 1 Tim. 6:3). That is, we cannot go beyond the Scriptures (1 Cor. 4:6 ASV). To add to or diminish from his “doctrine” or “teaching” would be tantamount to what the Rabbis did (2 Jn. 9).
A second comment derives directly from the foregoing: We should learn from the Jews the dangers inherent in tradition. Of course, tradition in itself is neither inherently good or bad. Yet a thing that is traditionally said or done can potentially be bad. In fact, it can become very bad if it is only said or done because of tradition that is begun by man and sustained by manmade law. This is consistently condemned in the Bible (Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:8; Titus 1:14). Additionally, herein lies a persistent problem about which we must be constantly warned. Often we are heard quoting some well-known and highly respected brother on a particular question as though the very fact that he said a thing gave it weight and authority. Let us be aware that if we do this we have effectually said it in His name. And when we have done so we are no less guilty than the Rabbis were. If a thing is worth the saying because it is true, then say it without prefacing, prefixing or footnoting it! (This context along with my own practice should make it obvious that I am not advocating plagiarism.) At the same time however, we should not forget that if what we do and say is after apostolic tradition and Scripture can be produced to sustain it, then we have not the right to budge a single millimeter from that traditional but God-honouring path. The Master Teacher through his apostles let it be known that such tradition is inherently good and will still be good if a thousand generations observe it and a thousand men repeat it (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6, 7: 1 Cor. 11:2). The name and hence, the authority of Christ is at the heart of that tradition. Therein lies the difference. But what a difference!
Truth Magazine XXI :49, pp. 775-778
December 15, 1977