A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 5:40-42. The Conclusion.
The Council accepted Gamaliel’s reasoning, however. *His speech persuaded them*. Having *called the apostles in*, they first *had them flogged* (presumably administering the terrible ‘forty lashes minus one’). *Then they ordered them (for the second time) not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go* (40).
The apostles’ reaction arouses our admiration. They *left the Sanhedrin*, their backs cruelly lacerated and bleeding, yet *rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name* (41). Luke’s expression is ‘a beautiful antithesis (the honour to be dishonoured, the grace to be disgraced)’. They were in fact doing what in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had told them to do, namely rejoicing in persecution (Mt. 5:10-12; Lk.6:22-23). Moreover, they again boldly defied the court’s prohibition, for *day after day*, in public and in private, *in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ* (42).
Luke has now concluded his account of the two waves of persecution which broke over the infant church. In the first the Council issued a prohibition and a warning, which led the apostles to pray to the sovereign Lord for boldness to go on preaching; in the second they received a prohibition and a beating, which led them to praise God for the honour of suffering for Christ.
The devil has never given up the attempt to destroy the church by force. Under Nero (AD 54-68) Christians were imprisoned and executed, including probably Paul and Peter. Domitian (AD 81-96) oppressed Christians who refused to pay him the divine honours he demanded; under him John was exiled to Patmos. Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), believing that Christianity was dangerous and immoral, turned a blind eye to severe local outbreaks of mob violence. Then in the third century what had so far been sporadic became systematic. Under Decius (AD 249-251) thousands died, including Fabian, Bishop of Rome, for refusing to sacrifice to the imperial name. The last persecuting emperor before the conversion of Constantine was Diocletian (AD 284-305). He issued four edicts which were intended to stamp out Christianity altogether. He ordered churches to be burned, Scriptures to be confiscated, clergy to be tortured, and Christian civil servants to be deprived of their citizenship and, if stubbornly unrepentant, executed. Still today, especially in some Marxist, Hindu and Moslem countries, the church is often harassed. But we need not fear for its survival. Tertullian, addressing the rulers of the Roman Empire, cried out: ‘Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…. The more you mow us down, the more we grow; *the seed is the blood of Christians*’. Or, as Bishop Festo Kivengere said in February 1979, on the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda: ‘Without bleeding the church fails to bless’. Persecution will refine the church, but not destroy it. If it leads to prayer and praise, to an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God and of solidarity with Christ in his sufferings, then – however painful – it may even be welcome.
Tomorrow: Acts 6:1-7. The Seven are chosen and commissioned.
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.