In this essay we continue our study of Acts 2:1-8:1a, which is a record of the disciples’ witness in Jerusalem prior to their witness in Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). I also have characterized as a series of firsts for the Church. In the last essay we studied 4:32-5:11, in which Luke recorded the first deceit in the Church.
In this essay we are studying 5:12-42. In verses 12-16, Luke illustrates the signs and wonders that the Holy Spirit was producing in those days; and in verses 17-42, he describes the first persecution of the Church.
Some evangelical scholars would disagree with my characterization of this section as the first persecution. They would argue that the overnight jailing and hearing before the Sanhedrin that we saw in chapter four was the first persecution. You will recall that I called that the first opposition. My reason for calling it the first opposition instead of the first persecution is simple enough, but not important enough to argue about. In my opinion, the hearing in chapter four constituted harassment, but did not rise to the level of persecution. The hearing in chapter five does rise to the level of persecution, because in that case the Sanhedrin physically punished the apostles with a flogging, the traditional forty lashes less one.
After the release of Peter and John from jail in chapter four, the church prayed for two things, boldness to preach and signs and wonders (4:9-10). This paragraph illustrates the answer to the second part of that prayer. The apostles performed many signs and wonders (v. 12).
The meaning of verse 13 is uncertain. The “all” who used Solomon’s Porch at the temple as a meeting place were either the apostles or the entire Church. If Luke meant the apostles, “the rest” of verse 13 would have been the rest of the believers. If Luke meant by “all” the entire Church, then “the rest” would have been the unbelievers. In either case the people in general held them in high regard, and many men and women continued to be converted (v. 14).
The people were so impressed by the signs and wonders that the apostles were performing, they began to bring their sick and demon possessed to the apostles, even from surrounding towns (v. 16). Peter’s ministry especially impressed them (v. 15). Superstition was evident in some of them, who hoped that Peter’s shadow would pass over the sick and heal them. But notice that the text nowhere says that anyone actually was healed that way. In addition, notice that Luke, as always, clearly distinguishes between physical illness and demon possession (v. 16).
We saw in chapter four (v. 18) that the apostles had been told not to preach in the name of Jesus, but they continued to do it. And we just saw in 5:12-16 that they also were performing many signs and wonders that were creating a rather large stir in the city. So the Sanhedrin acted again, this time by arresting and jailing all the apostles, not just Peter and John (vv. 17-18).
At this point the story gets amusing. During the night an angel miraculously let the apostles out of the jail and told them to continue their teaching in the temple, which they did at first light (vv. 19-21a). When the Sanhedrin gathered, they sent temple police to bring the apostles for trial, but they couldn’t find them. The jail doors were securely locked, and the guards were at their posts, but the apostles were gone (vv. 21b-24). Then a messenger came in to inform the Sanhedrin that the apostles were back at the temple preaching (v. 25). For me, this story proves that God has a sense of humor.
So the temple police went to the temple to arrest the apostles again. But notice they did it “without violence.” That is, they didn’t go up there and start cracking heads. They had a very practical reason. “They were afraid of being stoned by the people.” The people had received the apostles’ ministry very favorably, and the temple police knew it. Apart from that favorable status of the apostles with the people, there probably would have been some violence. But notice also that the apostles offered no resistance. God had demonstrated to them the night before that he could deliver them from the jail. Therefore they had no reason to fear (v. 26).
In verses 27-28 we see that once the apostles were before the Sanhedrin, the high priest charged them with two crimes. The first was disobedience. Earlier the Sanhedrin had strictly forbidden them to preach in the name of Jesus, an order they ignored. Indeed they had filled Jerusalem with those teachings. So disobedience was he first charge. Second, the Sanhedrin accused the apostles’ of bringing Jesus’ blood on them. In other words, the apostles were saying that the Sanhedrin was responsible for Jesus’ death. That was true enough, but the Sanhedrin apparently didn’t see it that way.
Verses 29-31 tell us that the apostles answered the charges with Peter as their spokesman. Peter’s first point was that they had to obey God, rather than any human authority. Then second, Peter repeated the heart of the Christian message of those days, namely, that God reversed the Sanhedrin’s decision to kill Jesus by means of the resurrection. Jesus is now at the right hand of God as “Leader,” or “Prince,” and “Savior,” and he provides repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Finally, third, Peter declared that the apostles and the Holy Spirit were witnesses to all of this. In other words, the things of which Peter spoke were not done in secret. Even God himself was a witness.
Next, we see Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin and the results. As you can see in verse 33, Peter’s defense enraged the Sanhedrin, and they wanted to kill the apostles (v. 33). But one of their number, a Pharisee named Gamaliel who was a highly respected teacher of the law, stood and ordered that the apostles be sent temporarily from the room (v. 34). Gamaliel was the grandson of the famous Rabbi, Hillil. Gamaliel now headed the Hillil School in Jerusalem. He had become the most famous Pharisaic teacher of his day, and all the people honored him. Later in Acts we will learn that the apostle Paul, as a young man, had been one of Gamaliel’s students (Acts 22:3).
After the apostles were removed, Gamaliel addressed the Sanhedrin and offered them some sensible, cautious advice. He counseled them not to take hasty action (v. 35). Then he offered two examples from their recent history to illustrate why they should not act hastily. The first example was that of Theudas who stirred up a small revolt of 400 followers. But he was killed, and his followers disappeared into the general population (v. 36). Nothing else is known about Theudas.
The second example was Judas the Galilean, who started a revolt during the census of AD 6. That was the year that Rome deposed Archelaus and began to rule Judea with Roman governors. The primary purpose of the census was to establish the amount of taxes that Rome could expect from Judea. Judas and his followers believed that tribute should be paid to God alone, because he was Israel’s true king. Indeed it would be treason to pay taxes to Rome. Like Theudas, Judas was killed, and the followers were scattered (v. 37). The followers later became the Jewish sect called the Zealots.
Gamaliel concluded his speech by counseling the Sanhedrin to leave the situation alone. If the movement were the work of men, it would fail, as did the examples given. And if it wee the work of God, they could not stop it (vv. 38-39).
The Sanhedrin accepted Gamaliel’s advice. They had the apostles flogged and let them go (v. 40). As for the apostles, they felt honored that they had the privilege of suffering for Christ. And they went out from there boldly preaching everywhere they went that Jesus is the Christ.