By Dr. Mark Scott
The first internal challenge to the church had been put to rest (literally) through the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Interestingly enough though, the apostles were revered for their miracles, and the church grew (5:12-16). Luke continues the account of the early church by telling of the second external persecution.
Once again the persecution came from the hands of the Jewish aristocracy. The Jewish Supreme Court imprisoned the apostles, intending to interrogate them a second time the next day. The first time that the apostles were arrested, they spent the night in jail (Acts 4:3). This time they were miraculously delivered by an angel and were commissioned to speak up for God (5:19, 20). Luke’s account of the surprised Sanhedrin upon discovering their prison vacancy is humorous (vv. 22-26). Should this not have been a clue as to the divine affirmation of the apostles’ message?
Voice of Obedience
No doubt when the apostles stood before the Sanhedrin a second time, they must have smirked. But the Sanhedrin members were not laughing. In fact they were jealous (v. 17), perplexed (v. 24), and enraged (v. 33).
Annas (see 4:6) gave the apostles a threefold opening line: First, there was a reminder. We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Clearly this is a reference to the earlier threat (4:18). Second, there was an upside-down compliment. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. Maybe the apostles thought, “Awesome.” Third, there is an ironic forgetfulness. And are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood. Is this not what they wanted earlier (Matthew 27:25)?
Peter’s response is bold and succinct. We must obey God rather than human beings! That is a hard statement to misunderstand, and one is reminded of Acts 4:19, 20. Christians have the freedom of civil disobedience. However, they must be willing to suffer the consequences of that choice (5:40). Peter took the occasion to speak up for God by preaching the fourth gospel sermon (vv. 30-32). This unprinted part of our text has four important truths: 1—You killed Jesus. 2—God raised Jesus. 3—God gave you the privilege of repentance (a concept mentioned twice in Acts; see also 11:18). 4—We and the Holy Spirit are speaking up for God.
Voice of Sanity
The hostility of the Sanhedrin was horrific. But a respected voice of reason arose above the clamor. Enter Gamaliel. This council member commanded the respect of the others. He was the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel and was the teacher of Saul of Tarsus (22:3).
Gamaliel urged caution about the reaction to the apostles and their speaking up for God. He starved the emotion out of the situation by referencing two historical examples. He told of Theudas (4 BC) and Judas (AD 6). Both men were involved in rebellions separated by 10 years. They were killed and their followers dispersed.
The Sanhedrin probably didn’t like the advice of Gamaliel, but he had the leadership chops to gain the ears of the group. He ended up functioning much like Nicodemus did in the Gospels (John 7:45-52). His is the voice of sanity. One wonders if he did not somewhat believe the gospel by the words, But if it is from God . . . .
Voice of Joy
The Sanhedrin took Gamaliel’s advice, but they got their licks in on the apostles nonetheless. They had them flogged. That is no small thing. Seven out of ten people who experienced this died. The three out of ten who survived were often disabled for life. Remember that they had done the same thing with Jesus (Matthew 27:26). They also repeated their earlier threat and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. This is not your typical response to a beating. They believed that they were blessed to be persecuted for the gospel (Colossians 1:24). The name of Jesus meant so much to them that it was an honor to suffer for him.
The apostles would not allow the Sanhedrin to steal their joy. They continued to speak up for God in public settings (the temple) and in private settings (house to house) that Jesus is the Messiah. The apostles could identify with the old preacher who said, “As long as the good Lord keeps this tongue in this head, it will speak about him.”
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.