Scripture: Acts 5:17-42
- The apostles are arrested (again)
- An angel lets them out of jail so they can keep preaching
- The Sanhedrin gathers the next day and discovers their prisoners are missing (“What the–?”)
- The apostles are arrested (again, again) and told to shut their traps because they’re making the Jewish leaders look bad
- Peter tells them “We’ll obey God, thank you very much” (paraphrase) and that Jesus is exalted despite their best attempts to disgrace him
- This makes the Sanhedrin mad. Really, really mad. Kill people kind of mad
- Gamaliel* steps up and says, “Other people claimed to be the messiah and those movements went nowhere. Maybe this will be like those other movements. If not, then maybe this stuff really is from God.” (super paraphrase)
- The Sanhedrin is still mad, but they let them go
- The apostles get flogged (ouch) and praise God for it (wow) and keep on preaching (take that Sanhedrin!)
The Sanhedrin was a council of 70 elders (mostly Sadducees and some Pharisees) plus the chief priest. They were the only ones who could try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. During the First Century, the Sanhedrin reached its pinnacle of importance, legislating all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. This is also the same group of people who two months earlier had handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified.
Many other people claimed to be messiah during the first century. Theudas, in particular, rose up around 44 AD and rallied a bunch of people to him. To prove he was a prophet capable of leading Israel to victory, he claimed that he would part waters of the Jordan River, just as Joshua did when the Israelites entered the promised land. The Romans stopped him before he tried it, however, and killed a great many of his followers. Theudas they took alive, then cut off his head and carried it to Jerusalem. Clearly this method worked in squashing the perceived rebellion since Theudas and his followers were never heard of again.
Judas the Galilean
Judas the Galilean founded the Zealots. The Zealots were a group of radical Jewish patriots who objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it (also of note, the Zealots are who Josephus generally blamed for helping bring about the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). They started their revolt when the Roman census was ordered by Augustus (yes, the same census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem). It is not known for certain how or when Judas died, but most believe he was killed by Roman officials. Josephus describes Judas as a leader “desirous only of the royal title” and bent upon “pillaging and destroying people’s property” with the aid of “a multitude of men of profligate character.” Judas and the Zealots thought they could bring about “the kingdom of heaven,” that is, the kingship of God, “by force and violence.”
Perhaps this is the type of movement Jesus’ disciples thought they might be getting into initially as indicated by those who joined him (Simon was actually labeled as a Zealot, and there are some that think Judas’ title “Iscariot” was a link to the term sicarii – “the dagger men” known the most extreme extremists among the Zealots), and the weapons they carried while in Jerusalem (see: Mark 14:47)
Hebrew law restricted floggings to 40 lashes (the Romans had no limit). To make sure they always stayed within the law, the Sanhedrin had only 39 lashes administered. The victims were generally tied to a post with their arms above their heads. The whip used (a flagrum) had “a short handle and generally two or three long thick thongs, each weighted at some distance from their extremity with lead balls or mutton bones. The thongs cut the skin, while the balls or bones created deep contusions. The result was significant hemorrhaging and considerable weakening of the vital resistance of the victim.” Read more here for a detailed explanation.
- Hailing a dynamic and holy individual as the messiah was not unusual in the First Century. Having that leader killed as a result (most often by Rome), was not uncommon. Believing that leader had a “spiritual” place with God was not uncommon. What was uncommon was that after that leader died that he would still be hailed as messiah, and that someone would say that he came back to life. The messiah was expected to defeat Israel’s enemies, purify (or build) the temple and permanently establish God’s reign on earth. Death of that person (particularly if Israel was still subject to Rome) meant they had failed. N.T. Wright explains it beautifully in this article on the resurrection, but to sum it up (quickly, but poorly): The normal response to a murdered messiah would be to either abandon the movement or find a replacement (most likely from among the “failed” messiah’s family). The early Christians did neither. They kept saying Jesus was the messiah, and though James (Jesus’ bro) was a pivotal member of the Jerusalem church, he was never proclaimed as messiah. In fact, he kept insisting his brother was the messiah.
- There was a uniqueness to Christ’s resurrection that convinced the disciples Jesus was indeed the “anointed one” and that kingdom of God (i.e. the new age, the new world, God’s reign) had come–in other words: Israel’s exile was over, the pagan empire(s) were overthrown, the temple was rebuilt (or at least cleansed), Israel was exalted, and YHWH had returned to Zion to judge and save. Note how through the rest of Acts and the New Testament the early church proves each of these things has happened (or is happening) and see how they define the temple, Israel, etc.
- Jesus was exalted, not cursed as the Sanhedrin had hoped. Peter points out to the Jewish leaders that despite their best effort to disgrace Jesus through a death on a tree (something that invoked a curse from God (Deuteronomy 21:23)), Jesus was, in fact, exalted by God. The members of the Sanhedrin didn’t even want to speak his name (“this man”), and they were much more concerned with preserving their reputation and position (“determined to make us guilty”) than the truth.
- What does Peter’s phrase, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” say about our current understanding of civil disobedience? What political position does that put us in?
- How do we reconcile Peter’s advice to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17) but still “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29)?
- Why do you think Peter and the other apostles were so bold in the face of certain death/punishment?
- Note the different responses to Peter’s version of the gospel story in which the audience is reminded Jesus was someone “you killed”: In Acts 2 the people look for a way to repent, in Acts 5,the Sanhedrin looks for a way to kill the apostles. What drives these types of responses?
- What do you think it means when Luke says “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name”? What does this tell you about their perspective on suffering? What is the church’s current perception of suffering? How did the early church embrace “disgrace for the Name” differently than we do today?
- NT Wright’s article on the resurrection
- NT Wright giving a brief overview of the resurrection in a video
- A good commentary
*Interesting side note on Gamaliel: He was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3), and a highly regarded teacher of Judaism. It is likely that he was Luke’s source for the discussions that occurred behind closed doors in the Sanhedrin. It is also possible that Paul (Saul) was present as Gamaliel’s student.
Post Discussion Perspectives:
- “Suffering disgrace for the Name” is not a concept familiar to 21st century, American, middle-class Christians. Rallying cries like “put the Christ back in Christmas” are manufactured “persecutions” made up by people with too much time on their hands.
- The apostles were freed by the angel and told to go back into harm’s way. Their obedience to God soon ended up in a flogging. Why didn’t God send them to safety? Why were they so willing to put themselves in the line of fire? Our “personal relationship with Jesus” can be a narrow-minded, safety-net-loving, tunnel-vision view of what God really wants. We think: “God just needs to take care of me.” Or, “It’s just about me and Jesus and me getting to heaven (safely and comfortably).” Whereas God seems to act for the greater good more often. It’s less about one individual’s feelings and safety and more about the community, the world, the big picture. Are we willing to sacrifice our individual wants and needs for the community? Have we become too inwardly focused and overly concerned with our own spirituality to be of any practical use to God?
- Jesus failed to make the Jewish leaders preset list of successful messiah characteristics, which is why they hoped this Christianity business would all just go away. Their list may have gone something like this: 1) God will send someone to fix our problems (in their case, a messiah to revoke Roman rule). 2) Those problems will go away instantly (defeat of Rome) and know they got spanked by God (i.e. vindication for the holy via the establishment of Israel’s kingdom). 3) God will sit comfortably in charge and everyone will leave us alone from now on. How close is this checklist for the messiah parallel own assumptions as to what God will do to the sin in our life? To our problems with other people? To the second coming? How did Jesus’ turn the very definition of a failed messiah into a new understanding of who God really is and how he really works? How does this new definition break down our assumptions about how God should cleanse our life of sin? Help us in our relationships? Fulfill his promise to renew the earth?