May 12, 2024. Sermon Title: The Cost of Obeying God instead of Human Authority

First Mennonite Church

May 12, 2024

The Cost of Obeying God instead of Human Authority

Acts 5

Our focus text for today is from verse 27 to verse 42. However, to better understand the circumstances of the incident described in our passage, we will read the whole of chapter five.

Read the chapter

God’s powerful presence was variously displayed through the apostles. Swarms of sick people sought to be healed by them. Some of the sick only had to be laid down by the street sides to have at least Peter’s shadow fall on them to be healed. Those possessed by evil spirits were liberated from their spiritual bondage. Fear and admiration filled the hearts of outsiders while the saints rejoiced in their newly found Jesus community. The saints remained together in the ever-growing community of faith, abounding in thanksgiving and praises to God. Those who had possessions sold them and brought the proceeds to be shared among those who were in need. Yet, while some gave wholeheartedly towards communal life, Ananias and Sapphira wanted to participate in it only halfheartedly or deceitfully. Both died, even when given the opportunity to come clean about their actions.

All this buzz surrounding the apostles’ powerful ministry did not only catch the attention of the common people but also of the authorities once again. While the reason for Peter’s and John’s arrest, as reported in chapter four, was because the authorities “were greatly annoyed” (4:2) at their preaching of the resurrection of Jesus, the reason this time was because they were “filled with jealousy” (v. 17). It became clear that the religious establishment would not tolerate that “Jesus-nonsense” the disciples were so dedicated to and which had made them the center of attention. And this time, the authorities did not only arrest Peter and John, but the “apostles” (v.18).

The disciples’ boldness to continue proclaiming Jesus was much more intensified by the angelic release of them from prison. At night, even when guards stood watching their posts and when the prison locks remained untouched, the apostles were freed from prison and recommissioned to continue their proclamation. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life” (v.20). Therefore, the following morning the disciples presented themselves once again at the temple courts with invigorated spirits, confident that God was on their side. They preached at the very same place they had been arrested twice only to be arrested a third time. This time, however, the arresting officials were more cautious and restrained themselves from using violence out of fear of being stoned by the crowd.

Luke tells us of the court hearing. The apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin—the court that dealt with death-penalty cases (Matt. 26:59, Mark 15:1, Luke 22:66, John 11:47). The historian Josephus concurs with this view that the Sanhedrin only came together to hear cases where the death penalty could be given.[1] It is no wonder that at the signs of resistance and resolute commitment to continue proclaiming the “name,” the Sanhedrin became enraged and wanted to put them to death (v. 33). The charges against the apostles were simple: they had violated a previous order given to them and had linked Jesus’ death to an abuse of power.  “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the high priest said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

In that courtroom, competing powers came face to face. The recognized powers of this world, of tradition and the religious authorities, were set against the witness of these apparently “ordinary and uneducated men” as they are described in (4:13). These men had ignored the “strict orders” of their parole and had implicated the established authorities with the death of the one central in their preaching: Jesus of Nazareth (5:28). The disciples were only fulfilling the commission Jesus gave them. They were declaring that God raised Jesus and exalted him to his right hand and made him Prince and Savior so that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. But the point that enraged the Sanhedrin was the apostles’ claim that not only they are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection but also the Holy Spirit, whom God gives to those who obey him. Implied in this statement is the powerful indictment that those questioning the apostles, who claim to be on the side of God, did not have the Holy Spirit in them. At that, the council of judges was enraged and wanted to put to death the apostle.

As we can see, the Sanhedrin without realizing legitimized the ministry of the apostles when they restated the reason for their arrest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” they said. A name represents identity, character, and authority, which refers to Jesus of Nazareth. It was in that “name” that the lame man was healed. It was that name where “There is salvation in on one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12). It is in that name that “repentance and forgiveness are to be preached to all nations” as Jesus commanded his disciples that Easter night (Luke 24:47).

The certainty and conviction of God’s presence the apostles had as they lived their new life in the name of the resurrected Lord and as they performed works of wonders, made them unstoppable and fearless of any human institution. No threats, no prison, and no fear of danger could stop the apostles. Thus, their response to those questioning their actions. “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Peter and his fellow apostles declared.

The cost of obeying God rather than man was costly. It was a decision that had severe consequences. The apostles’ decision to obey God rather than man was not that they simply ignored or showed contempt, bravado, against their rulers. Instead, they persuaded them to repent. They surrendered their bodies to be flogged. And still yet, rejoiced to be “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”

There are a couple of lessons we can glean from this passage.

  1. In the book of Acts, the essence of the gospel message is twofold: First, the apostles proclaim God’s glorification of Jesus Christ, by raising him from death, his ascension, and his enthronement as Lord; second, their call for repentance for which God offers forgiveness – a new relationship with God, life eternal.

As we can see, the apostles did not proclaim something other than what they had witnessed, and what was attested to them by the Holy Spirit. “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” That implies that anyone and everyone engaged in the proclamation of the gospel must do so in light of their experience with the Risen Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

  • The gospel message we find the apostles preached is that even when they faced opposition, beating, and imprisonment at the hands of the authorities, their message continued to be one in which God offered forgiveness and the promise of his Spirit. The disciples’ spiritual authority flowed out from their humility and love even for those who opposed them and made them suffer. They continued to call to repentance those who opposed them. The disciples communicated God’s desire for reconciliation to the authorities.

 I believe the gospel message today should be backed up by this kind of spirit and concern for anyone who opposes the gospel message. However, oftentimes, when Christians face opposition or social trends that go against their principles or when they see policies that allow such trends, they are inclined to invoke God’s judgment instead of highlighting God’s invitation to repentance.

  • A third lesson we can learn here is about the disciples’ motivation for sharing the good news. The Holy Spirit and their renewed love for the Risen Christ compelled them to share God’s redeeming offer to those around them. They allowed the Spirit of God to guide and use them. Therefore, miracles, selfless service, and their disposal to remain faithful to the Spirit’s leading transformed them into an unstoppable movement.
  • Peter’s retort to the authorities, that they must obey God rather than man, is the scriptural justification for civil disobedience. But there are a couple of things we need to see: a) Peter’s response was one directed to a hostile, unrepentant, tyrannical, envious, and incapable group of leaders. But Peter’s defiance of these leaders was not a political stand, and much less partisan, it was missional. Peter wanted his leaders to reconsider their ways before God and to repent so that they might receive the same joyful life God had given the apostles and all the saints under their leadership. 

Oftentimes, when some Christians express resistance to government policies, they are simply projecting their own desires, prejudices, and political preferences as if from God. Such resistance, even when done in the name of religious conviction lacks all missional intentions as we see Peter had when he said those words.

May the Spirit of the Lord revive in us the first love we had for the Lord. May He open our hearts to love others to the point of compelling us to share the joy, promises, and hope we have in the Risen Christ. May He give us wisdom on how we move within the complexities of our times when we see government policies going against the will of God. Amen.

Pastor Romero

[1] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews 14.9.3; sec. 167