The Name of Jesus

Acts 4:1–12

There is no more controversial word in the world than the name of Jesus. And in our increasingly post-Christian society, where there is still some shred of willingness to stomach a reference to “God” — just so long as you don’t tie him, or it, explicitly to the Christian message — Jesus is that one name in which society says we must not pray in public, and we must not speak with the reverence and awe of worship. Keep that private.

Of course, we’re given plenty of space to mention the name of Jesus if we keep him at arm’s length, if we talk about him in a manifestly scholarly or detached way, if it’s a special on the History Channel. But mention him as the focus of your worship, as your Savior and Lord and the Treasure of your life, or pray in public in his name, and you can expect that the high priests of progressivism will soon be upon you.

Given the climate in which we live today, we should not be surprised that all those explicit mentions of Jesus we saw last week in Acts 3 would have swift repercussions.

  • Peter said to lame man in 3:6: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

  • Then he explained to the crowds in 3:16: “his name — by faith in his name — has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.”

  • And he said further in 3:20–21: “the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” is the one “whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”

Last week the name of Jesus was the catalyst for healing; this week it is the catalyst for controversy. We’ll see in this short passage that the issue is the name of Jesus, and what that name represents — the real person who lived and died and rose again and has fundamentally changed the world and time. In this passage, we have three mentions of the word “name,” and two verses make explicit that the name which the powers that be wish the disciples would not speak is not God or Lord, or even Christ, but the name of Jesus:

  • Verse 2: Peter and John were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”

  • Verse 10: Peter proclaims to the Jewish leaders that this miracle was done “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

We have at least three distinct things to see in these verses about the name of Jesus.

1. The Name Is Upsetting (Verses 1–4)

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

With verse 1 of Acts chapter 4, the fledgling church finds her first resistance. Here we have the first persecution in church history. The storyline of the book of Acts will turn on persecution after persecution from here on out. Which shouldn’t surprise us, as we said in the exhortation. What’s strange, for a gospel like this, is not being persecuted.

Note the contrast in verse 1 between “the people” and the leaders. Peter and John addressed “the people,” it said in 3:12, and they are speaking “to the people” here in 4:1, when the leaders come upon them “greatly annoyed.” The priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees (who were a group of Jerusalem elites) are upset that Peter and John are “teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (verse 2). There is a battle here for the people, and it’s a battle over the name of Jesus. What will the name signify? The leaders would have the people think Jesus was a phony and that he’s dead. The disciples preach that he is true, the long-awaited Messiah, and he is alive.

Peter and John are put into custody for the night (verse 3), but look what happens in verse 4: the church grows to five thousand. Here’s what we have side by side in verses 3 and 4: arrest and advance. We might think it would be one or the other; either many believe the gospel and there is peace and harmony, or the disciples are arrested and there is defeat. But the pattern of the cross, and the marvelous upside down way of God, is stamped on this text and runs throughout Acts and the New Testament and church history: arrest and advance go together. The greatest victories come in the seeming defeats. Three thousand had been added to the church in Acts 2:41; then 2:47 said they were adding daily to their number. Now in 4:4, the number of men comes to five thousand. And Jesus knows how to feed five thousand.

So, far from being a defeat, suffering for the gospel becomes a blessing, which is not unique to Acts:

  • 2 Corinthians 4:17: “his light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”

  • Romans 5:3–5: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

  • Philippians 1:29: “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake”

  • James 1:2-4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

At Cities Church, we want to be a people who not only expect pushback and awkwardness and insults and various forms of persecution, but also a community that sees that, even in all its difficulty, controversy can be a great blessing. And so we do not shy away from the name of Jesus. The name “Jesus” is our first anchor as a church. Here’s how the first of our three “essentials” reads:

  1. We worship Jesus. Jesus is the foundation, center, and goal of the church, and therefore, we worship him. This is the most important part of Cities Church. As humans, we are fundamentally worshipers — originally created to worship God and newly created to worship God. Jesus Christ is the one through whom we worship, giving glory to our Father, and to whom our worship ascends as we declare he is Lord (Philippians 2:11). 

So in verses 1–4, the name is upsetting, but that’s no necessary setback to gospel advance. But now, it gets more personal.

2. The Name Is Offensive (Verses 5–12)

Peter’s preaching to the people in Acts 3 had been greatly annoying to the leaders; now his words directly to them, in response to their questioning, will be nothing less than offensive.

The following day, they bring Peter and John before the rulers and the elders “in Jerusalem” (verse 5) — they now stand before the same leaders who killed Jesus (verse 6). But Peter doesn’t unload on them. They ask the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” They set Peter up for this. They asked what name.

Jesus prepared his disciples for this. Matthew 10:16–20:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

So Peter fulfills the words of Jesus as he speaks in verses 8–10, filled with the Holy Spirit:

“Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well.”

Peter doesn’t hide the name, even when it is unavoidably offensive. Just weeks ago, Jesus stood before these same men, and they sent him along to be crucified. Peter’s saying “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified” is not his maliciously turning the knife, but the appropriate information, though unavoidably offensive, in answering the question asked by this particular group of leaders.

And when Peter answers, there is something subtle, but significant, in how he talks about the healing of the crippled man. He says, in verse 9, that a “weak” man has been “saved.” Crippled here is literally “weak,” and healed is literally “saved.” A weak man has been saved. This is a controversy about saving the weak. The name of Jesus is about saving the weak.

Verse 11, then, draws in these leaders’ own holy book. Peter quotes Psalm 118 (Jesus himself pointed his disciples to Psalm 118 in Matthew 21:42–43; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17) and says this is how God has hinted all along that he would do it. Jesus is the stone you rejected, who now has become the most exalted stone.

Isn’t this precisely how God would do it? We humans wouldn’t expect it like this; yet we see, with the eyes of faith, how he did it so beautifully contrary to our expectations. He made the stone that human wisdom rejected into the most important, most accented, most celebrated stone of the whole structure. The one who was cast away by man has become the very center and pinnacle of God’s plan for restoring his people and all creation.

Here’s the quote from Psalm 118, in context, with its all-important following two verses:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

When God does it this way, the roads part. For those who see with natural eyes, there is offense to hear that you are at cross-purposes with the Creator; you rejected the very one who was the center of his plan. But for those who repent, for those who are given new sight, “it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Which brings us to verse 12 and one of the most controversial claims in the whole Bible. It has been for almost two thousand years, and it is especially scandalous now in our pluralistic society: “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name . . .” This is one of the most offensive things you can say in today’s climate of so-called “tolerance.” And in humility at Cities Church, as weak ones who are being saved by no merit of our own, we stand by it.

If even for these Jewish leaders, who share the Old Testament Scriptures with their Christian kinsmen, Jesus is necessary for salvation, how much more so the rest of the world? If even the Jewish high priest and rulers and elders must bow the knee to this one name, then also every pagan and animist and Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim and relativist and secularist and naturalist in the world today.

But as you know, this statement, straight out of the book of Acts, that there is salvation in no other name, is one of the great barriers to faith in our city today. If you stand with Acts 4:12, and claim that Jesus is the only way to God, you will be called “intolerant” and arrogant, even hateful or worse.

I take it for granted that some in this room feel that way or share some in that sentiment. The assumption is too prevalent in our society to not have many sympathize with it.

Perhaps you would say, “C’mon, there can’t only be one true religion. Don’t you know better nowadays than to make such an exclusivistic claim — that your religion exclusively is the true one?”

My answer would be, But don’t know you that your claim that there can’t be only one true religion is itself an exclusivistic religious claim? It comes from a particular set of unprovable beliefs, with an assumption about a particular conception about God and the world and all other religious beliefs. To say that exclusivistic beliefs — like there is no other name for salvation — are wrong is itself an exclusivistic claim.

It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Perhaps you’ve heard this. One blind feels the trunk and imagines the elephant to be like a snake; another wraps his arms around the leg and thinks it’s like a tree; a third man touches the side and thinks the object is large and flat; and so, someone has often said, this is how the various religions of the world view God. Each is saying something right, and they all are true in their own way. But there’s a problem with this illustration. Tim Keller points it out in his book Reason for God:

The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? . . . How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have? (9)

And if you say, “Okay, but your exclusive claim will lead only to division and violence; mine will not.” I would respond by turning the question, What system of beliefs would most encourage the prosperity and good of others? Surely, not one that causes division and violence — but just saying “live and let live” doesn’t go far enough. At the heart of Christianity is one gave his own life for the sake his enemies and prayed for their forgiveness. His name is Jesus, and those who follow him consistently will not only diminish division and reject violence, but will go the extra mile, and turn the other cheek, and give of their own resources and comforts, and even their own lives, for the good of others, even those who would posture themselves against them as enemies.”

And so, controversial as it is, and “intolerant” as it may seem to some — and offensive and dangerous as you may think — for those of us who have had our eyes opened to see God’s work in Jesus as marvelous, we are actually the ones who should have the greatest hope of and potential for bridging the divides and bringing about real peace and true tolerance.

So even though his name can be upsetting, and his name can be offensive, we do not back away from the power of the name of Jesus, because . . .

3. The Name Is a Gift (Verse 12)

Look at the last part of verse 12: “. . . for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

We Christians have so much more to say from this verse than the negative, there is no other name. That true and helpful statement is driven by this context, and the upset, adversarial leaders, and their framing of the question to Peter and inviting him to speak. But the main thing we have to say is not “no other name,” but “there is a name!”

There is a way! There is a path! There is a bridge! There is a name given from heaven for our rescue, for all those “under heaven” — that is, every people and every nation. There is a gift from above, from God our creator. He has provided a lamb for the sacrifice. We put a high priest in the temple. He has set his king on the throne of the universe. A prophet is provided for the people. A pioneer is supplied to cut our path to healing and salvation and resurrection. He has given us a champion we can follow!

Don’t miss that little word “given.” It is so important. There is no other name given. This name Jesus, and all it represents about who he is and what he has done for us, comes to us as a gift. It is not something we make, not a badge for our boasting, not a credit to our creativity. Jesus is not our creation. He has been given. Had it been left up to us we would have rejected him. But God did this. God made the rejected stone the head of the whole structure. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

This Jesus, as God’s eternal Son, came from heaven, for all who are “under heaven” as God’s gift “among men.” Without ceasing to be God, he became one of us and lived among us and died the death he didn’t deserve, but which he provided as a gift for all those who would believe in him, to save us from sin and suffering and hell and death.

And one day soon, as verse 2 says, all those who are in him will be raised from the dead with him. The name that healed the weak man will heal our weaknesses forever. Because the power that raised Jesus is a power he shares. It is at work in us through faith, and it will raise us from the dead, and make us more whole than any healed cripple in this age. It is the power of a new world already at work in this old world. The healing of the weak man is a sign of the ultimate healing of all the weak that claim this upsetting, offensive, gracious name. And so,

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

When we Christians say, with love in our hearts and concern in our voice — sometimes with tears in our eyes — there is no other name, we do not mean that we are strong and impressive, that we have it figured out, that we own the market on truth, that we are up and you are down — but we say exactly the opposite. We are sick and finding true healing in this man, and only in him. We were lost and have found real rescue in this name, and in no other name. We didn’t make him, but he is making us. No, we are not the strong; he was given from heaven to save the weak.

See also the accompanying exhortation, “Think It Not Strange.”