In Acts 4:24, we hear a word for Lord that graduates the normal word used. In the New Testament, the word κύριος is used to refer to someone in authority, a term a servant would use to address his master, a word that appears in the text some 600 times, depending on your translation. But here, in Acts 4:24, a different word is used: δεσπότης. It’s certainly where we get our infamous word “despot,” which even as a more negative-leaning word means absolute power that far exceeds a common authority: someone in the position to do whatever he/she wants to do. It qualifies lordship as sovereign, supreme, ultimate.
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit…
There is definitely an echo heard from the Jewish Scriptures about the supremacy of God, but before we turn there, let’s identify the few other occasions where this word is used.
Simeon sings a song announcing the revelation of God in the flesh as Jesus is presented in the Temple by his parents. It’s the only time, Luke 2:29-32, where “sovereign lord” is used in the Gospels - “Sovereign Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
In I Timothy 6, Titus 2, and I Peter 2, we see this word used in the roles played out in society - a master over a bondservant, with the encouragement to “respect” (I Timothy 6:1), “be subject” (Titius 2:9), and submit (I Peter 2:18), for the primary sake of the Gospel and to model the suffering of the Messiah himself, though there are other reasons we could explore more deeply in another article.
2 Timothy 2:20-26 is the admonition to Timothy to remain alert lest he be trapped by the evil one. Paul uses an illustration of a large house that holds precious items and some items for everyday uses. The encouragement is to hold tightly to what the Sovereign Lord has deemed precious, things that lead toward a knowledge of the truth and away from stupid arguments and squabbling that results in division.
Jude 1:4 and Revelation 6:10 give Jesus the clear status of “Sovereign Lord,” more expounded on in John’s vision: “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” The answer comes immanently with a crowd of white robes, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (7:10).
Especially seen in Simeon’s song and John’s vision, God’s sovereignty is paired with reflective awe and wonder, a surprise and comfort by us, his creatures made in his image, and in want for his good purposes to be revealed. If we plot a few lines through the Torah and the rest of Scripture, we see this lofty vision of God, as the believers in Acts 4 point to, by quoting Psalm 2. We see this vast expanse of sovereignty all over, including these stories:
The casting away from the garden In Genesis 3, the further cleansing of the flood, opening to a covenantal promise to Noah in Genesis 9 - each account provides a context for God’s superiority over his creatures and creation.
In Abraham (Genesis 12), we see a fuller promise to make his offspring, the Israelites, into a great nation. This is a nod toward sovereignty that we can extend to Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons, namely Joseph, completing the adventures of Genesis.
The burning bush of Exodus 3 on through to the Promise Land, the lack of diligence that is judged, the kings that God allows so to make his tabernacle a Temple home, and the prophets who warn the exiled Jews to remain faithful, instructions kept by only a remnant, but by enough so that the messianic revelation of Simeon has gravity to land and Luke 2:52 can bleed into Luke 24:45-49, and so on… in a place, with a context.
But let’s also look at some of the praise used to usher in and acknowledge God’s sovereignty:
“Who is like Thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, sublime in glorious deeds, doing wonders.” (Exodus 15:11)
“Stand still and consider the wondrous works of the Lord. Do you know how God lays His commands upon them, and causes lightning of His cloud to shine? Do you know the balancing of the clouds, the wondrous works of Him who is perfect in knowledge…” (Job 37:14-16)
“When I behold your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have fashioned–what is man that you should be mindful of him, and the son of man that you should think of him? (Psalm 8:4-5)
“Come and behold the works of God, sublime in his dealings with the sons of men.” (Psalm 66:5)
For the Jew, the words of sovereignty and wonder are always present in daily prayers. Here are a few examples:
“I am thankful before You, living and enduring King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is Your faithfulness.”
“My God, the soul that you placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me. And in the future, You will take it from me and restore it in the Time to Come…”
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created many openings and cavities within him. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if any one of them were closed or if one of any one them were opened, it would be impossible to exist for even an hour.”
If we return to Acts 4, and the dangers and unknowns staring the early followers in the face every day, we see two leaders, Peter and John, presenting the Gospel to the Jewish authorities. Remember, only a few weeks earlier, this same crew sanctioned the execution of Jesus. This same group of thugs were behind the manufactured stories of Matthew 28:11-15. And now, Jesus’ disciples have the gall to stand before this council with the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified?
Acts 4:21 confirms their confusion and frustration at the turn of events, this newfound courage. “…they let them go,” Luke tells us. “They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened.” What had happened was a combination of their courage, the Holy Spirit’s presence, and the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 (see Isaiah 35 for what a healing like this might mean).
So, when Peter and John wind up back home, among the early followers of Jesus, they don’t know what else to do but praise God and his sovereignty. With the context at hand - the God who is revealed in Jesus as God in the flesh, who sent his Holy Spirit to comfort and guide, who gives safe passage and good purposes in the works of Peter and John who just walked into the room, they know that God is sufficient. Hebrews 13:20-21 captures a similar wonderment and praise –
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.