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A popular American TV news anchor of the 1960s and 1970s regularly signed off his broadcasts with "That's the way it is." Since his reports dealt only in human factors, they would have resonated with the Sadducean nobility, who believed all history was the result of human decisions (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.173). But the Sadducees were in for a surprise when they arrested the apostles. Certain things happened which forced them--and force us--to ask who was really in charge of the course of events.
The success of the apostles' witness and healing ministry (4:33; 5:12-16) fills the Sadducean high priest and his Sanhedrin associates (see comment at 4:1) with jealousy. This may originally have been "a passionate, consuming zeal focused on God, or rather on the doing of His will and the maintaining of His honour in the face of ungodly acts of men and nations" (Stumpff 1964:878; see Num 25:11; Ps 69:9). Yet because it is "not according to knowledge" (Rom 10:2), this zeal has devolved into jealousy. This is to be the reaction of the majority of Jews as the Christian mission proceeds (Acts 13:45; 17:5; compare Rom 10:19; 11:11).
The Sadducee nobility's jealousy further degenerates into "party spirit," focusing on the resurrection and the apostles' flouting of the high court's authority (4:2, 20, 31). They arrest (literally, "lay hands on") the apostles and incarcerate them for a trial the next day.
When zeal for God is not grounded in the whole truth of God or is mixed with human pride or opinion, it can easily become personal jealousy masquerading as piety. Such misguided zeal can do great harm to those who are the real messengers of God's truth.
Previously God allowed his messengers to remain in jail overnight (see 4:3); now, however, he sends his angel to liberate them. Luke presents angels as overcoming external opposition to and internal hesitation about the full accomplishment of the church's mission (8:26; 10:3; 12:7, 11, 23). The angel commissions the apostles to continue their witness. Taking a steadfast stand in the temple courts, the high priest's own turf and their accustomed place for evangelism and instruction (2:46; 5:12), they are to tell the people the full message of this new life (literally, "all the words of this life"). Life in the absolute, or with the adjective eternal, is one way Luke refers to salvation blessings (3:15; 11:18; 13:46; Lk 10:25; 18:18, 30; compare Acts 2:28/Ps 16:11). This phrase captures the truths that by God's Word the blessed life in covenant relationship is appropriated now, and that beyond death there is life in which God's salvation will be fully known forever (Deut 8:3; 32:47; Job 19:25-26).
At daybreak the temple crier called, "Priests to worship, Levites to the platform, and Israelites to deputations" (y. Seqalim 5:48d). And so at their earliest opportunity the apostles obey and resume teaching the people (Acts 5:21; Kistemaker [1990:199] takes the imperfect as simple continuous action, not as ingressive as does the NIV). What boldness the apostles show by the time and place of their witness! They are living out their prayer of Acts 4:29-30. God has taken note of the Sanhedrin's threats and actions and has delivered them from prison--yet it is not for their personal comfort but for the furtherance of their mission. This they obediently pursue, and so should all Christians.
In a fast-paced change of scene and collision of characters reminiscent of a Keystone Cops comedy, Luke portrays the powerlessness of the authorities to silence the church's message. Ignorant of the angelic liberation, the full Sanhedrin convenes and routinely summons the defendants. But the officers (Levites of the temple watch) find guarded, locked but empty cells, mute evidence that there has been supernatural intervention. The captain of the temple guard (see comment at 4:1) and the chief priests are more than just puzzled (dieporoun) at this. They are perplexed, at a complete loss to explain it. (Diaporeo is often used by Luke for the human response to an encounter with the supernatural--Lk 9:7; Acts 2:12; 5:24; 10:17.) Further, they are searching not just for the cause (as Longenecker 1981:320) or the significance (as Kistemaker 1990:202), but for the outcome (NIV; Haenchen 1971:250).
The leaders' negative example reminds us not to let our presuppositions blind us to what God might be doing. Those who do not believe in God's direct intervention in the affairs of humankind (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.173) could only be at a loss to understand how the apostles were liberated. Immediately they receive an answer to their perplexity. Someone breaks in and reports the apostles' open-air temple evangelism. Luke uses look (idou) selectively to point to unusual, supernaturally grounded occurrences (1:10; 2:7; 5:9, 25).
Springing into action, the captain and officers rearrest the apostles. They offer no resistance; the officers use no violent force. The church still experiences the people's favor (5:26; compare 4:21; 5:13); the Sadducees hold sway in position only, "having the confidence of the wealthy alone but no following among the populace" (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.298).
The apostles' submission to the authorities models an important component of Christian civil disobedience: recognition of the legitimacy of political authority through one's willingness to accept the consequences for one's disobedience (compare Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 3:15-16). The underlying question posed by this extended arrest account is "Who's in charge?" Luke responds, "God!" God directly intervenes to promote his unstoppable mission through his people's obedient, bold witness. Will the Sadducee and the modern secularist have eyes to see?
The presiding officer's interrogation takes the form of two charges, bolstered by an opening reminder of the command given not to speak in Jesus' name (4:18). Disdainfully refusing to refer directly to Jesus (this name . . . this man), the high priest manifests a foreshortened perspective. He charges that by human effort the apostles have filled Jerusalem with their teaching and that they are carrying out a malicious verbal vendetta against the leaders, seeking to bring divine retribution down on them for Jesus' death.
The believers' teaching, however, had been received from their Lord and had spread by God's power (1:3; 4:33). True, they had consistently proclaimed the leaders' guilt for Jesus' death (2:23; 3:17; 4:10). Yet that was always accompanied by the good news of the offer of salvation (2:38-39; 3:19, 26; 4:12). In prayer the apostles had left those hostile to them in God's hands (4:29).
With Peter as the spokesperson and the other apostles indicating their assent (the Greek has apokritheis in the singular, followed by a plural finite verb), the defendants admit the charge of civil disobedience by reiterating the principle that obedience to God takes priority over the commands of human beings, whenever the two are in conflict (compare 4:19-20; Lk 20:25). John Stott well articulates the principle for us today: "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" (1990:116).
Peter answers the vendetta charge by immediately preaching the good news of salvation. He begins with common ground, the God of our fathers (compare another instance where a hostile Jewish audience is appealed to--22:14). He announces that God has raised up Jesus, not from the dead (as in NIV) but onto the stage of human history to fulfill his saving purposes (compare Judg 2:18; 3:9). The one God raised up the Jewish leaders killed by hanging him on a tree (see Lk 23:21). With this language Peter refers to Deuteronomy 21:23 ("anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse") and shows the depth of contempt with which the leaders had held Jesus--they had asked for a death that would place Jesus under God's curse (compare Acts 10:39; 13:29; Gal 3:13; Wilcox 1977). But through the resurrection-ascension, captured in the phrase God exalted him to God's to his own right hand, God has vindicated Jesus (Acts 2:34/Ps 110:1). He manifests Jesus as Prince (archegos; see comment at 3:15) and Savior. It is the messianic Davidic prince (not Mosaic Messiah, as Marshall 1980:120) who is Israel's final Savior (Lk 2:11; Acts 2:36; 4:12).
Savior, like "Lord," is a bridge word that opens the way for viewing Jesus as God. The Old Testament is marked by the parallel themes that God will bring the final salvation and that the Messiah will bring it (Ps 106:47; 118:25-26; Is 63:8; Jer 17:14; Joel 2:32). The apostles reveal that God and the Messiah are one and the same, namely the Savior Jesus (Acts 2:21, 36, 38-40). The salvation blessings he gives to Israel are repentance (see comment at 3:19) and forgiveness of sins (2:38; 3:19-20, 26; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; also Lk 24:47). Though the salvation blessings are not exclusively for Israel, it is appropriate to proclaim the fulfillment of salvation blessings to the ones whose ancestors had received the promises (Acts 3:26; 13:46). With this good news, it is almost as if the apostles are saying, "We have no vendetta against you. If you would listen to the good news, you would find the answer for your guilt." And that is ever the message of the Christian witness.
The defense climaxes with two claims for the veracity of the gospel message. The apostles declare themselves witnesses, persons with firsthand experience of their testimony's content (compare 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15). And they say the Holy Spirit also bears witness. This is probably neither the gift of the Spirit in salvation (as Marshall 1980:120) nor the outward miraculous manifestations that salvation has come (8:15-17; 10:44-47; 15:8; as Krodel 1986:128). Rather, it is the Spirit's indwelling those who obey God, so that their witness is characterized by boldness and convincing conviction. Those who hear the truth either freely embrace or emphatically reject it (4:8, 31, 33-34; 6:5, 10; 7:55; compare Jn 16:8-11).
Who's in charge? In no uncertain terms Luke lets us know it is God who desires to save. What does he want of us? An obedience that embraces the good news and knows the presence of the Spirit.
The apostles' defense, which actually manifests another instance of the charges against them, is more than the Sanhedrin could handle with sober judgment. Their jealousy and frustration (5:17, 24, 26) explode in a fury (literally, "sawn through"; compare 1 Chron 20:3; Acts 7:54) and a determination to do away with these men, as previously they had done with their Lord (Lk 22:2). Unless Peter's statement about Christ sitting at God's right hand as Prince and Savior is taken as a blasphemous attribution of deity to Jesus (compare Lk 22:69-71), there is no basis for a death-penalty verdict here.
In the midst of the furor a Pharisee, Gamaliel, a teacher of the law esteemed by the populace (m. Sota 9:15; Neusner 1971:373), takes the floor and has the apostles removed so that the Sanhedrin can go into executive session. Appealing for caution, he counsels a hands-off, wait-and-see policy (5:35, 38-39). Gamaliel makes his case by referring to two contemporary examples of failed revolutionary movements: Theudas (B.C. 4--see notes) and Judas the Galilean (A.D. 6/7). The former had either claimed to be a prophet or was a messianic pretender (Marshall 1980:122). The latter upbraided his fellow countrymen for paying taxes to the Romans (Josephus Jewish War 2.118). He founded the Zealot movement, whose credo was reminiscent of Peter's words (5:29). "They have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master" (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.23). Gamaliel's logic presumably is that just as these movements died with the death of the leader (he is not precisely correct with respect to the Zealots--see Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.25), Christianity too will soon die out, for its leader is now dead.
Gamaliel caps his argument with the principle that works of purely human origin come to nothing but those from God cannot be stopped; indeed, to oppose the latter is to fight against God (compare m. 'Abot 4:11). Though Luke presents the two options of verses 38 and 39 as conditional clauses, reflecting Gamaliel's uncertainty concerning the human origin and certainty concerning the divine origin of Christianity (NIV obscures this), it is not clear whether this suggests an incipient embracing of the truth of Christianity or a scoring of points against the Sadducees. The Sadducees believed only in human causation in history, while the Pharisees affirmed the hand of both human beings and God (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.171-73; 18.12-15; Robertson 1934:1018; compare Longenecker 1981:324).
This appeal persuades the council. The Pharisees (a transliteration of Heb prusm, "separated ones"), a small lay movement promoting strict adherence to the written and oral Torah, were a minority in the council. Their voice, however, carried great weight, often overruling the Sadducees, because of the favor they had with the people (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 13.298; 18.17).
Gamaliel's intervention again answers the question "Who's in charge?" by pointing to a God who providentially will use unbelievers within the ranks of official opposition to further his saving purposes. No human situation is beyond his control and ordering.
And what of Gamaliel's counsel? It was good advice for the short run, since it encouraged unbelievers not to summarily dismiss Christianity's claims. Indeed, Luke gives his readers the same counsel of patience if they are to benefit from his writings and allow them to achieve their purpose (Lk 1:4). On the other hand, Gamaliel's words are also bad counsel, for good plans may fail and evil movements may succeed in the short term. The pragmatic test can fail us. In the long term, before God's judgment seat at the last day, we will know the truth that has triumphed, but then it will be too late. A wait-and-see approach to the gospel must be transformed into a decision-making stance. We must in repentance reach out and accept the forgiveness of sins that Jesus offers (5:31).
Persuaded by Gamaliel's appeal, the Sanhedrin backs away from having the apostles executed. Instead they are flogged (dero, a general term for punishment by beating or thrashing). This may have involved scourging with a whip thirty-nine times (m. Makkot 3:10-15; Haenchen 1971:254) or a lesser punishment (see Bruce 1988:117; compare Lk 22:63; Acts 16:37; 22:19). Again told not to speak in the name of Jesus, they are released.
In no masochistic fashion, but with spiritual eyes to see what suffering for the name of Jesus signifies about their eternal salvation, the apostles live out the dynamic of Jesus' beatitude (Lk 6:22-23) and respond to their physical suffering with joy. As far as Luke is concerned, two things bring Christians joy: contemplating salvation and the honor of being dishonored for Jesus' sake (Lk 10:20; Acts 8:39; 11:23; 13:48). Whether in singing hymns over the crackle of flames at the stake in centuries past or praising God while cleaning Chinese prison-camp cesspools in our own day, the hallmark of the Christian has been, and must continue to be, joy in suffering persecution (1 Pet 1:6; 4:13).
In a brief summary statement Luke concludes his account of the first stage of the Jerusalem church's growth, the mission among Hebrew-speaking Jews. Daily in the temple courts and in homes (2:42-47), the believers continued teaching the good news, which is at the same time testifying that the Messiah is indeed Jesus (a confession, as in NIV and Bruce 1990:179; not a double name, as Lake and Cadbury [1979:63] suggest as an equal possibility).
Who's in charge? A God who empowers and leads his church in carrying out his mission in spite of opposition.
The Apostles' Healing Ministry and Its Consequences
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.