As God’s people pursue His ways in a fallen world, they can expect to find persecution and opposition. While Israel experienced this to an extent in the Old Testament, I believe it does not parallel the depth and extent of persecution the church has experienced p to the present hour. This is, of course, because with the first coming of Christ and His present heavenly session as eschatological king and Lord, the “last days” have come and Satan is energizing the world and the flesh in a new and harsh way. Because God’s people are tasked with furthering His program and advancing His kingdom with His authority and enablement, because the church is the physical representation of Christ’s body on earth, it is attacked by Satan, his demonic hosts, the fallen world system, and even the remnants of believers’ fallen humanness. All of these resent the government of God through His Christ, and all seek to mount an (ultimately unsuccessful) war against Him.
Satan is limited in power, but he is not stupid, and so it is not surprising to see his opposition to the newly inaugurated reign of Christ. First he fills the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to love the praise of men more than submission to God (5:1-11). This attempt being thwarted, Satan turns to external threats through persecution. God used Luke to write this account for generations of church saints to learn how to respond to persecution in a way that is most honoring to the Lord and most useful to Him.
A. Submit (vv. 20–27a)
The Apostles have just completed an astounding round of supernaturally-empowered ministry. Aware of this, the High Priest and the rest of the Sadducees were filled with “jealousy” (Gr. can mean anger, malice, indignation), and they drag the Apostles into prison again. However, God sends an angel to free them and commission them to go to the temple—the very heart of opposition to the gospel—and proclaim “the whole message of this Life” (v. 20). It is likely this refers to what Paul will later term “the whole purpose of God” (20:27), which he interchanges with “the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24) and “preaching the kingdom” (v. 25). The implication is that we cannot just preach the gospel and move on; because the will of God is to make disciples who observe everything Christ commanded, the true and complete proclamation of the gospel must lead inevitably beyond itself to include everything God wishes Christians to believe, love, and do.
Failing to do this has resulted in a truncated, shallow Christianity where professed believers have not even read the entire Bible, let alone know what it says on such important matters as election, church order, eschatology, worldliness, spiritual warfare, prayer, family life, and a host of other topics. I have met believers attending church for years who say patently unbiblical things like, “Emotions don’t matter to God,” “God doesn’t care what kind of music we use in church,” chafe at the sovereignty of God, profess their devotion to television shows and movies that express wicked values, and can’t grasp basic hermeneutics nor how to fit the pieces of Scripture into a cohesive whole. But they do get upset if people correct them or have more conservative standards than they do. These believers have only a superficial or selective grasp of theology, and fail to make any consistent connections between it and every area of life. And it is all rooted in a shallow, worldly, perpetually immature Christianity that lacks the Spirit’s power and the presence of Christ.
I say that to say this: The Apostles have just been thrown in jail for doing exactly the opposite of this fleshly religion—and here they are doing it again in the center of opposition! These men were willing to sacrifice everything to finish the work God gave them. The fact that they proclaim the “whole message of this Life” indicates they did not soften obedience or leave off uncongenial parts that might get them in trouble again. No, they tell the whole story—bloody cross, ruling Christ, and His will for their lives as believers.
Obviously, this proclamation does get them into trouble, for the High Priest’s men find them missing and rush to the temple to collect them for trial (vv. 21-25). Here is where the Apostles’ submission comes in. There is a crowd in the temple, gathered there to hear them preach. It is most interesting that the Apostles go along quietly without opposition and without the officers having to use violence. The Apostles do not incite the crowd against the men or whine about injustice. They accept this turn of events as God’s will for their lives and submit with grace.
B. Don’t resist death (vv. 27b–34)
The Sanhedrin is furious with the Apostles for disobeying their orders to stop proclaiming Christ (4:17-21a). Of course, this is because the proclamation threatens their monopoly of power and their pride as the religious leadership of Israel. Peter, the Spirit-emboldened emissary of Jesus Christ, responds forthrightly that they will disobey the Sanhedrin if God’s commands conflict with theirs—indeed, it is this same God, the One who revealed Himself to Abraham and to Moses, who raised up Christ to rule at His right hand. His rulership is for the purpose of the repentance of His elect people—Israel as a nation in the future, the church in the current age. The Apostles are witnesses of this, and so is the Holy Spirit given to those characterized by obeying the Lord (vv. 31-32).
The Sanhedrin is furious at this bold declaration, their hearts stabbed with conviction, and they intend to execute them. But Gamaliel steps in and puts the Apostles outside so the Council can discuss their fate. The implication is that the Apostles could very well die. (They do not hear Gamaliel’s speech.) But they still proclaimed explicit, convicting truth to the faces of the men who could kill them. They loved Christ and people and God’s truth more than their own lives. These are the kinds of servants God uses.
C. Don’t interpret indifference as partnership (vv. 35–40)
There is some debate over how to interpret Gamaliel’s speech. Some teach he was defending the Apostles, while other commentators believe he was not. The internal evidence seems to be with the latter, for at least two reasons. First, even after his speech the Apostles are still whipped (better than execution, but hardly mercy); second, Paul, who before his conversion was a student of Gamaliel’s, was in hearty agreement with the execution of Stephen, and as such it seems unlikely that his teacher would have been any fan of the Christian community. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and John MacArthur has noted that it was the Pharisees who had the ear of the people, while the Sadducees had connections to the Roman government. The Sadducees would not oppose a Pharisee publicly, because then the Pharisees would turn on them and the people would follow suit. Further, Gamaliel was a well-revered teacher of the Law, and so it would have been foolish to dispute with him.
Gamaliel’s advice is not exactly biblical; it is more pragmatic than anything (while the true church is indeed unstoppable, successful endeavors are certainly not always from God). He was trying to prevent revolution, insurrection—something the nation of Israel had seen a lot of even apart from constant messianic imposters rising up and wreaking havoc. He didn’t care about God’s Word or whether Jesus was really the promised, risen Messiah. But rather than cause a revolution by opposing the leaders the Jews looked to for spiritual influence, the Sadducees accepted the counsel of their Pharisee enemy and decided to not kill the Apostles. This was a massively providential act of God, using the foolish and pragmatic words of a spiritually-bankrupt man to protect His emissaries and continue the building of His kingdom. But make no mistake: Gamaliel was not a friend of the work of God. Though he was used by God to protect His people, partnering with him in any way to spread the gospel would have been a violation of God’s explicit commands (Romans 16:17; Galatians 2:11-21; 2 John 7-11—obviously Gamaliel was not an apostate, but the principle to not do God’s work with unbelievers still applies). Gamaliel was hardly wise in his comments to the Council. The Apostles, being representatives of God’s will and authority, would rely on the indwelling Spirit to make use of all the wisdom He had.
D. Don’t stop sharing the gospel (vv. 41–42)
The narrative ends happily, at least for now. Why? Because despite being persecuted, shamed, and threatened, the Apostles are favored by God with the grace to endure. Indeed, they even rejoice that they have been persecuted for the Name of Jesus (v. 41). Remember that twice now the Sanhedrin has threatened the Apostles to keep them from proclaiming the Lord Jesus (v. 40; cf. 4:17-21a). But how does this chapter end? “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (v. 42, NKJV). They go back to the temple, and they go into private homes of Jewish people, and proclaim openly Jesus is the promised reigning Messiah and then unfold His will for their lives. The next chapter indicates this ministry is overwhelmingly successful—during this period the “disciples were increasing in number” (6:1; “were increasing” is lit. “multiplying” and is a present-tense verb). The clear principle is that God honors faithfulness. Those who do not shirk from unflinchingly proclaiming the “whole message of this Life” will find God’s smile upon their lives and ministries. Sometimes this means numerical growth. Sometimes it means flourishing sanctification, revival, joy, and answered prayer. But in any event God only blesses faithfulness.
The kingdom of Christ is being built in the midst of the fallen kingdoms of the world. One day it will crush them and become the victorious millennial empire (Daniel 2; Revelation 20:1-6). Until that day God’s people face opposition and persecution for declaring Christ rules from Heaven and all are accountable to Him. God has given us in the book of Acts a blueprint for not wasting our persecution—and for seeing the hand of God move in favor and power upon those who honor Him with all they have.
N.B.: I am indebted to John MacArthur for his insights on understanding Gamaliel’s speech.