Acts 5:17-42 - The Apostles Before the Council
The church in its earliest days was very successful, judged by the numbers who joined it and the influence which it exerted. This success has its price, as the leaders soon discovered. Jesus had told them (Matthew 10, etc.) that if people had mistreated the Master of the house, they would do the same to his followers. Such mistreatment was now experienced by the Apostles.
An increasing threat
Immediately after the healing of the lame man at the temple gate the authorities imprison Peter and John. Now they go farther — all of the Apostles are placed in prison. The leaders of the people were "filled with jealousy," says Luke, and jealousy is capable of strange things. Their jealousy stems from the fact that more and more people are following the Apostles and have left the leadership of the Sanhedrin. This must be stopped. They are also dependent on the following of the mass of the people. Accordingly, the occasion for this imprisonment is not as clearly defined as was the imprisonment of Peter and John at an earlier time. Then a lame man was healed. Now the author only mentions the miracles in a general way and emphasizes the growth of the church. The apostles are now placed in a more threatening situation than the two had confronted earlier. They are in the common prison where all the lawbreakers are placed. Drastic measures have to be taken to stop this movement.
Released for more service
The imprisonment doesn't mean much when that same night an angel opens the door of the prison and leads them out! Before leaving them this angel tells them to go to the temple and preach to the people "... all the words of this life." They are to preach the gospel based on the life of Christ and the kind of life which issues from this gospel of Christ Jesus. The fact of this deliverance is to comfort the hearts of the Apostles. No one can stop them! It is also to warn the opposition — divine power is on the side of the Apostles. Luke does not say much of this episode and no one mentions it later, but He who freed Daniel and his friends has freed them.
The Apostles are obedient to the command of the angel. They have not been delivered to hide, but to preach. At daybreak they are already in the temple preaching Jesus Christ.
The Highpriest calls the whole council together in the morning. They are not aware of that which has taken place during the night. Apparently the council does not meet in the courts of the temple at this time. He calls the whole council together, for this is important business. Someone is sent to the prison to bring the Apostles before the council. None of them is there. But, do not blame the warden nor the security guards. Everything is in good order — but the prisoners are missing! The councilors have had enough trouble with these men. They are perplexed and wonder what is going to become of this whole matter. Apparently an eye-witness comes to tell them that the Apostles whom they imprisoned are now standing in the temple preaching the same gospel as before. Now the temple guard must bring them back, but, carefully, because this could lead to a riot. The common people must not be stirred up. The rulers need the people, but are also afraid of them. The leaders could be stoned if things get out of hand.
What is the charge? The apostles had been commanded by the Sanhedrin not to preach in this name (the highpriest doesn't even want to pronounce this name) and "you have filled Jerusalem with this teaching." That is the crime! Don't preach the gospel, and everything will be all right; preach that word and you will lose your freedom. They have been disobedient to their rulers. Besides, "you intend to bring this man's blood upon us." This would make us murderers. This is going too far. Not only are the apostles teaching the people those things which ought not to be taught, but they also incriminate the leaders. The gospel always cuts in two directions. Those who believe shall be saved and the guilt of the unbelievers becomes the greater.
Under God's orders
Notice the reply of the Apostles: "We must obey God rather than men." Here there is nothing of a revolutionary spirit. "We will indeed be obedient citizens but not when the command of you rulers is in direct conflict with the command of God." The angel told them to preach. The Sanhedrin forbade them to preach. Is there a question whom they ought to obey? That it may be perfectly clear to these rulers, Peter will tell them a little more. We obey the same God as you do. It is this God of our fathers who called Jesus Christ into being. What did you do? You not only slew Him, but you even hung Him on a tree to show your utter contempt!
Everyone hanging on a tree was accursed. But, He didn't stay in the grave or in the realm of the dead. God exalted Him so that He is now a Prince and Savior and this was done to bring repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. That which you did, God turned to the good of yourselves and others. We are witnesses of these things. We are not speaking out of a vivid imagination. The Holy Spirit also witnessed to these facts. This Spirit is given to those who obey Him. Therefore, obey! lest you do not receive this gift. They, therefore, speak with authority.
Peter has stated matters briefly but fully enough to make it clear why they have done what they have done. In a few words he has made known to them Who the bearer of that Name is and also their responsibilities. His calmness is impressive.
The council does not take these words so calmly. These men were "cut to the heart," literally they were "bursting," they were "torn apart" by the words they had heard from this unlettered fisherman. They were ready to kill them! When a person is accused the way Peter has accused them, the only way to deal with them is to put them away. But, can this be done without a proper hearing? Without due process? These, who boast of their adherence to the law, are they to become lawless?
One of their number, Gamaliel, rises and seeks to calm them. It must be made clear at once that he is no friend of these Apostles. However, he sees many difficulties if things go on as some want them to go now. He is a Pharisee among all these Sadducees. He is highly respected both for his character and his ability. He was the teacher of the Apostle Paul. Some believe that he was a grandson of the great Hillel, one of the most famous of Jewish teachers. He wants to restore peace and is much milder in his criticism than the others. Let us talk calmly about this situation without these men being present.
We now receive the report of this "executive session." Paul may well have been present. Gamaliel tells them to be careful what they do. There have been such movements before. A certain Theudas some years ago, who thought he was somebody, had enough charisma to lead 400 men astray. He was killed and his followers were dispersed. Then there arose a certain Judas of Galilee, and the same thing happened again. Don't be too quick to do something about every individual who rises to lead the people away from the path they should follow. Now we have something similar. I would say, says Gamaliel, leave them alone. If what these men are doing and teaching is the work of men, it will come to nothing. However, should it be of God, you will not be able to do anything against it, because you will then even be fighting against God.
The council agrees to this. This sounds like wise and good counsel. It has been seen as that in the history of the church. Gamaliel says, "Let time judge them — then you won't have to!" His advice may seem wise but it is the wisdom of a serpent! Gamaliel wants to avoid the capital punishment of these harmless men. He says, "Wait and see! If it is of men — nothing to fear. If it is of God — you can't do anything about it." This is not the attitude of the Apostles now or of the Apostle Paul later. They know in Whom they have believed and will stand for the truth whatever the cause. But, this advice sounds good — following it, you won't have to do a thing and you can't be guilty!
The council adopts the advice of Gamaliel, but there is still some unfinished business. These Apostles are guilty of disobedience and for this they must be punished now. The council then proceeds to beat them in the meeting of the council, warn them not to speak again in the name of Jesus and then let them go.
Frustration and triumph
How naive these council members are. The Apostles do not fear the whip lashes they have received, but they rejoice that they have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name. These are men with a mission. They are committed. Nothing is going to move them from the direction they have taken. Regardless of the warnings of the council, they never stop preaching Jesus everywhere! Whether in the temple or in less formal settings, they preach and teach that this Jesus is the Messiah which Israel sought. These men cannot be silenced. The gospel is like a fire within them. The Spirit drives them to speak. The truth drives them on. If they had only some moralisms to make known to the people they would have been stopped by these threatenings. They have more to say. They may be arrested again and again; they may have to lose their freedom and their life; they will continue to preach Christ!
Questions for discussion:
- Why do the rulers become so excited about the Apostles' doings?
- Why isn't the miraculous escape from prison emphasized more?
- How far can we go with the statement: "We must obey God rather than men?"
- Why is Peter's defense so effective?
- Would it be well if we knew more about Theudas and Judas of Galilee? Josephus speaks of both but he cannot be trusted too well. Gamaliel makes his point with these examples. Is more needed?
- Why is the counsel of Gamaliel devilish when it seems to be so wise? Does this kind of advice often fool the members of the church?
- Would the Apostles have suffered as much if they had "toned down" the gospel a little? What does this say to us today?