And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. — Acts 5:27-29
From hostility and harassment to torture, imprisonment, and even death, Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith. In some of these nations it is illegal to own a Bible, share your faith in Christ, change your religion to one that is not government approved, or teach your children about Jesus. In fact, Christians in at least sixty countries around the world face persecution simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.(1) Yet even in those locations, Christians continue to witness to those around them and meet for worship.
Cheng Jie is one of those individuals. Living in China where religion is tightly controlled, this pastor’s wife, mother of two little boys, and former kindergarten director had prepared herself for the possibility of her husband’s arrest. However, she never thought she would be the one to spend time behind bars for her faith. In the end, it was her role as school director that caused her to be imprisoned for two years. Chinese authorities claimed the school and its administration were guilty of using what the authorities called “religious curriculum.” The school was closed, and Cheng Jie and three others were arrested.
Sentenced to two years in a hard labor camp, Cheng Jie at first was afraid. She was housed in a cell with fifteen criminals, some of them due to be put to death for murder. Their fifteen-by-fifteen foot cell had only one toilet. Quarrels often would break out between the women, and some of them wept continually. Though expected to work twelve-hour work days, the prisoners were fed very little, usually just rice with boiled cabbage or radishes.
Cheng Jie soon realized, however, that God had given her a unique opportunity to minister to the women incarcerated with her. “Even though I was in prison, I felt like I am happy because I have the joy from God,” she said. The prison guards refused to give Cheng Jie a Bible, but another prisoner had one and she gave it to Cheng Jie in trade for some personal items. Despite the long work hours, Cheng read the Bible faithfully every night and found strength in God’s Word. She also taught her cellmates hymns and Bible stories. Her faith and trustworthiness made her stand out to prison authorities and after six months, she even was put in charge of the cells. In February 2016, Cheng Jie’s sentence was complete and she was released. The future for their family was uncertain, but she and her husband continued to cling to their faith in God and trust Him to be with them no matter what might lay ahead.(2)
Today’s text describes the second instance in Scripture of followers of Christ being imprisoned for their faith (the first is recorded in Acts 4:3). In this instance, Peter and the other Apostles were arrested and put in jail by the religious leaders, but an angel of the Lord “opened the prison doors, and brought them forth” (verse 19). Although they had been commanded after the first arrest not to teach in the name of Jesus, the Apostles had immediately resumed witnessing. Their allegiance was to Christ; they knew He had to be obeyed ahead of all earthly authorities. When they were apprehended a third time and questioned as to why they had defied the injunction of the council, Peter responded with the words recorded in our focus verse: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
How would we respond if we were threatened with imprisonment and even death for talking about the Lord? To what extent are we willing to suffer for the sake of sharing the Gospel with others? These questions must be considered. The response of the Apostles in today’s account, and the courage of Cheng Jie and thousands of others who have suffered for the faith through the ages, challenges us. They have proven that, by God’s grace, it is possible to stand strong in the face of persecution. Faith in God does not make all of our troubles vanish; it simply puts them in the right perspective. When we live close to God and lean upon Him for strength and direction, we can be certain that He will give us power to endure whatever comes our way.
Today’s portion of chapter 5 describes the opposition of the religious leaders in Jerusalem to the preaching of Peter and the Apostles. The text can be divided into three main sections. Verses 17-25 cover the Apostles’ arrest and confinement, and angelic deliverance. Immediately returning to preaching, they once again were apprehended and brought before the council, where Peter fearlessly stated their position that obedience to God must come first (verses 26-32). Finally, Gamaliel’s restraining advice and the beating and release of the Apostles is related in verses 33-40.
Luke’s statement that the high priest and other members of the council were “filled with indignation” (verse 17) also could be translated “filled with jealousy.” These religious leaders no doubt felt their authority as spiritual teachers was being threatened as more and more of the populace accepted what Christ’s followers were teaching.
The Apostles’ supernatural deliverance from prison, recounted in verse 19, was evidence to the believers that the Lord was with His Church. However, that deliverance was not granted so the disciples could flee for their lives; this is made clear by the angelic charge in verse 20 where the Apostles were commissioned to go and take a stand by preaching at the Temple once more. This demonstrated to the Early Church that while God was able to deliver, if deliverance was not His plan, it was better to suffer for Christ than to seek preservation of the physical body.
It is noteworthy that when the Apostles were arrested and for the second time brought before the council (the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme authority or senate of the Jewish people in ancient Israel), the high priest did not ask how they had escaped from prison. He may have realized that their deliverance was supernatural and did not want to be forced to acknowledge that fact.
Peter’s assertion that “we ought to obey God rather than man” (verse 29) was not a defiance of secular authority but a statement of spiritual obligation.
Verse 33 states that the members of the Sanhedrin were “cut to the heart” — they were furious at what they considered to be defiance, and determined to sentence the Apostles to death. Intervention came through the advice of Gamaliel, who was perhaps the most distinguished man of the entire council during the time of Christ. A rabbi and doctor of the law, he was the leader of the illustrious school of Hillel that taught Israel on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology. The school was crucial to the shaping of the oral law and Judaism as it is today.
Gamaliel reminded the Sanhedrin of insurgents in the past whose rebellions had died out, and pointed out that if the teachings of Jesus’ disciples were not of God, their movement would come to nothing as well. If the movement were of God, it would be imprudent for the Sanhedrin to resist it. While Gamaliel’s intervention preserved the Apostles from death, this may have been done to quell a potential conflict over their fate, which could have aroused the displeasure of Rome, rather than out of admiration for them.
Though the Apostles were beaten — the harshest punishment to that date in the emerging church — they were not cowed by the threats and demands of the council. From verses 41-42, it is apparent they were singlehearted in their purpose to “teach and preach.” The Greek word for “preach” is evangelizo, from which the English word “evangelize” was derived.
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The witness in Jerusalem
C. The witness of the Apostles
2. The persecution of the Apostles (5:17-40)
a. The arrest of the Apostles (5:17-18)
b. The release of the Apostles (5:19-25)
c. The rearrest of the Apostles (5:26-28)
d. The explanation of Peter (5:29-32)
e. The advice of Gamaliel (5:33-39)
f. The flogging of the Apostles (5:40)
3. The joy of the Apostles (5:41-42)
a. In disgrace (5:41)
b. In duty (5:42)
While opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ will come, God will embolden and strengthen those who courageously take a stand for Him.
1 Open Doors, “Persecution at a Glance,” Open Doors, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/, accessed April 26, 2019.
2 The Voice of the Martyrs, “China: Joy in prison,” The Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/newsroom.aspx?story_ID=%3d383234&featuredstory_ID=%3d353530, accessed March 31, 2017.