17. Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation,
For some time now the apostles had been disobeying the commandment that the Sanhedrin had given them in Acts 4:18, even as they had told them they would disobey it in Acts 4:19-20. The rulers may have felt themselves powerless to act, since the people were on the side of the apostles and not on the side of the rulers. However, as the apostles gained more and more popularity, it seemed clear to these men that their influence was all but gone, and that the people would respect and listen to the apostles far more than they would to the religious leaders. Thus they were filled with indignation, or envy, as the Greek word zelos might better be translated. At last, they could contain themselves no longer.
Our attention is drawn again to the fact that these leaders were of the sect of the Sadducees. Remember, these had an even greater reason to hate the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, for a primary tenant of theirs was that they rejected the idea of any kind of resurrection. The fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ went against their doctrine and beliefs. Thus, they were even more enraged by the common acceptance of the resurrection of the Lord by the people than the Pharisees or other sects of the religious leaders would have been.
18. and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison.
Finally, the high priest and his fellows act, lay hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. Remember that, though the apostles had all the influence with the people at the time, the Jewish leaders still had the authority structure, the temple soldiers, and the approval of Rome on their side. The common people had little but a zeal for God. Thus, the priests prevail in imprisoning the apostles. Indeed, these men were not authorized by the Lord Jesus to fight back against these their enemies. Just as He had done, they allow themselves to be arrested.
To be thrown in the common prison was just as humiliating then as it would be for anyone today. And their prisons at that time were probably far less comfortable than any prison in our day, at least in the United States. So the priests were probably trying both to humiliate and to frighten them by this act. By doing this, they could at last assert their own power, and seek to remind these upstarts that they were still in charge. God, however, had His Own government, and it was acting in power then upon the earth. He would act to reverse this judgment of the corrupt, sinful government of Israel, to protect His Own governors, and to cause His will and His judgment to prevail.
Thus arises the second great challenge to the unity God had created coming from without. Once again it is perpetrated by the usual suspects, the enemies of the Lord and of His disciples among the religious leaders and the Sanhedrin. They lifted themselves up against the unity God created and the government He was setting up in their place. Now, He would again have to act to preserve the work He was bringing to pass among the believers.
19. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said,
The Lord quickly acts to reverse the decision of the envious Sadducees by sending an angel to open the prison doors and bring His leaders out. This event is treated almost matter-of-factly by Luke, and we understand that in the Acts period, this was nothing unusual at all. God at this time was acting in government, and His righteous government had already made its determination about these men. Now these ungodly priests had acted against God’s government by imprisoning its leaders. God, however, reverses their decision and causes His chosen to go free. This was only to be expected in a time when the Lord was acting openly and manifestly to bring His government into the earth.
20. “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
The angel’s command is not for them to leave and go into hiding. Rather, he tells them to return to the temple and to speak to the people, just as they had been doing up until this time. They are not to change a thing, but are to act as if nothing different has happened. We will see the surprise of their would-be judges when they observe such behavior in these men they were trying to make out to be criminals!
What they are to speak to the people is the words of this life. The Greek for “words” here is rhema, which has to do with the actual words that are spoken, unlike logos, which has to do with the thoughts that are expressed by the words used. These are the words from God that are related to the life that is in Him. This probably had to do particularly with words regarding the resurrection life to which the Sadducees were so opposed. Praise God for such words as we have them in the Scriptures!
21. And when they heard that, they entered the temple early in the morning and taught. But the high priest and those with him came and called the council together, with all the elders of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.
The apostles had received their instructions and they acted upon them immediately, returning to the temple early in the morning, as was their custom, and began to teach, as they had been doing.
Meanwhile, the high priest and those who had plotted with him in the imprisoning of the twelve came together and called the Sanhedrin into session with all the representative men of the sons of Israel, even those who were not currently a part of the Sanhedrin. The word the New King James has translated “elders” here is a unique word in Scripture, gerousia, and is translated “senate” in the old King James. It means the “council of elders,” and is used often in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, for the council of elders. These were the most influential and important men in the old leadership that had existed in Israel, but now God had set these men aside, and they were superseded by the twelve and the government He had chosen to place in authority over Israel through them. The Lord was indeed in the process of taking His vineyard away from these men and giving it to others, as He had said He would do in Matthew 21:43. These men were the old vinedressers, and now they were going head-to-head with the new leaders Christ had chosen. We will see which leadership will prevail.
22. But when the officers came and did not find them in the prison, they returned and reported,
When the officers come to bring the prisoners to the Sanhedrin, they find that the twelve are no longer in the prison! This must have been a shock for them indeed, and they must all have feared for their positions because of it. No doubt it was with a good deal of trepidation that they returned to the most important court in the land to report the disappearance of their prisoners.
23. saying, “Indeed we found the prison shut securely, and the guards standing outside before the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside!”
We can imagine the looks on the faces of these self-important men of the Sanhedrin when they heard this report. Their prison doors and their guards were all secure, yet their prisoners were no longer inside. It was as if God was mocking these men and showing how easy it was for Him to countermand their schemes. Indeed, the joke was on them, but they were not laughing at this point!
24. Now when the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests heard these things, they wondered what the outcome would be.
The conspiring priests along with the captain of the temple guard are utterly perplexed when they hear this report. They had sought, by arresting the apostles, to humiliate them, but now God has turned this around, and they are the ones who look foolish. At this point, they are unsure as to what the outcome of this embarrassing circumstance would be.
25. So one came and told them, saying, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”
The report reaches these rulers of what has happened to the men they arrested. They have not gone into hiding, but instead are back in their usual place in the temple and teaching the people. The actions of the priests had failed to hinder them at all, for God had not allowed them to do so.
26. Then the captain went with the officers and brought them without violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned.
The captain of the temple guard goes himself to deal with this along with the officers. They were afraid to arrest the apostles violently, however, for they are well aware that the sympathies of the people are with the apostles and not with the priests. They are afraid that they will be stoned as enemies of God if they dare to treat these respected teachers violently, especially now that God has given His stamp of approval to their teaching. It is likely that the officers meekly requested that the apostles come with them to appear before the Sanhedrin, and that the apostles came with them willingly. Anything else would have caused the soldiers great difficulty with the people.
27. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them,
So the officers this time succeed in their mission, but only, it seems, with God’s permission now. Thus they set the twelve before the Sanhedrin. Certainly, their trial has already not gone as these religious leaders would wish. Their former prisoners now appear before them rather as guests, and instead of reminding them of the Sandhedin’s own power and influence, it is the Sanhedrin that has been reminded of the apostles’ power and influence with God! God’s government has indeed turned this scheme back upon the priests’ own heads. His government, when it acts, cannot be defeated or overcome. If this is what happened when the kingdom was in part, imagine what it will be like when the full kingdom comes in the future! That will be a marvelous day indeed.
28. saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”
The high priest blames them for ignoring their command given back in Acts 4:18 not to teach in the name of Jesus. He points out that they did strictly “command with a command” not to teach in this name. This is a Hebrew figure of speech Polyptoton, wherein a word is repeated to emphasize it. They had indeed given the apostles a most firm command in this regard. Yet the apostles, as they well knew, had boldly refused their command to their face, attesting that they must obey God rather than men. At the time, the Sanhedrin had no choice but to let them go, however, as they had no justification for holding them when all they had done was heal the lame man. Now, however, they can blame them for defying their command. This is still a weak charge, but remember that this whole trial came about because of their frustration and desperation when they saw how popular the twelve were becoming, and how all their own power and influence were wearing away. Whether they had justification for it or not, these men feel that they must act now or never.
Notice that the high priest refuses to say the name of the Lord Jesus, instead talking about “this name” and “this Man.” This is a habit that is continued among many of the rebellious Jews today, who evidence this same spirit. Thank God that His truth still gets through to some of His people, however, and that there still are those who know and love their Lord!
29. But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.
This had been their argument back in Acts 4:19, and now they repeat it. These members of the Sanhedrin were merely men. They were giving these apostles an order, and yet this order ran contrary to the orders they had been given by God. These apostles knew quite well that their first loyalty lay to God, and not to men. No matter what the Sanhedrin might threaten them with, and no matter what punishments they might actually bring against them, the apostles could not do anything else but obey the commandment of God that they had been given.
30. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.
They repeat once again the accusation they brought against the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:10. They had crucified Jesus Christ, but God had raised Him up from the dead. This proved beyond a doubt that God did not agree with their judgment when they had condemned Him. They were entirely in the wrong, and had committed a most grievous error in the sight of God.
31. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
God had not just raised Him up, but had also exalted Him to His right hand. Too often, we picture this as if God were an old man with a long, white beard sitting on a throne, and that Jesus Christ was exalted to sit next to Him in a chair on His right hand side. But this is not the picture we should get here. Rather, we should remember that the right side at that time was considered the place of authority. What is meant here is that Jesus Christ sat down on the very authority of God. God exalted Him to His very right, and He now sits on the authority of God. He sits as a Prince, in Greek an archegon, which again means an Author or Originator, as we saw it back in Acts 3:15. He is originating all the work of God now, for He sits as God in heaven. He is also a Savior, praise God, and one of the outcomes of this fact is that He will give repentance to Israel and will forgive their sins.
“Repentance” here is again metanoia, and it means that He is the One Who is giving them an attitude of submission and “after-mindedness.” Israel might not have such an attitude now, but she will one day, and the Lord Jesus Christ is the One Who will give it to her. We cannot doubt this, for He cannot fail. He will yet bring them to the place of submission, and what a day it will be when He does!
32. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Now the apostles add their own witness to what God has done. They know that the things they are telling the Sanhedrin are true. The word “things” here is again rhema. These were not empty words they were speaking, but they were witnesses of the truth behind these words. Moreover, they emphasize that the Holy Spirit is also a witness. In this case, this phrase is “the Spirit the Holy” in Greek, and so it is speaking of the Person of the Spirit, the Giver behind the gifts. However, there can be no doubt but that they meant that He was giving witness by the miraculous things that He had done through them. It was His miracles that gave witness.
Now, the Lord inspires them to finish their declaration with a most cutting condemnation. The Holy Spirit had been given to these apostles, remember, and not to the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin. It was through jealousy that these men had killed the Lord Jesus, and now it was through jealousy and exasperation that they had dragged these apostles before them. They resented the fact that these men had power that they did not. These were men who loved power, and could not abide their power being superseded. Now, the apostles point out what the problem was. Simply put, the reason these men had not received God’s power is because they did not obey Him. If they had obeyed Him, they would have received this power. Thus, this was a most cutting, but certainly a most true condemnation. God was calling upon these men to give up their stubborn attitudes of rebellion, and to start obeying Him. If they did, they too could receive His power. As it was, they had not received it, and the reason was their stubborn disobedience.
This was a proper accusation, and the Sanhedrin needed to hear it. We can well imagine, though, that they did not want to hear it, and unfortunately we will find that they respond to it about as we might expect stubborn and envious men to respond, and not as God would have had them to.
33. When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them.
The members of the Sanhedrin are furious at the righteous accusation that the apostles bring against them. The word for “furious” here is the Greek diaprio, and means cut. These words had cut to their very inward being, and brought to light what was found there. These men were not the sort of men who like having their inward motivations revealed. They had set themselves up as enemies of the truth of God, and God’s appeal could not reach them. Thus, they plot to kill the apostles, just as they had killed the Lord Jesus.
34. Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while.
The “council” here again is the Sanhedrin. A member of this body named Gamaliel stands up. We read of his credentials here: that he was a teacher of the law, and was held in respect by all the people. The Companion Bible notes that he was the grandson of a famous man named Hillel. He also had been the instructor of the man Saul of Tarsus, about whom we will be reading before much longer in this book of Acts. This Gamaliel commands to have the apostles put outside for a little while so that he can confer with the rest of the Sanhedrin in privacy. Though he sought privacy, God could certainly listen in on their conversation, and so He has recorded it for us here to learn of the hypocritical attitude of these men.
35. And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men.
Gamaliel suggests caution in dealing with these men. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and as we saw in chapter 4, the message of the apostles was particularly odious to the Sadducees since it involved the resurrection of the dead, something they rejected entirely. The Pharisees, who taught the resurrection, were just as set against the truth the apostles were teaching as a whole, but it could be that Gamaliel takes the apostles’ side as a way of getting at the Sadducees more than anything else.
36. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing.
In his argument promoting caution in dealing with the apostles, Gamaliel sites the case of a man named Theudas who had risen up sometime before claiming to be somebody. A significant following of four hundred men had joined him, but when he was slain, all who has followed him scattered, and his movement came to nothing.
Now while Gamaliel’s argument might carry the appearance of wisdom in claiming a precedent, anyone who had considered his argument logically could have easily pointed out the glaring flaw in it. For the fact was that the Lord Jesus Christ had already been killed, yet His followers had not dispersed, and His movement was clearly not going to come to nothing. This is no doubt what the Sanhedrin had hoped would happen when they put Him to death, yet time had shown them to be wrong, and now it was most clear that this was not going to happen.
37. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.
Now Gamaliel sites a second example of a man named Judas of Galilee who had risen up in the days of the census. Josephus records this in his Antiquities. Since the census was often connected with taxation, it is likely that this Judas was one of what we would call “tax protestors,” and had gained a significant following for a time. Yet he too had perished, for Rome took a dim view of those who opposed their laws of taxation, and when he was gone those who obeyed him had all dispersed.
Again, this precedent does not fit the case at hand, for the Lord was dead and His followers had not scattered. The truth is that Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin feared the people, for they were on the side of the apostles. They had already not gotten away with murdering the Lord as they had hoped, and now these twelve men were as popular as He had been, if not more so. They needed some way to get out of this trial and yet save face. Gamaliel is giving them that opportunity, and yet it is clear that he is doing it from a hypocritical attitude of unbelief.
38. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing;
Now Gamaliel argues that they should let these men alone and see what happens. If their plan or work is of men, it will come to nothing, just like these previous two cases he has set forth. We have already noted that this makes no sense really, but this is the argument that he is using.
39. but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.”
Some have tended to praise Gamaliel for his argument, noting that he opposed killing the apostles. These seem to think that his “wait and see” attitude was at least nobler than that of those who plotted to kill them there and then. Yet the real hypocrisy of Gamaliel’s argument comes out in this statement. The fact was that the Sanhedrin already had the most positive proof that the work the apostles were doing was of God. When these men had first come before them it was because they had healed the lame man. Since then, it was the powerful and miraculous works they did that had stirred up the ire of the Sanhedrin. Tell us, Gamaliel, did Judas ever work the mighty works these apostles did? Did Theudas ever raise the dead, or rise from the dead himself? Of course they did not! Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin already had the most positive proof that the work these men were doing was from God. It was nothing but hypocrisy and unbelief for him to suggest that they should wait and see to find out if this work was from God. They already knew that it was from God, but they failed to believe it. Moreover, they would not believe it no matter how much time they gave the thing. Gamaliel had no noble motivations and no commendable attitude here. His words rather can be rightfully condemned.
40. And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
The Sanhedrin agrees with Gamaliel, for this gives them an easy out from the predicament they were in. Thus, they call for the apostles and have them beaten. This would have involved thirty-nine lashes, probably given by striking them with a rod across the back. This really shows off their insincerity in this course of action. The Sanhedrin had already decided that the Lord and His work were not of God, and thus they had put Him to death by crucifying Him. Now, they claimed that they were going to wait and see if the work these apostles were doing was really from God. Yet at the same time, they had the apostles beaten, showing that they had already decided that this work was not from God. If they really thought God might be behind these men, how could they have them beaten? The truth was that in this, as in most things, these men were hypocritical and insincere.
Now after beating them they renewed their previous command to the apostles that they should not speak in the name of the Lord Jesus. But, Sanhedrin, wouldn’t that be fighting against God, if God is really behind these men? Wasn’t that what you said you were not going to do in verse 39? The truth is that these men had already made up their minds, and had rejected the truth. They did not believe, and were not going to believe, no matter what.
Finally, they have no excuse for holding the apostles any longer. Therefore, they let them go. Their trial has ended. Ultimately, it is the Sanhedrin that will be condemned because of it, for they are the ones who truly were wrong in the sight of God!
41. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.
What an attitude these men had learned from their Lord! They leave this place rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of our Lord. This is not an easy attitude to have in the light of adversity, yet it is a good one. It is indeed an honorable thing in the sight of God to suffer shame and humiliation for Him. It might not appear so in the eyes of men today, but someday this truth will be plain to all, and that which was originally humiliation will become a great honor.
42. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
The apostles once more behave exactly as they had assured the Sanhedrin they would act in verse 29. That is, they obey God rather than men. Thus they continue, not in secret, but rather daily in the temple, and in every house of the temple, teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Messiah. The temple was also the headquarters of the priests and religious leaders, and so it is right under their noses and in front of their temple guard that they do these things. Again, though, the Sanhedrin has no power to do anything about it, for they have no real cause for making an accusation against them, and the people are on the side of the twelve. How brave these men were in the sight of those with power who wanted to kill them! This is not an easy thing to do, yet they had each learned this kind of bravery from the Lord Who had acted thus before them, and from the Spirit He had given them. May each of us be brave if we, too, ever have to face the wrath of those who hate our Lord and Savior.