Reflection by Rev. Richard Jorgensen
12 By the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. They were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. 13 None of the rest dared to join them; however, the people honored them. 14 More believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. 15 They even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mattresses, so that as Peter came by, at least his shadow might overshadow some of them. 16 The multitude also came together from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits; and they were all healed.
17 But the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy 18 and laid hands on the apostles, then put them in public custody. 19 But an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors by night, and brought them out and said, 20 “Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.”
21 When they heard this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and taught. But the high priest and those who were with him came and called the council together, with all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But the officers who came didn’t find them in the prison. They returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison shut and locked, and the guards standing before the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside!”
24 Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests heard these words, they were very perplexed about them and what might become of this. 25 One came and told them, “Behold, the men whom you put in prison are in the temple, standing and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain went with the officers, and brought them without violence, for they were afraid that the people might stone them.
27 When they had brought them, they set them before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “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.”
29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. 32 We are his witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 But they, when they heard this, were cut to the heart, and were determined to kill them. 34 But one stood up in the council, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, honored by all the people, and commanded to put the apostles out for a little while. 35 He said to them, “You men of Israel, be careful concerning these men, what you are about to do. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, making himself out to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves. He was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the enrollment, and drew away some people after him. He also perished, and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered abroad. 38 Now I tell you, withdraw from these men and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. 39 But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!”
40 They agreed with him. Summoning the apostles, they beat them and commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ name.
42 Every day, in the temple and at home, they never stopped teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ.
Immediately following the dramatic story of Ananias and Sapphira, the Apostles are back in the Temple, preaching and teaching and performing signs and wonders by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not much time has passed, however, since the events recorded in Acts 4, in which the high priest and his family, had ordered Peter and John (and anyone else) from teaching and preaching in Jesus’ name. Peter and John had answered that they would obey God, rather than human authority.
And so they are back in the Temple, and while Peter and John had healed only one person back in Acts 3, they are now healing multitudes of people, and just as Jesus had done, they are drawing a crowd of people from all over the region. None of this escapes the notice of the Sadducees. So, the disciples are arrested once again, and thrown into prison, but that night, an angel of the Lord releases them, and sends them back to the Temple to preach and teach in the name of Jesus. This is the first of several “great escapes” recorded in the book of Acts, and we see that God’s Word will not be stopped, even by prison walls and the threat of death.
The apostles are again arrested and brought before the high priest for questioning, and once again, they remain faithful to God, and will not to be intimidated, and will not stop proclaiming the Gospel, even if it costs them their lives. Empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit, the lives of the apostles increasingly resemble the life of Christ, not just in their preaching, teaching, signs, and wonders, but also in their suffering for the sake of Jesus.
And this episode serves as a challenge for the church in any time and place. Are we willing to choose God’s will over the will of any human authority? And are we willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name? Perhaps one of the reasons the signs and wonders flow so freely in the Book of Acts, is because these earliest witnesses to the resurrection were so fully dependent upon God, and living on the margins of society, they were also in the place where God’s power is most visible.
Gamaliel was one of the most respected rabbis in the First Century, and his appearance in this story seems to be consistent with the picture recorded elsewhere. Gamaliel was a respected and authoritative voice in interpreting the Torah. In this case, as the Sanhedrin moves quickly toward a decision of executing the Apostles, Gamaliel, suggests that they not act in haste. Indeed, he suggests, if this movement is not from God, it will fail on its own, but if it is from, God there is nothing they can do to stop it, and they may well find themselves fighting in vain, against the will of God. Remarkably, Gamaliel speaks with such authority and wisdom, that the Sanhedrin chooses not to execute the Apostles, and instead, simply have them beaten and released. (Gamaliel will be remembered again in Acts 22, when Paul names him as one of his teachers.)
Acts chapter 5 ends with yet another summary statement. This one is perhaps the shortest summary statement in the book, and that is perhaps what makes it so powerful. Both in the Temple and at home, the apostles NEVER stop teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus. Despite the growing opposition from the religious authorities, the apostles remain faithful to their call, and God continues to work through them in powerful ways.
And this episode serves as a challenge for the church in any time and place. Are we willing to choose God’s will over the will of any human authority? Are we willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name? Perhaps one of the reasons the signs and wonders flow so freely in the Book of Acts is because these earliest witnesses to the resurrection were so fully dependent upon God, and living on the margins of society, they were also in the place where God’s power is most visible.
This chapter also challenges our assumptions that it is spiritually safe to be comfortable. All too often, the church in the United States has avoided suffering, and even enjoyed a privileged place in society. In many cases, people have come to assume that it is our right to be given access to places of power and influence, and some feel persecuted when the church is not given favored treatment or a cashier says, “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” None of that is suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
As Christians, our lives do not belong to us, they belong to God. Whenever we forget who we are and whose we are, we will also soon forget that we are not called to be comfortable, and we should not expect special favors or an elevated status in society. Rather, we should see ourselves as servants of Jesus Christ, and our neighbors. And while we should not seek out suffering and persecution, we should not avoid it either. And if it is our pattern to choose safety over risk-taking; to choose comfort over suffering; privilege over sacrifice; and we choose our wants over call to love our God and neighbor first, then perhaps we need to re-examine our life and ministry.
Holy Spirit stir us up. Challenge us, change us, transform us. Make us anew to be who we are meant to be, so that we may live and proclaim the Gospel with boldness and power, and you may use us to heal our communities and bless our neighbors. In the name of Christ, Amen.