We Must Obey God Rather Than Men (Acts 5:17-42)

We Must Obey God Rather Than Men (Acts 5:17-42)

You will recall that last few weeks we have been looking at some striking contrasts. We saw the contrast between the generosity of Barnabas (4:36-37) and the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). That contrast ended in the judgment of the hypocrites and “great fear” filled the people.

Then, last week we noted the contrast between those who were fearful of associating themselves with the apostles. They didn’t dare join them (v.13). But their fearful response was offset by the number of believers who were being added to the Lord (v.14).

It won’t be surprising to know that we see another contrast in our passage this morning. This time the contrast is between the outrage of the Sanhedrin and the joy of the apostles.

But before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.

Acts 5:17-42

This entire passage is framed by failed persecution. They were arrested, but released by an angel. In the end they are beaten and charged to cease preaching, to which they respond with rejoicing and preaching—every day!

Within that frame is a somewhat humorous look at the emotions of the Sanhedrin. In the beginning we find them filled with jealousy. Then after they notice the apostles are missing—still unaware of their whereabouts—they are baffled. It takes a nameless, probably position-less, individual to inform them that the apostles are right back in the temple, the same place they were when they were arrested the day before.

Then, later on in v.33, we find the Sanhedrin enraged and ready to kill the apostles. It takes the politically savvy reasoning of Gamaliel to bring them down a notch (flogging truly was only a notch below execution—as it was occasionally fatal). Luke is emphasizing the irritability and irrationality of the Sanhedrin. They had failed to maintain the order they were charged with keeping.

But what is the key to this passage? What is in the center of these frames of failed persecution and the failure of the Sanhedrin? It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ! It is Peter and the apostles’ bold declaration of the gospel before their most hostile audience yet. And the question is this: What is the price of their silence? What will it take to put an end to their preaching? What is the price for your silence?

The Apostles Are Arrested (17-26) 

The high priest and Sadducees were “filled with jealousy” (v.17). This comes immediately after hearing about the crowds of people—even from the surrounding cities—filling the streets with cots and mats in order to be healed by Peter. Much like the healing of the cripple at the temple gate had led to the first act of persecution, so these mass healings lead to the second act of persecution. The popularity of these rebel Christians was growing too fast. And their power to heal was too threatening to the Sanhedrin’s own influence.

Does jealousy ever control your actions? The high priest likely thought of himself as an upright and honest man. I doubt he even recognized his jealousy. That’s often the case isn’t it? Unchecked jealousy is not only a massive hindrance to our obedience, but it often lies beneath the worst kinds of injustice in the world.

An angel of the Lord released them and gave them a commission to “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life” (v.20). Essentially, the apostles’ are charged to go back to what they were doing—to the very same location!—when they were arrested the day before.

They were to proclaim “all the words”, not just deeds or trite formulas. The apostles were released in order to do something far riskier than remaining in prison. And did you notice how quickly they obeyed? “At daybreak they entered the temple” (v.21).

Doesn’t their actions in this passage constitute breaking the law? The apostles were commanded by the angel to go back to the temple and continue preaching. So the just command of God was more important than the unjust command of men.

Some form of protestation and sometimes civil disobedience is inevitable in a culture that is filled with so much injustice. Will we listen when the homosexual agenda demands us to reinterpret Scripture? Will we cower when the media wants to turn infanticide into a women’s rights issue? Are we willing to obey God rather than men?

“The only thing needed for evil to win is for good people to do nothing.”⁠1 What is the price for your silence? Should we protest Planned Parenthood? Absolutely! Not because we want to needlessly offend people, but because the wickedness of the injustice of abortion outweighs any desire we might have to avoid persecution.

In the morning, the apostles are preaching in the temple while the Sanhedrin is preparing for their trial—unaware that the apostles are no longer in prison. Had the religious leaders been modeling spiritual maturity, you would think they would have attended the morning sacrifice or prayer before heading into their council chambers.

I find this ironic that it takes a nameless “someone” to inform them that the apostles were in the temple courts teaching. So they sent the captain and officers to bring them before the Sanhedrin. Was anyone doing their job here? Why hadn’t any of them noticed the apostles before this “someone” did?

Their arrest didn’t work, but maybe some peaceful interrogation will suffice…

The Apostles Are Questioned (27-32) 

The questioning of the high priest is an admission of the effectiveness of the apostles’ teaching.

  1. They have filled Jerusalem with their teaching. The implication is that they were preaching Christ everywhere they went, and those who heard and believed were taking it back to their homes and communities.
  2. They keep blaming the Jews for Christ’s death. James Boice points out,

“At the trial of Jesus Christ this was the very thing they had willingly taken upon themselves. Pilate had said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!” (Matt. 27:24). They had replied, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (v.25). Now it was, and they were appalled at the consequences.”⁠2

Peter with the apostles respond by saying “We must obey God rather than men” (v.29). Once again, they proceed to declare the same gospel message we have heard several times before. This is a condensed version of the gospel—in fact, a mere 35 words (31 in the Greek). Notice they are completely uninterested in defending themselves. They simply want to proclaim Christ.

The apostles’ response references each member of the Trinity: God the Father raised God the Son (who was crucified by the Jews) and exalted him at the right hand as Leader and Savior (v.31). God the Spirit is witness and has been given to those who obey (v.32). The basic components are the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and the role of the apostles as witnesses.

Their is a connection between the receiving of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Word. Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

And in 2 Peter 1:21 we read, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

The WSC Q.89 asks, “How is the Word made effectual to salvation?” Answer,

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

This gospel message begins and ends with “obey”. Obedience to God frames the gospel proclamation. It also follows a thread we have seen throughout chapter 5. Ananias and Sapphira were disobedient (1-11) like “the rest” who wouldn’t dare to join with the apostles at Solomon’s Portico (13). They were fearful of men, so they stayed home. The Jewish leaders have been disobedient to God in their dealing with the apostles. Now, in contrast, we see the apostles obeying in the face of increasing hostility.

Where did their boldness come from? They were filled with the Holy Spirit. These apostles were obsessed with Christ. They could think of doing nothing else. For them, to live was Christ! What about you? Are you willing to serve Jesus no matter the cost? Peter’s example teaches us that we can face our opposition with boldness because we have been given the Holy Spirit.

It’s now become clear to the Sanhedrin that they cannot contain these apostles. 

The Apostles Are Flogged (33-42) 

The Sanhedrin is “enraged and wanted to kill them” (v.33). The jealousy and hatred shown to the apostles in this passage is the same kind of irrational, emotional response that put Jesus upon the cross. Jesus warned his apostles “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Throughout church history worse things have happened to Christians—“stories of men who had their ears cut off and tongues removed, of branding with hot irons, but whose faith was not destroyed.”⁠3 There is something fierce and wicked behind these jealous attacks.

Gamaliel calms the furious Sanhedrin by calling upon them to leave the apostles alone. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, in the minority on the council, but popular among the people. He was given the title “Rabban” (our teacher) and you might recall that his most famous student, Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel considers the apostles to be similar to other failed revolutionaries. And, if by chance, they are from God—no amount of persecution will be able to thwart them.

It is similar to Gideon’s father, a priest of Baal, telling the angry mob to let Baal contend for himself (Judges 6:31). But neither Gideon’s father, nor Gamaliel were acting out of the fear of God. They both had ulterior motives. Of course, Gideon’s father had an interest in protecting his son. Gamaliel has an interest in political expediency. Maybe he didn’t want to jeopardize his own popularity with the people, or maybe he thought the crowd would love him even more. Either way, his advice has nothing to do with the message they proclaimed. He doesn’t protect the apostles from flogging. And, in the end, his advice is not even sound. God doesn’t always squelch evil, and earthly success was rarely granted to his prophets.

But the Sanhedrin was persuaded by Gamaliel’s argument, and they decide to release the apostles. However, this time the persecution escalates. Last time they arrested Peter and John, and only charged them to keep quiet (4:21). This time they apparently arrested all of the apostles, and wanted to send them, and their followers, a strong message. So they flogged them in addition to giving them the same charge again (5:40). And, of course, we will see them resort to execution in a few chapters with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).

But despite the persecution, the church continues to grow (6:1). You cannot stop the growth of the church if you cannot silence the Christians.

Thomas, “How much would it take to silence you? What discomforts would you be willing to suffer? We sing Luther’s words so easily. ‘Let good and kindred go, this mortal life also / The body they may kill.’ But do we really mean what we say? Are we ready to suffer for Jesus Christ? Are we willing to forgo social advancements and job security for the sake of the gospel? Are we willing to die for our Savior? These men evidently were!”⁠4

Ancient and modern examples of persecution point to the joy with which Christians faced their torment and death. Tertullian said, “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…The more you mow us down, the more we grow; the seed of the church is the blood of the martyrs.”

Persecution has never destroyed the church. Though Christ’s church be planted in front of the very gates of hell—no opposition will ever prevail over her (Matt. 16:18).

The world will always be hostile toward the purposes of God. But, ironically, it is usually from persecution that the church reveals it greatest spiritual strength. These apostles were zealous for Jesus and whether they stood before the Sanhedrin, or stood in the temple courts, or even house to house (!)—“they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (v.42). This is Christianity! They lived for Christ!

Our Christianity is far too comfortable.

What is the price of your silence?


The apostles could not be silenced. They knew of nothing more significant for them to do. It is every Christians calling to share the good news of repentance and forgiveness. Does this calling grip you? Has the message of redemption so powerfully changed your life that you can’t help but share it with others?

With fresh wounds across the backs of the apostles—blood clinging to their clothes, dripping onto the ground beneath them—they return to the temple. Who are these people? Where are they today? We simply do not find this kind of boldness in the 21st century. Or do we?

Derek Thomas writes,

“We think of these apostles as ‘heroes.’ And perhaps they are! We are awed by their boldness and tenacity. Yet they were only the first in a long line of bold Christians throughout the centuries. Do you not want to be among them?”⁠5


1 Often, but probably incorrectly, attributed to Edmund Burke.

2 James Boice, Acts, 108.

3 Derek Thomas, Acts, 133.

4 Thomas, Acts, 148.

5 Derek Thomas, Acts, 150-151.