This is not the first time that the Council (the Sanhedrin) required apostles to appear before it to defend their actions. Just a short time ago, Peter healed a crippled beggar (which drew crowds) and then taught the assembled crowds about Jesus in Solomon’s Portico (a part of the Jerusalem Temple). In his address to that crowd, he told the crowd that they had “in ignorance” (3:17) and had rejected the messiah, causing him to die (3:14-16). He then called the crowd to repentance (3:19-21). He told them that God had raised Jesus from the dead (3:15) and that “God, having raised up his servant, Jesus, sent him to you first, to bless you, in turning away everyone of you from your wickedness” (3:26). About five thousand people believed as a result of Peter’s preaching (4:4).
The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees arrested Peter and John for teaching the resurrection (the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection), and compelled them to appear before the Council. The Council asked, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” (4:7)—meaning the healing of the crippled man. Peter responded by telling them about “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (4:10).
This left the Council in a quandary. They wanted Peter and John to quit preaching, but were hesitant to get tough lest they provoke a reaction from the people who had witnessed the healing miracle and responded to Peter’s preaching. They finally decided to let Peter and John go, but “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (4:18).
Peter and John responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves, for we can’t help telling the things which we saw and heard” (4:19-20). The Council, not knowing what else to do, threatened them and then released them (4:21).
After they were released, Peter and John joined a group of disciples and prayed for courage “to speak your word with all boldness” (4:29)—following which “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31).
The apostles proceeded to aggressively carry out a healing ministry in Solomon’s Portico (5:12-16), and were arrested by the high priest (5:17-18). But an angel opened the door of their cell, and they resumed their teaching in the temple (5:19-21a).
The Council sent for the apostles, but the temple police found that the prison was locked and the guards were on duty but the apostles were not there (5:22-23). They then learned that the apostles were teaching in the temple, so they brought the apostles to the Council, “and brought them without violence, for they were afraid that the people might stone them” (5:26).
When Peter and the apostles appeared before the Council, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29)—and gave a brief account of God exalting Jesus (5:30-32). The council members were enraged and wanted to kill the apostles, but Gamaliel, a Pharisee, advised them to let the apostles alone, “for if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found to be fighting against God” (5:38b-39).
Later, Herod will arrest Peter, placing him under the guardianship of four squads of soldiers (12:4). An angel will free Peter from prison cell (12:6-11).
ACTS 5:27-28. THEY BROUGHT THEM BEFORE THE COUNCIL
27When they had brought them, they set them before the council (Greek: synedrio—Sanhedrin). The high priest questioned them, 28saying, “Didn’t we strictly command you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us.”
“When they had brought them, they set them before the council”(sunedrio—Sanhedrin) (v. 27a). Common practice would be for members of the Council to sit and the accused to stand before them. This was designed to enhance the authority of the Council.
Luke earlier noted the presence of the Sadducees among the apostles’ enemies (4:1; 5:17). The Sadducees do not believe in resurrection (23:8), and oppose the apostles, in part, because the apostles are teaching that God has raised Jesus from the dead (3:15; 4:10).
“The high priest questioned them” (v. 27b). Luke earlier identified Annas as the high priest (4:6).
“Didn’t we strictly command you not to teach in this name?” (v. 28a). This refers to the incident in Acts 4:17-21, where the Council ordered Peter and John “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (4:18).
The Council’s overarching concern here is the failure of the apostles to submit to its authority. The Council is a legal entity with considerable power. If people refuse to obey its orders, they have reason to fear anarchy.
“Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (v. 28b). This is the first of two charges that the high priest makes against the apostles. The apostles have not only defied the Council’s order of silence, but have persisted to the point that they have “filled Jerusalem” with their teaching.
“and intend to bring this man’s blood on us” (v. 28c). Note that the high priest avoids using Jesus’ name—instead referring to him as “this man.” This is an attempt to diminish Jesus.
This is the second of the two charges that the high priest makes against the apostles. The apostles have not only taught people about Jesus, but have also accused the Council of blood-guilt in Jesus’ death.
This charge is true, although Peter earlier said, “Now, brothers, I know that you did this in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (3:17).
If, indeed, the Council is guilty of murdering Jesus, Jewish law would give Jesus’ family the right to avenge Jesus’ death. The High Priest’s remark reflects his concern with this rule (Polhill, 169).
ACTS 5:29-32. WE MUST OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN
29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted (Greek: hypsosen—from hypsoo—exalted or lifted up) him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. 32We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
“But Peter and the apostles answered” (v. 29a). More often than not, Luke has Peter speaking for the apostles. Here, he groups the apostles with Peter to make it clear that they stand unified before the Council. However, it seems likely that Peter, as on other occasions, does most of the talking.
“We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29b). In his earlier defense to the Council, Peter made a related comment: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves, for we can’t help telling the things which we saw and heard” (4:19-20).
In his reply to the high priest, Peter shifts the character of the dialogue. His interest is not in disobeying the Council but in obeying the charge to which God has called him. The Council is, indeed, an important authority, but clearly subordinate to God.
Christians have often cited Peter’s response to the high priest when faced with civil authority. There is a tension here that Christians must acknowledge. In their epistles, Paul (Romans 13:1-2) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-14) teach Christians “in subjection to the higher authorities” (Paul) and to “subject yourselves to every ordinance of man” (Peter)—to include civil rulers such as kings or governors. Paul expands this further by saying, “Give therefore to everyone what you owe: taxes to whom taxes are due; customs to whom customs; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7).
However, these admonitions fall short of ordering Christians to obey every edict of ruling authorities. Standing before the council, Peter makes it clear that, when human authority is in conflict with Godly authority, Christians must obey God.
The difficulty for Christians is to determine when civil disobedience is necessary. When is civil disobedience Godliness rather than mere pigheadedness? That is a question with which Christians have wrestled ever since.
Calvin dealt with this in detail. He concluded that authorities who practice “rebellious tyranny” are not ordained by God—and, therefore, not entitled to obedience.
Paul gives us a clue when he says, “For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil” (Romans 13:3). That was somewhat oversimplified even in the world in which Paul was living. It is very much not true in our world today, where evil rulers have killed millions. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Robert Mugabe are just a few of the many truly evil rulers of recent generations.
When faced with a decision to disobey governing authorities, whether civil or religious, Christians will do well to pray, study scripture, and seek the guidance of other Christians, including the larger church.
However, the larger church is sometimes corrupt or intertwines itself with corrupt civil authority so that its counsel is compromised. The reformers felt it necessary to defy the larger church—rightly according to most Protestants and wrongly according to most Catholics. Martin Luther King felt it necessary to defy racial segregation and discrimination, which were practices largely accepted by white churches in the South at that time—and in many white churches in the North as well. The majority of Christians today would say that he did the right thing.
So the question is not whether we should obey God rather than human authority, but how to discern when and how we are called to do that.
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree” (v. 30). Note the contrast here. The Council killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead.
Ironically, by compelling the apostles to appear before the Council, the members of the Council give Peter a wonderful opportunity to preach them a sermon that incorporates the Christian kerygma—the typical content of Christian preaching in the early church. Peter will even include the possibility of repentance and forgiveness of sins (v. 31).
“whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (v. 30b). This phrase, “hanging him on a tree,” comes from Deuteronomy 21:22-23, where God told Israel to execute criminals convicted of a capital crime by hanging them on a tree. That text prescribes that the corpse must not be allowed to hang on the tree overnight, but must be buried the same day, “for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). By using the phrase, “hanging him on a tree,” Peter therefore equates Jesus’ death to the death of a guilty and accursed person. This is in keeping with our understanding that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world when he died on the cross.
“God exalted (hypsosen—from hypsoo—exalted or lifted up) him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior“ (v. 31a). As noted above, Jesus’ exaltation by God contrasts dramatically with the action of the Council which hung Jesus on a tree.
Hypsoo can mean “exalted” or “lifted up.” The Council lifted up Jesus on a cross, but God lifted him up to sit at God’s right hand.
“to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins” (v. 31b). God’s purpose in lifting Jesus up to God’s right hand was not that Jesus might take revenge on his tormentors. The purpose all along had to do with forgiveness of sins. However, sinners must repent of their sins to receive forgiveness. The good news for the Council is that repentance and forgiveness are available to them even though they are guilty of having murdered the messiah. God will not exclude them from the possibility of redemption.
“We are His witnesses of these things” (v. 32a). The apostles have seen the risen Christ, and so meet the standard for legal witnesses to the resurrection. Kistemaker compiled a list of ten resurrection appearances (the following ten lines are quoted from Kistemaker, 48):
1. The women at the tomb (Matt. 28:9-10)
2. Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
3. Two men of Emmaus (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-32)
4. Peter in Jerusalem (Luke 24:34; I Cor. 15:5)
5. Ten disciples (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23)
6. Eleven disciples (John 20:24-29; I Cor. 15:5)
7. Seven disciples fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-23)
8. Eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18)
9. Five hundred persons (presumably in Galilee; I Cor. 15:6)
10. James, the brother of the Lord (I Cor. 15:7)
“and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (v. 32b). But the greatest witness to Jesus’ resurrection is the Holy Spirit, who enabled the apostles to speak in many languages at Pentecost (2:4) and to work miracles of healing as a part of their witness to the resurrection (3:1-10; 5:12-16).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Gunton, Colin E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Holliday, Carl R. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Soards, Marion L., The Speeches in Acts (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan