The Unbreakable Spirit of the Apostles
[Acts chapter 5, verses 29-42]
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Last week as we left off at verse 28 of Acts chapter 5, we found Peter, Luke and the other apostles back in trouble again with the rulers of Jerusalem, which was (and still is) the Sanhedrin. They had been found preaching and teaching the Gospel, this time after healing many, which made the temple authorities furious. So they were carried off to jail for disturbing the peace and contempt of court, only to be let out in the middle of the night by an “angel of the Lord” (see chapter 5 verse 19). At daybreak the apostles came to the temple and – once again – began to preach and teach about the Good News of Christ Jesus. There was nothing on earth, nor in heaven or hell, that could stop the apostles from spreading the Gospel!
This week as we take up where we left off, the Sanhedrin has once again been convened in order to put the apostles on trial. Having been found shortly thereafter preaching at the temple, the apostles have been brought back before an enraged Jewish ruling council. It is only after getting a severe dressing down by the head of the council (who at this time was Caiaphas, the same high priest that had handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate) that the apostles are given a chance to respond. So let’s begin our study of part 3 of Acts chapter 5, beginning at verse 29.
“Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, who God has given to those who obey him.’ When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.” Acts 5, verses 29-34
“We must obey God rather than men!” Peter and the other apostles time-honored retort is a Biblical example of speaking truth to power! We have a modern word for people who do this – they’re called ‘whistle-blowers’. Peter and the other apostles were blowing the whistle on the Sanhedrin, that they had in fact taken the Son of God, the promised Hebrew Messiah from the Scriptures, and had put him to death. And so Peter is still identifying who Jesus actually was. “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, who God has given to those who obey him.” Peter was telling the disbelieving Pharisees that the reason they knew Jesus was “the Christ”, or the anointed One, from the very Scriptures from which they taught was because of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Peter was stating, that same Spirit lived within the hearts and minds of all who believed ever since Pentecost, which at this time had only been several weeks prior. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law found the teachings of the apostles to be very offensive.
“When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside.” So here we have the same Sanhedrin, led by the same high priest who had handed Jesus over to be crucified, prosecuting the apostles. Like before with Jesus Christ on Golgotha hill, the ruling council were ready to kill the apostles, only this time without enlisting the aid of their Roman captors. At this time steps forward a man who does something to get his name mentioned in the Bible – a rare honor indeed. Gamaliel, who was our equivalent to a seminary professor, stood up in the middle of the uproar and appealed for calm. Since this was evidently a gentleman of good repute who had earned everyone’s respect, everybody listened to him.
“Then he addressed them: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you do with these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all of his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all of his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.‘” (Acts 5, verses 35-39)
I’m seeing a couple of different aspects to Gamaliel’s speech. First of all, Gamaliel was evidently the only person in the room who suspected that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah, meaning he was probably the smartest one of the entire bunch. From time to time there had been people who tried to reestablish the kingdom of Israel in the tradition of King David. All had been Jews, and all had met with violent deaths. ‘We crucified this ‘Jesus’ dude’, Gamaliel was saying to his peers, ‘but the Movement he represented has lived on and become widespread.’ He also pointed out that the followers of the apostles numbered in the thousands, and so if the apostles and their teaching were from God, they should dare not oppose Him. Revolutions and uprisings of various kinds are bound to crop up from time to time, Gamaliel was saying, but if what we now call Christianity was from God – and it most certainly was and is – then the combined forces of the entire Sanhedrin would not be able to stop it. And he was absolutely right.
“His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and they let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been found worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the news that Jesus is the Christ.” (Acts 5, verses 40-42)
In the sometimes-mean old world in which we live, we take solace in the fact that truth and justice will win out in the end. It sure did in this case! “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been found worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Like a resounding verdict at the climax of a courtroom drama, the wisdom of Gamaliel won the day. The apostles were called in and ordered to be flogged, and you can all be sure those floggings were hard and mean. Then they were told, mostly for the record since the Sanhedrin must have known the apostles would disobey it, never to speak in Christ’s holy and most revered name ever again. And then came the joyous verdict – after the flogging and our equivalent to a court order; an immediate release!
Did the apostles throw a party to celebrate their victory? No, they went and discharged their duties as ministers and apostles of Christ. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the news that Jesus is the Christ.” At the very end of each of the gospels there is what we call, “the great commission”, where Jesus, just before he ascended into heaven told the Eleven (Matthias had not yet joined them) to preach the Gospel, “to the very ends of the earth”. This is exactly what the apostles had set out to do, and they were letting nothing stop them from accomplishing their mission. Notice, too, how quickly they put their episode with the Sanhedrin behind them. They didn’t let being jailed, or being beaten bloody with whips, or the threat of death itself stop them from their appointed duties. Not as master teachers who had spent three and a half years with the Lord, although they could have legitimately claimed that right. No, the apostles saw themselves as mere servants as they imitated Christ, who washed their feet as the lowliest of servants on the night of the Last Supper. So, if we want to be like Jesus, we must acquire a servant’s heart. Let’s all spend the remainder of this week working out ways to do that in our own minds that would be pleasing to God. And next week we’ll start on chapter 6.