Persecution. The first attack that Satan brought against the early church was persecution. Persecution is an attempt to use social and physical restraint to restrict the movements and the ministry of members of the body of Christ, especially by striking fear in the hearts of the His people. It could take the form of social pressure, legal penalties or even physical violence including death. Persecution arises from the world (John 15:20), but often the strongest forms of persecution come from the religious world. Persecution has been used by the enemy on and off throughout the entire history of the church on Earth. yet we find that persecution alone is not an effective tactic in the long term (e.g. Smyrna, Rev. 2:8-11). Usually, persecution actually results in an even brighter testimony, and the word of God being spread more rapidly, as we see in Acts 4 – 5. therefore, Satan will often alternate persecution with other attacks, such as internal problems, or the allurement of the world. We must always be on our guard; “lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11).
Imprisonment and Examination (vv.1-7)
1 And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 being distressed on account of their teaching the people and preaching by Jesus the resurrection from among the dead; 3 and they laid hands on them, and put them in ward till the morrow; for it was already evening. vv.1-3 Arrested and Imprisoned. The persecution arose from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The priests and temple captain and the Sadducees came against the apostles (Peter and John). The animosity was so intense that they arrested them and put them in prison overnight, in order to bring them before the council of the Jews on the following day. It is instructive to see the connection between the Sadducees and the preaching of the resurrection.
This name “Sadducees”
comes from ‘Zadok’, or ‘Sadoc’, the promised line of priests in Israel who descended through Phinehas. In the gospels, the Sadducees are more closely connected with the chief priests, although the office of High Priest
moved between the Pharisees and Sadducees at times. During the time of Jesus’ trials, the Sadducees held the office of high priest. The Pharisees and the Sadducees together composed the Sanhedrin
. A third sect called the Essenes
excluded themselves from the council. Second only to the Pharisees, the Sadducees were the next most prominent sect of the Jews. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees were composed of mostly the upper class. They were more exclusive, and therefore fewer in number. The Sadducees were influenced by Hellenistic or Greek culture and thinking, which is evident in some of their beliefs. There were huge doctrinal differences between the two groups as well. The Sadducees denied the resurrection, the existence of angels, and the possibility of the spirit to subsist outside the body (Acts 23:8; Matt. 22:23). These beliefs are in open contradiction to the Word of God, which they felt was subject to rational criticism. The Sadducees did believe in strict observance of the written law of Moses, but they discounted psalms and the writings of the prophets. Hence, they tempted Lord on the basis of, “Moses said…” (Matt. 22:24). They also rejected the traditions of the elders which the Pharisees held so highly. At the same time they denied or twisted parts of scripture to fit their doctrines. The chief evil of the Sadducees was the denial of the resurrection. They believed that God’s government was over a person in their lifetime, but that the soul would perish with death. They held that when the body dies, the soul is annihilated. Therefore, in their view, there is no rewards or punishments; no judgment to come in heaven or hell. For that reason, they could live without fear of eternal consequences. On account of the resurrection, the Sadducees really came forward as the leading enemy of Christ after
the cross, while the Pharisees were the leading enemy before
the cross. Here we find that the Sadducees were “distressed on account of their teaching the people and preaching by Jesus the resurrection from among the dead”
4 But many of those who had heard the word believed; and the number of the men had become about five thousand. v.4 The Reception of the Word. While the Jewish leaders were opposing the preaching of Jesus Christ risen from among the dead, many of the common people believed, swelling the ranks of the disciples to five thousand men, not including women and children! The work continued to spread, and this no doubt is what alarmed the Jewish leaders and prompted them to take action.
5 And it came to pass on the morrow that their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together at Jerusalem, 6 and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the high priestly family; 7 and having placed them in the midst they inquired, In what power or in what name have “ye” done this? vv.5-6 Peter and John Before the Council. The following morning the two apostles were placed before the council. The names of the ruling priestly family are given. Annas, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander represent the religious establishment of Judaism during the time of Jesus and the early church, and they are shown to be enemies of the truth. Annas was the high priest from 6 AD to 15 AD, and he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas (John 18:13), and was influential even after his term. He initially questioned Jesus after his arrest and then sent him to Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest during the time of Jesus’ ministry, trials, and crucifixion. He represents the opposite of what the priesthood ought to have been. Rather that righteous and gracious, Caiaphas was political, conniving, and cruel. John and Alexander were leading members of the Jewish council, and were likely related to Annas and Caiaphas. These were the responsible leaders of Judaism. The apostles were asked about the power or name by which they had healed the lame man.
Peter’s Reply to the Rulers (vv.8-12)
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, Rulers of the people and elders of Israel, 9 if “we” this day are called upon to answer as to the good deed done to the infirm man, how “he” has been healed, 10 be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean, whom “ye” have crucified, whom God has raised from among the dead, by “him” this man stands here before you sound in body. vv.8-10 The True Source of Healing. Peter again takes the lead, speaking for both himself and John. Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and in His reply we see the marks of Spirit-led ministry: he glorified Christ (John 16:14). It was a good deed, but it was not Peter or John’s doing. It was “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean” that the lame man had been healed. Israel was going to have to acknowledge that, like the lame man, their only hope of blessing was through the very one they had crucified. Peter did not mince words when laying the nation’s guilt before them. It was very bold, and no doubt he knew that such a statement could result in his own death. As we already noted in ch.3, the Lord is preached to Israel as Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This brings in the Lord’s humble upbringing, being raised in the despised region of Galilee. Israel struggled with accepting the Messiah’s humble beginnings, but the healing of the man was attributed solely to “the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean”, and this had significant implications for Israel (v.12). Once again, it was evident that Israel was in opposition to God, as the One they had crucified was raised from the dead by God.
11 “He” is the stone which has been set at nought by you the builders, which is become the corner stone [ref. Psalm 118:22]. 12 And salvation is in none other, for neither is there another name under heaven which is given among men by which we must be saved. vv.11-12 Salvation Through Christ Alone. Peter then refers to Psalm 118:22, which says: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner”. Peter refers to the same passage again in his first epistle (1 Pet. 2:6-8), where he sheds more light on the meaning and application to Israel. God, as the all-wise and good Architect, laid out an elect and precious stone in Zion, intending Him to be the cornerstone. “He”, Christ, “is the stone”. This Stone ought to have been received, welcomed, and believed on by the people. However, the proud and disobedient builders rejected the Architect’s choice, and cast aside the Corner Stone as worthless. The builders are the religious leaders of Israel; the ones Peter addresses here as “you builders”. See also Matt. 21:42-46. Nevertheless, the Architect refused to allow the builders to have their way, and has in spite of the Stone’s rejection, has made Him “the corner stone” by resurrection and glorification! Now, where can those rebellious builders turn for salvation but to the very One they deliberately disrespected. There is no other way; God has seen to it that His Son, the rejected Nazarene, be the sole channel of blessing. The great conclusion is given in v.12; “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This served as a demonstration of Israel’s mistake in rejecting Christ, but also highlighted the grace of God, which still provided a path to salvation through Him.
An Exclusive Claim. Peter’s statement deals a decisive blow to the idea held by universalists who believe in “many paths” to God. Jesus Himself said “I am the way” (John 14:6), and Peter says the same here. Rejecting Christ and pursuing an alternative path for salvation is a form of disrespect towards God. He will not accept any other name!
13 But seeing the boldness of Peter and John, and perceiving that they were unlettered and uninstructed men, they wondered; and they recognised them that they were with Jesus. v.13 Amazement. The council was amazed at the boldness of Peter and John, who were not like others they had encountered. The Holy Spirit was working through the apostles. Despite their lack of formal education, these fishermen spoke with remarkable persuasion and boldness. They had a deep understanding of the scriptures and could effectively apply them in their preaching. The wisdom and power of their words could only be attributed to their relationship with Jesus, and the members of the council could plainly see that! God can use anyone in His work, provided they have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.
14 And beholding the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to reply; 15 but having commanded them to go out of the council they conferred with one another, 16 saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed an evident sign has come to pass through their means is manifest to all that inhabit Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But that it be not further spread among the people, let us threaten them severely no longer to speak to any man in this name. 18 And having called them, they charged them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. vv.14-18 Threats and Intimidation. The Jewish leaders had nothing logical with which to rebut Peter’s words, because the very man who had been healed was standing there. It would seem that they needed to put the evidence outside the doors while they conferred about what to do. In conference with one another, they admitted that “an evident sign” had been done, and that “we cannot deny it”. As the facts were indisputable, they resorted to intimidation as a means of curbing the spread of Christianity among the people. The council felt that if they could make the Apostles feel frightened, they could manipulate or control them in order to stop the spread of the gospel. The focus of their directives was that the apostles should not speak or teach in the name of Jesus. We see in these chapters the importance of the “name of Jesus”. All power for Christian ministry is associated with that Name, and it is that Name that the enemy hates.
19 But Peter and John answering said to them, If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye; 20 for as for us “we” cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard. vv.19-20 The Response of Peter and John. Naturally, many would succumb to the pressure of intimidation. But Peter and John were unperturbed by it. Their boldness is seen in their reply. The commandment of the council was in opposition to the will of God. Who should they obey? The apostles could not refrain from preaching the facts of the gospel, the things they had seen and heard. This establishes an important principle: we must follow God’s commands, even if it means disobeying human authorities. It is not rebellion, but rather obedience to God who has more authority than human governments. The intelligence of faith lays hold of this, and the energy of faith implicitly acts upon it.
21 But they, having further threatened them, let them go, finding no way how they might punish them, on account of the people, because all glorified God for what had taken place; 22 for the man on whom this sign of healing had taken place was above forty years old. v.21 Conclusion. Even after their response, the council could still find no legal basis to punish Peter and John. The support of the people was a factor that prevented them from taking action against the apostles; “because all glorified God for what had taken place”. The hand of God was abundantly evident in the healing of the lame man who had been in that condition from birth, and was “above forty years old”. The people could see the power of God, and in recognizing it “glorified God”. No doubt many of the people would believe and be converted. Also, we see the Lord as “head over all things to the Church” (Eph. 1:22-23) moving the political circumstances such that the apostles would be released.
Their Recourse in Persecution (vv.23-30)
23 And having been let go, they came to their own company, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. v.23 Their Own Company. The apostles immediately went “to their own company”. God gives us the strength to carry on in the path of faith alone, but He doesn’t ask us to. One of the greatest resources of the believer, especially in times of trial, is community. The fellowship of our brethren is a tremendous resource, and it can strengthen, comfort, and encourage us when we need it most.
24 And they, having heard it, lifted up their voice with one accord to God, and said, Lord, “thou” art the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them; 25 who hast said by the mouth of thy servant David, “Why have the nations raged haughtily and the peoples meditated vain things? 26 The kings of the earth were there, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Christ.” [Psalm 2:1-2] 27 For in truth against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou hadst anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the nations, and peoples of Israel, have been gathered together in this city 28 to do whatever thy hand and thy counsel had determined before should come to pass. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to thy bondmen with all boldness to speak thy word, 30 in that thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and that signs and wonders take place through the name of thy holy servant Jesus. vv.24-30 Prayer and the Word of God. We find the entire company then turned to prayer, bringing the issue of what the apostles had just passed through before God. This is what we call collective prayer, where an entire group prays with one voice. It may just be one person speaking, but the words spoken are on behalf of the whole company. Then they prayed, the disciples lifted up their voices to the Lord, addressing Him as “the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them”. They were invoking the aid of the One who reigns supreme over all things. Prayer and the Word of God go hand in hand, and the disciples’ prayer exemplifies this by incorporating a quotation from scripture, specifically Psalm 2. The circumstances in Psalm 2, which is a Messianic Psalm, are of the same character as those the disciples were facing. The nations are pictured in a state of turmoil, like the raging waves of the sea. The psalmist (David, v.24) asks the question, why are the nations in such a state? “Why have the nations raged haughtily and the peoples meditated vain things?” The nations have organized themselves (into confederacies) and their leaders plot together for a common purpose: to rebel against Jehovah and His purpose. They resist the authority of God, and the reign of “his Christ”. The disciples could see in the circumstances of the death of Christ, and in the circumstances in which they now found themselves, an enemy movement and opposition in the very city if Jerusalem akin to that described in Psalm 2. The Psalm is quoted in reference to the unholy union of Pilate and Herod, of the Jews and the Romans, against the Lord Jesus. Luke shows that the nefarious alliance of nations against Christ at His first coming is in accordance with the character of Psalm 2, although it is not the final fulfillment. The final fulfillment is still future! The disciples could see from this scripture that the confederacies of men in opposition against God are simply them preparing to do what God’s counsel had determined beforehand! They cried out the Lord to considered the threats of the Jewish council, and to grant them more boldness to preach His word, accompanied by “signs and wonders” through the name of the very One who is Jehovah’s Servant and Son.
Answer to Prayer (vv.31-37)
31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were assembled shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness. v.31 Filling with the Spirit and Boldness. The disciples’ prayer was answered far beyond what they had asked. The building shook, and they were all “filled with the Holy Spirit”. The filling of the Spirit is when the Spirit of God is not only indwelling a person (which He does for every believer), but is also given complete control over the individual (Eph. 5:18). The result of being filled with the Spirit is that they “spoke the word of God with boldness”. This is an amazing outcome, considering the threats just made against Peter and John by the religious leaders!
32 And the heart and soul of the multitude of those that had believed were one, and not one said that anything of what he possessed was his own, but all things were common to them; 33 and with great power did the apostles give witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 For neither was there any one in want among them; for as many as were owners of lands or houses, selling them, brought the price of what was sold 35 and laid it at the feet of the apostles; and distribution was made to each according as any one might have need. vv.32-35 Generosity and Unity. Beyond giving them boldness to speak the word of God, the disciples were drawn together such that their hearts and souls were one. This was an amazing display of unity in the early Church that was an answer to the Lord’s own prayer in John 17. It was a unity in communion, proved by their actions: “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). None held a selfish view of their own possessions, but “they had all things common”. The idea of unity among individuals is often opposed in our society, which emphasizes individualism and the protection of personal rights and property, with little regard for the needs of others. These dear brethren considered their possessions as belonging to all. A second part of their prayer was answered when the apostles were given great power in witnessing “the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. This would involve signs of power accompanying their preaching that demonstrated the reality of the resurrection. Finally, the affluent among them were moved by generosity to sell their own properties, both lands and houses, and brought the proceeds to the apostles for distribution among those who were in need. This is where Christianity becomes applicable in everyday life. These dear brothers and sisters were willing to give up their family inheritances, cherished possessions under the Jewish system, their own financial security, out of their love for Christ and His people! Communism tries to imitate this unity of love, but grace cannot be imitated. Only the Holy Spirit can produce true unity!
36 And Joseph, who had been surnamed Barnabas by the apostles (which is, being interpreted, Son of consolation), a Levite, Cyprian by birth, 37 being possessed of land, having sold it, brought the money and laid it at the feet of the apostles. vv.36-37 Barnabas. We are now introduced to Barnabas, who would become a great leader in the early church. Barnabas was a Greek-speaking Jew originally from the island of Cyprus. His original name was Joseph, and his linage was of the tribe of Levi. He was apparently wealthy, owning some land. Barnabas was instrumental in welcoming the converted Saul of Tarsus into the Christian company, and was a companion of Paul on his first missionary journey. Barnabas was one of those moved by generosity to sell his land and bring the money to the apostles’ feet for distribution to those in need. This would have been a tremendous encouragement to the poor, and an example to other wealthy Jews. We have an indication here of the affection that the apostles had for Barnabas, which reflects on the love that was evidently among the saints. They surnamed him Barnabas, which is like giving him a nickname. The name Barnabas means Son of consolation, which means he was a comfort, help, and encouragement to his brethren. We read of him: “he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). May we be the same!
Sin and Discipline (5:1-16)
The next trial that the early church faced was from within. The unity of the Spirit which was so evidently seen in vv.32-37 was broken by sin. Nevertheless, even this assault was overcome through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, such that in the end, even more souls were saved. In the following section we have the first public sin and the first occasion of discipline in the church.
The Sin of Ananias and Sapphira, and the Result (vv.1-10)
1 But a certain man, Ananias by name, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, 2 and put aside for himself part of the price, his wife also being privy to it; and having brought a certain part, laid it at the feet of the apostles. vv.1-2 The Sin of Ananias and Sapphira. The action of Barnabas was no doubt a powerful example of the self-less love and unity that characterized the early church. The flesh is always seeking to gain an advantage. Ananias was a man among that early company who wanted to have the appearance of giving up his substance, but also wanted to keep part of it. He and Sapphira his wife sold a piece of land. Ananias then set aside some of the money for himself (his wife knowing what he was doing), and laid a certain part at the feet of the apostles, giving the impression that he had given the full amount. It was the love of money at the root, and it led to hypocrisy and deceit. It is not clear whether Ananias and Sapphira were true believers, or if they were mere professors. If we were to judge by their actions, it would put their salvation in doubt. In either case, the principles are applicable to believers. It is possible for us when we fail to practice self-judgment to do similar things – deceit, religious hypocrisy, etc. – as Ananias and Sapphira.
3 But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled thy heart that thou shouldest lie to the Holy Spirit, and put aside for thyself a part of the price of the estate? 4 While it remained did it not remain to “thee”? and sold, was it not in thine own power? Why is it that thou hast purposed this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God. vv.3-4 Peter’ Accusation. The Lord gave Peter discernment to see the deceit of Ananias, and he immediately accused Ananias before all. Satan had filled his heart to do this thing, but Ananias had allowed Satan to get an opening there in the first place. It is interesting that Peter charges Ananias with lying to the Holy Spirit. The land belonged to Ananias. It was in his power to do with as he wanted. No one had forced him to give anything! It was not wrong of him to keep even the full price of the land for himself, except there would have still been a covetous motive. What was wrong was pretending that he had given it all to the apostles. Ananias’ actions revealed that he did not really believe that the Spirit of God was among them. This was the more galling as the demonstration of the Holy Spirit had just been so powerfully witnessed in Jerusalem (Acts 4:32-37). He thought he was only lying to men, but Peter shows him that he was lying to the Holy Spirit. It was a practical denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit on the earth. We may draw an application from this. The Holy Spirit is in invisible. There is, of course, abundant evidence that He is here, but it is still faith that is required to accept it. We can, in our thoughts and actions, live as if the Holy Spirit was not even here. It may be something something less obvious than lying to the assembly. For example, many organize churches in such a way that denies the presence of the Holy Spirit.
5 And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and expired. And great fear came upon all who heard it. 6 And the young men, rising up, swathed him up for burial, and having carried him out, buried him. vv.5-6 Judgment on Ananias.
The immediate response to Peter’s proclamation of of Ananias’ sin was that he fell down dead. This was a powerful witness to others around. The effect is noted, that “great fear came upon all who heard it”
. As Peter later wrote, “judgment must first begin at the House of God”
(1 Peter 4:17). What we have in vv.3-4 is an example of binding sin. When the Lord first introduced the truth of the assembly in Matthew 16, He told Peter “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the heavens; and whatsoever thou mayest bind upon the earth shall be bound in the heavens; and whatsoever thou mayest loose on the earth shall be loosed in the heavens.”
We see Peter using that authority in vv.3-4. In Matthew 18, the Lord extended that authority to the local assembly, where two or three are gathered together onto His name, He is there in the midst of them, for administrative authority. Read more…
The immediate consequence of Peter binding the sin upon Ananias (or officially associating him with it) was was that he fell down dead. This was not Peter’s doing. It was the government of God upon Ananias for his blatant sin. We might say that Peter took the administrative
action, publicly identifying Ananias with his sin, and then God took a governmental
action. In the assembly today, we are still responsible to judge sin when it appears in the assembly. The governmental consequences of sin is God’s prerogative, not ours. But we are responsible to administratively deal with evil. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person”
. That is the maximum the assembly can do (contrast the Catholic church’s used of torture and death). It would have been a solemn responsibility for the young men to wind the body of Ananias, carry him out, and bury him. It would have been a solemn reminder that the Spirit present on earth was the Holy
7 And it came to pass about three hours afterwards, that his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. 8 And Peter answered her, Tell me if ye gave the estate for so much? And she said, Yes, for so much. 9 And Peter said to her, Why is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Lo, the feet of those that have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out. 10 And she fell down immediately at his feet and expired. And when the young men came in they found her dead; and, having carried her out, they buried her by her husband. vv.7-10 Sapphira. After three hours Sapphira came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter tested her to see whether she was indeed complicit with the sin of her husband. Had she sold the land for the amount that Ananias had declared? She sealed her sin by saying, “Yes”. Peter then accused her of the same sin as her husband. In fact, he says they had “agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord”. It is a wonderful blessing in marriage to share life together, and there are many things that husbands and wives can do together that are a true blessing, such as showing hospitality. Yes it is possible for married couples to do things together that are truly terrible. There is no evidence that Peter knew Ananias would die. But having seen Ananias die, he knew that the same would happen to Sapphira. So he told her “the feet of those that have buried thy husband are at the door, etc.” The twice repetition of this solemn action and consequence was a powerful testimony of the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and that God cannot bear to allow evil in His house.
11 And great fear came upon all the assembly, and upon all who heard these things. 12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders done among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch, 13 but of the rest durst no man join them, but the people magnified them; 14 and believers were more than ever added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women;) 15 so that they brought out the sick into the streets and put them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter, when he came, might overshadow some one of them. 16 And the multitude also of the cities round about came together to Jerusalem, bringing sick persons and persons beset by unclean spirits, who were all healed. vv.11-16 Aftermath. In the aftermath of the discipline carried out on Ananias and Sapphira, great fear came upon all the assembly. At the end of ch. 4, “great grace” was upon them all, but now “great fear” was upon them all. The presence of God on earth is a blessed thing, but it is also a serious thing. Following the death of Ananias and Sapphira, the Holy Spirit was once again at liberty to demonstrate His presence by acts of power among the people, and they “were all healed”. Sometimes we might think that if we practice discipline in the assembly that it will destroy the company. Here, “believers were more than ever added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women”. Of the “rest”, of unbelieving onlookers of the of the nation, they did not dare to join themselves to the company of believers. It is amazing to see the character of the signs that were done: streets full of sick were healed. It is even implied that the shadow of Peter passing by a sick person would heal them! Perhaps this is an example of the “greater works” (John 14:12). The work began to spread, drawing from the region around (v.16).
Persecution Again (5:17-42)
After the attack from within failed to destroy the church, Satan then launched a fresh attack from without. He brought persecution against the company of believers once again, and in a stronger form. At the first persecution (ch.4) it was Peter and John at least who were held in ward, but now it is all the apostles that are imprisoned. We see the Lord moving behind the scenes to preserve the lives of the apostles, acting as “Head over all things to the church, which is His body” (Eph. 1:22-23). We see this with the miraculous escape from prison, and with the counsel of Gamaliel. Throughout the whole passage, we see the designs of the enemy to isolate and discourage the Lord’s servants foiled by the power of God!
Imprisonment and Escape (vv.17-26)
17 And the high priest rising up, and all they that were with him, which is the sect of the Sadducees, were filled with wrath, 18 and laid hands on the apostles and put them in the public prison. vv.17-18 Imprisonment. Now the high priest, Annas (the same one in power at the crucifixion), along with his family and the ruling class, were “filled with wrath” seeing what was unfolding in Jerusalem. It is noted that the high priest and his family were of “the sect of the Sadducees”. See note on Acts 4:1-3. The signs done by the apostles was visible proof of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, and therefore their ministry was a burning ulcer in the stomach of every Sadducee. The apostles had to be stopped, and so the high priest put forward his political power and had them arrested and placed in public prison.
19 But an angel of the Lord during the night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, 20 Go ye and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life. 21a And when they heard it, they entered very early into the temple and taught. vv.19-21a Escape. The efforts of the enemies of the resurrection to stop the Lord’s witnesses was quickly thwarted when the Lord simply opened the doors of the prison and led His apostles out! Many would have considered that a narrow escape and gone into hiding. But this was not the Lord’s mind. He didn’t deliver the apostles from prison only to have their testimony squashed by fear. The Lord immediately said, “Go ye and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life”. It is a beautiful expression; “the words of this life” (c.p. Phil. 2:16). It was a life beyond the power of death, the resurrection life of Christ, that the apostles possessed! They immediately obeyed. One of the most common strategies of the Devil to hinder the Lord’s work is to imprison or isolate believers through persecution. He has used this tactic many times in church history. The enemy knows that face to face interaction between members of the body is crucial. While the Lord can use an imprisoned servant (as the case with Paul, the “prisoner of the Lord” for the Gentiles), isolation is a tremendous hinderance to the ministry, as well as prison a discouragement to the Lord’s people. Here we see that the enemy’s attempt was foiled!
21b And when the high priest was come, and they that were with him, they called together the council and all the elderhood of the sons of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 And when the officers were come, they did not find them in the prison; and returned and reported 23 saying, We found the prison shut with all security, and the keepers standing at the doors; but when we had opened them, within we found no one. 24 And when they heard these words, both the priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests were in perplexity as to them, what this would come to. 25 And some one coming reported to them, Lo, the men whom ye put in the prison are in the temple, standing and teaching the people. 26 Then the captain, having gone with the officers, brought them, not with violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. vv.21b-26 Recapture. To the great surprise of the council, the prison was found empty the next morning. The officers reported finding the doors all shut and locked, and the guards standing by the doors, but no prisoners inside! This was an evident witness of the power of God in delivering the apostles from prison. It is another example of the Lord acting as “head over all things to the church”, so that His witnesses would be free to hold forth the word of life (v.20). The officers went to the temple and found the apostles there, and brought them before the council without violence. It would seem from v.26 that they might have used violence, except that they feared the people with whom the apostles had favor. The Lord allowed the apostles to be recaptured in spite of just miraculously releasing them because it served a higher purpose.
The Apostles Before the Sanhedrin (vv.27-33)
27 And they bring them and set them in the council. And the high priest asked them, 28 saying, We strictly enjoined you not to teach in this name: and lo, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and purpose to bring upon us the blood of this man. vv.27-28 The Accusation of Annas. The High Priest accused the Apostles of disobeying his order not to teach in the name of Jesus. Notice that he totally ignores the miraculous escape from prison. When a person doesn’t want to see the truth, they will ignore the most obvious evidence. His accusation is a wonderful commendation of the Apostles: they had filled Jerusalem with their doctrine. Yet we know it was not their doctrine, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The chief priests accused the apostles of causing a rebellion in the name of “this man”, which the leaders would be responsible for. (They were unwilling to say His name, though one day they must, Phil. 2:11). They were seeking the shift the blame for what had taken place onto the apostles. The truth is, they had rejected the Messiah, and they were now rejecting His witnesses. They were indeed responsible for the blood of Christ (Matt. 27:25).
29 But Peter answering, and the apostles, said, God must be obeyed rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers has raised up Jesus, whom “ye” have slain, having hanged on a cross. 31 Him has God exalted by his right hand as leader and saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. 32 And “we” are his witnesses of these things, and the Holy Spirit also, which God has given to those that obey him. vv.29-32 Peter’s Answer. Peter responded, speaking on behalf of all the apostles, explaining why they had gone on teaching and preaching in spite of the commandment of the leaders, and the threats made against them. “God must be obeyed rather than men”. The apostles were submitting to a higher authority. Notice that the same apostle who said this, also wrote
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13). There are times when a believer must not do what the government commands, but it is not rebellion. It is submission to a higher authority. In vv.30-31 Peter rehearsed the history of the gospel, with emphasis on the guilt of the leaders of Israel. He did not avoid the difficult things. They had slain Jesus, and God had exalted Him. They were at odds with God, and they needed to repent. But Jesus was at the right hand of God as “as leader and saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins”. The very One they rejected stood waiting to forgive them if they would only repent. The apostles, said Peter, were witnesses of these things (the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ). The Holy Spirit was also on earth as a witness, and that Spirit was God’s gift to those who obey Him. What a wonderful answer to the High Priest’s accusation!
Submission to a higher authority. If the civil authorities were to command a believer to do something that is positively evil, we must remember that "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In such a case, the Christian is to suffer passively, not resist actively. To obey God rather than men is not rebellion; it is submission to a higher authority. The Assembly also is a higher authority than the government. The Assembly's authority comes from the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of two or three gathered to His name (Matt. 18:20). Paul admonished the Corinthians on this matter; "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?" (1 Cor. 6:1-2). This doesn’t mean the Christians are not to cooperate with the civil powers. Clearly, this chapter teaches that we should. If a person violates the laws of the land, the assembly cannot cover it up. The assembly collectively is not subject to the civil powers (it is heavenly), but as individual Christians we are subject to every human institution (1 Pet. 2:13). In a case of a law breaker, individuals may be responsible to testify in court, etc. but not the assembly. But it would be wrong for a Christian to sue another Christian in civil court. There is a higher authority for matters of personal trespass. Also, the governments do not set the standard of righteousness. For that we must go to the Word of God. Abortion, gay marriage, etc. are wrong, not because of what the government says, but because of what God says.
33 But they, when they heard these things, were cut to the heart, and took counsel to kill them. v.33 Response of the Council. The leaders in the council were “cut to the heart”, or deeply affected in the conscience, but rather than repent, they responded in anger and “took counsel to kill them”. Yet God would not allow their designs to be achieved, and He would providentially use an unusual person to accomplish yet another deliverance.
The Advice of Gamaliel (vv.34-39)
34 But a certain man, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, held in honour of all the people, rose up in the council, and commanded to put the men out for a short while, v.34 Gamaliel. Gamaliel was a prominent Pharisee and a Rabbi of the Jews who was “held in honour of all the people”, and was a great teacher of Pharisees such as Saul of Tarsus, who was educated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). The historical records are not in agreement about whether Gamaliel was ever converted. In Acts 22 it would seem that he was not at that time converted. Just as the Sanhedrin were taking council to put the apostles to death, they being present, this learned Pharisee stood up and asked to clear the prisoners from the room.
35 and said to them, Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves as regards these men what ye are going to do; 36 for before these days Theudas rose up, alleging himself to be somebody, to whom a number of men, about four hundred, were joined; who was slain, and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him rose Judas the Galilean in the days of the census, and drew away a number of people after him; and “he” perished, and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered abroad. 38 And now I say to you, Withdraw from these men and let them alone, for if this counsel or this work have its origin from men, it will be destroyed; 39 but if it be from God, ye will not be able to put them down, lest ye be found also fighters against God. vv.35-39 The Advice of Gamaliel. Gamaliel began by recounting several moments in the recent past the could be compared to the followers of Jesus. First, there was Theudas who claimed to be somebody, and gained a following of about four hundred men, before he was slain and his band came to nothing. Then there was Judas the Galilean, who also drew away a following before he was killed and his followers scattered. Neither of these movements came to anything because, as Gamaliel reasoned, those things had their origin from men rather than God. His advice was to leave the apostles alone. If their work was from men, it would come to nothing just like that of Theudas and Judas. If their work was of God, the leaders would not be able to overthrow it, and if they opposed it they would be found fighting against God. Logically then, there was no benefit to killing the apostles. Jesus Himself spoke of those who came before Him to steal away sheep from the fold of Judaism; “all that came before me were thieves and robbers”. But Jesus was not a thief. He was the Good Shepherd, and this was not a work of men. There were now thousands of Christians! God used Gamaliel, himself an unbeliever, to turn the tide in the Jewish council that the apostles’ lives would be preserved!
40 And they listened to his advice; and having called the apostles, they beat them, and enjoined them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. v.40 Beaten and Released. God allowed the logic of Gamaliel to prevail in the minds of the Sanhedrin, and they called in the apostles to release them. But, before releasing them, the council had the apostles beaten. This was the first instance of physical persecution against prison, other than the brief imprisonment in ch.4. But it would not be the last. Down through the centuries, the world – especially the religious world – has vented its hatred on the saints, as those who are not of the world (John 15:2). “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented… Of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11:37-38). Finally, the council ordered the apostles once again to refrain from preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. Then they were released.
41 They therefore went their way from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonoured for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and in the houses, they ceased not teaching and announcing the glad tidings that Jesus was the Christ. vv.41-42 Their Joy and Service. Rather than being discouraged and disillusioned, the apostles departed from the presence of the council rejoicing! By faith they saw that the world’s hatred was really against them because of the name of Christ. And so they had suffered in fellowship with their master and Lord, and they had suffered for Him. Rather than view it as a dishonor to be publicly humiliated, they viewed themselves as “counted worthy to be dishonoured for the name”. Peter could write, and speak from personal experience as well as by inspiration, “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified” (1 Pet. 4:14). Nor did the threats stop the apostles from serving. They continued without ceasing, every day, in the houses (small groups) and in the temple (large groups) teaching and preaching the good news “that Jesus was the Christ”.
Internal Disagreements (6:1-7)
1 But in those days, the disciples multiplying in number, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews because their widows were overlooked in the daily ministration. v.1 The Problem. The next challenge that the early Church faced was intestine quarrel. As the disciples multiplied in number there were problems that developed that had not appeared when the numbers were smaller. There was a great number of widows in the company, and in those days widows depended on others to care for them and provide for their needs financially. The assembly began to distribute resources to the widows on a daily basis – the same resources laid at the feet of the apostles by the wealthier believers. See 1 Timothy 5 for more details on the care of widows. The problem was, the distribution was not done fairly. If we remember from Acts 2, there was a good number of Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews saved there from other parts of the world who were temporarily dwelling in Jerusalem. These ones saw the testimony of the Spirit of God and were converted, along with many of the Hebrews Jews permanently living in Jerusalem. As humans are prone to, the Hebrews thought of themselves as a little better than the Hellenists. This dissension was exploited by the enemy to attempt to divide the assembly. Apparently, those involved with the distribution would favor the Hebrew widows over the Hellenized widows. The Hellenized widows were therefore “overlooked in the daily ministration”. This is an example of partiality; of showing favoritism, and what is sometimes called “respect of persons” (James 2:1-6). We are to view all believers in the light of the gospel; all are equally loved and equally important to God. Therefore, personal preference or prejudice must not affect our judgment or our behavior in dealing with others. Many problems have arisen in the church due to partiality, and this would appear to be the first. It is interesting that this is also the second problem that had arisen around the issue of money; another domain that is full of dangers. However, murmuring is really of the flesh. Murmuring is a type of complaining that expresses discontent by muttering under the breath. It is especially easy to fall into murmuring when we feel like we are being treated unfairly. There are better ways to handle these kind of problems, such as: (1) praying about it and patiently waiting for the Lord to bring the issue forward to the minds of those who are responsible, or (2) going to those ones – having prayed about it – and bringing the issue up in a respectful and gracious way.
2 And the twelve, having called the multitude of the disciples to them, said, It is not right that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables. 3 Look out therefore, brethren, from among yourselves seven men, well reported of, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we will establish over this business: 4 but “we” will give ourselves up to prayer and the ministry of the word. vv.2-4 The Solution.
It is instructive to see that the Apostles viewed this issue of distributing funds as one of lesser importance relative to ministering the “word of God”
. Though caring for the material needs of the Lord’s people is an important and blessed work, it is not the most important work. It could become a distraction of the apostles’ energy to “serve tables”
. They didn’t dismiss the issue is unworthy of attention, but they put those things in their proper place. We find that the sacrifice of material funds is a thing of tremendous value to God (Hebrews 13). It is very instructive to see how the Spirit of God gave the apostles the strength and wisdom to deal with the problem at hand. The apostles told the disciples to choose from their own company seven men to handle the business of distributing to the widows. First, note that it was a plurality of men. In scripture, office in the assembly (whether oversight or service) is never committed to a single person. Elders and deacons are always spoken of in the plural, and we can see God’s wisdom in this, that partiality might be avoided. The men were chosen by the assembly, but they were “established”
in that office by the apostles. This would answer to the office of a deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13). In scripture, overseers are never chosen by the assembly, but deacons are. In both cases, apostolic appointment (by an apostle or their delegate) was required for one to hold office formally. We still have elders and deacons today, only not with the formality that they had in the days of the apostles. Read more…
It is important that those who handle the gifts of the saints for distribution be those who the saints themselves have confidence in. Notice the requirements for these seven men. They must be “well reported of”,
meaning of excellent moral character. They must also be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”.
To be full of the Holy Spirit is more than being indwelt with the Spirit; it means to all the Spirit to have control of every area of our lives. Spirituality and wisdom, not expertise with money and business, were the requirements. Notice that the apostles wanted the deacons to serve tables in order that they (the apostles) might be free to give themselves up “to prayer and the ministry of the word”.
As busy as the apostles were, they were not too busy to pray! In fact, prayer was one of their primary efforts. Prayer comes first as the ministry of the word is futile apart from dependance on God.
5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and, having prayed, they laid their hands on them. vv.6-7 Seven Men. The wisdom given to the apostles in this case resulted in a resolution that pleased the whole multitude. The seven men’s names are now given. They all all names of Greek origin, and it is possible that some or most of them were of the Hellenists background, while the last (Nicolas) is specifically noted as a “proselyte of Antioch”, meaning he was a Gentile that had previously converted to Judaism. This shows that the Hebrews had a gracious attitude in allowing “outsiders” to be selected as deacons, rather than insisting on only native Jews. This would turn out to be especially important as the work was about to launch out among the Gentiles, and a Jewish-controlled church could prove a deterrent to the conversion of Gentiles. The first individual named is Stephen, who is noted as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. He is previously unknown, but now comes into full view as the next chapter and a half are devoted to his ministry and martyrdom. Philip also comes out of obscurity, and we see him operating as an evangelist in chapter 8 with the extraordinary privilege of taking the gospel to the Samaritans. These two, Stephen and Phillip, are examples of what Paul says of the deacon in 1 Tim. 3:13; “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus”. A deacon’s work is a lowly thing, but “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10), and God will often use a good deacon in other labors. We see the “great boldness in the faith” especially in Stephen. The multitude chose the seven men, and set them before the apostles. The assembly on its own did not possess sufficient authority to appoint these men to public office. The apostles prayed, and then laid hands on the seven men, expressing a sign of fellowship.
7 And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem was very greatly multiplied, and a great crowd of the priests obeyed the faith. v.7 Aftermath. Despite the potential for the original issue of unfair distribution to cause division within the church, it instead led to the establishment of a new office that enabled the flourishing of the Lord’s work. This outcome was not what Satan had intended. As with the other trials of the early church covered in Acts 4 – 6, this one also resulted in the testimony thriving, more souls being saved, and the Word of God being spread abroad. We find here that “a great crowd of the priests obeyed the faith”, which shows how effective the testimony was that even a number of the religious leaders were converted.
False Accusations (6:8-15)
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought wonders and great signs among the people. 9 And there arose up certain of those of the synagogue called of freedmen, and of Cyrenians, and of Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. vv.8-10 Stephen’s Testimony Disputed. Immediately we find Steven displaying great boldness in the faith, And what characterizes him as that he is full of Grace and power. Being filled with grace, he was a channel for the activity of divine love in the midst of a hostile environment. Being filled with power, he worked wonders and great signs among the people. As we have seen before, the attacks of the enemy from outside the Christian testimony alternate with the attacks the attacks from within the testimony. Here we get another attack from outside, but this time it came from the Hellenistic Jews who had emigrated from different regions of the world and settled in Jerusalem. These Jews were probably from five difference synagogues in Jerusalem, and they came together to attack Stephen. There were those of “the synagogue called of freedmen”, which would have been former Jewish slaves of the Roman Empire that had gotten their freedom. There were those of Cyrene, which was in present-day Libya, in North Africa. Then there were Alexandrians from Egypt, those of Cilicia or Southern Turkey (possibly Saul of Tarsus was among them), and those of Asia Minor or Turkey. These Greek speaking Jews began to argue against Stephen’s preaching. However, their attempts to undermine Stephen proved futile as they could not counter the wisdom of his message (it was Divine and not merely human), and because it was delivered with the power of the Spirit of God. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
11 Then they suborned men, saying, We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God. 12 And they roused the people, and the elders, and the scribes. And coming upon him they seized him and brought him to the council. 13 And they set false witnesses, saying, This man does not cease speaking words against the holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him saying, This Jesus the Nazaraean shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses taught us. vv.11-14 Underhanded Tactics. When the Hellenists could make no headway against Stephen’s words, they turned to underhanded tactics. These same tactics were used against the Lord Jesus! In fact, there are many parallels between the last hours of Stephen’s life and the last hours of Jesus’ life. First, they suborned or bribed men to lie, saying “We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Notice that they put Moses first, then God. It is interesting that in Stephen’s speech in the following chapter, he points out that Israel rejected Moses. Second, they stirred up the people against Stephen, getting the native Jews, the elders, and the scribes to turn against him. They needed political momentum to put their agenda through. Third, they arrested Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. Finally, they brought false witnesses to both twist his words and outright lie in order to incriminate him. They accused Stephen of “speaking words against the holy place and the law”. No doubt preaching Jesus Christ as the Savior rather than works of the law was falsely construed as being an attack on Jerusalem, the source of religious authority, and against scripture, they being ignorant of the prophecies that spoke of Messiah. Further, Jesus had said one stone of that temple would not be left upon another, but not that He would destroy it (in John 2:15 He spoke of His body). As far as changing the customs, these antagonists would never accept that a greater than Moses had come.
15 And all who sat in the council, looking fixedly on him, saw his face as the face of an angel. v.15 Stephen Before the Council.
The Jews had accused Stephen of speaking against Moses and setting his commandments aside. As the council of the Jews sat down to hear Stephen, their eyes fixed on one whose face was “as the face of an angel”.
It was a special sign from God, much like that which Moses received after communing with God on the mountain and receiving the law (Ex. 34:29, 35). But this sign was not sufficient to convince the unbelieving Jews; if the resurrection of Christ was not enough, nothing would be enough (Luke 16:31
). We can observe the Lord working through these events, as Stephen is brought before the council to deliver a conclusive testimony to the nation of Israel.