The Pulpit Commentary

Acts 5:28 (Acts 5:28)

We straitly charged for did not we straitly command? A.V. and T.R.; not to for that ye should not, A.V.; teaching for doctrine, A.V. We straitly charged , etc.; ἐπερωτάω seems to require a question to follow. Your teaching (for the command, see Acts 4:18 ). Intend to bring, etc. Here the secret of the persecution comes out, The guilty conscience winced at every word which spake of Jesus Christ as living. The high priest, too, would not so much as name the name of Jesus. It was "this name," "this man;" as in the Talmud, Jesus is most frequently spoken of as Teloni, i.e. "such a one," in Spanish and Portuguese Fulano, or still more contemptuously as "that man". This terror of blood-guiltiness is a striking comment on the saying recorded in Matthew 27:25 .

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Acts 5:12-42 (Acts 5:12-42)

The advancing tide.

The gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ crucified and risen again had issued from Jerusalem at the bidding of the Lord. Would it ever stop? would it ever cease to advance? would it ever meet with obstacles sufficiently strong to turn back its current and to arrest its progress? When the flowing tide is hurrying towards the shore, some particular wave is checked by an opposing rock, and is shivered into spray before it can reach the shore. But wait a little and the rock is sunken beneath the waters, and the waves roll on unchecked to their goal. Sometimes a temporary lull seems to have fallen upon the languid waves, and three or four in succession do not reach the bounds which their predecessors had attained. But yet a moment and the tide advances in its unbroken strength, and never fails to fulfill its destined course. It is just so with the gospel of Christ. Its advance is sure. Its strength is in the unchanging will of God. It has a course to run; it will run it. It has an end to fulfil; it will fulfill it. Hindrances, obstacles, defiance, it will meet with from man in a thousand varying forms. The opposition of hard unbelief in those who boast that they have intellect and philosophy on their side; the opposition of adverse creeds seeking to supplant the true faith; the fierce persecutions of ungodly power hoping to stop by force the progress of a hated truth; the divisions and dissensions of Christians among themselves; the abounding of iniquity and the chilling of Christian love; the sudden rise of some heresy or apostasy;—these and such like hindrances may occasionally seem to check the onward flow of the waters of life, and at times to threaten its further advance. But, like the irresistible tide of the mighty ocean, God's purpose is pressing surely on; and by the time decreed by his eternal wisdom the whole "earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" ( Isaiah 11:9 ). The chapter now before us gives a most striking view of this irresistible advance as well as of the obstacles opposed to it. One hundred and twenty men and a few poor, weak women are, as it were, the seed which the hand of the Lord has sown in an uncongenial soil. Immediately around them was all the bigotry of Pharisaic Judaism, clinging with desperate and impassioned obstinacy to the traditions of their fathers, and ready to kill and be killed on behalf of the Law of Moses, on the one hand; and the hard, cold skepticism of the Sadducees on the other, denying with agnostic incredulity the existence of anything beyond the ken of their eyes or the grasp of their hands. In the wider circle of the outside world there was the iron heathenism of Rome. Imperial tyranny and Caesarean power; military force and the despotism of the sword; sensuality of the deepest dye; idolatry of the most aggressive and all-engrossing kind; philosophies the most adverse to the cress of Christ. How and where could the gospel make its way? Would it not die in the upper room where it was born? But what do we read? "There were added to the Church about three thousand souls;" "Many believed, and the number of the men was about five thousand;" "Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women;" "The number of the disciples was multiplied;" and so on, marking the constant advance of the Church of God. And yet all the while every effort was being made to check this advance. There were already "prisons oft." There were the fierce threatenings of those who had power to execute them; there were stripes inflicted; there was the majesty of the law and the authority of rulers arrayed against them. But it was all in vain. The preachers could not be silenced; the preaching could not be stopped; the miracles could not be hid; men's hearts would turn to Christ when they heard of his grace; multitudes would leave the side of the persecutors and join themselves to the persecuted. The tide would flow on. It rushed over the heads of the opposing rocks. And then worldly wisdom came in with its prudent counsel, "Leave these men alone." And so for a time the work of God went quietly on, gathering strength and acquiring solidity from day to day, in preparation for future hostility from the world without, and future hindrances from corruption within. But these first fortunes of Christianity have left to the Church in all ages a model of the conflicts that await her, and of the only method of obtaining victory. They show us that through opposition and contradiction, in sunshine and in storm, amidst encouragements and under depression, the servants of God have to persevere steadily in proclaiming the grace of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, have to go forward in an unswerving obedience to the commandment of Christ and an unfaltering confidence in his almighty power, and that success is sure. "On this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

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Acts 5:17-29 (Acts 5:17-29)

Three things Divine.

The success of the Christian cause had the effect which might have been anticipated; it aroused the intense hostility of the enemies of the Lord, and their bitter opposition found vent in a speedy arrest and imprisonment of the apostles ( Acts 5:17 , Acts 5:18 ). But man's adversity was God's opportunity, and we have:—

I. DIVINE INTERPOSITION . ( Acts 5:19 .) How vain all bolts and bars to shut out those whom God would have to enter, to shut in those whom he would have escape! The hour had come for his interposing hand, and all the contrivances of man's wrath were broken through as if they were but "the spider's most attenuated thread." We often wish for the direct interposition of God now; we often ask for it; we often wonder that it does not come, thinking that the hour for Divine manifestation must have arrived. The duty and the wisdom of true piety are

II. A DIVINE INSTRUCTION . "Go, stand and speak … all the words of this life" ( Acts 5:20 ). Doubtless the apostles well understood what was the tenor of their commission. They were to speak all those words which would enlighten their fellow-citizens on the great subject of the new spiritual life which they had begun to live. They who stand now in the relation of religious teachers to the men of their own time, may take these words of the heavenly messenger as a Divine instruction to themselves. They are to "speak all the words of this life;" i.e.

III. THE DIVINE DEMAND . "We ought to obey God rather than man" ( Acts 5:29 ). God demands our first obedience—that is the teaching of his Word; it is also the response of our own conscience. We agree, when we consider it, that God has a claim, transcendently and immeasurably superior to all others, on our allegiance. That Divine One who called us ourselves into existence; by whom we have been endowed with all our faculties; in whom "we live, and move, and have our being;" from whom we have received every single blessing we have known; who is the righteous and holy Sovereign of all souls throughout the universe of being; on whose will absolutely depends our future destiny;—to him we owe our allegiance in such degree, that any claims man may have upon us are "as nothing, and less than nothing." There are many reasons why we should yield ourselves to his service—the example of the worthiest and the best of our kind; the excellency, dignity, exaltation of that service; the present and future advantages we gain thereby; the awful issues of disloyalty and persistent rejection, etc. But there is one thought which should weigh the most, and be of itself sufficient—" we ought to obey God." We cannot decline to do so without violating the plain teaching of our moral judgment. When we do yield ourselves to him, we put ourselves in the right and have the strong and blessed sanction of our conscience. We should hear the voice within, saying daily, hourly, in tones which will not be silenced, "You ought to obey God."—C.

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Acts 5:17-42 (Acts 5:17-42)

Second persecution of the Church.

Notice:

1. It was the result of marvelous success. We must expect such opposition when God gives us power among the people. The proud and formal have no liking for that which can be set in contrast with their own inefficiency.

2. It proceeded from the sect of the Sadducees, i.e. the heretical school. The league between the high priest and the scoffers was a sad sign of religious degeneracy. So it is. When religion decays it becomes the food of unbelief. The latitudinarians hate spiritual earnestness.

3. It was weak and timid, evidently because there was a reproaching conscience and a growing apprehension in the background. The apostles were put into the public ward or prison, but probably not very jealously guarded.

4. The empty form of justice and wisdom was maintained—the council was summoned, that the weight of ecclesiastical authority might be used to crush the feeble apostles, that the people might be awed by the fear of great dignitaries. They often are, but the Spirit of God can overcome such fear.

5. Divine wisdom is more than human craft. The public trial or examination of the apostles was a public proclamation of the weakness of their enemies and the heavenly sanction given to their cause. The angelic deliverance of the prisoners became a notorious fact through all Jerusalem. The effect on the council, on the captain of the temple, on the populace, must have been immense. Evidently there was great excitement. "They feared the people, lest they should be stoned."

6. The two weak apostles in the presence of the council, boldly challenging the contradiction of facts and appealing from man to God—a striking manifestation of spiritual power. "We are witnesses, so is the Holy Ghost."

7. The division in the council between the furious fanatical party and the temperate Gamaliel party, reminding us of the division in the nation itself; some dead to the voice of God, others ready to follow it though not recognizing it. The influence of Gamaliel a sign of hope; there was a remnant still according to the election of grace, and it promised a future restoration of Israel.

8. The whole occurrence a great help to the Church, to feel its power, to deepen its devotion, to rejoice in hope of victory, to trust in the gracious providence of God.—R.

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Acts 5:17-40 (Acts 5:17-40)

A grand victory for the truth along the whole line; all the positions of the enemy taken.

The few hours that were covered by this portion of the history must have been hours charged with confirmation of the faith for the apostles. It is not merely that they are again attacked and again get in the end the victory, but that every position is carried for them by some strong arm invisible. It is not altogether the force of the truth, at least of the truth as spoken and spoken by them; still less is it their own force that gains this glorious and memorable day, although doubtless both of these are involved in the day's achievements. But there was a "fighting from heaven" for them," and the stars in their courses fought against" their enemies. And as nothing so much daunts an enemy as the impression of this latter, so nothing can be conceived more reinforcing to the faith and courage of the army or the general who have evidence of the former. While, then, the bold and faithful utterance of "all the words of this life" was now the loving care of the apostles, God's watchful providence and the living Spirit whom Christ sent made the "heaven that fought for" them. We may view the present portion of the Church's history under this light. It is the history of a succession of incidents, every one of which shows the foe as the party signally discomfited. The apostles are still the representatives of the Church. They sustain the brunt of any attack. And it is noteworthy, that at present, so far as we read, no private member of the Church is exposed to any similar treatment. Notice, then—

I. THE INCIDENT OF A NEW TRIAL OF THE EFFECTIVENESS OF IMPRISONMENT . The high priest and those who were acting with him had not, it appears, learned the lesson which their former failure might well have taught them. It had been attended by circumstances and followed by a sequel which should have made a lasting impression on their memory. But memory's good offices were scorned, and wisdom's lessons set at naught and lost. The experiment is to be tried again, whether certain facts to which the word of the apostles gives great notoriety, with certain comments upon them and explanations of them, can be hushed up, and a prison's doors be mightier than miracles. This very point was soon settled, and in the shape that should have carried conviction and reproof in equal proportions. It is to be remembered that the imprisonment policy stands condemned, not altogether necessarily in itself, but emphatically, in this case, because the facts to which the apostles gave the notoriety so unwelcome to the authorities were facts within the knowledge of those same, and because the whole action of the apostles had the abundant attestation of surpassing miracles. Mouths can be stopped by imprisonment, no doubt. And the method may, no doubt, be a legitimate method, even though there be allowed to be prima facie a likely moral danger attaching to it. That danger has shown itself so repeatedly and so malignantly—in matters of religion to the oppressing of the conscience, in matters of science to the clouding of the prospects of truth and the growth of knowledge. But the point of interest and at the same time the hopelessness of the present conflict turned on the fact that the method of imprisonment attempted to stop the mouth of God's Word and truth. The enemy was confounded signally. An "abundant door" of exit from the prison for the apostles made a more than ever " abundant door of entrance" for the truth, and it occasioned "great boldness" of utterance of "all the words of this life" in the temple of temples, and before the enemy was so much as awake.

II. THE INCIDENT OF A SECOND TRIAL OF ARRAIGNMENT BEFORE THE COUNCIL .

1. In this proceeding embarrassment awaited the council; they stumble upon the very threshold. The prisoners are duly sent for, but they are not to be found. The prison is there; the keepers are there; the doors were shut with all appearance of safety, and if they had been opened, there is not a sign of it nor of any violence that might have effected it; the keys are neither lost nor injured; and the locks are not disobedient to their own keys, as though they had been tampered with. Yet to what all this, when the prison itself proves as empty as ever place was? The officers return with tale and face, no doubt, equally blank; but blankest of all was the astonishment of those in authority under these new circumstances. That "they were in doubt concerning them" (so the apostles) was no unnatural, no unlikely account of the case in which "the high priest, and the captain of the temple, and the chief priests" found themselves. And perhaps it might have suited them and their reputation about as well if all had ended here. But this was not to be. They had meddled with strife, nay, had not "forborne them meddling with God" ( 2 Chronicles 35:21 ); and they shall not "leave off contention" before it has worsted them signally, decisively. For:

2. A sudden relief from undignified bewilderment leaves them no choice but to go on with a prosecution, hazardous much more to those who prosecute than to those who are prosecuted. That by this time they began to feel this there are not wanting certain indications.

3. But the moment has come for the arraignment itself. It is at all events plain, its meaning and. its implications not obscure. "You have disobeyed our strict command, have filled Jerusalem with the doctrine we disapprove, and are going far to fix on us the responsibility and possibly the vengeance of the blood of this man." Probably a spirit of contempt and an intention to express it thinly veiled growing fear, when they use the words, "this name," and "your doctrine," and "this man's blood," instead of naming the Name that was already "above every name" and naming the doctrine which was certainly not "the doctrine nor after the commandments, of men" ( Colossians 2:22 ), and naming "the blood which speaketh better things than that of Abel."

4. But the challenge is at once accepted by the apostolic band. They admit their disobedience to human command. They assert their obedience to Divine command, and assert the necessity of it—its moral ought. They at once honor, by a firm and repeated utterance of it, the Name which had just been sorrily flouted, but which, in very deed, designated One who had known the unprecedented transitions of resurrection and ascension, and who owned to the titles of Prince and Savior of mankind. His princely gift is the power of" repentance," his saving gift is the " remission of sins." Occupying a position of vast moral purchase over their judges, the apostles do not propose to shield these from an iota of their responsibility. They had declined to name the Name of Jesus; the apostles do not shrink at all from naming the name of their sin and guilt, nor forbear to describe them as the persons answerable for the blood of Jesus. "Whom ye slew, and hanged on a tree." And so they make out their text. We "ought to obey God." And as God, the God of our fathers, was he who "raised" Jesus, and who "exalted" him, we are his "witnesses," in these glorious wonders, of the history of his Son Jesus. And Peter adds, in one of the most pronounced of the claims of inspiration peculiar to revelation, that, in saying so much, he means that "the Holy Ghost" in them is the real Witness, that Holy Ghost whom God gives to those who obey him. That God is to be obeyed, probably the now judges of the apostles would not presume to deny. Peter and the apostles have made out their case when they have proved that this is all to which their censured and imprisoned conduct amounts. So the close of their defense clenches the opening of it.

III. THE INCIDENT OF A FRESH EXPERIENCE OF HELPLESS INCAPACITY IN THE COUNCIL . This experience was ushered in, indeed, by one of a far more pronounced character. In a word which itself expresses an intensity of suffering, we are told that they of the council "were cut" to the quick, and in the first paroxysm of agony saw no option but to slay their prisoners. The apostles were again called upon to retire from the court ( Acts 4:15 ) while the state of things was deliberated. And "in the multitude of counselors was found safety" of some sort at least, and of some brief duration, thanks to the sage prudence that dwelt in one of them, and apparently only one. Note here to what different issue men have been cut to the heart.

1. Some to deep penitence, contrition, conversion; so Peter ( Luke 22:61 , Luke 22:62 ), and the first converts ( Acts 2:1-47 :67).

2. But other some to deeper condemnation, and suicide either actual or moral; so Judas ( Matthew 27:4 , Matthew 27:5 ), and those here described, with many an ancestor, many a descendant. The blindness of intense anger and the malignant action of intense chagrin may be ranked among the certain precursors of incapacity, but here they reveal it too. And that we read under these conditions, "they take counsel to slay them," serves little more than to make assurance doubly sure that helpless floundering is the present order of things at the ostensible seat of justice.

IV. THE INCIDENT OF A FRESH UNDIGNIFIED ESCAPE FROM AN UNDIGNIFIED POSITION . A Pharisee—save the mark!—leads the way out. And the way out leads just back by the way they came in. That the members of the council put themselves as far as possible just where they were before they stirred at all in the matter is the policy which Gamaliel propounds. It comes to this, that he forcibly argues it were by far the best thing to eat their own, both words and deeds. The conservative shrewdness and blandness of this advice, and of the courteous way in which it is advanced, are equally unmistakable and in a sort admirable. It were uncharitable, however, to deny that it is open to intrinsic commendation also.

1. Gamaliel has noted and treasured and now uses well the lessons of history.

2. Evidently he is before his time, and has a largo and open eye for the principles of even civil liberty.

3. More remarkably still, he seems to have grasped the principle and the very basis of the principle of religious liberty. "These men" ( Acts 5:35 ) are to be looked at, as some possibly sacred thing should be looked at. " These men" ( Acts 5:38 ) are to be "let alone," as men possibly doing "the work of God." And their present would-be judges are to "refrain from" them, because they ought themselves to shrink, for their own sake, from incurring even the distant responsibility of "fighting against God." The principle of religious liberty always postulates these two aspects-one presenting the view of the harm that may be done to others by hampering their moral convictions or nature; the other the harm that may be done to self in challenging the most solemn and critical responsibilities which even "angels might fear."

4. It is difficult to resist the impression that Gamaliel was one of those who were" not far from the kingdom of God." The narrative scarcely warrants our saying that he had a leaning to "these men "himself. But this "doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people" ( Acts 5:34 ), does seem to have had this of religion in him, that" he feared God," and that he dared to say it in connection with taking a very unpopular side. To the advice of Gamaliel his fellow-councilors "agreed," glad to escape the position in which they again found themselves. They retreated from it for reasons which Gamaliel takes the credit of putting before them, but which should have been before them long before, and should have saved them from being where they now were. They do retreat, they know they are in the wrong, they are morally again beaten; but the only thing which would have taken from their retreat the description undignified is withheld, for they do not confess their error. On the contrary, we notice—

V. LASTLY , THE INCIDENT OF A GRATUITOUS BEATING OF THE APOSTLES AND A BARREN COMMAND LAID UPON THEM . Whatever may be thought or charitably hoped of Gamaliel, the adviser in this crisis, very clear it is that those whom he had influenced had no deeper sympathies with the grounds of his advice. Against these they now as much sin in principle as if they had laid violent hands on the apostles, according to the first dictates of their rage. And so again do these men drop awhile from our sight. They drop into the ignominious shade, while it fares far otherwise with their beaten, commanded, but withal released prisoners. Cruelty is the covering with which cowardice now chooses to take its unavailing chance of concealing defeat already too shameful, but which rather adds to it and to the revealing of it. They disappear from view, "beating" the apostles, and "commanding them not to speak in the Name of Jesus." But it is a token of the literal fact that they themselves have been ignominiously beaten along the whole line of battle, the apostles and the truth and "the Name of Jesus" winning the day.—B.

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