One of my earliest memories comes from when I was about two or three years old. We lived in an apartment in Los Angeles. My parents had instilled in me that I was never to go into anyone’s house unless they were with me. A neighbor named Fanny offered me an Indian hat made up of different colored feathers. But to get the hat, she wanted me to go into her house. I stood outside and loudly scolded her, “No, Fanny, I will not go into your house!”
Every parent wants to instill unquestioning obedience into his child. His safety and very life may depend on it. And God wants to instill the same kind of obedience, no matter what, into His children. Sometimes obeying God will not bring us into a place of safety, but rather, into danger and harm. But, as soldiers of the cross, we must be ready and willing to obey our Commander without question or complaint.
Our text follows on the story of two disobedient people whom God struck dead as a warning to the early church against the deadly sin of hypocrisy. Verses 12-16 show the church recovering from that frightening incident, reporting both the atmosphere in the church and in the surrounding community. No hypocrites dared to join them, for fear of being struck dead! And yet the Lord was adding many more—Luke has stopped counting—to the church. And the apostles were performing extraordinary miracles of healing and deliverance.
It is in this context of great power and popularity that the Jewish leaders rose up against the apostles, putting them in prison. But the Lord sent an angel to deliver them, and in so doing shows us the theme of this story (5:20): “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” That command was sure to get them into big trouble! They had just been arrested, but now they are to go right back into the most conspicuous place of all and continue proclaiming the gospel. But they didn’t question the command. They didn’t even go out for breakfast first. They obeyed (5:21), leading to their arrest again. When the high priest confronted them for disobeying their earlier commands, filling Jerusalem with their teaching (5:28), Peter again states the theme (5:29): “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter preaches a short sermon to the Sanhedrin, emphasizing again the issue of obedience (5:32).
When the high priest and his cronies wanted to kill the apostles, Gamaliel intervened, resulting in their being flogged and ordered again to speak no more in the name of Jesus (5:40). So what did the apostles do? “Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42)! They were unstoppable in their obedience to God, especially on the matter of proclaiming the good news about Jesus. Thus the lesson for us is,
No matter what, we must obey God by proclaiming and teaching that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior and Lord.
Our text reveals four marks of obedient Christians:
After what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, we read, “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard these things” (5:11). None of the rest (those outside the church) dared to associate with them (5:13). What an odd thing, a church that unbelievers would not dare to attend! These early saints had not been to a modern Church Growth school, to learn about making the church user-friendly for outsiders! And yet their church was growing by leaps and bounds!
I would to God that the modern American church would fear and hate sin because they fear and love God, who is holy! We live in a day when if a man preaches the fear of God and the holiness of God, he is labeled as a “fundamentalist.” If a church practices discipline, putting sinning members who refuse to repent out of the church, they are labeled “unloving” or “intolerant.” But sin destroys people. It is never loving to let a person go on in sin. While we must always be kind and patient (2 Tim. 2:24-26), we cannot allow sin to permeate the church like leaven. Obedient Christians will fear the Lord and His holiness. They will judge sin in their own lives first, but also in the church (1 Cor. 5:1-13).
The early church experienced the Lord’s power through the many miracles performed by the apostles (5:12, 15, 16), and through powerful witness and the resulting powerful conversions of sinners. Jesus had told the apostles that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them to be His witnesses (1:8). Peter testifies to the Sanhedrin that it was the Holy Spirit in them that was the source of their power (5:32).
Many say that if the church would only repent of her sins and have faith in God, then we would again see miracles on a par with these recorded in the Book of Acts. But I believe such thinking not to be in line with biblical teaching. It was not every church member who was performing these miracles, but rather the apostles and a few other leading men in the church (Philip, 8:13). The purpose for God granting these miracles was to confirm the gospel message and to authenticate these men as God’s messengers in these early days of the church (Heb. 2:3-4; 2 Cor. 12:12).
While God obviously can do mighty miracles in our day if He so chooses (and He often does such miracles on the frontiers of the gospel), to argue that it is His will to do them as a common occurrence is to ignore the overall teaching of God’s Word. Many fail to note that while the apostles performed many great miracles, and the angel miraculously delivered them from prison, the angel did not spare them from being flogged. (There is a bit of humor here: since the Sadducees did not believe in angels, the Lord sent one to deliver the apostles!) God did not deliver James (12:2) or Paul from prison (Acts24:27) or spare them and most of the other apostles from martyrdom. Paul did not heal Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20) or tell Timothy to claim healing by faith for his frequent stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23).
On the one hand, we should never limit God’s power by our unbelief or by our rationalistic theology. We should pray in faith, knowing that all things are possible with God. Yet on the other hand, we should submit to the fact that it is not always His will to deliver us from illness, persecution, or death. Above all, we should be people who are “strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col. 1:11-12). I would point out that you don’t need steadfastness and patience if God miraculously delivers you! We see God’s mighty power in our text, not only in the miracles of healing, but also in the disciples rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name (5:41).
The Bible commands us as Christians to be subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), even when these authorities are evil people. But if the governing authorities command us to do something that would be disobedient to God, then we must obey God, even if it results in our being punished. Christians disagree over civil disobedience on the matter of abortion. While it is evil for our government to permit abortion, and we should pray and work to see the evil laws overturned, the government is not forcing us to abort our children (as the Chinese government does). If it came to that, we then should disobey the government. If the government said that we could not meet as Christians or teach what the Bible says about homosexuality, abortion, or other moral issues, we must disobey the government.
Thus obedient Christians will fear the Lord’s holiness. They will know His power through the Holy Spirit. They will obey Him above all other authorities.
God sent an angel to deliver the apostles, but the angel was not sent to preach the gospel! He told the apostles to go, stand, and speak to the people the whole message of this Life (5:20). All of us who have come to know Christ as Savior are charged to go and proclaim the whole message of this life to the people. Note these five aspects of this proclamation:
This is Peter’s second opportunity before the Sanhedrin. God was gracious to give these evil men another chance to respond to the gospel. In his first encounter, Peter had not minced words (4:10-12). He told these men that they had crucified Jesus, but that God had raised Him from the dead. Further, Jesus was the chief cornerstone which had been rejected by them, the builders. And, there is salvation in no one else. When he gets his second chance, Peter again confronts them with putting Jesus to death by their own hands, by hanging Him on a tree (lit., 5:30). Peter was accusing them of despising Jesus as one accursed of God (Deut. 27:26). He was not tiptoeing around the issue of sin!
The modern “seeker service” approach to evangelism argues that we should not hit people too hard with the gospel. We should make the church a place where people feel good about themselves and the message. Eventually, somehow, we slip the gospel in on them. But if people do not come under conviction as sinners who have despised Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross, why would they need a Savior? What is He saving them from: low self-esteem, as some pervert the gospel? It is only when a person sees the magnitude of his sin that he will flee to Jesus as His Savior. We must not dodge the issue of sin and judgment.
The angel tells the apostles to proclaim the whole message of this Life (5:20), which is a reference to the gospel. Jesus proclaimed that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). He also said, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (John 5:21). He also said, “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). Thus the Triune God is both the author and giver of both physical and spiritual life. Spiritually dead people do not just need a moral code to follow. The Pharisees and Sadducees had the moral law, but it did not save them. Spiritually dead people need life, and only God can give it.
Peter exalted Jesus as the only one who could give these hardened men new life. He boldly tells them, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 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” (5:30-31).
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is at the heart of the gospel. If He is not risen, our faith is worthless and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). In proclaiming Jesus Christ to people, challenge them to consider the proofs for His resurrection. The entire faith rests on that great fact of history.
Not only did Peter proclaim Jesus as risen from the dead. He also made it clear that God has exalted Jesus to His right hand as a Prince and Savior. Prince is the same word Peter used in 3:15, when he told the Jews that they had put to death the Prince of life. The word means “author” or “leader.” Jesus is the rightful Sovereign of the universe, the author of our salvation and faith (Heb. 2:10; 12:2). Before Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). He deserves our worship and obedience, since He was willing to lay aside His glory and offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. Any message that diminishes the rightful lordship of Jesus as the Prince and Author of salvation is not the gospel. We must exalt Him.
Not only is He the Prince; He is also the Savior. This is the first mention of Jesus as Savior outside of the gospels (I. Howard Marshall, Acts [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 120). Part of the problem with these Jewish leaders was that they did not think that they needed a Savior. They saw themselves as good men. They were Jews by birth. They kept the Mosaic laws and ceremonies. What need did they have for a Savior? Isn’t it amazing that even though they had “disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to them, but put to death the Prince of Life” (3:14-15), these men did not think that they needed a Savior! The most difficult people to reach with the gospel are those who pride themselves in being good people. But the Bible is clear that all have sinned and thus all need Jesus as their Savior if they want to escape God’s righteous judgment.
Peter also exalted Jesus by proclaiming that He has the power to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins, which is every sinner’s main need. Sinners are so far gone in their sins (“dead” is the biblical term, Eph. 2:1) that they cannot repent of their sins by their own power or “free will.” Jesus must grant repentance (see also 11:18).
John Calvin defines repentance as “an inward turning of man unto God, which shows itself afterwards by external works.” He argues that God must give us new life by His Spirit to make us new creatures. He says, “It is a thing as impossible for men to convert themselves as to create themselves. Repentance is, I grant, a voluntary conversion, but whence have we this will, save only because God changes our heart …? And this comes to pass when Christ regenerates thus by his Spirit” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], p. 218 on Acts 5:31; I updated the English).
Along with repentance, Jesus Christ grants forgiveness of sins. That word should bring hope to every heart, since all have sinned against God’s holiness; thus all need His forgiveness. When Jesus grants forgiveness, it means that He will not bring our sins up against us for judgment, since He has paid the price that we deserved, namely, spiritual death. There is nothing that we can do to atone for our sins. Jesus paid it all! God does not just remove the guilt and penalty of our sins; He also imputes the very righteousness of Jesus to our account, so that we stand before Him completely clean!
If you are here without a repentant heart and without forgiveness for your sins, then ask Jesus to give them to you. They are His gift, and He gives them freely to all who will come to Him. But maybe you’re thinking, “I can see where He would give repentance and forgiveness to normal people. But I’m a really bad sinner.” You need to know that …
Remember that Peter was preaching to the very men who had callously murdered the spotless Lamb of God. He tells them that Jesus Christ will grant repentance to Israel (to them!). And this was not the first time he had made this offer! God’s grace is so great that it extends to those who murdered His Son, and not just once, but again and again! As we know, the student of Gamaliel, Saul of Tarsus, who was not as tolerant toward these followers of Jesus as his teacher was, would one day receive God’s gift of repentance and forgiveness. He called himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). If God offered mercy to the Sanhedrin and to Paul, He has plenty for every sinner who will receive it. We err if we think that anyone is too far gone for Christ to save. Thank God that Jesus will grant repentance and forgiveness even to the men that crucified Him!
When the angel let them out of prison, he told them to go to the temple and speak to the people, and they obeyed. After they were arrested again, Peter says to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.” He had said a similar thing in his previous encounter, “We cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20). Even after their backs were laid open by the 39 lashes, we read, “And every day, in the temple [they didn’t stop going there!] and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42).
What does it take to get you to stop proclaiming the gospel? Spurgeon says (“The Former and the Latter Rain,” on Jer.5:24, from “Grace Quotes,” on the internet),
But we are so gentle and quiet, we do not use strong language about other people’s opinions; but let them go to hell out of charity to them. We are not at all fanatical. We would not wish to save any sinner who does not particularly wish to be saved. Neither would we thrust our opinions upon them, though we know they are being lost for lack of the knowledge of Christ crucified. Do not drivel away your existence upon baser ends, but count the glory of Christ to be the only object worthy of your manhood’s strength, the spread of the truth the only pursuit worthy of your mental powers. Spend and be spent in your Master’s service.
This proclamation involves confronting sinners with their sin. It involves exalting Jesus Christ. It involves offering repentance and forgiveness to the worst of sinners. It should be bold and persistent. Finally,
I can only comment briefly. It is important to realize before you proclaim Christ to others that not all will respond positively. Some will be irrationally angry at you, as the Sanhedrin was (5:33). They were motivated by jealousy (5:17), because their power and position were being threatened. Others will respond with reasoned tolerance without acceptance, as Gamaliel did (5:34-39). His thinking reflects some belief in God’s sovereignty, but it is mixed with worldly wisdom. God permits false religions to flourish, and so his thinking is not correct, although God used it to spare the death of the apostles at this point. Thankfully, God will use the foolishness of the message of the cross to save some (5:14). At times of revival, such as Acts records, many will be saved. At other times, men have labored faithfully for a lifetime and yet seen little or no fruit. But whatever the results, we must obey God by proclaiming and teaching the whole message of this Life in Jesus.
Richard Greenham served as a pastor just outside of Cambridge, England, from 1570-1590. He rose daily at four and each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday preached to his congregation at daybreak before they went into their fields. On Sunday he preached twice, and on Sunday nights and Thursday mornings he catechised the children. He was a godly and faithful man who, as he put it, preached Christ crucified unto my self and the country people. Yet his ministry was virtually fruitless. He told his successor that he perceived no good wrought by his ministry on any but one family.
Richard Baxter ministered at Kidderminster, England, from 1641-1660, except for five years during the civil war. It was a town of about 2,000 adults. When he came, he found them an ignorant, rude, and reveling people. Hardly one family on a street professed to follow God. The church held about 1,000, but it proved to be too small. They had to build five galleries to hold the crowds. On the Lord’s Day, as you walked the streets, you would hear hundreds of families singing psalms and repeating the sermons. When Baxter left, on many streets there would hardly be a single family that did not follow the Lord. (These stories told by J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway Books], pp. 43-45).
Why the difference between these two men’s ministries? Both men obeyed God no matter what. God’s sovereignty is the only explanation. Both men will receive the Lord’s commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
What about you? Is there a matter where you know God’s will, but you’re refusing to obey? Whatever the hindrance, whatever the cost, obey Him. Be faithful to His command to proclaim the good news about Christ, and you will someday hear those same wonderful words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation