God’s Hand and Plan
An Exegesis of Acts 4:23-31
by John Drury
-23- Apoluqentes de hlqon pros tous idious
kai aphggeilan osa pros autos oi apciepeis
kai oi presbutepoi eipan.
-24- oi de akousantes[ii] omoqumadon hpan fwnhn
pros ton qeon kai eipan, Despota,
su[iii] o poihsas ton ouranon kai thn ghn kai thn qalassan
kai panta ta en autois,
-25- o tou patros hmwn
dia pneumatos agiou stomatos Dauid paidos sou eipwn,[iv]
Inati efruaxan eqnh
kai laoi emelethsan kena;
-26- parestnsan oi basileis ths ghs
kai oi arcontes sunhcqnsan epi
to auto, kata tou kuriou
kai kata tou Cristou autou.
-27- sunhcqhsan gar ep' alhqeias en th polei tauth[v]
epi ton agion paida sou Ihsoun on ecrisas,
Hrwdhs te kai Pontios Pilatos sun eqnesin kai laois[vi] Ispahl,
-28- poinsai osa h ceir sou kai h boulh [sou][vii] prowrisen gevesqai.
-29- kai ta nun, kurie, epide epi tas apeilas autwn
kai dos tois doulois sou meta parrhsias pashs lalein ton logon sou,
-30- en tw thn ceira [sou][viii] ekteinein se eis iasin kai shmeia
kai terata ginesqai dia tou onomatos tou agiou paidos sou Insou.
-31- kai dehqentwn autwn esaleuqh o topos en w hsan sunegmenoi,
kai eplhsqhsan apantes tou agiou pneumatos
kai elaloun ton logon tou qeou meta parrhsias.[ix]
-23- And when they had been let go they went to their own people and reported as much as the chief priests and the elders had said to them. -24- And when they heard this, with one accord they lifted up their voice to God and said, “Lord, you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, -25- who through the Holy Spirit by the mouth of our father and your servant David said,
‘Why were the nations insolent
and the peoples scheme vain things?
-26- The kings of the earth took a stand
and the rulers gathered in the same
place, against the Lord
and against his Christ.’
-27- For indeed there were gathered in this city against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the nations and the people of Israel, -28- to do as much as your hand and [your] plan fore-ordained to take place. -29- And now, Lord, take notice of their threats and give your servants full boldness to speak your word, -30- by stretching out [your] hand to heal and by signs and wonders taking place through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
-31- And when they had prayed the place in which they had gathered was shaken, and they were all filled with the holy spirit and were speaking the word of God with boldness.
As the believers’ gather for prayer, the recent threat of persecution is on their minds. Yet when they cry out to God, they do not ask to be protected from persecution, but rather for boldness to speak God’s word and for God to perform signs and wonders. These confident requests are made possible by their belief that God’s hand and plan directs all things. Just as God’s hand was behind the attacks against Jesus (v. 28), so too will God’s hand be in control of their situation.
This belief in God’s controlling hand and plan is referred to as divine necessity, a major theme in Luke-Acts.[x] In order to learn more about this concept and its significance for Christian theology and praxis, we will analyze the literary context, structure, and original meaning of the passage. We will then attempt to understand the significance of the belief in divine necessity for this passage and for today.
Acts 4:23-31 is the final section of a long episode which began in 3:1.[xi] The stirring of the crowds that followed Peter’s healing of the lame man result in his and John’s imprisonment. The next day they faced the Sanhedrin, who threatened them yet were amazed at their boldness. This section records the prayerful conclusion to this chain of events. It clearly begins in v. 23 as there is a spatial move from the Sanhedrin to Peter and John’s “own people.”
This section is followed by a summary of the believers’ communal activity and the growth of community (-35). Such summaries appear regularly in Acts and often signify a literary break between two episodes.[xii] Therefore, v. 31 is quite assuredly the ending of this section.
Filling of the Spirit and speaking God’s word boldly as outcomes of prayer is a familiar pattern in Acts. This same pattern of causation is found at the beginning of the Pentecost episode (2:1-41). For the believer’s prayer, these elements happen at the end of an episode. The power to heal and amazement of crowds are typical outcomes, which in turn occasion a kerygmatic speech. These components of the pattern precede the prayer (3:1-4:22). Since this chain of causation moves in a cyclical fashion throughout Acts, it should come as no surprise that prayer and being filled with the Holy Spirit is found at both the beginning of some episodes (2:1-4) and the end of others (4:23-31).
The key structural pattern in the believers’ prayer is problem-solution, which is a special kind of causation (see Fig. 1). The problem is the paradox that God is the sovereign creator of the universe (v. 24b) yet nations and kings are conspiring against His anointed people (v. 25-27). A general to particular pattern is also at work in this manner: the mention of threats moves from God’s anointed in general (v. 26), to Jesus (v. 27) and finally to the believers themselves (v. 29). The problem-solution structure unearths the important turning point in v. 28, where it is revealed that God is actually behind the conspiracy against Christ. God’s plan is contrasted with that of Herod and Pontius Pilate. This verse forms the hinge between the delineation of the problem (v. 24b-27) and the prayer for God’s resolution of the problem (v. 29-30). The key to solving the paradox is that God’s hand and plan is at work behind all things, including persecution. By comparing their situation to Christ’s, the believers’ are able to ask for boldness (v. 29) and miracles (v. 30), for they are confident that God will work all things out for His aims.
I. The Problem:
God is Sovereign Creator BUT Conspiracies Rage Against His People (v. 24b-27)
A. God as Sovereign Creator (v. 24b)
C 1. addressed as despota / “Sovereign Lord”
O 2. created everything (“heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them”)
N B. Lament Over the Conspiracies against God’s Anointed (v. 25-27)
T 1. General Lament Regarding Conspiracies (v. 25-26)
R a. introduction of the quote: Holy Spirit and David (v. 25a)
A b. Psalm 2:1-2, which utilizes parallelism and contains 3 couplets (v. 25b-26)
S 2. Particular Background of Conspiracy Against Jesus, God’s Anointed (v. 27)
T * These two are also compared to one another, utilizing Christological interpretation
God’s Hand (ceir) and Plan Were Behind
the Conspiracy Against Christ! (v. 28)
Note: He is therefore still Sovereign
(= first stage of solution).
II. The Solution:
Request for Boldness and for Miracles in the Face of Persecution (v. 29-30)
A. Plea for God to recognize the Sanhedrin’s threats (v. 29a)
* This forms a comparison between their threats and those against Christ!
B. Requests from God (who is in ultimate control) for their Present Situation (v. 29b-30)
1. Boldness with which to speak the word of God (v. 29b)
2. God will stretch out His hand (ceira) and perform signs and wonders (v. 30)
23. After spending a night in jail and standing up courageously to the Sanhedrin, Peter and John return to tous idious, woodenly translated “their own.” It is an idiom used to denote one’s family, people, or fellow soldiers in an army.[xiii] The tous idious of Peter and John would be the Christian community. What portion of the community was present we cannot know. This is not a problem, for we are interested in what was prayed regardless of who prayed it.
24a. Despite its supposed spontaneity, the prayer seems concise and composed. This makes sense because home prayer in the first century was spontaneous yet influenced by liturgy.[xiv] Also, Luke would have felt comfortable summarizing the basic content of the prayer just as he did Peter’s and Paul’s sermons.[xv]
The believers lifted up their voices omoqumadon, best translated “with one accord.” A favored term in Acts, it is used to exhibit the unity and peace of the church. It may, however, have been a Lukan attitude more than an actuality.[xvi] A more literal understanding of omoqumadon in the present context implies that the prayer was offered up in unison. It is often asked how this could be possible in a large group of people. The importance of this question is diminished when we think of the prayer in its literary context instead of as a mere window into a historical event. Certainly many prayers were uttered by the early church. This one is recorded because it introduces an important theme in Acts: the church can find in God the ability to withstand persecution.[xvii] As we have said before, this particular prayer could simply have been a Lukan summary of the basic form and ideas in the prayers of Jerusalem Christians.
24b. The believers address God as Despota, often translated “sovereign lord.” It simply means master, and is the root for the English word “despot.” The same address is made to God in Luke 2:29.[xviii] The term is in no way stronger than the more common kurie, yet its lack of frequency in the New Testament allows for a some emphasis to be added.
Although scarce in the New Testament, Despota is a common address in first century prayers. Actually, the entire prayer resembles the structure of those found in Josephus’ Antiquities.[xix] What this implies about Luke’s sources is uncertain. This fact does, however, point to the sensibility of the prayer’s internal logic. In other words, God as creator, an appeal to ancestral relationship, faith in providential control and a request for miracles would have been easily tied together for the first century reader.
The believers emphasize God as the creator of all things. This appears at first like a contradiction to the forthcoming statements about the gathering against God’s anointed, setting up a paradox to be resolved by the principle of divine necessity (v. 28). Yet simply being reminded that God is the creator is “a comforting thought for those persecuted by earthly rulers.”[xx] God as creator is linked to God as sustainer of those who are being threatened.[xxi]
25a. The believers introduce their quotation of Psalm 2:1-2 with the rather difficult sentence, which translated woodenly would read “who the father of us through the holy spirit mouth David servant of you said.” There is considerable confusion regarding both its text (see above footnotes) and syntax. Not the least of these difficulties is how stomatos (“mouth”) relates to the other nouns in the sentence. Bruce contends that David must be regarded as the Spirit’s “mouthpiece,” citing ancient literature where stomatos is used in such a way.[xxii] However, it may be possible to think of the Holy Spirit and David as parallels in a chiasm.[xxiii] If this where so, David could keep his mouth and he and the Spirit could be regarded as concurrent revelatory mediums.
25b-26. The believers quote Psalm 2:1-2, a favorite of the New Testament. This Psalm contains three parallel couplets (see Fig. 2). The Psalmist made excellence use of the freedom of word order in the Hebrew language to from chiasms within each couplet.[xxiv] These poetic patterns would not have gone unnoticed by a first century reader.
A Inati efruaxan eqnh
A’ kai laoi emelethsan kena;
B parestnsan oi basileis ths ghs
B’ kai oi arcontes sunhcqnsan epi
C kata tou kuriou
C’ kai kata tou Cristou autou.
A Why were the nations insolent
A’ and the peoples scheme vain things?
B The kings of the earth took a stand
B’ and the rulers gathered in the same
C against the Lord
C’ and against his Christ.’
Although eqnh may be translated as “Gentiles,” here the more general translation “nations” will suffice to express the insolence against God’s anointed one. The parallelism also implies a similarity between eqnh and laoi, not a distinction. The kings and rulers -- also parallel rather than distinct terms -- suncqhsan, or “gather.” This same word is used in 4:5 in reference to the gathering of the priests, elders and scribes. Luke makes sure to associate the Sanhedrin with the act of gathering against God’s people.
The last line of the Psalm speaks of God’s Cristou. This is the primary title given to Jesus, but it is important to remember than the word also means “anointed one” and “messiah.” Early Christians would have certainly seen this as a Christological reference. However, they would have also been aware of the general experience of nations gathering together against God’s anointed kings like David. Although primitive Christianity affirmed the trans-historical nature of the scriptures, they were not ignorant of history. They saw Jesus as in line with God’s work in the past and continued to venerate those who came before him.
27. sunhcqnsan is chosen to connect Psalm 2 with the experience of Christ’s passion. It appears at the front of the sentence, emphasizing the forthcoming Christological interpretation of Ps. 2:1-2. Jesus is referred to as ov ecrisas, which means “whom you [God] anointed.” This links to the term Cristos as found in v. 26. Christ too was gathered against by the nations, the peoples and the rulers.
Christ is not only anointed, but he is also God’s pais, translated “servant.” Although used in proximity to Christ’s passion, this is not a reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah but rather corresponds with David as God’s servant (v. 25).[xxv] It functions as a link to Peter’s preceding sermon, which also uses the term pais.[xxvi]
Pilate, Nations (Gentiles) and
28. As we have alluded to before, the ideas in this verse form the hinge between the first and second parts of the prayer. The principle of divine necessity as expressed in this verse solves the implicit paradox between the sovereignty of God and the victimization of God’s servants. The solution to the problem is that even the gathering of nations and kings against God’s people is all part of God’s plan and guided by His hand.
God’s ceir (“hand”) is a symbol of his power and work in the world. God’s boulh (“plan”/“purpose”) is a dominant theme in Acts. It is also found in in reference to the plot against Jesus.
God prowrisen (“fore-ordained”) the plots of Herod and Pontius Pilate. This is the only use of this particular construction in Acts. It can be found, albeit in a different form, in the New Testament, especially while referring to Ps. 2:7 (e.g., Rom. 1:3-4).[xxvii] Usually it is used in connection with God’s decree of Jesus as Son of God and judge of the world (see Acts ). Of course, in the believers’ prayer it refers to the divine plan behind the plot against Jesus. “There is a shift of application from the resurrection of Jesus to his passion. The decree mentioned in the middle of Ps. 2 was evidently taken by the primitive church to be both prospective and retrospective, governing the attack upon the Christ as well as his promised power.”[xxviii] The use of wrismenh in Acts 2:23 is also retrospective of Christ’s passion.[xxix]
Illustrative of the Lukan principle of divine necessity, this verse is crucial to the meaning of the passage. This one principle provides the perspective the believers choose to take regarding their own persecuted situation. We will unpack the implication of this principle shortly (see below).
29. By asking God to turn his attention toward the threats of the Sanhedrin, they are identifying their own victimization with that of Christ. “The primitive community, which speaks in its prayer of the universal alliance of Jews and Gentiles against the Anointed of the Lord, sees the latter in light of the persecuted of the Old Testament, and includes itself in the line of persecuted (Acts 4:32-31)... the crucified Lord identifies himself with all victims.”[xxx]
In this verse we finally reach the believers’ petitions. Since they have chosen to put their own problems in the perspective of God’s hand and plan, they are content to request for boldness to speak God’s word and signs and miracles. Remarkably, they do not ask for an end to or even protection from persecution.
In order to know precisely what the believers’ where asking for, let us examine a few Lukan passages where parrhsia (usually translated “boldness”) appears.[xxxi] In , the Sanhedrin is impressed with the parrhsian of Peter and John despite the fact that they were ordinary, unschooled men. Bruce notes that the term was used in classical Greek to refer to “freedom of speech” in the social/ political sense, yet such a use is not found here. It refers rather to “the confidence and forthrightness with which the apostles spoke under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”[xxxii] Fitzmyer contends that the Stoic virtue of one’s ability to resist public opposition, a connotation of parrhsia, was integrated into Luke’s picture of the apostle’s honor in the face of persecution.[xxxiii]
During his Pentecost speech, Peter urges that he may speak to the crowd with parrhsias (2:29). It is often here translated “frankness” or “freely.” It is implied that Peter may speak with parrhsia regarding David’s death because the audience is fully aware of the fact. Where “courage” or “boldness” may have fit well in , here the nuance of “frankness” and “plainness” is more appropriate.
The verb form (parrhsiazomai) is also found in Acts. Most of these uses can be categorized into one of the two options illustrated above. In 4:29-30, parrhsia must therefore mean either “boldness”/“courage”/“confidence” (4:13; 9:27-28; 13:46; 14:31; 18:26; 19:8; 28:31) or “frankness”/“plainness”/“straight-forwardness” (2:29; 26:26). It seems almost certain that parrhsia here refers to the confident boldness with which one preaches the gospel. It fits into the pattern of “bold speaking” found throughout Acts. It also makes sense for the prayer to be recalling “the preceding incident in which the apostles’ boldness elicited consternation from the authorities.”[xxxiv]
30. In addition to boldness, the believers also ask for signs and wonders to be performed by God’s ceir (“hand”). This use of ceir links God’s miracles to the divine guidance spoken of in v. 28. Just like his hand guided the plot against Jesus, so will His hand empower the Christian community. The request for signs and wonders mirrors what has already happened in Acts.[xxxv] It is surely no coincidence that Luke often puts miracles with boldness of speech (14:3). It is also quite normative for miracles to do be done in the name of Jesus, a pattern found here in the believers’ prayer. Take for instance the healing in chapter 3, which began the episode that comes to a close in the next verse.
31. With this verse we return to narrative as Luke records God’s response to the believers’ prayer. God shakes the place where they were praying. Bruce calls this a “sign of divine assent,” like those in Exodus 19:18, Isaiah 6:4, and Ezra 6:15, 29.[xxxvi] Furthermore, the Holy Spirit fills all of them in a way similar to what is found in Acts 2:1-4. In addition, the request for boldness is granted as they begin to speak God’s word. God answers their prayer through the Holy Spirit. They are now enabled to do God’s work despite the persecution they face.
The Significance of “God’s Hand and Plan”
The believers’ confidence in God’s hand and plan gave them the perspective by which they asked for boldness instead of protection. Yet the determinism that “God’s hand and plan” implies seems to threaten personal freedom. Do humans have any choices, or is all of history set in stone? The principle of divine necessity, although found throughout the scriptures, seems difficult to accept.
Some have tried to downplay the meaning of divine necessity language. For instance, C. K. Barrett remarks that “Luke is thinking not of a general determinism but of the special disclosures of God’s purpose in the story of Jesus.”[xxxvii] Also, it is possible to interpret osa (“as much as”) in to imply that God sets the boundaries and evil men like Herod and Pontius Pilate are incapable of ‘drawing outside the lines.’ This would denote a sort of divine limitation rather than divine necessity.
However, necessity language is a dominant theme throughout the Book of Acts as well as Luke’s Gospel. God’s hand and plan as the primary initiator of action in the world is central to the kerygma in Acts. This applies in a most special way to Jesus, as C. K. Barrett points out (see Acts ; ; ). Yet the principle of divine necessity is in no way limited only to Jesus (see ; 14:3, 22). The believers’ prayer itself illustrates that God’s hand and plan can be applied to their own present situation.
The principle of divine necessity is especially significant during a time of persecution. The believers’ realize that if the abuse Jesus experienced was guided by God’s hand, so too might the threats of the Sanhedrin be divinely fore-ordained. Furthermore, if it was necessary for bad things to happen to Christ, then his followers can consider it a blessing to have bad things happen to them. Take for instance how the apostles rejoice on account of being honored to suffer for the Name (). This identification with Jesus in turn affects the purpose of the believers’ prayer. They do not pray for the persecution to cease. Rather, they put their confidence in God’s hand guiding their current situation and simply request for continued boldness and miracles.
God’s Plan as Theological Perspective
The principle of divine necessity plays a significant role in the believers’ prayer as well as in the whole of Lukan theology. It would therefore seem prudent for us in the 21st century to take into account the meaning of God’s hand and plan when we develop our theology and live our lives.
The first issue that divine necessity addresses is the problem of evil. The church in Acts thought it sufficient to answer the problem of ‘bad things happening to good people’ by acknowledging God’s sovereign plan. They simply regarded it as necessary for them to go through trials (). The believers’ regard their own persecution as part of God’s plan in the same way as Christ’s death was (-29). This may not appear as a sufficient theodicy for us in the 21st century. However, it can start us down the road of trusting God’s plan despite the horrible things in our lives and in the world.
second principle we can remember is that necessity language is a matter of
perspective, not dogma. It is a way of
speaking that gives reverence to God. “I
will return to you if God wills,” Paul says in
The final theological and practical lesson to be learned from the principle of divine necessity is that God’s plan gives purpose to our lives. We serve a God who has a plan. This should give us the willingness to do His work, to sacrifice anything, and to be bold in difficult circumstances. God’s plan does not imply that we can be passive and lazy. Rather, it is part of the plan that God’s people play a role in it. We may not always know our calling as specifically as someone like Paul did, but we can be assured that God has a place for us in His great plan. We have the privilege of being a tool to bring God glory. That is not an insult to our freedom, but rather a honor and opportunity, which just happens to also give purpose to our lives.
Divine Necessity and Christian Living
Evagrius of Pontus, a 4th Century monk, said, “If you are a theologian, pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” The believers’ prayed truly because they had the right theological perspective. We too can “pray truly” by keeping the principle of divine necessity fresh in our minds. For instance, we may not need to so quickly ask for God to “fix” our problems. Rather, we ought to ask God to acknowledge our problems and give us increased strength to do His work amid them. Divine necessity can give us a new prayer perspective. The believers’ problems “were seen in a new perspective. In fact they did not spend a lot of time looking at their difficulties or problems!”[xxxviii] Let this be a reminder to us as we go to the Lord in prayer.
In addition to its impact on our prayer life, the principle of divine necessity may also encourage bold and faithful action, even in the midst of trouble. If God is directing all things then we can have the faith to simply do His work despite the obstacles. Our concern for ourselves can diminish as we focus on the task given to us. What is this task? The believers’ prayer puts it aptly: to speak God’s word with boldness.
In their prayer, the believers overcome the threat of persecution by trusting in God’s hand and plan. They identify with the attacks on Jesus, which were all part of God’s plan. Such a reliance on God’s hand can also be our perspective, resulting in our own willingness to speak His word with boldness, even in times of trouble.
[ii] The Western text (Codex Bezae / D) as well as others add kai epignontes thn tou qeou energeian. The principle of choosing the shorter reading is obviously in favor of leaving this phrase off. It is also witnessed by a family (D) which consistently freely adds to the text (Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 50). Also, the presence of energeian is out of place in Luke, for it is used only in the Pauline epistles (Metzger, Textual Commentary 279).
[iii] Some mss. add ei o qeos and others kurie o qeos. The shorter reading is once again the more prudent choice. This reading is also witnessed by reliable mss. such as Codex Sinaiticus (usually given primacy; see Metzger, The Text of the New Testament 42), A and Codex Vaticanus (B).
[iv] This phrase which introduces the quotation from Psalm 2 has been regarded as “one of the most impossible clauses in the entire Book of Acts” (Le Roux 29). This refers both to making sense of the phrase as well as the state of a clearly corrupted text. The confusion in the word order (e.g., o and eipwn being separated by the rest of the sentence and a needed dia before stomatos) has lead to numerous additions and re-ordering of the text. Some mss. add a dia before tou patros, while others (D) change the word order completely: os dia pneumatos agiou dia tou stomatos lalhsas Dauid paidos sou. Despite many brilliant explanations (see H. W. Moule; Westcott and Hort) in favor of other readings, the most reliable mss., as well as common sense, are in favor of the UBS rendering (Metzger, Textual Commentary 280-281). L. V. Le Roux has published an article which favors this reading by an analysis of the chiastic structure of the phrase (Le Roux 31):
B tou patros hmwn
C dia pneumatos agiou
C’ [dia] stomatos Dauid
B’ paidos sou
Le Roux substantiates this claim by noting a similar chiasm in Acts 1:2 (Le Roux 31). The UBS reading certainly follows the lectio difficilior principle, and Le Roux’s structural proposal allows for the phrase to still make sense.
[v] Many mss., including P and the Textus Receptus, omit this phrase. Although this is a shorter option, the explanation of its omission is clear: the phrase is not present in the Ps. 2 quotation and therefore easy to edit out (Metzger, Textual Commentary 281). Also, more reliable codices do not support this shorter reading.
[vi] The plurality of this term, which is based on its parallelism with the Ps. 2 quotation, is represented by some mss. (e.g., Codex Basiliensis / E) as singular for the sake of agreement with Israhl. This is clearly later editing and an attempt at clarifying the text.
[vii] A, B, E and a host of other manuscripts bear witness to boulh without the clarifying sou. Equally reliable mss. (including Codex Sinaiticus) include the pronoun. The above text renders it with brackets to illustrate its equal representation among manuscripts. However, it may be prudent to remove it all together, for it may well have appeared on account of scribal editting whereas its omission could never prove to be so. The shorter-reading-principle is also in favor of omission. F. F. Bruce agrees that the sou should be omitted (Acts 127).
[viii] Once again, the UBS committee has chosen to put the same pronoun in brackets to represent its equal support in the mss. Some witnesses remove both the pronoun and the article thn. The difference of opinion over the rationale for omission or addition from the autographs is nearly impossible to reconcile. Therefore the choice of brackets is probably best in this case.
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