The new church moves from the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira into a full-out growth mode. New believers continue to be added and the influence of the new movement begins to extend beyond Jerusalem. The church is now very public and the apostles – specifically Peter – are well known in the city. The Sanhedrin realizes its threats to Peter and John have no effect as the apostles continue to preach and teach as if nothing was ever said. The religious leaders decide another talk is in order and this time they will not limit themselves to just words.
The church thrives as the apostles teach and perform signs and wonders among the people as they meet in the temple. God has completely answered their prayer of 4:24-30. The apostles boldly proclaim the gospel and perform mighty acts – just as they asked. God continues to show His power through the twelve and to unify His followers in the name of Jesus. The people see God’s power demonstrated regularly and so know the Spirit is present in the community.
The divine death sentences handed down to Ananias and Sapphira apparently do nothing to stem the growth of the movement. Even though everyone who heard of their deaths was filled with fear, it does not keep people from believing the gospel message (and it is likely that no one fakes belief). The apostles continue to proclaim the message and the Spirit continues to move in those who hear it – thus people continue to believe and come. Nothing changes as a result of the deaths.
Verses 13 and 14 at first seem to contradict each other. On the one hand no one wants to associate with the church (though they think highly of the believers), but on the other new people are constantly added to their number. What probably makes sense as the explanation is the Ananias and Sapphira effect. Their deaths (along with the ongoing signs and wonders) make people wary of just hanging around the church – too many scary things happening and apparently the risk of death for the wrong actions. But people continue to hear the gospel and believe. For those who do not believe there is good reason to avoid the new group – but many do believe and join every day.
As a result the new church is now more public than ever. The group grows by leaps and bounds and meets very openly in the temple. Peter’s fame for healing and miracles (perhaps made even greater because of Ananias and Sapphira) is such that people are lining the streets with the sick on cots and pallets hoping that at least his shadow will fall on them. Even more, people in the cities around Jerusalem are bringing their sick and possessed to be healed (hard to know if verse 16 means they come to Jerusalem or the apostles go to them in their communities). The new movement affects everything in Jerusalem and the apostles are known throughout the city.
The Sanhedrin cannot help but notice that their threats to Peter and John have not had the desired effect. They warned Peter and John not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (4:18). But not only do the two of them – and the rest of the apostles – completely ignore the warning, they seem to flaunt their disobedience. They speak every day in the name of Jesus. They heal large numbers of people in Jerusalem and in the surrounding communities in the name of Jesus. They and their fellow believers gather every day in the temple in the name of Jesus. And they add large numbers of people to their group continually and the whole group is organized around Jesus. The name of Jesus is invoked constantly in Jerusalem – and even beyond – and people now see it either as a wonderful name that heals the sick or as the name of the Messiah they accept as Savior. The nightmare the Sanhedrin tried to avoid is here and it is likely much worse than they even imagined.
The high priest and the Sadducees (who are the most offended by the gospel message of Jesus’ resurrection) decide to do something about the movement. The apostles have totally ignored the council’s warnings, but even more (and more concerning), they are now much more popular with the people than are the religious leaders. No cots line the streets when the high priest walks to the temple and no one comes from surrounding communities to bring him their sick. The apostles can teach and heal and are making names for themselves as having the power of God at their disposal. No one on the Sanhedrin can do the same. Thus they decide to bring the apostles in, but not for any high religious motive. They bring them in because of petty jealousy.
The Sadducees arrest the apostles – not just Peter and John this time – and throw them in a public jail. Similar to last time they leave them there overnight so they can convene the full council the next day. Peter and John perhaps acquaint the rest with the accommodations since they are now veterans of this treatment.
Sometime during the night the angel of the Lord opens the gates of the prison and lets them out. He apparently does this in a way that does not disturb the guards or anyone else in the building. They are somehow able to walk out without anyone noticing – and in such a way that no one can tell they have left at all (vs 23).
The angel tells them, “Go your way, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” He tells them to continue to proclaim the gospel – all of it. The whole message of this Life refers to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the opportunity for forgiveness of sin. Notice that he tells them specifically to speak in the temple – they are not to hide and they are not to keep the message quiet. They are to continue to publicly proclaim the gospel and do it right where the religious leaders can find them. Do not leave Jerusalem, do not go underground, and do not restrain the proclamation of the gospel at all.
The apostles waste no time in obeying the angel’s words. They enter the temple at daybreak and begin to teach. They have their marching orders and so do not fear or delay. As soon as the temple is open and people gather the apostles go back to teaching them the gospel.
Imagine how motivated the apostles are. An angel breaks them out of prison and personally charges them to continue teaching. God intervenes miraculously and makes sure they know they are doing what they are supposed to – they are on the right track. An angelic charge is the perfect antidote to human intimidation and threats. In this way the prison stay actually has the exact opposite effect of what the Sanhedrin intended. The apostles are likely now more motivated than ever to proclaim Jesus.
This is another instance of God reassuring them. Just like shaking the house after they prayed and providing signs and miracles, here God intervenes to give them courage. They have not faced persecution personally before. In the past they were shielded by Jesus as He took the brunt of the criticism and rebuke. But now they face a Sanhedrin that warned them of dire circumstances if they did not stop proclaiming Jesus. And they know tomorrow will likely bring harsh repercussions for their civil disobedience. So in the midst of this God comes down and makes sure they know He is with them and that no one can thwart His plans. They know they serve the highest power who is not bound by prisons and threats and it is obedience to Him that is now even more their priority.
Later in the morning the council assembles and calls for the apostles to be brought. The men sent to the jail to retrieve them, however, come back with very odd news. The apostles are not there. The doors are locked and the jail is secure, but the prisoners are gone. As the council tries to comprehend this someone comes to them with the news that the apostles are teaching in the temple. Not only are they not in the jail, but they are back to doing the very thing that got them arrested in the first place. Apparently some men are not overly concerned about the council’s power and authority.
The captain of the temple guard and his men (probably feeling a little chagrinned to be doing this a second time) go immediately to the temple and re-arrest the apostles. They do it very quietly and without force, however, as they fear the people with whom the apostles are so popular (the very thing the council wants to stamp out). They also may be a little intimidated by the fact that these men can apparently break out of prison without unlocking doors or overcoming guards (or doing anything that anyone notices at all).
Aside – is it not incredible that no one on the council seems to be bowed at all by the prison break? Would it not make sense that if these men were able to get out in such an incredible way that perhaps Someone wants them free? When the jailbreak is considered alongside the miracles and healings they routinely perform, it would seem to be wise to approach them cautiously. However, this is not how men blinded by their sin think. The supernatural acts surrounding the apostles do nothing to stem the jealousy and resentment of the religious leaders.
The temple police bring the apostles to the council and the high priest questions them. He reminds them that the council gave them strict orders not to teach in this name (notice that the religious leaders never actually say the word ‘Jesus’), but they continue to teach throughout the whole city. By teaching Jesus’ death and resurrection – and saying plainly that the Jews killed Him – they seem to intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. What is ironic about the high priest’s words is that the leaders incited the people to tell Pilate – when he wanted to free Jesus at His trial – “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25).
The apostles respond very simply with similar words to what Peter and John said to the council when they stood before them. “We must obey God rather than men.” They go on to present another mini-gospel and amazingly teach the exact thing that the high priest just accused them of. The apostles tell them that God raised up Jesus “…whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” “He is the Messiah and you killed Him.”
The council responds predictably (unlike the last time when the leaders did not know how to respond to Peter’s gospel proclamation and so remained quiet – 4:14). The Sadducees cannot believe these men would so blatantly mock their authority right here in the council chamber. They are so enraged they begin the process to have the apostles executed.
At this point a Pharisee – presumably not so offended by the gospel message of resurrection – named Gamaliel stands up. He is a teacher of the Law (the one who taught Paul – 22:3) respected by all the people (he transcends the party differences of the Pharisees and Sadducees). Because he is so respected he commands the floor and the council listens to him. He gives two examples of other men who for a time garnered followers to their cause but then flamed out with their causes coming to nothing. In light of these examples he preaches caution and restraint. He says, “And so in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”
His words are amazingly wise and true – and they will be borne out as such. The movement IS of God and the religious leaders will not overthrow it even though trying. And they WILL end up fighting against God. It stands to reason that Gamaliel does not utter these words on his own. God clearly gives him the wisdom and rational thinking to calm the council and reset the debate. God will allow the apostles to be persecuted but He is not ready for them to be martyred.
As a result of Gamaliel’s words the Sadducees relent. They call for the apostles to be brought in (Gamaliel had dismissed them before he spoke) and warn them to speak no more in Jesus’ name. To make sure the apostles get the message they have them flogged and send them away.
Luke understates the flogging in verse 40. He presents it matter-of-factly without comment. However, it is at the same time incredibly unjust and horrific. It is obviously much better than the execution the council wanted to deliver – but considering Gamaliel just convinced them to stand aside and let the will of God work it is amazingly cruel. The text does not say if they are given the maximum 39 stripes (Deut 25:3 – Jewish flogging typically involved a whip of triple strips, hence the 39 stripes as a multiple of three [this is per the ESV Study Bible] – the apostles likely are not scourged with metal strips as Jesus was since scourging is a Roman punishment – also, the fact that they can leave in their own strength would seem to eliminate scourging as a possibility), but regardless it is a brutal punishment handed down purely for intimidation.
When they release the apostles after their flogging the religious leaders may hope they will simply go home. The apostles are Galileans, so perhaps after seeing what might happen if they continue to preach Jesus they will go back to their homes and resume their trades. If the apostles go home the new movement will likely cease as the healings and the teaching will go away. Getting the apostles out of Jerusalem would solve all the problems.
Amazingly, the apostles do anything but. Instead of being disillusioned or frightened they rejoice that they are worthy of being persecuted for the name of Jesus. And instead of going home or quieting down about the gospel they go right on preaching and teaching Jesus as the Christ. They do not change ANYTHING as a result of the council’s intimidation (I Pet 3:14). If anything, they are motivated by what happened and encouraged to preach all the more in the name of the One who is so clearly with them.
Luke makes a point to contrast the apostles’ state with their reactions. They rejoice because they are considered worthy to suffer shame. They have just been rebuked and punished by the highest religious authority in the land – something no respectable person wants to experience. But – that also means they have been treated the same way the prophets were treated and the same way Jesus was treated. So while they have been shamed in man’s eyes they wear it as a badge of honor because of what it means in God’s eyes. They are now worthy to be counted with the great servants of God because they have suffered for His name – and that calls for rejoicing.
If they had prayed for deliverance from persecution, the apostles would be disillusioned by the punishment they just received. If they had asked for protection from the Sanhedrin or for God to keep the Jewish leaders from acting against the church, they would be discouraged by God’s lack of action. Instead they REJOICE because they suffered persecution just as Jesus said they would and they suffered in some of the same ways He did. And though they suffered, they still have the boldness to continue to obey. He answered their prayer for obedience in the midst of persecution, so the pain of the persecution itself is secondary to the joy of going through it in Jesus’ name.
Something else which is amazing about their reaction – they are not bitter. Nothing is said in the text about the apostles complaining about how unjustly they were treated. They REJOICE – that does not leave much room for bitterness or the desire for revenge. The fairness of what just happened to them does not seem to occur to them at all. Years from now, Peter – their leader – will write the following words which explain how the apostles react – For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (I Pet 2:19-23 – see also I Pet 3:14-17, 4:12-19). They suffer for the sake of righteousness and entrust themselves to God – thus they do not worry about justice or revenge. God controls all things and their treatment is in His hands.
There is another way of looking at their situation, however. Nothing is better as a result of their prayer and obedience. They went from verbal warnings given to Peter and John to now getting flogged as a whole group. What was merely a threat before is now very real (no one doubts that the council will go through with executions the next time) and the price of obedience is suddenly much higher. They prayed and the obstacles became greater. God is giving them great success in ministry but at a very high cost. A human perspective on success would wonder if God is in this since the circumstances have turned so dire.
This then brings up a logical question. Why does God allow them to be persecuted? Could He not thwart the designs of the Sanhedrin such that the apostles could continue to minister unharmed? Or from a different angle, is there a problem with the current effectiveness of their ministry that persecution will address? They have thousands who have converted and the size of the group grows daily. It is not like they need some kind of boost to give them momentum and commitment. Nor do they need to be disciplined for disobedience. So what is the point of this?
There are likely many reasons (one reason for suffering is always to make the sufferer more aware of his dependence on God) but we know from reading ahead in Acts that this is the first real instance of the persecution that will eventually push the believers to leave Jerusalem and spread throughout the world. The new Christians will face harsher and harsher treatment and they will eventually be forced to leave the city. As they spread, the gospel will spread with them, and people will hear the gospel who otherwise would not have if the church were to remain just within Jerusalem.
God’s ways are not our ways and He requires His followers to live according to His ways (remember that the angel told the apostles to go back to the temple where they were sure to be arrested). We are called to be DIFFERENT. Only those who are different rejoice after undergoing intense physical persecution. Only those who are different celebrate answered prayer in the midst of terrible trials. Only those who are different look at horrific circumstances and thank God for His presence as they go through them.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. I Peter 4:14