Where then does this boldness come from? Fundamentally, it comes from the Holy Spirit. Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit” answers the Sanhedrin’s question (Acts 4:8). In the face of threats, the early Christians “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Steven, “full of the Holy Spirit,” indicts the Jewish leaders who have arrested and falsely accused him (Acts 7:55).
What is Christian boldness? For some, the phrase conjures images of bravado, machismo, and swagger. For others, the phrase signifies a vague sense of courage and conviction in the face of opposition.
The fourth chapter of Acts provides an unusually clear picture of Christian boldness. The noun for boldness (parrēsia) appears three times in this one chapter (and only twice more in the rest of Acts) and here sets the context for Luke’s use of the verb speak boldly (parrēsiazomai) seven times in the coming chapters. He apparently intends for us to see the events of this chapter as a particularly poignant example of Christian boldness. By examining them, we can see not only what Christian boldness is, but where it comes from, and how we can cultivate it for ourselves.
Astonished at Common Men
The word first appears in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.” What had the Jewish leaders seen that so shocked them?
Recall that Peter and John had been arrested following a miraculous healing at the temple (Acts 3:1–4:4). Peter had healed a man lame from birth, amazing the crowds. He followed the healing with an evangelistic sermon to the gathered crowd. The sermon is interrupted by the Jewish leaders, who, annoyed by the apostolic teaching, arrest the apostles and throw them in prison overnight.
The next day, Peter and John are brought before the entire council, including the high priest and his family. The rulers demand to know how Peter and John were able to do this miracle. And then Peter responds with the words that surprise the Sanhedrin and show us the meaning of boldness.
Three Elements of Christian Boldness
First, their boldness shines in a hostile context. The gathering of the entire council seems to be an attempt to intimidate these uneducated, common fishermen. Here are the elite, the educated, the men who have power. It is they who ask, “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
No doubt other uneducated men had stood before them and shivered, looked pale, and found their tongues tied in the presence of these religious leaders. But not Peter and John. Their answer to the accusatory question is as clear as a bell. “Let it be known to all of you . . . ,” Peter says (Acts 4:10). One imagines him lifting up his head and his voice so that he can be clearly heard by those in the back. This fisherman is unmoved in the presence of these leaders.
Second, their boldness manifests in their clear testimony about Jesus. It is by his name that the man was healed. It is by his name (and his name alone) that any man can be saved. This Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the cornerstone, and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:10–12). Thus, clarity about Jesus, and his power to heal and save, is at the heart of Christian boldness.
Finally, their boldness is displayed in their clarity about sin. This man, “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified . . . this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you” (Acts 4:10–11). You rulers, you who purport to be the builders of Israel, rejected him, the cornerstone who has become for you a stone of stumbling and rock of offense. Here is a turning of the tables. Peter and John are the ones on trial; they have been arrested. And yet here they accuse and condemn the powerful men who not a few months earlier had killed Jesus himself.
So then, what is Christian boldness? It is courage and clarity about Jesus and sin in the face of powerful opposition. It is plain and open speech with no obfuscation or muttering. It is unhindered testimony to the truth, whether about Christ and his salvation, or about what he came to save us from.
Obey God Rather than Men
This understanding of boldness is confirmed if we consider the next chapter, when Peter and John are again arrested and hauled before these same leaders for their refusal to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.
The high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.