As soon as it begins, the apostolic mission in Jerusalem meets opposition. It’s no wonder. The apostles aren’t quietly evangelizing and winning souls. Standing in the tradition of ancient prophets, they publicly rebuke the injustices, corruptions, and abuses of Israel’s leaders. They’re Micaiah before Ahab, Isaiah before Ahaz, Jeremiah before Zedekiah, Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar. At Pentecost, Peter accuses “godless men” of putting Jesus to death. Speaking to a crowd after he and John heal a lame man, Peter ratchets up the charge. The men of Israel rejected the Prince of Life in favor of a murderer; they chose death over life, and they’ll suffer the consequences unless they repent. The Sanhedrin gets wind of Peter’s indictment, arrests the two apostles, and imprisons them overnight. At a hearing the next morning, Peter repeats the allegation before an assembly of elders and priests. Opposition intensifies. The Sanhedrin warns Peter and John; then they add a flogging; finally, a mob falls on Stephen, drags him outside the city, and stones him to death.
During the first hearing, the Sanhedrin marvels at Peter and John’s chutzpah (Acts 4:13). The Greek word is parrhesia, which means “forthright truth-telling.” One who speaks with parrhesia doesn’t flatter, manipulate, or use rhetorical tricks. He doesn’t massage or bend the truth, and he doesn’t hedge. He’s confident truth is on his side, and he takes moral responsibility for speaking it. He speaks fearlessly, even when addressing powerful people, even when his safety or life may be at risk. In the Gospels, the confused and timid apostles are hardly paragons of parrhesia, but the Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of courage. Jesus promised the Spirit would teach the Twelve what to say when they stand before rulers and authorities (Luke 12:11-12), and, as Acts demonstrates, he keeps his promise. Even the Sanhedrin recognizes the source of the apostles’ courage: “they have been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Jesus also keeps his promise to give the apostles “utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:12-15). After Peter’s speech, the Sanhedrin holds an executive session, and the elders admit they have absolutely no case against Peter and John. The Sanhedrin can’t deny the healing of the lame man, since it’s a “known sign” to “all inhabitants” of Jerusalem, and don’t even bother to rebut Peter. Yet the Sanhedrin knows what’s at stake. If the lame man was healed in the name of the risen Jesus, if Jesus is the power of salvation for Israel, then the Sanhedrin is guilty as charged. It agitated for the death of an innocent man, the Prince of Life. For the Sanhedrin, Jesus’s resurrection is terrifying news—an un-gospel.
Like all tyrants, they love power more than truth and hate the prophets who speak with parrhesia. They’re shamed by public exposure and further shamed when they can’t answer Peter’s accusations. Confessing their error would bring yet more shame, so they engage in damage control and issue a gag order. They’re reduced to shouting blustery imperatives, and when that doesn’t work they use force. They aren’t arresting the dissemination of fake news. To protect themselves, they try to stop the spread of what they privately acknowledge to be the truth. (At this point, readers should feel free to shake their heads in a world-weary, plus-ça-change fashion.)
The good news is that Acts is a tale of two assemblies. There’s the august Sanhedrin, with its priestly lineages and big names, its wealth and status. Then there’s the mostly anonymous assembly of the church, which is a community of truth-tellers. Peter and John speak with parrhesia in the Jewish court, and, when they report to the church, the church prays—not for relief but for parrhesia to continue to speak the word. The prayer is answered immediately in a second Pentecost: God shakes the place where they’re gathered and fills them with the Spirit of parrhesia. By the end of the story, the contagious confidence of Peter and John has spread to the whole church. In a world of censorship, intimidation, threats, and speech police, the church is a free speech movement.
It still is. Christians are called to speak the truth to one another and to assume the moral risks of speaking truth in public. If we respond to the call, we can expect escalating hostility. But Jesus keeps his promises to us. Christians who walk in the Spirit, who pray for parrhesia, who stay with Jesus, can be confident the Spirit will teach them irrefutable words to speak at just the right moment.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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