Act 5:17-42 NASB - "17 But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. 18 They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail.
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, 20 "Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life."
21 Upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest and his associates came, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent orders to the prison house for them to be brought. 22 But the officers who came did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported back, 23 saying, "We found the prison house locked quite securely and the guards standing at the doors; but when we had opened up, we found no one inside." 24 Now when the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them as to what would come of this.
25 But someone came and reported to them, "The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!"
26 Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, that they might be stoned). 27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, "We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man's blood upon us."
29 But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men. 30 "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 "He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 "And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him."
33 But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.
35 And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 "For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 "After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38 "So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."
40 They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them.
41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."
Pondering on the passage
The Apostles demonstrated here an example of “civil and ecclesiastical disobedience” in obeying the will of God in sharing the gospel of the Messiah Jesus. The Romans allowed limited local rule and the High Priest and Sanhedrin represented part of that rule with Herod also acting as a type of ‘king of the Jews”. So you have here a type of blending in which Jews are not only under the authority of Rome but also of their religious rulers who also have a police force, jails, and the right to administer punishment such as flogging. Normally, godly people are called upon to obey rulers who have been given such a position by God himself. This is something that was taught to them by the Messiah Jesus.
Matthew 23:2-3 NASB - "2 saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them."
The Apostle Peter continues to teach this principle later in his ministry.
1Peter 2:13-14 NASB - "13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right."
Yet it is Apostle Peter and the others who are now disobeying the authorities. Why would they do such a thing? The reason is that to obey God is a greater responsibility than to obey human authorities. When human authorities have forbidden what God has commanded then to obey them is to disobey God, then clearly their authority is less than God’s authority.
The leaders of the Jews at this point are facing many different problems. One their actions have been motivated by jealousy and not a passion to do God’s will. At their most honest moments they may have been able to recognize that this was not their best hour.
In addition they are now facing a miracle of some type for the men who they thought they had in prison are now preaching. Most of the times if people escape from prison they hide and instead in a way they do not understand these men have escaped but now do the very preaching publically that had put them in jail facing torturous death in the first place. Clearly they were facing men who believed strongly in what they did and would be willing to suffer for it. Their power to stop the activity now is very limited since there is no fear in these men.
The people are responding well to their message. The soldiers sent to fetch the Apostles have to do so with no violence because they fear that if they did the crowd would become a mob and stone the soldiers. The hearts of the people were not on the side of the authorities but with the Apostles at this moment. They had to fear the opinion polls as well.
So they found themselves in a very complicated situation.
As Peter tells them that under their rule of the Jewish people they were the ones that organized the execution of God’s Messiah and that HIS resurrection and their witness was proof that they had failed to obey God as a critical moment of decision. They were being called upon to repent of that course of action but the Apostle’s would not repeat their mistake by refusing now to preach about Jesus, regardless of what they did. This open defiance both convicted them and angered them. They just wanted to kill them now for their jealousy had become rage.
But the Lord has sent a cool head. A very respected rabbi named Gamaliel removed the Apostles so that he could talk to other leaders privately. This man was the main mentor of Saul who would become Paul (Acts 22:3).
Now we know that Gamaliel was a real person who had leadership at this time among the Jews. At some point it appears he will become the head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin. The New World Encyclopedia has this information about him:
Gamaliel the Elder, or Gamaliel I, was the leading Jewish teacher of his day in the first half of the first century C.E. He was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder and a high authority in the Sanhedrin in the mid-first century. His son Shimon ben Gamaliel was one of the leaders of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, and his grandson, Gamaliel II, was an even more famous Sanhedrin leader than Gamaliel I himself. Gamaliel I died around 54 C.E. One of his most famous sayings is "Secure a teacher for thyself."
So this is real history taking place in real space and time. If they had cameras there this could have all been filmed and recorded. This is not just a religious myth but actual events that occurred.
His counsel at this time also makes appeal to God’s sovereign authority. There are two aspects of God ruling over human beings. One is our need to obey God’s commands.
This is the argument of the Apostles. They have received God’s command to preach about Messiah Jesus and are going to obey it even if this leads to their deaths. So they must obey God, even if it means they must disobey human authority.
It would be hard to doubt their sincerity at this moment since they continued to preach knowing that they would be delivered to the rulers and face their punishment and wrath. Now sincerity does not prove truth but it does demonstrate that the person has integrity over what he or she believes. People don’t suffer prison, torture, and death for something they know is lie. The Apostles sincerely believe that Jesus is the Messiah and has been raised from the dead by God. There can be little doubt of this now.
But Moses taught there were two aspects of God’s will (Deuteronomy 29:29). The one an ethical requirement for all human beings to obey what God has revealed concerning how they ought to live. The second however is the secret will of God working in the middle of history. Gamaliel points out that this is not the first group of people who believed in a “Messiah” and in every case God worked out events in history that ended the groups since their leaders were false messiahs and not sent from God.
So if the followers of the Jesus are wrong then God will stop them. There is no real chance they will succeed for God will stop them.
But, if they execute them, and they are really sent by God to preach about Jesus, then the Jewish leadership itself will be fighting God and failing in their moral obligations to lead the nation wisely. The only real risk here then is to execute them since this may place the Jewish leadership under God’s wrath.
So this argument is used to save the lives of the Apostles. But clearly it is not fully followed for they are still flogged which was no small matter. What was flogging?
The following is excerpted from The Expositors Bible Commentary (Volume 8, pages 775-780, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.)
“The Romans first stripped the victim and tied his hands to a post above his head. The whip (flagellum) was made of several pieces of leather with pieces of bone and lead embedded near the ends. Two men, one on each side of the victim, usually did the flogging. The Jews mercifully limited flogging to a maximum of forty stripes; the Romans had no such limitation”
So the Apostles were stripped naked, tied up, and whips shred their backs perhaps up to 39 times. They left this event alive but near death.
Yet, they rejoice. They believe the Sermon on the Mount that said “blessed are you when they persecute you for my sake.” They had come to believe so much in the Messiah Jesus that they could look at such pain and torture as being part of God’s plan as much as the crucifixion of Jesus. This is a very deep and profound faith.
So faith in God’s sovereign will is at the heart of this passage. We have the need to ultimately obey God as sovereign ruler over all human authorities. We also have the need to trust that God is sovereign over all the affairs of human beings and will guide history in the direction HE wills it. Therefore, if bad things happen we need to believe that they are part of God’s plan as well. We must believe this even when the events will include our own personal suffering.
How should we then live?
Has the Lord commanded you to share your faith about Messiah Jesus to someone today?
What hinders you from obeying this command?
Do you trust that God is able to control the outcome of events to stop evil and establish HIS kingdom?
What could you do to prepare yourself for being persecuted for Messiah Jesus today?
How can you make your faith stronger so that you might be willing to suffer persecution?
As we talk about obedience we must remember to guard ourselves both against legalism and lawlessness. As brother Bonheoffer summarized.
“‘Only those who believe obey’ is what we say to that part of a believer’s soul which obeys, and ‘only those who obey believe’ is what we say to that part of the soul of the obedient which believes. If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of cheap grace, which is another word for damnation. If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation through works, which is also another word for damnation.
(Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2011-08-16). The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Classics) (Kindle Locations 963-966). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.)
May our faith in Messiah Jesus lead us to joyful obedience free of self-righteous legalism and pride. Amen.
Lord, give us the boldness we need to share the gospel in word and deed to people. Help us be able to see divine appointments for sharing the gospel with others in love. Overcome our fears and provide us a conviction that people need to have a relationship with you. Lord revive our faith, reform our doctrine, and renew our vision of your love and kingdom. Amen