• The Explore the Bible lesson for April 17 focuses on Acts 5:25-42.
Right back at it
Imagine how utterly frustrating the early church must have been to the Sadducees. Peter and John already had been imprisoned and appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The high priest himself ordered them not to speak any more about the name of Jesus. The goal had been to stop the movement in its tracks. It hadn’t worked (Acts 4). As more and more people began to profess Jesus as Lord, crowds came streaming into Jerusalem for healing—right inside the temple! It must have seemed like Jesus all over again (Acts 5:12-16). This time, all of the apostles were arrested and imprisoned. Surely, some of the Sadducees and other Jewish leaders thought this should have happened in the first place when Jesus had been arrested. After a night in jail, the Sanhedrin sent the temple guard for the apostles and found them right back in the temple teaching. One angel-incited prison break, and the apostles are on their way to strike three.
After being finally tracked down to the temple and delicately brought back to Sanhedrin, the apostles stand to be questioned. The high priest’s accusation is one of offended authority. “We gave you strict orders, yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching … .” Thus the first part of Jesus’ command for them to be witnesses is nearing completion (Acts 1:8). Second, they are accused of being “determined to make us guilty of this man’s (Jesus’) blood (Acts 5:28).” The irony of this accusation is lost on the high priest. It is not the apostles, but his own actions that laid that guilt on him. A further irony the high priest cannot see is that he could be free from even that guilt, and that even he could be free from all guilt if he repented and believed their teaching.
There is no question recorded in the high priest’s “questioning.” The implied question is, “How dare you?” The Sanhedrin, and the high priest in particular, are accustomed to being obeyed. They command, and people are imprisoned. They give the order, and people are flogged. They are the keepers of the temple, protectors of the most sacred things of Judaism. They are, from their perspective, watching their influence over the people passing to followers of a man condemned as a blasphemer. How dare they?
Peter stands with his brethren and announces he dares because they have been charged by a higher authority. God has done this. God raised Jesus, God exalted him to his right hand (Psalm 110), God installed him as Prince and Savior (two titles commonly applied in the ancient world to Caesar), God confirmed him as Messiah, God authorized him to forgive the sins of Israel. We are witnesses, Peter says, and so too is the Holy Spirit. The claim of the Holy Spirit is another cut against the Sadducees, for the temple was supposed to be the place Israel encountered God’s Spirit. Now, God has given his Spirit to those who obey him, that is, to those who recognize the One God has made their Lord. Peter has just gone over the head of the high priest of Israel. It is not that he or the other apostles dare to defy the priest’s authority; it is that they dare not do other than that what God has commanded them to do—namely, to preach the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus and salvation in his name.
Fighting against God
It certainly looks as though the apostles are headed down a similar path to their Lord. Their defiance sparks fury and the desire for their deaths. The next step is a trip to see Pilate or mob violence such as Stephen will soon endure. Before the apostles can be punished further, however, Gamaliel the Pharisee (who counted among his students Saul of Tarsus; Acts 22:3) cautions them. Once a generation or so since the Roman occupation of Judea, someone rises up “claiming to be somebody” (Acts 5:36). This group seems no different, except their leader already has died, and his followers have not yet dispersed. Gamaliel counsels the long view. These things happen, he says, and they always end up the same. However, it may be that God is, in fact, at work in this group. This does not necessarily mean Gamaliel believes their claims. He may simply mean God may yet accomplish some purpose through them that even the experts cannot see, and so it would be wiser to let God direct their ends.
Gamaliel’s counsel saves the apostles’ lives, but they are punished with flogging and warned not to speak in Jesus’ name, that is, both about him and under his authority. The result is exactly what we would expect from those who suffer for Christ’s sake: Rejoicing and going right back to the temple and all over Jerusalem preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name.
The Sanhedrin has used imprisonment, warnings, threats and the infliction of physical pain. Their authority is exercised in force. The apostles have used preaching, preaching and preaching. They have been assisted by an angel, by the Spirit and by an unbelieving ally who is wise enough to not want to get in God’s way. The apostles’ disobedience to human authority is matched by their obedience to the way of Christ. There is no counterplot to get back at the Sanhedrin. They are not tunneling under the temple to bring it down. Their agenda is to continue to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ by word and action.
N.T. Wright puts it this way in Surprised By Hope: “The method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.”