A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 5:17-42. The Sanhedrin intensifies its opposition.
The apostolic healing mission provoked the second attack by the authorities, much as the healing of the congenital cripple had provoked the first. Angered by the failure of their first assault on the apostles, dismayed to see that they had ignored the court’s prohibition and threats, and *filled with jealousy* (17) of their power and popularity, *the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees*, resolved to take further action.
a). The imprisonment (5:18-25).
This time they arrested not only Peter and John but *the apostles*, most if not all of them (see 29), and *put them in the public jail* (18). But *during the night* they were rescued by *an angel of he Lord*. William Neil speculates that this was ‘a sympathetic warder’ or ‘a secret sympathizer among the guardroom staff’, who came later to be seen as ‘an angel in disguise’. But we have no liberty to demythologize what Luke evidently intends his readers to believe was a heavenly visitor, who not only *opened the doors of the jail* and brought the apostles out (19) but instructed them to *stand in the temple courts* and publicly proclaim *the full message of this new life*(20). *At daybreak* they entered the temple *as they had been told, and began to teach the people*(21a). We note that they disobeyed the Sanhedrin, who had told them not to speak in the name of Jesus (4:17), in order to obey the angel who told them to speak the words of life.
Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin, which Luke describes as *the full assembly of the elders* (or ‘senate’, JB) *of Israel*, was convened (21). And they were humiliated to discover, on sending for the apostles, that they were no longer in the prison where they had consigned them, although it was *securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors* (22-24). Instead, they were *in the temple courts teaching the people* (25), which they had been forbidden to do.
b). The trial (5:26-39)
The captain of the temple guard and his officers re-arrested the apostles, although *they did not use force* because they were afraid *that the people would stone them* (26). They then *made them appear before the Sanhedrin* a second time for questioning (27). The way the high priest addressed them was in reality an admission of the court’s powerlessness before the purpose of God. For the Sanhedrin had condemned and liquidated Jesus, given the apostles *strict orders not to teach in this name* (which they still preferred not to pronounce), and locked them up in prison. All the power and authority seemed clearly to be on their side. Yet, in contempt of court and in defiance of its authority, the apostles had successfully *filled Jerusalem* with their teaching, and (in the court’s opinion) were determined to fasten on them the guilt of *this man’s blood* (28), which at the time (they seem to have forgotten) they had urged the people to call down on themselves and their children (Mt.27:25).
The apostles’ response took the form of a mini-sermon, for their concern was still not to defend themselves but to uplift Christ. We *must obey God rather than men!* they said (29), and in so doing laid down the principle of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience. To be sure Christians are called to be conscientious citizens and generally speaking, to submit to human authorities (eg. Rom.13:1ff; Tit.3:1; 1 Pet.2:13ff). But if the authority concerned misuses its God-given power to command what he forbids or forbid what he commands, then the Christian’s duty is to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s.
Having stated that their primary responsibility was to obey God, the apostles emphasized three truths about him. First, *God*, who is *the God of our fathers, raised Jesus from the dead*, whom the Jewish leaders *had killed by hanging him on a tree* (30). It is the familiar contrast: you killed him, but God raised him; you rejected him, but God vindicated him. Secondly, God *exalted him to his own right hand as Prince (*archegos* again, as in 3:15) and Saviour*, so that from this supreme position of honour and power he is able to *give repentance and forgiveness of sins (which are both gifts of God) to Israel* (31). Moreover, of the death and resurrection of Jesus the apostles were *witnesses*, not just eye-witnesses but mouth-witnesses, for they were called to bear witness to what they had seen. Yet the chief witness to Jesus Christ is *the Holy Spirit* (cf. Jn.15:26), *whom God has given (literally ‘gave’) to those who obey him* (32). That is the apostles’ third affirmation about God. He raised Jesus from the dead, exalted him as Saviour and gave the Holy Spirit to his obedient people. Thus the sermon began and ended with the reference to obeying God. God’s people are under obligation to obey him, and if they do so, even though they may suffer when they have to disobey human authorities, they will be richly rewarded by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Tomorrow: Acts 5:17-42. The Sanhedrin intensifies its opposition (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.