Remember, Acts is the story of what Jesus continues to do by His Spirit in the Church. Consistently over history, this has provoked many to resent this powerful work and seek to destroy it, and every time, God foils their plans.
The Text: “Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison…” (Acts 5:17-42)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
With the city of Jerusalem buzzing with fear and excitement (Acts 5:12-16), the high priest becomes jealous and orders the arrest of unnamed apostles (Acts 5:17-18). An angel frees the apostles by night and urges them to keep preaching, and so they do (Acts 5:19-20). The next morning, the high priest marshals his court, only to find that when the officers are sent to the prison, everything is in place, except the prisoners (Act 5:21-23). While they are wondering what has happened, word arrives that the prisoners are preaching in the temple (Acts 5:24-25). The officers summon the apostles without force, and they are questioned before the assembly, accused apparently of insurrection (Acts 5:26-28).
Peter and the apostles say that it is better to obey God than man, and they repeat their message that the Jewish leaders crucified Jesus but God has raised Him from the dead and they are witnesses, as is the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:29-32). This message enraged the council, but before they could carry out any executions, a respected Pharisee named Gamaliel, gave a speech urging the council to wait and see how matters fell out, since other revolutionaries had risen up and their followers scattered after their deaths (Acts 5:33-39). The assembly agreed to Gamaliel’s advice and released the apostles after beating them and threatening them, and the apostles rejoiced and kept preaching Jesus (Acts 5:40-42).
The high priest and his party of Sadducees were filled with “indignation” at the influence and popularity of the apostles (Acts 5:17). The word for indignation can also be translated zeal, envy, or jealousy. It was out of “envy” (another Greek word) that the Jews delivered Jesus to Pilate for execution (Mt. 27:18, Mk. 15:10). The same root describes “zealots” who were often violent against the Roman-Jewish establishment, in fact, like Theudas and Judas who drew crowds of followers before their deaths (Acts 5:36-37). The irony of course is that the high priest and the council are the real zealots in this story, plotting to murder the apostles.
The warning is that misplaced zeal is often knotted up with jealous envy and masked with what is imagined as righteous indignation. Envy has been defined as pain at another’s blessing or happiness. Envy often casts another’s blessings or success as somehow unjust for any number of reasons: how they arrived there, how they are handling it, slight imperfections, etc., but it fundamentally wants to see the happiness and blessing stripped away and develops a sort of morally charged desperation (e.g. Cain, Joseph’s brothers, Ahab). Revolution is driven by this kind of violent sentimentalism, but reformation is principled and thoughtful and only takes up arms in a just cause not for personal gain or vendettas.
FIGHTING AGAINST GOD
This episode is comical in its ironies. The high priest has risen up full of huffy zeal and put God’s apostles in prison, and God breaks them out without anyone noticing. And when the high priest has assembled his sanctimonious cabal, the prisoners are summoned, and while everything is perfectly in order, the prisoners are missing. Which is what this whole episode is about: you have a perfectly orderly legal proceeding, all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, and appropriate paperwork filed, the only thing missing is any semblance of lawful justice. And when the truth comes out, the orderly little mob is on the verge of lynching the apostles, when the old wise man suggests, that perhaps they should wait and see if this is from God or not (Acts 5:38-39). The whole story is calculated to underline the fact that this is from God. God is with His people, and we are completely in His hand, every detail is under His rule. The machinations of men are a comical farce compared to the power and wisdom of God (Ps. 2:1-4). Whether we live or die, we serve His will, and we are more than conquerors by His grace (Rom. 8:37).
OBEYING GOD RATHER THAN MAN
As the apostles have insisted before, God is over all authorities, and therefore, it is better to obey God than man (cf. Acts 4:19). All human authorities are under God. He is the one who establishes human authority – all authority belongs to Christ, and He delegates some of that authority to husbands/fathers, pastors/elders, and civil magistrates. John Calvin summarizes the principle like this: so long as they remain in their limited jurisdictions, they honor the authority of God over them, but when they go beyond the bounds of their office, they “diminish the honor and authority of God.” Sometimes the commands/prohibitions of men would require us to disobey God, and we must flatly refuse (e.g. Daniel and friends). Sometimes the commands/prohibitions are beyond their bounds of office but don’t directly require us to disobey God, and there is a tactical wisdom call. We may pay unjust taxes as a testimony to unbelievers (Mt. 17:25-27), or we may thresh some of our wheat in a wine press to hide it from the Midianites (Jdg. 6:11).
CONCLUSION: KEEP PREACHING
The tip of our spear is the preaching of the gospel not politics. The apostles are preaching when they are arrested, they immediately return to preaching when they are broken out of jail, they continue preaching when they are hauled (belatedly) before the pompous presbytery, and after they are beaten and threatened, they go right back to joyfully preaching. Reformations are driven by preaching. The American War for Independence was led by the “black robe regiment.”
And the message is this: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” Christ crucified, risen, and ascended for repentance and forgiveness of sins by the power of the Spirit. This is what cuts: it cuts for the salvation of some (Acts 2:37) and it cuts for the furious indignation of others (Acts 5:33). But we preach Christ, and every detail of history bows to the rule of Christ.