Never did any good work go on with any hope of success, but it met with opposition; those that are bent to do mischief cannot be reconciled to those who make it their business to do good. Satan, the destroyer of mankind, ever was, and will be, an adversary to those who are the benefactors of mankind; and it would have been strange if the apostles had gone on thus teaching and healing and had had no check. In these verses we have the malice of hell and the grace of heaven struggling about them, the one to drive them off from this good work, the other to animate them in it,
I. The priests were enraged at them, and shut them up in prison, Acts 5:17, 18. Observe, 1. Who their enemies and persecutors were. The high priest was the ringleader, Annas or Caiaphas, who saw their wealth and dignity, their power and tyranny, that is, their all, at stake, and inevitably lost, if the spiritual and heavenly doctrine of Christ should get ground and prevail among the people. Those that were most forward to join with the high priest herein were the sect of the Sadducees, who had a particularly enmity to the gospel of Christ, because it confirmed and established the doctrine of the invisible world, the resurrection of the dead, and the future state, which they denied. It is not strange if men of no religion be bigoted in their opposition to true and pure religion. 2. How they were affected towards them, ill affected, and exasperated to the last degree. When they heard and saw what flocking there was to the apostles, and how considerable they were become, they rose up in a passion, as men that could no longer bear it, and were resolved to make head against it, being filled with indignation at the apostles for preaching the doctrine of Christ, and curing the sick,—at the people for hearing them, and bringing the sick to them to be cured,—and at themselves and their own party for suffering this matter to go so far, and not knocking it on the head at first. Thus are the enemies of Christ and his gospel a torment to themselves. Envy slays the silly one. 3. How they proceeded against them (Acts 5:18): They laid their hands on them, perhaps their own hands (so low did their malice make them stoop), or, rather, the hands of their officers, and put them in the common prison, among the worst of malefactors. Hereby they designed, (1.) To put a restraint upon them; though they could not lay any thing criminal to their charge worthy of death or of bonds, yet while they had them in prison they kept them from going on in their work, and this they reckoned a good point gained. Thus early were the ambassadors of Christ in bonds. (2.) To put a terror upon them, and so to drive them off from their work. The last time they had them before them, they only threatened them (Acts 4:21); but now, finding that this did not do, they imprisoned them, to make them afraid of them. (3.) To put a disgrace upon them, and therefore they chose to clap them up in the common prison, that, being thus vilified, the people might not, as they had done, magnify them. Satan has carried on his design against the gospel very much by making the preachers and professors of it appear despicable.
II. God sent his angel to release them out of prison, and to renew their commission to preach the gospel. The powers of darkness fight against them, but the Father of lights fights for them, and sends an angel of light to plead their cause. The Lord will never desert his witnesses, his advocates, but will certainly stand by them, and bear them out.
1. The apostles are discharged, legally discharged, from their imprisonment (Acts 5:19): The angel of the Lord by night, in spite of all the locks and bars that were upon them, opened the prison doors, and, in spite of all the vigilance and resolution of the keepers that stood without before the doors, brought forth the prisoners (see Acts 5:23), gave them authority to go out without crime, and led them through all opposition. This deliverance is not so particularly related as that of Peter (Acts 12:7); but the miracle here was the very same. Note, There is no prison so dark, so strong, but God can both visit his people in it, and, if he pleased, fetch them out of it. This discharge of the apostles out of prison by an angel was a resemblance of Christ’s resurrection, and his discharge out of the prison of the grave, and would help to confirm the apostles’ preaching of it.
2. They are charged, and legally charged, to go on with their work, so as thereby to be discharged from the prohibition which the high priest laid them under; the angel bade them, Go, stand, and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life, Acts 5:20. When they were miraculously set at liberty, they must not think it was that they might save their lives by making their escape out of the hands of their enemies. No; it was that they might to on with their work with so much the more boldness. Recoveries from sickness, releases out of trouble, are granted us, and are to be looked upon by us as granted, not that we may enjoy the comforts of our life, but that God may be honoured with the services of our life. Let my soul live, and it shall praise thee, Ps. 119:175. Bring my soul out of prison (as the apostles here), that I may praise thy name, Ps. 143:7. See Isa. 38:22. Now in this charge given them, observe, (1.) Where they must preach: Speak in the temple. One would think, though they might not quit their work, yet it had been prudent to go on with it in a more private place, where it would give less offence to the priests than in the temple, and so would the less expose them. No; “Speak in the temple, for this is the place of concourse, this is your Father’s house, and it is not to be as yet quite left desolate.” It is not for the preachers of Christ’s gospel to retire into corners, as long as they can have any opportunity of preaching in the great congregation. (2.) To whom they must preach: “Speak to the people; not to the princes and rulers, for they will not hearken; but to the people, who are willing and desirous to be taught, and whose souls are as precious to Christ, and ought to be so to you, as the souls of the greatest. Speak to the people, to all in general, for all are concerned.” (3.) How they must preach: Go, stand, and speak, which intimates, not only they must speak publicly, stand up and speak, that all may hear; but that they must speak boldly and resolutely: Stand and speak; that is, “Speak it as those that resolve to stand to it, to live and die by it.” (4.) What they must speak: All the words of this life. This life which you have been speaking of among yourselves, referring perhaps to the conferences concerning heaven which they had among themselves for their own and one another’s encouragement in prison: “Go, and preach the same to the world, that others may be comforted with the same comforts with which you yourselves are comforted of God.” Or, “of this life which the Sadducees deny, and therefore persecute you; preach this, though you know it is this that they have indignation at.” Or, “of this life emphatically; this heavenly, divine life, in comparison with which the present earthly life does not deserve the name.” Or, “these words of life, the very same you have preached, these words which the Holy Ghost puts into your mouth.” Note, The words of the gospel are the words of life, quickening words; they are spirit, and they are life; words whereby we may be saved—that is the same with this here, Acts 11:14. The gospel is the word of this life, for it secures to us the privileges of our way as well as those of our home, and the promises of the life that now is as well as of that to come. And yet even spiritual and eternal life are brought so much to light in the gospel that they may be called this life; for the word is nigh thee. Note, The gospel is concerning matters of life and death, and ministers must preach it and people hear it accordingly. They must speak all the words of this life, and not conceal any for fear of offending, or in hope of ingratiating themselves with their rulers. Christ’s witnesses are sworn to speak the whole truth.
III. They went on with their work (Acts 5:21): When they heard this, when they heard that it was the will of God that they should continue to preach in the temple, they returned to Solomon’s porch, Acts 5:12. 1. It was a great satisfaction to them to have these fresh orders. Perhaps they began to question whether, if they had their liberty, they should preach as publicly in the temple as they had done, because they had been told, when they were persecuted in one city, to flee to another. But, now that the angel ordered them to go preach in the temple, their way was plain, and they ventured without any difficulty, entered into the temple, and feared not the face of man. Note, If we may but be satisfied concerning our duty, our business is to keep close to this, and then we may cheerfully trust God with our safety. (2.) They set themselves immediately to execute them, without dispute or delay. They entered into the temples early in the morning (as soon as the gates were opened, and people began to come together there), and taught them the gospel of the kingdom: and did not at all fear what man could do unto them. The case here was extraordinary: the whole treasure of the gospel is lodged in their hands; if they be silent now the springs are shut up, and the whole work falls to the ground and is made to cease, which is not the case of ordinary ministers, who therefore are not by this example bound to throw themselves into the mouth of danger; and yet when God gives opportunity of doing good, though we be under the restraint and terror of human powers, we should venture far rather than let go such an opportunity.
IV. The high priest and his party went on with their prosecution, Acts 5:21. They, supposing they had the apostles sure enough, called the council together, a great and extraordinary council, for they summoned all the senate of the children of Israel. See here,
1. How they were prepared, and how big with expectation, to crush the gospel of Christ and the preachers of it, for they raised the whole posse. The last time they had the apostles in custody they convened them only before a committee of those that were of the kindred of the high priest, who were obliged to act cautiously; but now, that they might proceed further and with more assurance, they called together, pasan ten gerousian—all the eldership, that is (says Dr. Lightfoot), all the three courts or benches of judges in Jerusalem, not only the great sanhedrim, consisting of seventy elders, but the other two judicatories that were erected one in the outer-court gate of the temple, the other in the inner or beautiful gate, consisting of twenty-three judges each; so that, if there was a full appearance, here were one hundred and sixteen judges. Thus God ordered it, that the confusion of the enemies, and the apostles’ testimony against them, might be more public, and that those might hear the gospel who would not hear it otherwise than from the bar. Howbeit, the high priest meant not so, neither did his heart think so; but it was in his heart to rally all his forces against the apostles, and by a universal consent to cut them all off at once.
2. How they were disappointed, and had their faces filled with shame: He that sits in heaven laughs at them, and so may we too, to see how gravely the court is set; and we may suppose the high priest makes a solemn speech to them, setting forth the occasion of their coming together—that a very dangerous faction was now lately raised at Jerusalem, by the preaching of the doctrine of Jesus, which it was needful, for the preservation of their church (which never was in such danger as now), speedily and effectually to suppress—that it was now in the power of their hands to do it, for he had the ringleaders of the faction now in the common prison, to be proceeded against, if they would but agree to it, with the utmost severity. An officer is, in order hereunto, despatched immediately to fetch the prisoners to the bar. But see how they are baffled. (1.) The officers come, and tell them that they are not to be found in the prison, Acts 5:22, 23. They last time they were forthcoming when they were called for, Acts 4:7. But now they were gone, and the report which the officers make is, “The prison-doors truly found we shut with all safety” (nothing had been done to weaken them); “the keepers had not been wanting to their duty; we found them standing without before the doors, and knowing nothing to the contrary but that the prisoners were all safe: but when we went in we found no man therein, that is, none of the men we were sent to fetch.” It is probable that they found the common prisoners there. Which way the angel fetched them, whether by some back way, or opening the door and fastening it closely again (the keepers all the while asleep), we are not told; however it was, they were gone. The Lord knows, though we do not, how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and how to loose those that are in bonds for his name’s sake, and he will do it, as here, when he has occasion for them. Now think how confused the court looked, when the officers made this return upon their order (Acts 5:25): When the high priest, and the captain of the temple, and the chief priests, heard these things, they were all at a plunge, and looked one upon another, doubting what this thing should be. They were extremely perplexed, were at their wits’ end, having never been so disappointed in all their lives of any thing they were so sure of. It occasioned various speculations, some suggesting that they were conjured out of the prison, and made their escape by magic arts; others that the keepers had played tricks with them, knowing how many friends these prisoners had, that were so much the darlings of the people. Some feared that, having made such a wonderful escape, they would be the more followed; others that, though perhaps they had frightened them from Jerusalem, they should hear of them again in some part or other of the country, where they would do yet more mischief, and it would be yet more out of their power to stop the spreading of the infection; and now they begin to fear that instead of curing the ill they have made it worse. Note, Those often distress and embarrass themselves that think to distress and embarrass the cause of Christ. (2.) Their doubt is, in part, determined; and yet their vexation is increased by another messenger, who brings them word that their prisoners are preaching in the temple (Acts 5:25): “Behold, the men whom you put in prison, and have sent for to your bar, are now hard by you here, standing in the temple, under your nose and in defiance of you, teaching the people.” Prisoners, that have broken prison, usually abscond, for fear of being retaken; but these prisoners, that here made their escape, dare to show their faces even where their persecutors have the greatest influence. Now this confounded them more than any thing. Common malefactors may have art enough to break prison; but those are uncommon ones that have courage enough to avow it when they have so done.