9. The Great Escapes (Acts 5:12-42)
This passage we are studying has a certain “feel” to it which is hard to pin down—there is an obvious contest going on between the Sanhedrin (the Sadducees in particular) and the apostles—over the issue of authority. The best analogy I can think of is the television series, “The Dukes of Hazard.” The high priest is, unflatteringly, “Boss Hogg.” He is the alleged leader, at least in terms of his position. He is also “the law.” The Duke boys are the apostles—those “country folk” who don’t have the education and the sophistication to be great (or so we suppose), and yet they always end up out-foxing Boss Hogg. True, Boss Hogg may put the Duke boys in jail for a few days, now and then, but his trumped-up charges always fail to hold water and to accomplish his sinister purposes.
The more I read this account of the “great escapes” of the apostles, the more the analogy to this television series seems to fit. There have been many “great escapes” in history, but this escape is one of the most harmless and enjoyable. In reality, there are two escapes and not one. The first escape of our text is the miraculous deliverance of the apostles from prison by the “angel of the Lord.” This will not be the last of this kind of escape, for in chapter 12 of Acts Peter will again be delivered from confinement in prison by an angel. But there is a second “escape” for the apostles in Acts chapter 5. It is an escape from death. The chief priests of the Sadducean party were so angry with the persistent preaching of the apostles that when they refused to stop preaching, and when they persisted in claiming that the religious leaders had murdered the Christ, they wanted to kill them on the spot. From all appearances (especially when viewed in the light of the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7), they would have carried out their intentions, except for the intervention of a rather strange ally, a highly respected teacher of the Pharisees, named Gamaliel. This is the one under whom the apostle Paul was instructed (cf. Acts 22:3). Gamaliel appealed to his brethren on the Council to show restraint and to entertain the possibility that the movement they were trying to suppress was actually ordained and sustained of God.
The key players in this drama are the apostles—all twelve of them—and the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish governing body (both legislative and judicial) in Israel. The Sanhedrin is actually a coalition group, composed both of those who are Sadducees and those who were Pharisees. The Sadducees were the liberals who did not believe in the supernatural—things like resurrection from the dead and angels. The Pharisees were more conservative and orthodox in their theology, believing in resurrection, angels, and the supernatural in general. The chief priests were all of the Sadducee party. The Pharisee party was well represented by the teacher of the Law, Gamaliel.
The conflict between the apostles and the Jewish leaders started long before this, as you know. It began with the appearance of Jesus and with His teaching and healing. He was quickly challenged as to His authority. For example, when Jesus told the man who was lowered through the roof that his sins were forgiven, the Pharisees immediately recognized Jesus’ claim to deity, and they began to oppose Him (Luke 5:18-26). And when Jesus entered Jerusalem as her Messiah, accepting the praise of men and throwing the merchants out of the temple precincts (Matthew 21:1-17), He was challenged by the chief priests and the elders of the people as to what authority He had to do such things (Matthew 21:23).
This led to a rather comprehensive response from Jesus. He first raised the question of the authority of John the Baptist, whether it was “from God” or “from men” (Matthew 21:24-27). This was to show these leaders that they really were not willing to accept any authority other than their own. But Jesus then went on to tell the story of a man who had two sons, one of whom promised to obey his father, but didn’t, and the other who initially refused to obey, but later repented (Matthew 21:28-32). The first son represented them, the leaders of the nation. The second son represented, Jesus said, the sinners, whom the leaders despised. In the final analysis, Jesus showed them, the “sinners” were better than the “righteous” because they repented and received Him.
The response of Jesus is not yet finished. Jesus pressed on to tell the parable of a man who owned a vineyard and who went away (Matthew 21:33-44). The man left vine-growers in charge. The owner of the vineyard was God, the vineyard was Israel, and the vine-growers were the leaders of the nation—those who opposed Jesus. When the owner of the vineyard sent men to collect that which the vineyard had produced, the vine-growers rejected the owner’s authority and claim to this fruit, and they beat and killed those who were sent (the prophets of Israel). Finally, when the son of the owner was sent, they killed him, thinking that they could gain possession of the vineyard for themselves. Jesus interpreted this story so that they would understand that He was the Son who was rejected, but that He, as the stone whom they rejected, would eventually crush them. He also taught them that their leadership would be taken from them and that another nation would become God’s kingdom. They were thinking of getting rid of Him, Jesus told them, but God would get rid of them. Their authority and leadership was about to end, just as the kingdom in Israel was about to be done away with, at least for a time. These things, which Jesus foretold, are seen to be taking place before our eyes in our text. The authority of the Jewish leaders is rapidly eroding, while the authority of the apostles is increasing.
The whole issue of the authority of the apostles and their conflict with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem is evident in the Book of Acts thus far. When Jesus was about to ascend to His Father, after His resurrection, He gave the apostles the “Great Commission” which was first a statement concerning His authority, and theirs, and then a commission to preach the gospel to all nations in this authority. With the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the preaching of the gospel began with thousands coming to faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 2). When Peter and John were on their way to the temple to pray, they encountered a man who was born lame, and who had suffered from this ailment for over forty years. Healing him in the name of Jesus brought together a large crowd (at Solomon’s portico), where Peter preached the gospel. Here too Peter and John were arrested and taken to stand trial before the Sanhedrin on the following day.
When the leaders challenged Peter and John as to their authority (much as they had challenged Jesus), these two apostles made it clear that this good deed they had done was accomplished through the power of the risen Christ, the Christ they had rejected and crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead. Seeing the healed man before them, they could not deny that a great miracle had taken place. All they could do was to threaten the two and command them not to teach or minister in the name of Jesus any longer, an instruction which Peter and John made it clear they could not obey, for in so doing they would fail to be witness of that which they had seen and heard.
On their return to the fellowship of believers, Peter and John shared what had been said and done. The response of the saints, as described in Acts 4:24-30, is most relevant to our text in Acts chapter 5. The saints praised God for His sovereignty. He was the Creator of heaven and earth. He was in charge of that which He made. And they then praised Him from the words of Psalm 2, which spoke of the futility of the efforts of world powers to resist God and His purposes. They then prayed for boldness in their witness and for God’s confirming testimony by signs and wonders through the apostles. The answer to those prayers begins in Acts 4:31, but it is increasingly evident in our text.
I would like in this lesson to approach the account as though we were seeing a movie. There will be several scenes. The first scene will be in the temple area, at the so-called “portico of Solomon,” where the saints met daily, and where multitudes of unbelievers gathered in the hope of a healing. The second scene is in the Council, the meeting of the Sanhedrin. We will be there as the Council convenes, and as they call for the prisoners to be brought forth, only to learn they have escaped. We will then stand by as the apostles are escorted into the Council from the temple area, where they have been preaching. We will hear their accusations and threats and the response of the apostles. We will be present when the courtroom is cleared, and the Council hears the recommendation of Gamaliel. We will witness the threats of the Council and the beating of the apostles. And, in the third scene, we shall see the apostles leaving the Council joyfully, grateful to be found worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.
12 And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico.68 13 But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. 14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number; 15 to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. 16 And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed. 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;69 18 and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail.
Let us look at this first scene at the temple as though it were a movie (as I call it, a “mental movie,” one which we play in our heads as we read the text). We first of all “zoom in” on the large crowd gathered at Solomon’s portico, or porch. This crowd, as I see it, is made up almost entirely of Christians. They have come to a greater appreciation of the holiness of God due to the deaths of two saints, but they do not fear gathering together in the name of Jesus. They come together for a variety of purposes, including prayer and worship and teaching (by the apostles). These are very happy faces, faces which reflect the grace of God and cleansed consciences, through faith in the shed blood of Jesus, the Nazarene, the promised Messiah, whom Israel rejected and put to death but whom God raised from the dead.
As the camera angle begins to widen, we see another crowd gathered. This crowd is composed of those who are not believers, who are reticent to join the Christians in their worship, prayers, or teaching, but who do want to be healed of their infirmities. They would find it difficult to press through the crowds to get to the apostles anyway, but they know, from reports and experience, that the apostles must come to the temple area and depart from it each day. They also hear reports which indicate that one does not even have to ask to be healed, but only to be in close proximity to the apostles. Stories abound of those who have been healed only by falling in the shadow of Peter (5:15). And so, knowing the ingenuity of man, people begin to employ clever means of coming into contact with the apostles and thus receiving divine healing.
I can imagine that all of the routes which Peter and the others took to the temple were known and even any predictable patterns in their goings and comings, which would give an ailing person an edge. People were placed at all of the likely places, where the apostles were likely to pass by. It seems that where the shadow of Peter and the others would fall would be taken into consideration, so that one would change sides of the street as the position of the sun changed. And, amazingly, the efforts of all who were so diligent were rewarded. Luke seems to indicate that all such people who encountered the apostles were healed. This phenomenon was not merely a local one. Word got out, so that people from surrounding towns and villages began to congregate in Jerusalem.
We have focused on three groups of people thus far. First, the apostles, through whom signs and wonders were being performed. Second, the Christians, who congregated at Solomon’s portico. And third, the multitudes who came for healing. But there was yet another group, a group not nearly so enthusiastic about all of the miracles that were taking place—the chief priests and their party, who were all members of the Sadducee party (5:17). They would not have dignified the apostles by being seen in the crowd, but they surely had their spies, watching closely for an infraction of the rules. Finally, the whole situation became untenable for these opponents of the apostles.
If our camera were to catch the facial expressions of the priestly party, we would see, as Luke informs us, that their underlying motivation was jealousy. This, of course, is nothing new. It was out of jealousy that the chief priests delivered up Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:10). Why should it be any different with His apostles? These priests saw that their power and position were under siege. They had sought to scare the apostles into backing off, but it wasn’t working. Thus, they sent a party to arrest the apostles and to put them in jail. The success (or should we say, the authority) of the apostles, as depicted in verses 12-16 was the cause of the stepped-up opposition of the chief priests.
The Trial Before the Council
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 and they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in a public jail. 19 But an angel of the Lord during the night opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, 20 “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” 21 And upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak, and began to teach. Now when the high priest and his associates had come, 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, “Behold, 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, lest they should be stoned).
27 And 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 continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “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.”70
33 But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and were intending to slay them. 34 But a certain 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.71 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. And he was slain; 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 “And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be 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 And they took his advice, and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, and then released them.
The growing numbers of those who joined the apostles in trusting in Jesus as the Messiah, along with the preaching and popularity of the apostles, further aggravated by the crowds who gathered to be healed in the name of Jesus, was simply too much for the Sadducean priests to bear. They arrested the apostles, intending to bring them to trial before the Sanhedrin the following day. They would have no problem here, they were certain, for they had already arrested Peter and John and detained them overnight, without incident.
This brings us to our second scene, which took place in the courtroom of the council. Secret planning sessions must have been held so that the proceedings of the next day, in the courtroom, were already carefully orchestrated. I have the impression that those meetings may have included only the high priests of the Sadducean persuasion. These men must have assumed that the Pharisees on the Council would follow their lead. Very likely, the plan was to intimidate the apostles by letting them spend the night in jail. That would soften them up. And then, on the following day, they would be brought before the highest authority of the Jews—the Sanhedrin, where they would be duly impressed with this august group of men. The apostles would be reprimanded, and if they promised not to preach again in the name of Jesus, they would be released, after a good beating. And if they refused .… Well, then they would simply have to get tough with them. They had faced this situation before. They knew what to do.
There were some surprises in store for these men, however. The members of the Sanhedrin probably entered the courtroom with all of the pomp and circumstance to which they were accustomed and which they enjoyed.72 With all deliberate dignity, they entered the courtroom. They took their seats. And with a note of authority, they called for the prisoners to be brought in. The seriousness of the situation was sure to be grasped by this unrefined group of Galileans.
But something had happened of which none of the Council (let alone the guards) were aware. During the night, God had “released” the apostles whom the priests had placed in prison. An “angel of the Lord” had let them go in the night, yet without the guards having any knowledge of it. The specifics of this escape are not given, but it could well have been similar to the more detailed account of Peter’s release in Acts 12. In both cases, the prisoners were released by the angel opening the doors of the prison, but the guards were somehow prevented from seeing it happen.73 Until the doors of the apostles’ cell(s) were opened, no one had a clue that they were no longer in confinement in the prison.
The angel did more than release the apostles. He gave them a specific commission. They were released, not so much for their own safety (for they were yet to stand before the Sanhedrin the next morning), but in order to continue to proclaim the gospel.74 They were not to “tone down” their preaching as a result of their arrest and imprisonment. They were to return to the temple, not to some place less visible and less dangerous. And they were to proclaim the “whole message of this Life” (5:20). In other words, they were to keep on doing precisely what they had been doing. They were not to be intimidated by the persecution of the Jewish religious leaders.
Meanwhile, “back at the ranch,” the high priest and the other dignitaries of the Sanhedrin were waiting in the courtroom for the appearance of the prisoners. They hoped for a frightened group of men who had lost all of their courage over the course of that night in the prison. The scene must have been a bit like that in the “Sound of Music,” when the Von Trapp family disappeared from the music hall, and the Nazi soldiers came running in to announce that they were gone.75 How “red faced” the guards must have been. And how puzzled the Council members would have been to hear them affirm that the cell doors were securely locked and that no one had passed them in the night. How could this be? And even more of concern, to what would this lead? Where was this all going? There seemed to be no end.
It is a little difficult to have a trial when the prisoners are missing. There must have been some very uncomfortable moments of silence in that courtroom, with all of these dignitaries shaken by this turn of events. They were not in control, as they so much wanted to convey to the apostles. The apostles were not even present to try to intimidate. Into that courtroom, stunned by these events, came those who reported that the apostles were back in the temple, doing exactly what they had been arrested for doing the previous day.
Very carefully, the temple guards were dispatched to the temple, where they politely and with a cautious eye on the crowd, escorted the apostles to the courtroom where they would be tried. Do you suppose that someone asked them, “How did you guys get away, anyhow?” “Oh, God sent an angel,” the response might have been. How difficult it would have been for the Council members to regain their composure, enough to sound in control and as a force to be taken seriously. It was like the “defendant” had just given the judge a hotfoot, or set his jurors’ robe on fire, watching him run from the courtroom in flames.
Gathering together all of the severity he could muster, and probably revealing a great deal of frustration and anger, the high priest began to badger the apostles. The offenses which he detailed were all “personal.” That is, the charges were not concerning violations of the Law of Moses or of the traditions of the Jews, but rather of disregarding the orders of the Council, and, even worse, of charging them with the murder of Messiah. They had commanded the apostles no longer to teach in the name of Jesus,76 yet they had filled all of Jerusalem with the same teaching as before. And they further sought to place the responsibility of Jesus’ death squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin. The apostles have disregarded the warnings and instructions of this duly-authorized body and have even accused them of wrong-doing. This was too much.
Peter’s response was brief, to the point, and polite (5:29-31). They had done exactly as they had said previously (4:19-20). They must obey God above men. They had disobeyed the Sanhedrin in obedience to the Lord Jesus, the Messiah. They were obeying the One whom the Sanhedrin had put on the cross and the One whom God had raised from the dead. Their choice of obeying Jesus above the Sanhedrin was based on the facts. Jesus was the key to all of Israel’s hopes. It was He alone who could forgive Israel and grant repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. Their ministry was testimony to this, and to their witness was added the witness of the Holy Spirit, through whom the signs and wonders were accomplished. The Holy Spirit was given, not to the priests or to the members of the Sanhedrin, but to those who obeyed God (5:32).
The response of the priests and others in that courtroom was highly volatile. They were, as Luke tells us, “cut to the quick,” the same expression used only one other time, in chapter 7, to describe the reaction of those who heard the indictment of Stephen (Acts 7:54). This response is quite different from the conviction of sin which led to the conversion of thousands at the first sermon preached by Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37). Here it was an exposure of sin which so angered some members of the Sanhedrin that they could not even see straight. They wanted blood, and they wanted it quickly. These leaders, the highest Jewish authorities in the land, were totally out of control. They lacked impartiality and clarity of thought. It was they who were indicted, not the apostles. How incredible that these leaders had literally lost their grip. They cared little for the law or for “due process”; they only wanted to see these men dead. This was no “cool and calm” decision. It was one made in the heat of the moment. If these jurors were, at the outset of this trial, disarmed by the supernatural release of the apostles from prison, they were now completely rattled by the role reversal taking place before their own eyes. It was not the apostles who were on trial, but the court itself. God, through His apostles had passed judgment on the very court which had condemned Him to die. They were the criminals, not the apostles, whom they had momentarily placed under arrest.
The apostles had not spoken in their own defense, but there was one present who would—Gamaliel. This man was apparently a well-known and highly-regarded teacher, who was a member of the Pharisee party. He was also the teacher of none other than Saul, later to be saved and known as Paul (Acts 22:3). We are not told what his motives were, but only the substance of his message. With a skill and coolness that could only be contrasted with the “hot-headedness of the Sadducees,” Gamaliel first had the courtroom cleared. He did not want the apostles hearing what he had to say. We do not know the source of the report which Luke gives us here, but we do know the substance of it. These are most interesting and unexpected words, from a source that would have seemed most unlikely.
After they had been put out of the room temporarily, Gamaliel pled with his fellow Council members to calm down, to get their wits about them, and to come to a more reasoned decision. Though he was a teacher of the Law, his argument was not really theological nor did he appeal to the Scriptures. He appealed to history instead. His premise was an interesting one:
Movements founded by men die with them, but those founded by God live on, beyond the death of their leader.
From the relatively recent past, Gamaliel drew upon the demise of two movements that momentarily found a following from among the Jews.77 In each case, the men died. In neither case do we get the impression they died naturally. But in both cases, after the death of these men, their movements died along with them. The followers of these men were scattered. The groups the founders brought together lacked the cohesiveness to continue. The movements disappeared, in time.
Gamaliel appealed to the Council to give this movement which Jesus founded a little time also. If this movement was like the others, it would pass away—it would collapse under its own weight. The more the movement was attacked, the longer the process might take. Why make martyrs of the followers of Jesus? They were already regarded as heroes by the people. To put them to death now would be unwise. If only men were behind this new movement, it would bring on its own demise.
There was another option, however. It was one that Gamaliel, as a Pharisee, was more willing to grant than were his Sadducean colleagues. There was the possibility that God was behind this movement. From a pharisaical point of view, Messiah would come to the earth, and men could rise from the dead. This movement had some of the earmarks of one that had a divine origin. If it was of God, there was nothing they could do to stop it.
In either case—if it were a movement of men, or if it were of God—it would be better for the Sanhedrin to take a “wait and see” stance, rather than to act precipitously. They would not need to oppose a man-made movement, and they would certainly not want to be found opposing a divinely-ordained movement. So let them back off, cool down, and see what would come of it all.
It is, I think, an amazing thing that Gamaliel would even entertain the possibility that the apostles were a divinely-ordained and divinely-empowered group. This was something which no self-respecting Sadducee would ever consider. It was, however, evident that many Pharisees were not so sure, any more, that this Jesus was a fraud, as they had once thought.
Gamaliel was a man who acted like a member of the highest court in the land should act. He seems to manifest a clear head, a measure of impartiality, and good, sound, judgment. Yet, in spite of his objectivity and his good advice,78 there is no evidence that Gamaliel took the gospel or this movement seriously enough. If the Sadducees were, so to speak, “atheists” with respect to the gospel preached and practiced by the apostles, Gamaliel was an “agnostic.” It may be better to be an agnostic than an atheist, but neither will get to heaven. How sad it is that Gamaliel was willing to consider the hypothetical possibility that God was behind the church, but not willing to take the evidence seriously enough. Many are those who, like Gamaliel, may be willing to grant that God may be speaking through men, but who are not ready to accept and act on the message. Gamaliel is a man who is, on the one hand, a hero here, and yet he is a tragic hero, for he has not repented of his sin and trusted in the Savior.
The Council took the advice of Gamaliel. I am not convinced that it was entirely due to the wisdom of his advice, however. The Sadducees were hopping mad. They wanted to kill the apostles. I doubt that Gamaliel’s words really changed anything, other than the immediate action the Council would take. The Sadducees were both pragmatists and politicians. It may be that they were not convinced at all by this man, who was their opponent, philosophically speaking. They may only have recognized that he spoke for the rest of the Pharisees and that there was no way they could, as a Council, come to a unanimous verdict to execute the twelve. They did take his advice, not to act as they wished, but they may not have agreed with his reasons.
The intensity of their anger and evil intentions can be seen by what they did do to the twelve. On the one hand we are told they took the advice of Gamaliel, yet we are further told that they beat the twelve79 before releasing them. Imagine what they intended to do, if this was “letting the twelve off the hook easily.” They were still trying to impress the twelve with their authority and with what they could do if their instructions were not followed. Once again, the apostles were commanded to stop preaching in the name of Jesus.
Back to the Temple
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.
Without interruption or modification, the apostles went to the temple day after day, proclaiming the gospel in the courts of the temple and from house to house. This was, we should note, the first instance of physical suffering for the name of Christ, and the apostles were able to rejoice in their sufferings because it was for the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel. It was the beginning of a course of action that would continue throughout the history of the church. The disciples were, for the first time, able to rejoice in response to suffering and persecution, just as Jesus had taught them:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mark 5:11-12).
The thrust of our text can best be seen from the vantage point of its context. It is, in the first place, a dramatic illustration of God’s faithfulness in answering the prayers of the saints, as recorded in Acts 4:29-30:
“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus.”
The church has been bold in its witness. They have all continued to gather in the temple precincts, at the portico of Solomon. Many more have come to faith. And, through the hands of the apostles, the Holy Spirit accomplished many signs and wonders, confirming their message. The manifestation of God’s power through men was at an all-time high.
In addition, the things for which the saints praised God in Acts 4:24-28 are also dramatically illustrated in our text:
And when they had been released, they went to their own companions, and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is Thou who DIDST MAKE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say,
‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD, AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:24-28).
In their prayer, the church understood that God was sovereign, both in the suffering of Jesus and in their own persecution. Seeing in the wording of Psalm 2 a biblical and poetic expression of the futility of man’s efforts to thwart the plans and purposes of God, they referred to this psalm in their prayer of praise. In particular, they realized that even when nations conspire to resist God’s plans and purposes, it is futile.
The conspiracy of the Sanhedrin was equally futile, as our text in Acts chapter 5 makes very clear. The chief priests arrest the apostles, and an angel of God releases them. They forbid the apostles from preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus, and yet, by their own admission, the apostles have filled Jerusalem with their teaching. The Sanhedrin attempts to find the apostles guilty of some offense, so that they can punish them, and yet it is they themselves who are indicted by the apostles.
It is at this point that the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, at the beginning of Acts chapter 5, begins to come into focus. The Sanhedrin (at least the Sadducees who were a part of the Sanhedrin) strongly desired to put the apostles to death, and yet they were unable to do so. On the other hand, the apostle Peter, without even trying to do so, rebuked Ananias, and God disciplined him, causing him to die at Peter’s feet. The Sanhedrin is powerless, and yet Peter and the other apostles are used as God’s instruments to heal men and women, even if it is by their shadow falling upon the ailing, so that they are made whole. The Sanhedrin is working hard to regain control, and the apostles are not trying to take charge, but God is working mightily in and through them.
I believe this chapter is a vivid illustration of that which Jesus had warned the Jewish leaders in Matthew chapter 21. In their rejection of God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus, the leaders of the nation were rejecting God and His authority. Because of this, as Jesus had warned, God was going to reject the nation and was going to replace them with another people, the Gentiles. God was going to reject Israel’s leaders as well, removing them and putting others in charge. If Acts chapter 5 teaches us anything, it is that the leaders of Israel are no longer in charge. They are powerless to stop or resist the apostles, who have been given authority by the risen Messiah, the One the leaders rejected and put to death. They may still retain their position for a short time, but they have already lost their power. The apostles may not have the position or standing of the Sanhedrin, but they have the power and the authority.
This text has a great deal of relevance and application to us. Christians seem to have become secularized in their thinking, supposing that one must have position, or human power, or clout, in order to have authority. The first thing we must say is that it is not our authority that matters; it is Christ’s authority that counts. As we obey Him and faithfully proclaim the gospel with boldness, His Spirit bears witness to that message. His authority is bound up with the message, with the gospel, which Paul says, is the “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).
Christians seem to think they need to “get the power” before they can proclaim the message, but it is in proclaiming the message that the power of God is released. It is true that the power of God through the message and through the apostles was unusually great in these days. It is also evident that later on in the New Testament, the results of preaching the gospel are not as dramatic (cf. Acts 17), but that is because the degree to which His power is evident and manifested is determined by the sovereign will of God, and not by men. It is not our faithfulness which regulates God’s power; it is God’s sovereignty which regulates that. God does not need faithful servants to do great things, as the salvation of the Ninevites by the foot-dragging, rebellious, Jonah aptly illustrates. God’s power is in the message itself. If we proclaim that message, He will, according to His sovereign plan and purpose, use it. And if we refuse to proclaim it, He will arrange for the “rocks to cry out.” Let us faithfully proclaim the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Our text has a great deal to say about persecution. Persecution is often the result of the proclamation of the gospel. Not only may men repent and be saved, but others will likely be angered, react, and resist. That is a part of the price of proclaiming the gospel. But the apostles did not think of their suffering so much as a “price to pay,” but as a privilege. In suffering for the sake of the gospel, the apostles found the privilege of a deeper identification with the One whose suffering had brought salvation to them. To suffer for His name is a privilege. Let us view it this way as well.
I see in our text, and in the on-going proclamation of the gospel to the people of Jerusalem, an illustration of the long-suffering and the grace of God. How patient God was to persist in proclaiming to His people, the Jews, their own sin, and the salvation which He had made possible through the Messiah. It was roughly forty years from the time Jesus was put to death to the time that Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans. During much of that period of time, the gospel was proclaimed. No one who lived in Jerusalem could say that they had never heard the gospel.
Are we not like the Jerusalemites in this regard? Many people in our country have never heard the gospel, but most have heard, or have had the opportunity to hear. And many who will spend eternity in Hell, apart from the Savior, will have heard the gospel many, many times. I pray that you will not be one of those hard-hearted people, like the chief priests, who refused to listen. I pray as well that you will not be open-minded and tolerant, like Gamaliel, but never coming to a personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior. I pray that you, like so many in the days of the apostles, will acknowledge your sin and turn to the Savior for life eternal.
68 Solomon’s portico is the same place mentioned in 3:11, where the people gathered in response to the healing of the lame man, where Peter preached, and where he and John were arrested.
69 Cf. Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10; Acts 7:9; 13:45; 17:5.
70 This statement greatly aggravated the chief priests in particular. They listened very carefully to what Peter and the apostles said in reply. When Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men,” the inference was clear that to obey the orders of the Sanhedrin (not to preach) was to disobey God. They had gotten accustomed to giving orders to men as though God was speaking through them, but Peter’s words shocked them into reality. Their orders were not from God, but from mere men. Peter’s final words, which referred to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the signs and wonders God accomplished through them, was another painful point. Their power (which they had been challenged about by this group) came from the Holy Spirit, who was given to those who obey God. Thus, if the apostles had the Holy Spirit, then they were obeying God and the Sanhedrin (who lacked power) was acting in disobedience to God. This Council, intent on indicting the apostles, was instead indicted by them. They were the guilty ones. No wonder they were so angry.
71 The apostles (at least Peter and John) were getting used to “leaving the room” (cf. Acts 4:15). I can almost hear Peter saying to his fellow-apostles (fictionally speaking, of course), “You might as well bring a sack lunch. We’ll eat it when they send us out of the room--which they always do.”
72 I like this proverb, which seems apt: “There are three things which are stately in their march, Even four which are stately when they walk: The lion which is mighty among beasts And does not retreat before any, The strutting cock, the male goat also, And a king when his army is with him” (Proverbs 30:29-31).
73 This scene must have been humorous as well. Prison doors never open and close quietly. Metal against metal is the cause of much noise. There is the clang of doors shutting and of locks being secured. There is also the squeaking of rusty hinges. If this were the first experience of the apostles inside a prison and if they walked past the guards, somehow miraculously asleep or unaware of their departure, the noise of doors opening and closing must have been distressing. Can’t you see Peter whispering to John, “I wish I had brought my can of WD-40?”
74 Paul spoke of his “deliverance” from prison in Philippians 1:19-26, and when he did it was not of deliverance from suffering, but deliverance for the purpose of service. So it should be for us as well.
75 If I were casting this scene, I would have chosen Don Knotts to be the soldier to announce the disappearance of the prisoners during the night. His big bugging eyes and frazzled look would have been perfect.
76 Notice that they do not use the name “Jesus,” but instead they refer to Jesus indirectly, speaking of “this name.”
77 There is a considerable amount of discussion in the commentaries about these two men. Some say that Luke has his facts confused, based upon statements by Josephus or others. The fact is we do not know that the two men Gamaliel referred to are men whose movements are a matter of historical record, or, if they are, that the record is accurate. Luke has shown himself to be a meticulous historian. There is no reason to doubt that from the text, and, based upon the inspiration of this author and his work, there is every reason to believe him to be completely accurate here and elsewhere.
78 His advice is “good” from the standpoint of preserving the life of the apostles so that the gospel could continue to be proclaimed by them in Jerusalem. I am not sure that his premise is correct, however. Many movements, such as communism, have survived for a long time after the death of the founder. Indeed, a number of movements have grown greatly after their deaths. And so I am not so sure that his premise was correct, even though his advice may have been, in this instance.
79 Notice how little emphasis is placed on this flogging. It was undoubtedly a serious beating, and the pain and injuries sustained would have been substantial. No “slap on the wrist” would have been sufficient for the Sadducees here. And yet, as bad as their beating was, very little emphasis is put on it. That is because it was a privilege to the apostles, not a “cross to bear.” How much we make of pain today, and how little we make of the privilege of suffering for the sake of His name.
Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution