After nearly three years of enduring the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic, it appears that it may now be over. The pandemic caused many significant changes, not only to our nation in general, but also specifically to churches. During the pandemic, governments chose to exert its authority over local churches. In our state, the governor declared restrictions that affected the way churches could conduct their worship services. For many months, we restricted the number who could attend our worship services. We closed half of our pews to comply with the state health department’s mandate on social distancing. While the constitution of the United States declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” the government did in fact prohibit the free exercise of religious services in local churches.
Some churches stood up to government interference. One pastor and his church called the government into accountability for their refusal to obey God’s design for righteousness and maintaining social order. That church sent a letter to government officials that said (in part), “Almighty God says in His Word, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). Scripture also teaches that it is the chief duty of any civic leader to reward those who do well and to punish evildoers (Romans 13:1-7). You have not only failed in that responsibility; you routinely turn it on its head, rewarding evildoers and punishing the righteous.”
The church’s letter continues, “The Word of God pronounces judgment on those who call evil good and good evil, and yet many of your policies reflect this unholy, upside-down view of honor and morality. The diabolical effects of your worldview are evident in this state’s epidemics of crime, homelessness, sexual perversions, and other malignant expressions of human misery that stem directly from corrupt public policy. My goal in writing is not to contend with your politics, but rather to plead with you to hear and heed what the Word of God says to men in your position.”
That letter was sent to a government official from a local church less than six months ago. It appears to be a growing trend for true believers in the Word of God to find themselves in opposition to government officials and new laws and statutes. Because of this apparently escalating conflict, churches and the Christians who attend them find themselves being forced to choose between standing for their biblical convictions or compromising with the world’s declining values. It is a developing probability that each of us will be called upon to make similar choices.
I must disclose to you that we will not be the first generation of Christians who will discover that they are in opposition to government officials. In our study of the book of Acts, we have already seen that government officials arrested two of the original twelve apostles: Peter and John, and had them imprisoned. The government took away their freedom of speech, ruling that they were forbidden to preach and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ. These apostles and the members of their local church decided that it was the Lord’s will for them to obey God rather than human government. They continued their evangelistic messages about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But the battle was not over. It will never be until the Lord Himself returns. Until then, He expects His people to stand for biblical truth and to continue to spread the good news about salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. In these Scriptures today, we will see that government officials will expand and intensify their persecution of the church in Jerusalem. We will see that they will become jealous when God’s Spirit shows His power over disease and demons through the Lord’s appointed apostles and return to their active persecution of the church. Then we will note that despite such egregious persecution, the members and leaders of the Jerusalem church will persevere and continue with the mission of reaching souls for their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We begin with the Holy Spirit’s power.
THE HOLY SPIRIT’S POWER. Acts 5:12-16
The Unity of the Spirit. By this time several months have passed since the Day of Pentecost, when, because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the local church had been born. Since that day, thousands of people had been redeemed and had received the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. As planned by the Lord, the church began in Jerusalem and nearly all of the first believers were Jewish. They had grown and been trained in the Old Testament Scriptures, and when they heard the truth, that Jesus Christ was their Messiah, and that He had died for them as a substitutionary sacrifice so that their sins could be forgiven, they chose to believe that Jesus was Lord.
While there were now multitudes of new Christians (they will not actually be called “Christians” until Acts chapter eleven), they will meet together for fellowship and worship at the place in Jerusalem’s temple known as Solomon’s portico. It became a consistent pattern of their lives. The Apostle Paul tells us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This church made sure they stayed together, learned together, and served together. The actions of the Jewish leaders caused some to be concerned, but even those outside held the church in high esteem for their enthusiastic worship of the Lord.
The Church Multiplied. The church had a singular message: Jesus saves! The message of the resurrection of Christ and the result that He is alive and coming again energized their evangelism. They told anyone who would listen about the miracle of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. Friends, neighbors, and relatives received Christ as their Savior. Through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit “multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number.” The beautiful purity of the gospel message transformed large numbers of people and the church continued to grow.
Powerful Ministry. The Holy Spirit empowered all of the apostles to perform many signs and wonders. Evidently, those with illnesses were placed along the streets the apostles would use to travel to the temple and they would be healed. Because they knew these apostles were God’s chosen spokesmen, they believed God would work through them. Peter himself walked by and brought miraculous healing. It was not Peter’s shadow that healed people; the Bible does not say that; but the Holy Spirit empowered by faith brought relief from disease. In the fifth chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find a woman who sought to be healed from a disease simply by touching the cloak of the Lord Jesus. Did the cloak have healing powers? Not at all; it was Jesus’ power that healed her. That is why He stopped to tell her that rather than His cloak that it was her faith that had healed her.
Not only were the sick healed, but those afflicted by unclean spirits were also healed. And we note that the word of God’s power being shown through the apostles was spreading outside Jerusalem’s city limits. People were coming for healing and to hear about salvation in Christ. We find at the end of verse sixteen that “they were all being healed.” What a triumphant statement about the Holy Spirit’s power!
THE ENEMIES’ PERSECUTION. Acts 5:17-40
All of the Apostles Arrested. It is true that a Holy Spirit filled and led church will inevitably provoke a hostile reaction from the satanic world system. In this case, the large number of people who were receiving Christ as Savior provoked these unbelieving rulers to jealousy. In addition to their jealousy, the rulers had the apostles arrested because they had not obeyed the official orders to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. In their minds, the apostles were breaking the law. A third reason was that these were the men who had Jesus murdered in the first place and they did not believe in the resurrection. These apostles were giving evidence that the resurrection was real and Jesus had risen from the dead. Now, instead of just Peter and John, all of the apostles were arrested and placed in a public jail. However, while these leaders had authority, there is someone else who has ultimate authority.
A Supernatural Release. Can you imagine this scene? The twelve apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ were arrested and put in jail. The very men upon whom rested the foundation of the church and the future of the message of grace and salvation found themselves together in prison. What happened next is a supernatural miracle. It is a divine intervention into the human world. God dispatched one of His angels with the mission of releasing these twelve men from prison. This preternatural being somehow opened the gates of the prison and took all twelve men out, all without the notice of the guards or anyone else.
Our lives rest in the sovereign grace of the Lord Jesus. When it is His will, His people are released from danger and threat. And when it is His will, they will stay in prison or suffer even worse consequences. All of us are vessels in the Master’s hands and the events of our lives are of His choosing. This time these twelve men were released because that brought glory to the Lord. As the apostles were released, the angel commanded them to go back into the temple and speak to the people “the whole message of the Life.” The Lord had commissioned them in Matthew 28:19 by telling them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In Acts 1:8, the Lord told them that they were to be His witnesses. Here, the angel commanded them to do what the Lord had commissioned them to do: preach about salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Apostles Arrested Again. And they did exactly that! It was nighttime, so they went home to rest. But the next morning as the sun rose, they returned to the temple and began to teach. Meanwhile, back at the Council, the Sadducees and the Pharisees gathered to put the apostles on trial. The officers who were dispatched to retrieve them found an amazing situation. The guards were all present, right where they were supposed to be, and the prison gates were all closed and locked, but when the doors were opened there was no one inside and there were no explanations. Somehow, the prisoners had escaped. The officers returned to the Sanhedrin and reported this and while they were speaking another came in to tell the Council that the twelve men were back in the temple and they were teaching the people. So, the officers went back to the temple, found the twelve apostles teaching God’s Word and quietly brought them back to stand trial.
Trial Before the Sanhedrin. The apostles were brought back to stand before the Council, once again without offering any resistance at all. I find it absolutely amazing that they were not asked how they had escaped from prison! Were they not worried about the security of their prison? Maybe they knew God had supernaturally released them and they did not want that said in open court. The high priest boldly accused them of defying the law and causing trouble. He would not even use the name of Jesus Christ but instead said, “teaching in this name.” He said they intended to bring this man’s blood upon them. Perhaps he had forgotten that at the Lord’s crucifixion the people cried out, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25) The truth is, they were guilty of murdering their own Messiah and Lord.
The apostles did not change their convictions. They obeyed God and trusted Him to take care of the consequences. They stood firmly for the Lord, and He honored their faith and courage. Neither did they change their message. Once more Peter indicted the leaders for the death of Jesus and boldly proclaimed that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead and had been exalted by God to heaven. The fact that Jesus Christ is presently at God’s right hand, the place of honor, power, and authority, is a key theme in the Scriptures. Once more Peter called the nation to repentance in receiving Christ as Lord and Savior, pleading with them to obedience to God’s Word. Sadly, once again, the leaders refused this invitation to redemption. They chose to remain lost and unsaved.
Rabbi Gamaliel’s Counsel. We can expect the leaders’ anger. They wanted to put the apostles to death. At this point the highly esteemed Gamaliel, a Pharisee and teacher, influenced the Sanhedrin not to oppose the apostles. He spoke not from sympathy for the church, but from insight into God’s sovereign working on earth. Nothing is known of Theudas with his band of four hundred insurrectionists, whose cause came to nothing. The rebellion of Theudas probably occurred because of the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. The insurrec-tion led by Judas the Galilean was Gamaliel’s second illustration. Josephus gave a rather full account of this movement which led to the execution of Judas, but also spawned further rebellion. This event happened in 6 A.D., also early in Gamaliel’s career.
Gamaliel concluded his speech by urging the Council to leave the apostles alone. By seeing what would come of this movement, they would tell if it were of human origin or from God. If it turned out to be from God, to try to stop God’s work would be like fighting against God! Not considering it adequate simply to admonish the apostles, the council had them flogged and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus. The flogging (evidently punishment for the apostles’ disobedience to their earlier prohibition) would have been on the back and the chest with a three stranded strap of calf hide. This was no insignificant punishment. It would have been done in full public view.
THE BELIEVERS’ PERSEVERANCE. Acts 5:41-42
The Apostles Rejoiced. The flogging was supposed to deter further disobedience. It was supposed to cause shame. It failed on both counts. The Jewish leaders were operating solely from a human perspective. The apostles saw it from God’s point of view. Instead of shame, it caused joy because they suffered for the Lord Jesus. This is a concrete example of rejoicing in suffering which should be the mark of the Christian under persecution.
Peter was flogged that day, and suffered the pain of that punishment. What did he think about such a trial? He wrote, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). How would we have handled such a trial? How many would quit? How many would persevere?
They Continued to Preach the Gospel. The apostles did not quit. In fact, they didn’t even slow down. They continued to do what God had called them to do. Every day, right there, in full sight of the Sanhedrin, they kept teaching and preaching. They went from house to house preaching Jesus as the Christ all through Jerusalem. The Lord had given them a commission and they intended to continue as long as He enabled them.
Like the apostles, we too have been given the Great Commission. The Lord Jesus has called every Christian to be His witness throughout the world. We are called to be witnesses to Him. Oswald Chambers asked, “Will we accept everything that happens as if it were happening to Him, whether we receive praise or blame, persecution or reward? Paul said that he was gripped by the love of God and that is why he acted as he did. People could perceive him as mad or sane–he did not care. There was only one thing he lived for–to persuade people of the coming judgment of God and to tell them of the love of Christ. This total surrender to the love of Christ is the only thing that will bear fruit in your life. And it will always leave the mark of God’s holiness and His power.”
Once more the men of the Council refused to receive Christ. What about you? Have you chosen to receive Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Will you receive Him now?
Updated by Pastor Vernon Welkner, 2/7/2023