After the miraculous healings that we saw being described in yesterday’s passage, we come to another period of persecution for the apostles. Hopefully, you have picked up on this pattern throughout the book of Acts. And that pattern is that anytime there was a massive move of the Spirit, as we saw described in yesterday’s passage, it was almost always followed by an attempt to stamp out this move of God. And the same holds true today.
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.—5:17-18
The great response to the gospel provoked the high priest and the Sadducees to jealousy, suggesting that they longed for the high esteem afforded to the church. The public jail was likely the Jewish state prison in Herod’s former palace. Normally, a prisoner would have been held for trial, but here the idea was to douse revival fires.
But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin —the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”—5:19-28
The story is almost humorous. While the council was meeting to put the apostles on trial, the apostles, having been set free by an angel, were openly preaching the word of life to the people. The officers had to go and get them (albeit gently) to appear at the court for questioning. The charge against the apostles was twofold. First, they were directly disobedient to the council’s earlier prohibition. And second, they were accusing the council of illegally putting Jesus to death.
Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead —whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.—5:29-33
Peter answers both charges in order. First, his obligation was to obey God. Second, it was God who vindicated Jesus—whom they killed—through the resurrection. Therefore, they were guilty of his murder. Peter’s answer so infuriated the council that they wanted to execute him and the others.
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”—5:34-39
The council was largely made up of Sadducees, who were generally Roman sympathizers. There was a small group of the more conservative Pharisees on the council, including a rabbi named Gamaliel, a man held in high regard. The apostle Paul was Gamaliel’s student. Gamaliel’s advice to the council built on the example of two insurrectionists named Theudas and Judas. Both men claimed to be somebody, but they were not, so they did not achieve their goals in their respective movements. Gamaliel’s advice to leave the apostles alone was expedient for the apostles, but it was not very sound advice. He compared Christianity to a political insurrection and then advised the council to wait and see. God used Gamaliel’s advice to quell the hostility and provide release for the apostles.
His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.—5:40-42
The responses of the trial’s participants could not be more different. The council had the apostles beaten (likely 39 lashes from a whip) and ordered them to desist. It was surely a politically motivated decision as they tried to navigate their own anger as well as public opinion. They had to flex their muscles to appear to be in charge but did not want to provoke the people, for the apostles were held in great esteem. On the other hand, the apostles rejoiced for being considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ name. They immediately returned to the temple and individual homes, preaching the gospel with no intention to obey the council’s God-dishonoring instructions. When obedience to people meant disobedience to God, the apostles had to obey God. Because the apostles worried less about looking respectable and more about being faithful. Their focus was on eternal things, not temporary, superficial things. The desire to appear respectable to others can hinder a person from effectively pleasing God. To put it another way: It is a great credit if the world discredits someone for an un-compromised commitment to God! And that is were we will pick up tomorrow as we move into Acts chapter 6.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
1 Chronicles 16:37-18:17, Romans 2:1-24, Psalm 10:16-18 and Proverbs 19:8-9
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