The Second Imprisonment

Acts 5:17-42

The believers in Jerusalem at this point number well in excess of the 5,000 men mentioned in Acts 4:4, perhaps double that number not counting women and children (v14).  The judgment of Ananias and Sapphira had a sobering effect not only on the believers but also on their non-believing countrymen who had witnessed it too.

It would be profitable to pause here to consider the characteristics of this body of believers in Jerusalem and their circumstances:

  • They were successfully living c_____________________ (4:32)
  • They were daily witnessing m____________________ done by the a_______________________ (4:33, 5:12)
  • They were gathering daily on the T____________ grounds in the area called S_________________ P__________________ (5:12)
  • They were under the authority of the a___________________, and especially P__________ (4:35, 5:3)
  • Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released under threat by the r____________ and e_____________ of Israel (4:8)
  • Peter has addressed J_____ and p__________________ (2:5, 2:10)
  • Peter’s message has been to r______________ and be b_____________ (2:38) for having c__________________ the Messiah (2:36)
  • If Israel does so, the result will be the coming of her p________________ (2:39), the t_______ of r________________ (3:19) revealed to them through the p___________ (3:18), where all the nations of the world will be ruled and blessed through I________ (3:25)
  • In the process, the G________ T________________ and judgement of earthly kings and nations will take place (4:24-30)

Now consider, in contrast, the nature of the local church where you attend:

  • Do you live communally, and do so successfully?
  • Do you witness miracles performed by your leaders daily?
  • Do you gather in Jerusalem, specifically in the Temple?
  • Are you under the authority of apostles?
  • Are your leaders being imprisoned for their message?
  • Are your members Jews and/or Jewish proselytes?
  • Are you required to repent specifically of having crucified the Messiah to receive salvation?
  • Will doing so result in the Great Tribulation and the Millennial Kingdom?
  • Does Israel rule the entire world today?
  • Is God sending His blessing to the entire world through Israel today?
  • Have the rulers of today’s nations who oppose God been judged and deposed by Christ today?

I hope you realize, dear reader, that the face of Christianity in today’s world is not only different, but in some ways diametrically opposed to what was happening to the believers in Jerusalem.  That is not to say that God was displeased with them, or that God is displeased with us.  Indeed, God is pleased with both us and them, because we both are (hopefully) living out what God expects from each of us.  This stark contrast exists because God’s expectation for us and for them is different.  And to try to live according to God’s expectations of the other is displeasing to Him!

Beginning now in Acts 5:17, Luke records the second imprisonment of Peter and John (and the first imprisonment of the other apostles) and the consequences.  His description is straightforward, and I’ll encourage you to read vv17-26 for yourself before proceeding in this blog post.

When Peter and John were imprisoned the first time, they remained in jail overnight (4:3).  The next morning the council assembled and had them brought from the prison (4:7).  But there the similarities end.  This time the jail is miraculously opened, the apostles are led out and set free, and then apparently the cell doors are closed and locked again as if never occupied — all without the guards even knowing it.  By the time the council convened the following morning, the apostles had returned to the temple grounds where they had been teaching for several hours.  Initially the council was left wondering where they had gone, but someone came and told them the apostles were teaching in the temple already.  The captain of the temple guard and his officers together (this was a Jewish security squad, not a Roman contingency) went to bring them to the council.  Because the believers were so numerous, and even the non-believers held them in such high esteem, the guards were afraid of being stoned themselves by the crowd, and they went about their business very politely.

(Please read Acts 5:27-32 for yourself before reading further in the blog post.)

The High Priest reminds them of their previous encounter and that they had been commanded to not speak of Jesus of Nazareth, noting that the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their teaching anyway, and had done so with the intent of blaming them for Jesus’ death.  Peter’s response remains the same as his first encounter with the council — that they must obey God rather than men.  In few words Peter accuses them of precisely what they surmised.  God raised up Jesus, who they had crucified, and exalted Him to be Prince and Savior, bringing opportunity to repent and obtain forgiveness.  The apostles bore witness of these things, as did the Holy Spirit who God sent upon those who obeyed Him — an obvious contrast to the council’s lack of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

How did the council react?  Please read it for yourself now in v33.  They were “cut to the quick” (a form of the Greek word diaprio translated in Hebrews 11:37 as “sawn asunder”, not a paper cut beside a fingernail) and an immediate desire to put the apostles to death arose in their twisted hearts.  Compare this situation to the response of Peter’s first audience on the occasion of Pentecost, who were “pierced to the heart” (Greek katanusso, to pierce through) and immediately sought to repent.  But here Peter’s succinct remark had drawn blood as if by a slicing motion of a blade, and had enraged them to the point of retaliation by deadly force.

On the verge of bloodshed, one Pharisee stepped forth.  Remember that the Pharisees were a member of the “house minority” (see v17), so it took some courage for this man to speak up.  His name was Gamaliel.  He certainly had wisdom and the respect of his peers.  Was he the same man who was responsible for Paul’s education in the “School of Gamaliel”?  (Acts 22:3)  Please read what he suggested for yourself now in vv34-39 before proceeding through the next part of the blog post.

Gamaliel cited two examples from recent history of men who had led rebellions, both of which had “come to nothing”.  His advice was to let the natural course of events deal with the apostles.  If the actions of the apostles were truly of God they would not be able to stop it, finding themselves in the awkward position of fighting against God Himself.  For a long time I looked at Gamaliel with favor, as a defender of the apostles.  I no longer think that was the case.  He was shrewd, level-headed and widely respected, but was no friend to the apostles.  He was, in fact, merely proposing the slickest way to get around what they feared the most — the potentially violent reaction of the people (see 4:21, 5:26) should harm come to any of the apostles.  Remember, at this juncture their intent was to slay them! (v33)  Gamaliel simply proposed the best way for the Council to come out smelling like a rose.  His advice essentially was to given the apostles a little more rope…  Verse 40 says the Council took Gamaliel’s advice and flogged the apostles.  It doesn’t say they took his advice and flogged them anyway.  Apparently the flogging was part and parcel with Gamaliel’s advice, and nowhere does it indicate that Gamaliel disapproved of the flogging.

The chapter closes with the disciples’ response to the flogging — rejoicing over having been considered worthy to suffer shame  because of their representation of Jesus.  The grammar in which the expression “to suffer shame” indicates that it refers to the events that were immediately past (their appearance before the council) and that they had been humiliated by the Council.  (There’s a tendency to want to make this verse say that the Council treated them shamefully, placing the blame on the Council. While that is true, the grammar focuses on the humiliation received, not the shameful manner in which it was given.) 

What can cause men to rejoice when they are humiliated?  The last verse of the chapter tells us that it didn’t affect their behavior one bit.  They went on doing exactly what they had been doing before!  It’s almost as if they were expecting it, and knew that when it happened it would be a sign of the ushering in of the Kingdom.  Oh!  Remember Luke 21:10-28?  Jesus had specifically prepared them for this, and for much worse things to follow!

“… they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.  It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony…. And you will be hated by all on account of My name.  Yet not a hair of your head will perish… And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among nations… for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man  coming in a cloud with great power and glory.  But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Theologians who haven’t made this very specific connection are at a loss to explain why the apostles reacted the way they did, writing it off as one of the wonderful effects of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives.  That is certainly true, and thousands of martyrs through the centuries were carried joyfully through their suffering by His presence.  Paul instructs his gentile converts to do the same long after Israel’s program had been temporarily set aside by God, and Paul was certainly no stranger to suffering shame for the name of Christ.  But in this case it is important to realize that the apostles were rejoicing because it meant they were on the right track, and it certified all the more that the Kingdom promised to Israel was just around the corner.  And that is why they kept right on doing what they had been doing, unaffected by the threats and beatings of the High Council of Israel.

As I write this, it’s Christmas Day!  I’ve added a section to the blog entitled “Reflections”, and will from time to time add posts that have nothing to do with our study in acts, but are personal reflections based on the season or things which God has impressed on my heart.  Be sure to check it out!  And have a Merry Christmas!

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