Witnesses For Christ

WE MUST OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MAN

24 When the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests heard this report, they were bewildered. They wondered what would happen next.
25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in prison are standing in the temple courtyard. They are teaching the people.” 26 So the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles back. But they didn’t use force. They were afraid the people would kill them by throwing stones at them.
27 They brought the apostles to be judged by the Sanhedrin. The high priest questioned them. 28 “We gave you clear orders not to teach in Jesus’ name,” he said. “But you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. You want to make us guilty of this man’s death.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God instead of people! 30 You had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. But the God of our people raised Jesus from the dead. 31 Now Jesus is Prince and Savior. God has proved this by giving him a place of honor at his own right hand. He did it so that he could turn Israel away from their sins and forgive them. 32 We are witnesses of these things. And so is the Holy Spirit. God has given the Spirit to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:24-32; New International Readers Version)

Scottish Reformer John Knox coined the phrase:

With God man is always in the minority.

We don’t know exactly the context of those words, but certainly the life of Peter shows us that he lived according to them. In this snapshot of Peter’s life and ministry, we learn that Peter courageously faced 71 members of Israel’s supreme court. Peter, no lawyer, merely a fisherman, ingeniously answered all the charges leveled against him. In faith, he stared down the Sanhedrin, and empowered by the Holy Spirit gave responses to their questions.

Let’s take a look at this event that has inspired believers throughout history to stand for Christ because the gospel of Jesus Christ places them under a higher authority than any man.

1. Background

The events just prior to the verses under consideration constitute the second persecution of the apostles, 5:17-26. The first prosecution is recorded in chapter 4. The new Christian movement was popular and growing rapidly in Jerusalem, and naturally the Jewish leaders were alarmed. In fact, it was more than just alarm; verse 17 indicates that the religious leaders of the day were “jealous” of the apostles. The apostles were rounded up and tossed into the common prison. Miraculously, they were let out of jail by the angel of the Lord and told:

Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life. (5:20)

The next day when the Sanhedrin convened, they discovered that the apostles were not in prison, but teaching the gospel in the temple courts, the very thing that caused them to be thrown into prison the previous day! So these religious leaders again imprisoned the apostles, without violence because they feared what the people would think. We see that the early church enjoyed “the favor of all the people,” Acts 2:42-47.

2. Accusation, verses 27-28

What a sight this must have been; the members of the Sanhedrin sitting in a semicircle while the apostles stood in the center facing them. Of course, for Peter and John this was an encore performance, but for the rest of the apostles it must have been an intimidating situation. It is curious that the high priest has no interest in know how these men were released from prison. All he and the rest of the Sanhedrin seem to want to focus on is why Peter and John ignored their previous edict.

The depth of hatred these religious leaders had for Jesus is evident in the contemptuous way they said:

We gave you strict order not to continue teaching in his name. (verse 28a)

They never even mentioned the name of Jesus! The high priest was no fool, though. He knew he couldn’t really punish these men, that his threats had been devoid of power, because of public opinion. In his frustration, he leveled two accusations:

“You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Of course, he is very wrong about this. Time and again Peter and John stressed that they were teaching the words of Jesus, under His authority, not their own. The priests completely missed this, or they ignored it.

“[You] intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” By his own words he admits to murdering an innocent man. From earth’s point of view, it wasn’t the Romans who crucified Christ, it was the Jewish religious leaders of the day. Right here the Sanhedrin has taken responsibility for shedding the innocent blood of Jesus.

3. Response, verses 29-32

The apostle Peter, whatever else he might have been, is seen as a mighty mouthpiece for the early church throughout its infancy. The man spoke with a holy boldness never seen before. He addressed the faithful in the upper room (1:15-22), the crowd at Pentecost (2:14-39), the crowd at Solomon’s Colonnade (3:12-26), and the Sanhedrin (4:8-12). Now he addresses the whole assembly.

First, Peter addresses the apostle’s disobedience to the command of the Sanhedrin to stop teaching the gospel. His powerful response was:

We must obey God rather than man. (verse 29)

This is a restatement of what he said earlier to this same august body:

Judge whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. (4:19)

Peter is assuming the role of the prosecuting attorney here. The Sanhedrin, the religious rulers of Peter’s day, would have to say that obedience to God is more important than obeying man. God is the absolute ruler in heaven and on earth.

By stating that they must obey God rather than man, he effectively removed the high priest’s objection to the apostle’s seeming disobedience. Hebrew history is replete with godly men and women disobeying the ruling authorities in favor of God’s will. The Hebrew midwives, for example in Exodus 1:17, and Hezekiah listening to God and not to the king of Assyria, 2 Kings 19:14-37). The religious leaders knew, as all believers need to remember, that God blesses obedience and detests disobedience. Therefore, the apostles must obey God and not the orders of the high priest.

Next, Peter responded to what the priest said concerning the death of Jesus. Skillfully, Peter choose his words carefully to link the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Jesus. This Jesus, whom the God of Israel sent as His Messiah, the members of the Sanhedrin slew by hanging Him on a tree. The Greek word used here literally means “wood.” This is a clear reference to Deuteronomy 21:23–

Cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree.

Christ became cursed for us, even for those religious leaders, when he bore our sins on the Cross.

The subject of verses 30 and 31 is God, meaning what God did is what Peter wants the high priest to take note of. In no uncertain terms, Peter the prosecutor has turned the tables on the Sanhedrin and accused them of murder. But, the situation with Jesus was different. He didn’t stay dead, He was exalted to God’s right hand “as a Prince and Savior.” Both Greek terms are used in the Greek Old Testament to designate those whom God raised up to deliver errant Israel from her enemies. We call them “judges,” and this is highly suggestive of Jesus’ role as Messiah; He will be, when He returns, the Prince of Israel, the righteous and mighty Judge.

The next phrase, “he could turn Israel away from their sins and forgive them,” is a deep thought that deserves a moment’s consideration. The KJV renders the phrase like this: Christ “would give repentance to Israel.” Repentance is man’s work, not God’s, and nobody can give it to somebody else. Ralph Earle, credits Alexander with this explanation:

To give repentance is not merely to give time for it…or place for it…but to give the grace of repentance, ie. power and disposition to repent.

In this masterful sentence, Peter states that both repentance and the forgiveness of sins are gifts from God. Specifically, in the courtroom setting of the Sanhedrin, Peter indicates that repentance and remission of sins are God’s gifts to Israel proper, although just a few years later the Gentiles would receive the same gifts. And so, God’s gracious gifts are available even to the members of the Sanhedrin so that they may be forgiven for murdering the Savior.

Finally, in verse 32 Peter declares that they, the apostles, were “witness of these things,” just as Jesus said they would be (Luke 24:48, John 15:27). Interestingly, the Holy Spirit was also a “witness of these things” (John 15:26). There is a two-fold witness; the historical witness based on facts, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit in bringing into man’s hearts the essential meaning of those facts.

What does it mean to “obey God rather than men?” In the context of the passage before us, it meant that the apostles had to be obedient to the unction of the God. They had been told, as late as the previous night, to go and preach. For us today, this divine injunction still applies. The Holy Spirit is only given to those who obey God, He is the Spirit of Truth, after all. Obedience–the complete surrender of the will–is the one adequate and invariable price one must pay to be filled with the Spirit.

The consequences of the apostle’s obedience were two-fold. First, the “intended” consequence was that the gospel of Jesus Christ spread faster and faster and that resulted in more and more conversions. But, as is often the case in these matters, the “unintended” consequence is more dramatic. Consider Acts 6:7–

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Some of those “priests” no doubt, came from the ranks of the Sanhedrin. Had Peter and John not steadfastly obeyed the Word of the Lord to them, how many souls would have remained lost? Obedience to God is vitally important, not only to our own spiritual well-being, but also to that of others.

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