Our God is a saving God, a God of deliverance. The Bible is filled with examples of divine deliverance. When God brought the flood upon the earth to destroy it, He saved Noah and his family, along with a remnant of the creatures that dwell on the earth (Genesis 6-9). When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, God rescued him from bondage and made him a great leader in the land of Egypt, and a savior to his own people (Genesis 37-50). When the Israelites were held captive as slaves in Egypt, God rescued them and eventually led them into the land of Canaan (Exodus 1-15). God often delivered David from his enemies, and especially from Saul, who sought to kill him (1 Samuel). We read of many other deliverances in the Book of Psalms. God rescued Jehoshaphat from the Syrians (1 Kings 22) and also from the Moabites (2 Kings 3). He rescued Jerusalem from the Assyrians when Sennacherib sent Rabshakeh to destroy Jerusalem and capture Judah (see Isaiah 36-37).
When we come to Acts 5, we have the account of two great deliverances – the deliverance of the apostles from their incarceration in a Jerusalem jail and from certain death at the hands of the Sanhedrin. This is a fascinating text with many applications for Christians today. Let us look to the Holy Spirit to illuminate this passage to our hearts and minds.
Acts 1 takes us to that 50-day period of time between our Lord’s resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus revealed Himself to many in very convincing ways, over 40 days (Acts 1:1-3). Our Lord brushed aside specific questions regarding the timing of His return and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, but commanded that the gospel be taken to the end of the earth (Acts 1:6-8). After our Lord ascended into heaven, the apostles gathered together to wait, devoting themselves to prayer, and choosing Matthias as the replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26).
The Spirit of God came upon the church, resulting in the gathering of a large crowd, to which Peter proclaimed the gospel. About 3,000 souls were saved that day, and the church began to gather for the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. These new believers were responsive to the financial needs of their brothers and sisters, even to the point of disposing of their own possessions to meet these needs (Acts 2:42-47).
On their way to the temple for prayer, Peter and John encountered a beggar who had been lame from his mother’s womb. They healed this man in the name of Jesus and preached the gospel to the crowd that gathered in amazement. Peter made it clear in his preaching that Jesus was the promised Messiah, that He had been falsely rejected, accused, convicted, and crucified. He further declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead. To be saved, men must confess their sin and believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah (Acts 3).
This was too much for the Jewish religious leaders, particularly those who were Sadducees. They were the most threatened by the preaching of the apostles. They had played a key role in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, they held the positions of power in Israel, and they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. And so they had Peter and John arrested and put in jail overnight, and then brought them to stand trial before the Sanhedrin the next morning. Peter’s confidence and boldness were not shaken by the efforts of the religious leaders of Jerusalem to intimidate him (and the rest who preached Jesus as the risen Messiah). He proclaimed that this lame man was healed in the name of Jesus the Nazarene, whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead. Jesus was the chief corner stone, whom they had rejected, just as the Scriptures had prophesied. Jesus was the One in whom they must believe to be saved and to enter into the promised blessings. There was no way to deny that a great miracle had been performed by the apostles, and there was little the Jewish leaders could do but threaten these apostles and command that they cease preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter and John made it clear they had no intention of following these orders, because they must testify to what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:1-22).
When Peter and John were released, they returned to their fellow believers and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. The whole church rejoiced and prayed this prayer:
24 When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, 25 who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things? 26 The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ.’ 27 “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28 to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen. 29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:24-31, emphasis mine).2
The saints gathered saw this persecution and opposition as the fulfillment of God’s Word, and as the futile efforts of men to thwart the sovereign plans and purposes of God. They prayed for boldness and for God’s attesting signs and wonders, so that God’s message might bring about the salvation of lost men and thus glorify God. Our text in Acts 5:12-42 is clearly the outgrowth of this prayer.
But there is one more piece of the context which is crucial to our understanding of the text before us (Acts 5:12-5:42), and that is Acts 4:32—5:11. Luke once again informs us of the care these new believers had for one another. From time to time, as the need arose, they would sell land or houses and give the money to the apostles to minister to those in need. Luke then introduces us to Barnabas, who sold a piece of his property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to distribute. There was one couple in the church – Ananias and Sapphira – who were not as noble as Barnabas. They sold a piece of land, but kept back a portion of the sale price for themselves, and then gave the rest to the apostles as though it were the total amount of the sale price. Both died because of their hypocrisy. News of this brought great fear on those who heard, believers and unbelievers alike.
12 Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands3 of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon's Portico. 13 None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor. 14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed (Acts 5:12-16).
In response to the arrest of Peter and John, the Jerusalem saints had prayed that God would “extend His hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:30). This is precisely what God did, as Luke informs us in the verses above. The signs and wonders were incredible, so much so that the people were carrying the sick on cots and pallets, laying them beside the street with the hope that Peter might walk by and his shadow might fall on them.
We might wonder if this was mere superstition on the part of the crowds, perhaps like the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, who waited for the waters to be troubled so that he might plunge in first and be healed.4 Luke gives no indication that these efforts to fall under Peter’s shadow were futile. Instead, he tells us that people from the surrounding towns were bringing their sick and that “all were being healed” (Acts 5:16).
On the one hand, we can see that what is happening through the apostles is strikingly similar to what happened through our Lord:
17 Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. And a large number of his disciples had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, 18 and those who suffered from unclean spirits were cured. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all (Luke 6:17-19).
On the other hand, it appears to me that what happens with Peter is an even greater miracle. In the Gospels, people were healed by touching Jesus; in the Book of Acts, people were healed by simply falling under Peter’s shadow. Thus, we appear to have a partial fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to His disciples in John 14:
12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14, emphasis mine).
There is a second aspect to the “state of the church” as Luke describes it in Acts 5:12-16. The church was growing rapidly, in spite of the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira described at the beginning of the chapter:
More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women (Acts 5:14).
The church has been growing rapidly since Pentecost:
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added. . . . And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved (Acts 2:41, 47b).
But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand (Acts 4:4).
Now, we are told that crowds of both men and women are continuing to come to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. And yet this growth is in spite of great fear since the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5, 11).
The unbelieving people of Jerusalem are closer to the truth than their religious leaders. Their leaders cannot refute the miracles Jesus is performing through His apostles, nor can they ignore the association they had with Jesus in His ministry. Yet they will not follow the evidence where it leads. Even the unbelieving masses in Jerusalem and the surrounding cities recognized the power of God at work through the apostles. At the same time, they recognized the holiness of God and His church. They would draw close – close enough for Peter’s shadow to fall on their sick – but they would not associate with the church when it assembled.
17 Now the high priest rose up,5 and all those with him (that is, the religious party 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 doors of the prison, led them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.” 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple courts at daybreak and began teaching. Now when the high priest and those who were with him arrived, they summoned the Sanhedrin – that is, the whole high council of the Israelites – and sent to the jail to have the apostles brought before them. 22 But the officers who came for them did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the jail locked securely and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the commander of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were greatly puzzled concerning it, wondering what this could be. 25 But someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courts and teaching the people!” 26 Then the commander of the temple guard went with the officers and brought the apostles without the use of force (for they were afraid of being stoned by the people). 27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!”
We have just been told that “the people held the apostles in high honor” (Acts 5:13). Luke uses this expression (“to hold in high honor”) several times. Twice it is used to describe worship toward God:
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord” (Luke 1:46, emphasis mine).
45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. . . (Acts 10:45-46, emphasis mine).
I am not suggesting that the people’s “high esteem” for the apostles was improper, but only that it was truly high esteem. If there was anything that the Jewish religious leaders who were members of the Sanhedrin wanted, it was this kind of esteem:
2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:2-12, emphasis mine).
It would seem that the religious leaders6 could not get beyond their wounded pride to consider the implications of the miracles that were taking place through the hands of the apostles. They were furious. And it was pure jealousy7 that prompted them to have all the apostles arrested and placed in jail overnight. This was the same motivation that prompted them to arrest Jesus and put Him to death:
9 So Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews for you?” 10 (For he knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of envy.) 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas instead (Mark 15:9-11, emphasis mine).
And so jealousy prompted the members of the Sanhedrin to have the apostles arrested and hauled off to a “public”8 jail. It must have looked so simple to the religious elite. They would simply do what they had done before (even though it didn’t work the first time).9 They would arrest the apostles and let them spend the night in jail, pondering their fate. They would then summon for them to appear before the Council, making every effort to terrify them, and thus to silence them. Simply put, they would “turn up the heat” until they re-established their power and prominence among the people.
Things did not go well for the Sanhedrin, however. During the night, an10 angel of the Lord came and rescued them. He opened the doors of the prison and led them out. It would seem that here, as later in Acts,11 the guards were somehow anesthetized, so that they were not conscious or aware of the great escape. The angel gave the apostles very clear instructions:
“Go and stand in the temple courts and proclaim to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20).
They were to return to the very place where they had been preaching. They were to return to the very same message. They were to proclaim the good news of the gospel to the people, “all the words of this life.” No modifications, no retractions, no change of course – they are to keep doing what they have been doing. Why? Because Luke is showing us that just as Jesus could not be silenced, and His power could not be overcome, so the apostles are invincible in doing the work of the resurrected Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles followed their instructions to the letter. They went to the temple at the break of dawn, at the earliest possible moment. They didn’t wait until late in the day, when no access would be granted, or when no one was present. They went to the temple courts, where all the people would be gathered. And they began teaching, just as they had been doing. It was “business as usual” for the apostles. The people had to take note of this, especially since the arrest of the apostles must have become public knowledge.
All of the events of the previous night – the appearance of the angel of the Lord, the escape of the apostles, their early morning appearance at the temple courts – were unknown to the members of the Sanhedrin. And so they began the morning just as they had planned it the day before. The members of the Sanhedrin were summoned, and next, officers were sent to bring the apostles from jail to stand before them. You can imagine the shock and dismay when the officers return empty-handed with this explanation:
“We found the jail locked securely and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside” (Acts 5:23).
This was no jail break in the normal sense. The guards had not been overpowered, nor had the gates been forced open. Everything appeared normal. The guards were stationed at their post by the prison doors. The doors were securely locked. But when the doors were opened, the cell was empty.
When the commander of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were dumbfounded. They wondered where all this was leading. What was next? First, it was the empty tomb of Jesus; now, it is the empty cell. What is going on here? This does not bode well, at least not for those who oppose Jesus and His apostles.
At this moment, someone came with this report:
“Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courts and teaching the people!” (Acts 5:25)
The tables have suddenly turned. The chief priests and the Sanhedrin no longer have the upper hand (They never did, but now even they know it!). I am reminded of the time that my roommate in college was looking for a new(er) car. His 1953 Ford coupe was just about worn out. He went to a car dealer friend to look at his used car lot. There he found a 1959 Chevrolet, which he test drove. The salesman made Jerry an offer, which included the trade-in of his 1953 Ford. Jerry was hoping for a better deal and for some time to think about it. He told the salesman that he would think about it and let him know. He got into his old Ford and turned the key. Nothing happened. Jerry stepped out and said to the salesman, “I accept your offer.” When his car would not start, Jerry lost all of his bargaining power. Now, the car salesman had the advantage.
So it was with the members of the Sanhedrin. The commander of the temple guard went with the officers to the temple, where they escorted the apostles back to the Council. Luke is careful to inform us that they did this without force, because they were afraid of the people (Acts 5:26). When the apostles stood before the Sanhedrin, the high priest began to question them. He accused them of disobeying their orders to cease preaching in the name of Jesus. They had not ceased at all; instead, they had succeeded in “filling Jerusalem with their teaching” (Acts 5:27). This is plainly an admission of failure on the part of the Sanhedrin and of success on the part of the apostles.
The apostles were not on the defensive at all, as the high priest backhandedly admitted when he accused them of seeking to bring “this man’s blood” on them. If their teaching had filled Jerusalem, then they must have succeeded on all counts.
When threatened earlier by this same body of men, Peter had responded,
“Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
He had given no indication that the threats of the Sanhedrin would change their actions. Indeed, he assured these religious leaders that they would continue to do what they had been doing – bearing witness to what they had seen and heard. Peter’s response on this occasion did not give the members of the Sanhedrin any encouragement either:
29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).
While the religious leaders had an exaggerated idea of their own importance and power, the apostles were not impressed. These were mere men, and the apostles were committed to obeying God. When they must make a choice between the two, they would serve God. They would serve the living Christ, whom the Sanhedrin had condemned and put to death. God had overruled them by raising Jesus from the dead, and by making Him both a Prince and a Savior. It was this Jesus alone who could grant repentance and the forgiveness of sins to Israel. The apostles were witnesses of these things, and the Holy Spirit bore witness with them by His acts of power through their hands.
33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God.” He convinced them, 40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:33-40).
We need to be very clear in our minds as to what is about to take place according to verse 33. We read, “Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them” (Acts 5:33, emphasis mine).12 This term, rendered “furious” by the NET Bible is found only one other time in the New Testament. Once again, it is Luke who uses it, and in the Book of Acts, just two chapters later: “When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54, emphasis mine).
In this latter instance, Luke is describing the reaction of the same body – the Sanhedrin. In this case, their fury is in response to the strong accusations of Stephen:
51 “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! 52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! 53 You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it” (Acts 7:51-54).
When we come to Acts 5:33, we are at a point where the members are nearly out of control with rage. They are a heartbeat away from the fate of Stephen, just two chapters later. The members of the Sanhedrin are so enraged they want to kill all of the apostles. Luke leaves no doubt about this. First, he says so in verse 33: They were furious, and they wanted to execute them. Second, we see that they did kill Stephen in chapter 7. Third, Luke tells us that Gamaliel was able to convince them (Acts 5:39). We then read that they proceeded to beat the apostles. If beating the apostles was giving in to the convincing argument of Gamaliel, then being unconvinced truly must mean death for the apostles.
In our text, Luke introduces Gamaliel to us for the first time in the Book of Acts. He is described as a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and as one who was respected by all the people (Acts 5:34). He is more than this however:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:3, emphasis mine).
Gamaliel is a Pharisee, while those who want to kill the apostles are primarily Sadducees (see Acts 4:1; 5:17). Gamaliel is also Paul’s mentor and teacher. He is a man of great influence.
Gamaliel’s argument is a very simple one, and it is built upon facts that are well known to his colleagues. Gamaliel first sent the apostles from the Council. He did not want them to overhear his appeal, or the discussion that would follow. He wanted to be able to talk freely, and he certainly did. Now Gamaliel will press forward with his argument, with the goal of persuading his colleagues not to execute the apostles.
Gamaliel reminds the Council of their past history in regard to revolutionary groups. Theudas rose up, claiming some kind of greatness or mission, and about 400 men joined with him. But after he was killed, his followers disbanded, and the movement came to nothing. So, too, Judas the Galilean “arose”13 in the days of the census and gained a following. But when he was killed, his following, like those who once followed Theudas, quickly scattered, and the movement came to nothing.
Gamaliel now draws a conclusion from these facts and applies it to the apostles of our Lord. The principle he draws might be stated this way: “Movements tend to die with their leaders.” He is not yet finished, however. There is another element in his argument. In cases where the movement does not die with the leader, but flourishes, it is possible that this movement is the work of God. To oppose a movement that is thriving might then be opposing God.
The application of this was obvious to the members of the Sanhedrin. Jesus was the leader, and He had been put to death. Normally, one would expect His followers – the disciples and others – to disband. That had not happened. Indeed, the more time that passed, the greater the boldness of the apostles and the greater the number of new followers. Persecution had done nothing to stop the growth of this movement. Does this not suggest that this movement may be a work of God? If this is the case, better leave it alone, or run the risk of opposing God.
It is interesting that Luke includes the essence of Gamaliel’s argument here for the reader to ponder. A fair amount of space is devoted to it. It must therefore be important in Luke’s mind. What is so important about Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin? I think there are several elements.
First, Gamaliel’s counsel prevailed, and the Sanhedrin gave up its intention to execute the apostles on the spot. In other words, from a human perspective, Gamaliel’s counsel saved the lives of the apostles. It is clear that they were so furious with the apostles that they intended to kill them (Acts 5:33). He dissuaded them from doing so, thus sparing the lives of the apostles.
Second, Gamaliel’s counsel not only stops an execution, it supports the gospel.14 The more I consider the argument of this prominent scholar, the more it makes sense, and the more it supports the gospel as Luke has been proclaiming it and as the early church practiced it. Gamaliel won because he was right. Jesus was the leader who had been killed, but now they were faced with an empty tomb and with followers (apostles) who were performing signs and wonders, who were preaching with great power, so that the church was rapidly growing. All the evidence pointed to the fact that God was in this, and they had better be careful not to oppose God in their zeal to protect their interests. I am reminded of the words of our Lord, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Third, I have to wonder if Luke is not introducing us to Gamaliel in preparation for his later appearance in Acts. You will remember that Gamaliel played a very significant role in the life of Saul, before his conversion:
1 “Brothers and fathers, listen to my defense that I now make to you.” 2 (When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter.) Then Paul said, 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:1-3, emphasis mine).
When I ask Christians how they were brought to faith in Jesus, they almost always respond, “That’s a long story.” They realize that God used many things to bring them to faith, and often over a period of time. We will read of Saul’s conversion three times in the Book of Acts. From what we read in Acts, we know that Paul was born in Tarsus and then brought up in Jerusalem, under the tutelage of Gamaliel, the very same renowned Pharisee we meet in Acts 5. Saul was also present at the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 7:58; 8:1; 22:20).
I am inclined to think that Gamaliel’s approach to dealing with Jesus and the apostles must have been conveyed to Saul (soon to be known as Paul). In our text, Gamaliel has said, in effect, “If we cannot silence and scatter the apostles and believers in Jesus, then maybe this is a work of God, and we are fighting against Him.” Saul participates (albeit somewhat passively) in the stoning of Stephen. Then he “advances” to much more direct opposition to Christianity:
9 Of course, I myself was convinced that it was necessary to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem: Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons by the authority I received from the chief priests, but I also cast my vote against them when they were sentenced to death. 11 I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to force them to blaspheme. Because I was so furiously enraged at them, I went to persecute them even in foreign cities (Acts 26:9-11).
But it didn’t work! The church continued to grow. And when Saul was on the road to Damascus, he was encountered by the living Christ:
1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing out threats to murder the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, either men or women, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 So he said, “Who are you, Lord?” He replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting! (Acts 9:1-5, emphasis mine)
By His line of questioning, our Lord has made it clear to Saul that he is persecuting Him by persecuting His church. As his teacher, Gamaliel, had said to the Sanhedrin, persecuting the followers of Jesus might just be opposing God. Now, when Saul comes face to face with the risen Lord, he learns that this is precisely what he has been doing. It was not the church that collapsed under persecution, but Saul who collapsed, when confronted by the God he mistakenly assumed he was serving by persecuting the church.
I am therefore suggesting that Gamaliel was actually used of God to promote the gospel, while at the same time he was instrumental in preserving the lives of the apostles. I have to wonder if Gamaliel was there with the Sanhedrin when Paul (the converted Saul) was brought before the Council after his arrest:
30 The next day, because the commanding officer wanted to know the true reason Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and the whole council to assemble. He then brought Paul down and had him stand before them. 1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” 2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those standing near him said, “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?” 5 Paul replied, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” 6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.) 9 There was a great commotion, and some experts in the law from the party of the Pharisees stood up and protested strongly, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 22:30—23:9, emphasis mine)
In the Gospels, the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired together to crucify Jesus. In the Book of Acts, the Pharisees seem to withdraw from opposition to the gospel, and it is the Sadducees who are seeking to stamp out Christianity. And when we come to Acts 23, it appears that the Pharisees and the Sadducees part ways, with the Pharisees actually defending Paul and other Christians. Does Gamaliel not play a significant role in all of this? I have to think so. And perhaps Gamaliel is now present in the Council, defending his former student. Let us hope that he came to know the Savior as Saul (Paul) did.
And so, to get back to our text, Luke informs us that Gamaliel’s reason won the day, and that the Sanhedrin was convinced (Acts 5:39). This does not mean that they gave up entirely, for they summoned the apostles to return, and after beating them, they once again ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then they released them (Acts 5:40).
41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:41-42).
After graduating from college, I taught sixth grade for nearly two-and-a-half years. On one occasion, I found it necessary to send a student to the principal’s office for discipline. The principal was a nice fellow, but he believed in “reasoning” with the offender. After a while, the student returned to my classroom, with a big smile on his face. One of my other students observed this and remarked something to this effect: “How can he come from being disciplined and have such a big smile on his face?”
The Sanhedrin had no intention of sending the apostles away with a smile on their faces. They had hoped to send them away terrified, subdued, and silent. But it did not turn out that way at all. They were rejoicing because God had considered them worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus, the name in which they gathered, in which they performed miracles, and in which they preached. What a remarkable transformation this is from the frightened little band of followers who fled when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50), and who hid after His death (see John 20:19). Now, suffering for being identified with Jesus is not dreaded, but received with joy, as well it should be:
7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
There is a direct relationship between Acts 5:41 and verse 42. When suffering is considered a privilege, then preaching will not cease, even when threatened for persisting to proclaim the good news of the gospel. It is the fear of suffering and death that silences some, but when rightly understood, suffering for the sake of Christ is an incentive for preaching. Luke tells us that the apostles not only left the Sanhedrin with smiles on their faces, but with praise in their hearts. They had been honored to suffer for the name of Jesus. They would not stop preaching in His name and proclaiming the good news that salvation was available only through Jesus.
As we conclude this lesson, let us consider some of the lessons we should learn from our text.
First, let us be reminded that our God is a saving, delivering, God. God delivered the apostles twice in our text. He delivered them from prison by sending the Angel of the Lord to rescue them. He also delivered them from death by the speech of Gamaliel. As we saw at the beginning of this lesson, God has been delivering men throughout the Bible. The greatest act of deliverance was our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. There, He died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins. He was raised to new life, so that those who trust in Him can live new lives by His power, through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Have you experienced this deliverance from sin and its guilt and punishment? If not, trust in Him today. Acknowledge your sins, and your helplessness to live a sinless life. Acknowledge that you deserve God’s eternal punishment, and that Jesus has taken that punishment on your behalf. This is the greatest deliverance of all, and it is for all who believe in Jesus.
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Let those who would reject the gospel and persist in their sin heed the warning of Gamaliel. I would paraphrase it this way: “Willful unbelief is not only futile (it won’t work); it is fatal (you are opposing God).
Second, we see the theme of fulfillment in our text. The suffering and persecution that the apostles suffer here are precisely what our Lord foretold (see Matthew 10:16ff.; John 15:17-23). Also, the message which Peter boldly proclaimed through the power of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise as well (see Matthew 10:19-20). Further, we see the prayers of the early church answered, just as they had asked in Acts 4:23-30. Nothing in our text should take us by surprise. God is faithful to His purposes and His promises, and He answers our prayers.
Third, we see legitimization throughout our text. My friend Scott Cunningham called this to my attention. Luke, from the very outset of the Book of Acts, has been showing us how our Lord Jesus is still alive and at work in and through His church. That which our Lord began to do and to teach, the church continues to do and to preach. When we read of the signs and wonders that were performed at the hands of the apostles in Acts 5:12-16, we are reminded of the ministry of our Lord:
17 Then he came down with them and stood on a level place. And a large number of his disciples had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. They came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, 18 and those who suffered from unclean spirits were cured. 19 The whole crowd was trying to touch him, because power was coming out from him and healing them all (Luke 6:17-19; see also Matthew 14:35-36; Mark 6:54-56).
When we read of the opposition to the apostles by the Jewish religious leaders, prompted by jealousy, we think back to the opposition to our Lord by these same leaders, and for the same reasons:
15 During the feast the governor was accustomed to release one prisoner to the crowd, whomever they wanted. 16 At that time they had in custody a notorious prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” 18 (For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy.) (Matthew 27:15-28)
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
We should thus not be surprised when we read of this same opposition to Paul, out of jealousy:
But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they began to contradict what Paul was saying by reviling him (Acts 13:45).
But the Jews became jealous, and gathering together some worthless men from the rabble in the marketplace, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked Jason’s house, trying to find Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly (Acts 17:5).
Jesus was put to death and confined to a tomb, and He was divinely released from death and the tomb (Acts 2:22-36; 3:14-15; 4:8-12; 5:29-32). The apostles are now released from prison (Acts 5:17-20), as Peter will be in Acts 12, and as Paul and Silas will be in Acts 16. As the religious leaders were unable to silence the powerful teaching of Jesus (Matthew 21, 22), so the religious leaders cannot silence Peter and the apostles (Acts 5:40-42). Neither can they silence Stephen, except by death (Acts 6:8-10; chapter 7); but even then the gospel was not silenced. In fact, God raised up one of those who opposed the gospel (Saul) to take Stephen’s place. And he could not be silenced either.
Over and over again as we read through Acts, we get that deja vu feeling. We have been here before, with Jesus. He is alive and at work in His church, through the Holy Spirit. The church will experience what Jesus did, and they will prevail, because Jesus did. Acts is written, in part, to legitimize the apostles – to show that they were divinely appointed and empowered to carry on the work of our Lord.
Fourth, the deliverance of the apostles was granted so that they could go and proclaim the good news of the gospel. God saved the apostles for a purpose, so that they could speak of Him to lost men. Those who were divinely delivered were told to go back to the temple and to share the message of salvation. We are saved for a purpose, and that purpose is not simply our freedom. We have been set free so that we can declare to lost men that they may be free from their sin and guilt, by faith in Jesus. As the old hymn put it, “We’re saved, saved to tell others. . . .”
Fifth, persecution did not silence the apostles, nor did it alter their message. If persecution does not silence a person, it may affect the message they proclaim. It is not surprising that the Angel of the Lord instructed the apostles to return to the temple, and to proclaim “all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). The NASB renders this, “the whole message of this Life.” There is always the temptation to dilute or alter the message to make it less offensive, or to leave out certain critical elements. The gospel is the “good news” that God offers eternal life to all who believe. It is also the “bad news” that eternal judgment (hell) awaits sinners. We dare not leave out essential elements of the gospel, just to avoid an adverse reaction. Being ready to suffer and even to die for the name of Christ makes one bold.
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness (2 Corinthians 3:12).15
Sixth, our text is an example of the blindness of unbelief. How much more evidence is needed to convince the religious leaders that Jesus is the Christ, and that they have greatly sinned by rejecting Him, and by persisting in persecuting the church? Even Gamaliel could see the error of their ways. Unbelief is not due to insufficient evidence; it is due to a hardened heart. One evidence of this hardness of heart is persecution. The Sanhedrin was forced to persecute the apostles, because they could not refute them. We see this with Stephen as well:
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:8-14).
Elsewhere Paul tells us that men suppress the truth because of their sin:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles (Romans 1:18-23).
Seventh, God has divinely delivered His apostles in such a way as to demonstrate His sovereignty, and the invincibility of the gospel. As I have previously pointed out, God delivered the apostles in two ways: (a) by their supernatural release from prison, and (b) by being spared from death. The first deliverance came about through the Angel of the Lord.16 The second deliverance (from death) was by means of a Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin. The apostles did not accomplish either by an effort on their part. They proclaimed the gospel and left their fate in the hands of God.17 They knew that their lives were in God’s hands, and they committed themselves to His keeping. They, like Paul, knew that either life or death would be glorious,18 and so they did not frantically seek to avoid persecution or death.
Here is the interesting thing. The Jewish religious leaders first attempted to silence the apostles. This failed. Then (as we see from our text) they were determined to kill the apostles, and this effort was thwarted as well. Later, in Acts 7, they will execute Stephen. While Stephen’s death precipitates a great persecution which scatters the saints, the apostles remain in Jerusalem, preaching Jesus:
And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, emphasis mine).
Those who sought to silence and to kill the apostles could not silence them, and could not even drive them from Jerusalem. As our Lord said to Paul, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? You are hurting yourself by kicking against the goads’” (Acts 26:14). You can’t win when you oppose God; you can only hurt yourself. Those who love and serve God are invincible. Today we sang a song, a portion of which goes like this:
More secure is no one ever
Than the loved ones of the Savior19
Nothing could be more true. He who gave His beloved Son to save us will certainly keep us, in life and in death.
1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 10 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 8, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 What here is described as taking place “through the hands of the apostles” is understood by the apostles to be the work of God’s hand (Acts 4:30). The best the Sanhedrin can do is to violently lay hands on the apostles (Acts 5:18).
4 See John 5:1-9. In this text, there is no indication that this worked, or that it didn’t. Our Lord’s healing is contrasted with this paralytic’s efforts to obtain a supernatural healing. In Acts 5, Peter heals in the Lord’s name, so it is Jesus who is healing (compare Acts 3:6; 4:8-10).
5 I find it fascinating that Luke would choose this term to describe the reaction of the high priest and those with him to the dramatic success of the apostles. It is the same term that Luke uses to refer to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is almost as though Luke is suggesting something like this: “God raised Jesus from the dead; the best the religious leaders can do is to rise up in opposition to the followers of Jesus, the apostles.”
6 We should once again take note of the prominence of the Sadducees in their opposition to the apostles (Acts 5:17), and the relative absence of the Pharisees (except for Gamaliel).
7 There is a consistent pattern here. First, the Jewish leaders were jealous of our Lord’s success (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10. Then they were jealous of the apostles’ success, here in our text (Acts 5:17). Eventually, they will be jealous of Paul (Acts 13:45; 17:5).
8 I have pondered why Luke would include the word “public” here, when it was not necessary. What, then, is the significance of the fact that they were taken to a “public” jail? Was he stressing the fact that they were having the apostles arrested publicly – in full view of the crowds – in order to intimidate the people? Perhaps. Or, is he informing us that the public aspect of this arrest and incarceration backfired? Just as it was public information that the apostles were under arrest (“They’ve arrested the apostles!”), so their miraculous escape became public when the apostles appeared back at the temple courts, in full public view (“It didn’t work; the apostles are back, doing the same thing they were doing when they were arrested.”).
9 This tells us how powerless the religious leaders really were. They could not refute the doctrine (Jesus is alive, and He is the Messiah) nor the practice (healing all who came to them, or them to whom they came). All they could do was use brute force in a futile attempt to silence them. The truth cannot be silenced.
10 Or perhaps “the angel of the Lord” (KJV, NAB). See the note here in the NET Bible.
11 See Acts 12:5-10. Could it have been the same prison from which Peter was once again rescued?
12 The NASB reads, “But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them” (Acts 5:33, NASB; emphasis mine).
13 Once again the term “arose” is the same verb used in reference to our Lord’s resurrection. How ironic that these revolutionaries “rose up” in rebellion while our Lord “rose up” from the dead.
14 The now deceased Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, makes this observation regarding Acts 5:39: “But if it is of God (ei de ek theou estin). The second alternative is a condition of the first class, determined as fulfilled, ei with the present indicative. By the use of this idiom Gamaliel does put the case more strongly in favor of the apostles than against them. This condition assumes that the thing is so without affirming it to be true.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931). Electronic version, as part of BibleWorks.
15 The ESV renders, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” The NAU renders, “Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech.”
16 Some would say, “an angel of the Lord.”
17 Compare 1 Peter 2:21-23.
18 See Philippians 1:19-26.
19 “More Secure Is No One Ever,” words by Lina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903.