To live Christianly in a culture of confusion is to live boldly.
There is some explaining to do here. On one hand, the above sentence is simple and agreeable at face-value. On the other hand, there’s a sense in which it will resonate with certain personalities while alienating others. Does our culture really need Christians to live bold? What does that even mean?
The answer hangs on our understanding of “bold.” And if we’d learn from the Book of Acts, the answer is yes — the call of Christian living is to live bold the way Luke shows us. It’s not so much because our culture needs it, but because “boldness” is an identity-shaping element of the church.
How’d They Do That?
It started when Peter and John said some annoying things in the Jerusalem of AD 30.
After Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, after healing a man at the temple, Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders were fed up with Peter and John “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). The leaders didn’t like this for more than one reason. In one case, the Sadducees (who were part of the leadership) disputed the resurrection in general. But at the same time, and more significantly, the issue is what the “resurrection of the dead” signified for the history of the world. This was the real deal. This was what really disturbed the leaders, Sadducees and Pharisees alike. In essence, when Peter and John proclaimed “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead,” they were saying that the end-time blessings of the resurrection age had intruded the present age for the sake of everyone who believed in Jesus (Alan Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 79–81).
This is important to wrap our heads around. These end-time blessings of the resurrection age were the hope of Israel, as Paul calls them in Acts 28:20. These Jewish leaders knew all about them — about the pouring out of the Spirit and the triumph of God’s salvation and the defeat of his enemies. They had read Joel 2:28–32 and Isaiah 12:3–6 and Jeremiah 51:24. They understood what the resurrection age meant. And now these fishermen-turned-preachers were walking around “their” temple saying that this age had arrived in Jesus, the guy they killed. Peter and John were telling the Jewish people that Jesus had launched a new and long-awaited epoch in the history of humanity. This didn’t sit too well with “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” in Acts 4:1, nor with the whole Sanhedrin gathered in Acts 4:5–6.
But it gets worse.
Peter and John were arrested and escorted to stand trial before the same court that condemned Jesus. These were the “rulers and elders and scribes,” or we might say, the professionals of Old Testament interpretation in that day. So they asked Peter and John how they did what they did (Acts 4:7). How did Peter heal the man at the temple? Where did they get this teaching on the arrival of the resurrection age?
The profound answer to their questions is Jesus, which is precisely what Peter says. “Hear me loud and clear,” he explains, “Jesus is behind this work.” He speaks with meticulous care, Galilean accent and all, as he continues, “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 4:11–12).
The response of the leaders reveals something crucial. Luke tells us that they took note of Peter and John’s “boldness” (Acts 4:13). The leaders saw their “boldness” and “perceived that they were uneducated, common men.” That last bit means that Peter and John weren’t trained in the rabbinical schools of their scribal accusers (David Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 194). Peter and John were not skilled interpreters of Scripture. They didn’t travel down the long educational path to be groomed for Jewish leadership, and yet they had this “boldness.” How could they be both unschooled and so bold? This was absolutely astonishing to the leaders.
But why was it astonishing? It has everything to do with what “boldness” means. It’s more than a general confidence. It doesn’t mean zeal enough to holler. Peter and John’s “boldness” was in what they said about Jesus. Or more specifically, their boldness was in how they were so outspoken about the identity of Jesus in their use of the Old Testament. That is what is happening in Acts 4:11. Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 to tell the Jewish leaders about the world-transforming significance of Jesus. He says that Jesus is the “stone” rejected by the leaders who has now become the “cornerstone.” Indeed, a new day had dawned — a day that the Lᴏʀᴅ had made (Psalm 118:24) — all because of this Jesus who was crucified, dead, buried, who is now raised and ascended.
And this blew the minds of the Jewish leaders. How in the world do these untrained fisherman know how to read the Scriptures like this? How can they be so frank and open about who this Jesus is? So the Jewish leaders were astonished. Astonished, that is, until they recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
Because Jesus Taught Them
So that explains it. Jesus had taught them how to read the Bible. Peter and John had been around Jesus, who, as we saw in Luke 24, said the whole thing was about him (Luke 24:44–48). Boldness, then, at least in this instance, is not red-faced passion or impenetrable extroversion. Rather, it has to do with speaking — which is not so much about how we speak, but in what we say about Jesus, even when we presume our hearers won’t be happy with it.
That’s how Peter and John disturbed the peace in Acts 4. Now, as modern readers, we could simply observe what’s happening here and move on. But I think there’s more.
Later in Acts 4, after Peter and John are released from Jewish custody, they gather with their friends for a prayer meeting (Acts 4:23). Luke actually gives us the insider glimpse of what they pray. It is more Old Testament interpretation centered on Jesus (Acts 4:24–27). And then, well, we see “boldness” again. These believers ask the Father “to grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). Then Luke shows us that God answers their prayer: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Notice again that boldness has to do with speaking, and this time the whole church is getting in on it.
The Greek word behind “boldness” (parresia) shows up throughout the New Testament. It’s range of meaning includes courage or fearlessness, which is in mind in places like Hebrews 4:16. It also can mean outspokenness or frankness — “a use of speech that conceals nothing.” And interestingly, right along with the several verb-uses, each of the five occurrences of parresia in Acts is connected to speaking (Acts 2:29; 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31). F. F. Bruce actually translates it “freedom of speech” in Acts 4:13 (The Book of Acts, 94–95). The two uses outside of chapter 4 are in Peter’s first sermon when he explains that Psalm 16 is about Jesus (Acts 2:29–30); and then in the very last verse of the Book of Acts that describes Paul’s ministry: “[He] welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31). So the two bookends to apostolic proclamation in Acts include “boldness,” which, if I might be so bold, means to be outspoken about the identity and significance of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And this is the “boldness” to which we’re called.
Christian in a Confusing Culture
Luke, the theologian-historian, is writing for us. He intends to answer big questions in the minds of his Christian audience, in part to assure us of the “continued outworking of God’s saving purposes” (Thompson, 19); and to form a “coherent theological perspective” that tells us who we are (Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Dynamics,” 13). While the book is historical, and therefore, mainly descriptive, it can take on a prescriptive function when Luke emphasizes things through repetition or key placements throughout the storyline — which is the case in how the apostles spoke so openly about Jesus.
Luke wants the church-for-all-time to imbibe this kind of boldness — to know Jesus and what his gospel work means for the world. To know Jesus and speak clearly about who he is. This is being Christian in a confusing culture. This is how we’re called to live.