Most 21st century North Americans enjoy nearly unprecedented religious freedom. So it’s rather easy to forget the high price some Christians have paid and still pay for their faith. However, it’s also easy to forget that confrontations between the Christian faith and the political establishment flared up even during the history of the early church.
After telling the rather dark story of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke turns the lights back up in Acts 5:12ff. In it he again shows his readers the life-giving power of the gospel at work. He also, however, highlights confrontations that arise from the deepening jealousy and antagonism of the Jewish religious establishment toward the risen Jesus’ apostles.
The growing tide of signs and wonders is sweeping aside most peoples’ fears. The growing swell of new converts is also brushing aside most obstacles to the proclamation of the gospel. Certainly some people still keep their distance from the apostles. They don’t fear them, but are in awe of them.
However, swarms of miserable, helpless, sick and troubled people buzz all around the apostles. After all, while God’s powerful presence alarms some people, it also appeals to others. While some people are frightened away, God draws others to faith. Luke 9 describes a woman whom God heals when she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ cloak. Now God displays similar power when verse 15 text reports that God uses Peter’s shadow to heal people.
So just as Jesus ministered to needy people, God also ministers to them through Peter. We hear in Acts 5’s healing stories echoes of the healing of the crippled man and official response in Acts 3. That act of compassion and healing has now, however, been repeated a hundred times over.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the Jewish religious establishment reappears with renewed determination to end this “Jesus” nonsense. After all, Peter and John ignored their earlier prohibition and threats. The last time they did so, the council let them have their say. After Peter’s boldness silenced the religious leaders, they released the apostles.
This time, however, the council takes no such chances. Verse 18 says it arrests not only Peter and John but also “the apostles” immediately. However, something about the gospel’s power renders even prisons ineffective. With the comic speed of an old “Keystone Cops” routine, verse 19 reports an angel frees the apostles. By daybreak, Peter and John are again disobeying the Jewish religious authorities in order to obey God’s angel who told them to speak the word of new life.
Then follows an even more comic shuttling back and forth from council to jail and back to council. Officers discover that the apostles whom they were supposed to transport from jail to court are, in fact, free and busy at the temple, teaching. So the same fearful, plotting officials who conspired with the Romans to send Jesus to his death conspire to silence Jesus’ disciples.
Again, however, they must take into account the growing movement of people who faithfully respond to what the authorities have tried to silence. So the religious authorities don’t use force on Peter and John when they arrest them.
When they question Peter and John, these apparently most powerful people reveal their basic powerlessness.
They had condemned and eliminated Jesus. The authorities had warned the apostles not to preach in his name and imprisoned them. However, in verse 28 the authorities must admit that the apostles have successfully filled Jerusalem with their teaching anyway. They also accuse Peter and John of being determined to make them guilty of Jesus’ murder.
As he did earlier, Peter counters the authorities’ charges by saying, in verse 29, “We must obey God rather than men!” After all, God calls God’s people to be conscientious citizens who typically submit to human authorities. However, sometimes those leaders misuse their God-given authority by commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands. Then, as for people like Peter and Martin Luther King Jr., it’s Christians’ God-given duty to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s.
Yet the apostles aren’t just reacting to the authorities’ orders to stop preaching about Jesus. They also remember how those leaders crucified Jesus. While God three days later raised Jesus from the dead, “you,” says Peter in verse 30, had him “killed by hanging him on a tree.”
Of course, Peter is engaging in a bit of historical revisionism. No Jew had the authority to crucify anyone (John 18:31). Only Israel’s Roman occupiers had the authority and power to “hang” anyone “on a tree.” It’s the Roman governor Pilate who authorizes his soldiers to first torture then put Jesus to death (John 19:16). He gives the religious leaders the power to convince him to have Jesus crucified.
Since we sometimes practice historical revisionism, we may think Peter playing fast and loose with the historical facts isn’t a big deal. But it is a huge and tragic deal. After all, Christians have used things like Peter’s accusations to justify all sorts of unjustifiable behavior and attitudes, all the way from anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. We’ve also held an entire race responsible for the jealous actions of a few religious leaders. So while Jewish religious authorities jailed some of Jesus’ followers for a time after his resurrection, nearly ever since then, some of those who claimed to act in Jesus’ name have been jailing and persecuting Jews.
That’s why it seems wise not just to address Peter’s historical fudging, but also to emphasize the second part of his message to the religious leaders. It stresses God’s exaltation of the risen Jesus to the heavenly realm. God, insists Peter, raised the Jesus whom so many deliberately humiliated to God’s right hand and gave him royal authority over the whole world.
In Acts 5 Peter also emphasizes the repentance and forgiveness God graciously offers to God’s Israelite sons and daughters. It’s a remarkably gracious turn. With one breath Peter emphasizes Israel’s leaders role in Jesus’ crucifixion. But with the very next he emphasizes to perhaps some of those same leaders God’s gift of life and forgiveness. Peter offers those who share culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion forgiveness for that role.
Yet ironically Peter’s speech about God’s offer of life touches a raw nerve in the Jewish religious authorities’ hearts. Verse 33 reports that “When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.” However, before we’re too quick to condemn all of those Jewish religious authorities for that reaction, we should note whom God uses to rescue the apostles. Verse 34 says that a rabbi named Gamaliel intervenes to save Peter and John from almost certain death, just like Frederick later intervened to rescue Martin Luther.
As a result, the apostles leave with their lives, but not without suffering. After all, the flogging that they receive according to verse 40, in fact, killed many other prisoners. However, in the upside-down values system of the apostles, this doesn’t frustrate them. For verse 41 reports that their terrible torture produced “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Peter and John saw their torture as a validation of their cause, because it echoed the suffering of their Leader, Jesus Christ. Their now-exalted Prince and Savior now lead the ones who followed Jesus through his trials through their trials.
This text is appropriate during the season of Easter because it explicitly includes a description of God raising Jesus from the dead (30). However, it also displays the power of the resurrection to raise God’s adopted sons and daughters to new life. In it, after all, Jesus’ formerly timid disciples boldly proclaim the gospel before what may be some of the people who conspired with the Romans to crucify Jesus.
(Note: I am grateful to William H. Willimon in the Interpretation series commentary on Acts for many ideas here. Acts: John Knox Press, 1988, pp. 52-58.)
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons)
Numerous websites describe the modern clash between those who follow Jesus and those in authority. They include International Christian Concern (http://www.persecution.org). Acts 5’s preachers and teachers may want to peruse it or a similar website in preparation for presenting thoughts on the passage.
Recently, the ICC website described how Chinese authorities denied lawyers of an arrested house pastor a meeting with their client. It also described how Sudanese intelligence officials have arrested three indigenous pastors in the past six months, leveled church buildings and attacked congregants. And ICC’s website noted that while Nepal’s new constitution declared it a secular state, it contains a section that declares religious conversions illegal.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2016
Acts 5:27-32 Commentary