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The Spreading Flame - Series 1: Episode 9

Opposition to the church grows

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 5:17-42

Once again the Jewish authorities are faced with the problem of what to do about the Apostles and their teaching. Amazingly, Gamaliel, one of the Sanhedrin encourages them to wait to see if this was a temporary religious group or God's. The Apostles are flogged and set free.

Once again the Jewish authorities are faced with the problem of what to do about the Apostles and their teaching. Amazingly, Gamaliel, one of the Sanhedrin encourages them to wait to see if this was a temporary religious group or God's. The Apostles are flogged and set free.


We’re continuing the story of the church in Jerusalem. We’ve come nearly to the end of 10 Episodes in Series 1 that describe this incredible story of how the Church was born, which Luke tells in considerable detail.

Introduction and Background

We’re very grateful that we’ve got all these different parts of the story together in Series 1 because it paints a really big picture of how, from that dynamic moment on the Day of Pentecost, the Church grew very rapidly through the energetic preaching of the Apostles, through the incredible miracles they performed, and the integrity and vigour of the early church community in sharing life together. We’ve seen, as the church has developed, vast numbers of people joining the church; many thousands now. We’ve got no exact numbers at this stage in the story, but Jerusalem has Christian discipleship communities all over the place. Christian homes in every district are places of fellowship, and they meet both in private and very definitely in public. That’s the focus of this particular episode.

The other part of the story we’ve been telling, is how opposition has been gathering momentum from the religious authorities, represented by the priesthood in the Temple, and the Jewish ruling council, that ruled over the religious affairs of the nation, known as the Sanhedrin. We’ve already described how that council took action against Peter and John on one occasion when they were preaching in the Temple; took them in for questioning; imprisoned them overnight; interrogated them; released them; threatened them that if they preached again there would be more severe action taken against them. That has already happened but then they were released, and they’ve continued. We discovered this in Acts 5: 12:‘And all the believers used to meet in Solomon’s Colonnade.’ The public meetings were in this part of the Temple courts known as Solomon’s Colonnade. It was just one section of a large communal area, which had a wall all round it, with the Temple in the middle, and it’s as if they had taken this one section and said, “Right, this is going to be the church area.” Hundreds and hundreds of people would meet regularly in an area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. That’s the immediate background to the dramatic events that happen in this episode as opposition to the church grows. We’re seeing a higher level of opposition emerging in this episode from the religious authorities. The stakes are high and the religious authorities are severely worried that the whole city has been taken over by this new Christian faith; their whole way of living, the whole way of worshipping in the Temple, is being undermined as people are being diverted to this new faith, which they had already decided was a false faith. They had already condemned Jesus to death, and now they had the Apostles to deal with.

The Apostles Arrested

It’s a dramatic story, which we’re going to read in different sections. We’re going to read Acts 5:17 - 26, as the story continues:

17 ‘Then the High Priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the Apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the Temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the Temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the High Priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the Apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers could not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the Temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the Apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.’

Acts 5:17-26, NIV

In a previous episode, we mentioned that the Temple authorities had a kind of police force, known as the Temple guard, and their own jail or prison, where Peter and John had been confined for one night on a previous occasion. On this occasion, it appears that all the Apostles are arrested. The whole group is now confined to that same jail. But the motive is interesting 5:17. They ‘were filled with jealousy’. They were jealous of the fact that the people’s allegiance had transferred from the much-respected religious authorities, held in high esteem by all the Jews, to the Apostles, the followers of Jesus. It was a terrible thing for them to see their authority draining away and this movement was growing up. Not only was it growing up in the city, it was growing up in the Temple courts, right under their noses. They could see with their own eyes the growing number of followers of Jesus’ message.

Miraculous Intervention

They end up in jail again, but this time the outcome is slightly different. Amazingly we have a miraculous intervention, verse 19: ‘an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.’ This is a complete miracle because it appears, from later on in the narrative, that the guards hadn’t noticed what had happened, hadn’t been aware of the event happening, and the Apostles were just brought out, hidden, as it were, from view. So, a miracle occurs, showing that God is with them. We see here the appearance of angels. Now angels make appearances in the book of Acts on a number of different occasions and, of course, they appear throughout the Bible. Angels are created beings, who serve God. Their dwelling place is in heaven, in the eternal world, but they are his messengers to help accomplish God’s purpose on earth. They appear from time to time, all the way through the Bible, usually completely unannounced, by surprise, and they’re often there to help the followers of God, and in this case the followers of Jesus in the New Testament context. Angels appear in the book of Acts in a number of different contexts. Sometimes they appear in order to rescue people. That’s what’s happening here. The angel is rescuing the Apostles. The same thing happens to Peter on a future occasion when he’s imprisoned, as recorded in Acts 12. Sometimes angels are there to reveal things to the Apostles. When Jesus ascended to heaven there were angels present who explained to them that, as Jesus ascended to heaven in glory, so he would return in glory. Sometimes they’re rescuing; sometimes they’re revealing some truth to the Apostles; sometimes they come to the followers of Jesus to give them guidance. We see in Acts 8: 26, that Philip the evangelist is guided by an angel. We see Cornelius, the Roman soldier, in Acts 10, having a vision in which angels are part of that vision. On one occasion, in Acts 12, a ruler called Herod Agrippa, who was very opposed to the church, suddenly dropped down dead, and an angel is seen as the instrument of that act of judgement. Angels are a very significant part of God’s purpose, part of his resources for the Church. I want to talk a little at the end about the significance of angels in the lives of believers, and discuss a verse from Hebrews, which explains their exact function to us in more detail. Here we note that an angel came and enabled them to escape from the prison. As soon as they escape, of course, they’re back in the Temple, preaching again, which leads the guards to come again to get them. But we notice on this occasion when the guards come again and there are many people in the Temple, they didn’t use force. ‘They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.’ There is an interesting balance of power here. The guards have weapons; they have the authority to arrest people, but they’re now getting nervous because the people are so much in favour of the Apostles, and there are so many people. The guards ask the Apostles to come with them and they choose to do so.

The Apostles before the Sanhedrin

They come before the ruling authority, the Sanhedrin, for another intense discussion. Acts 5:27 - 32

27 ‘The Apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the High Priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” 29 Peter and the other Apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”’

Acts 5:27-32, NIV

The High Priest accuses the Apostles of disobeying the specific and explicit command given last time that Peter and John appeared before them, where they released them on the condition they would not preach any more in the city. He accused them of undermining the religious authorities. Peter goes back to his key message. He can’t obey them rather than the actual command of God. It’s God himself who has given them authority through Jesus Christ. We’ve got to remember that the Apostles understood that they had a very high level of authority. Jesus had chosen the Twelve to be with him and to be his representatives, like ambassadors of his message, carrying his authority to other people when he wasn’t present. That is what the Apostles are doing now. They know they’ve got the authority to speak in the name of Jesus, uniquely as the Twelve. Peter is confident in his defence of their actions. He reiterates the key facts of the Gospel, and claims the authority of God’s Holy Spirit. God’s Holy Spirit is with them, enabling them to do these miracles, to preach this message with such dramatic effect all the way across the city, affecting thousands and thousands of people, and now spreading out to the surrounding towns, as we saw in the previous episode. What’s going to happen now? We have a stand-off again between the view of the Sanhedrin and the High Priest on the one hand, and the Apostles on the other. There was a stand-off last time. Last time this happened they didn’t know what to do. They were slightly confused; they were slightly concerned about the outcome; and so they just warned them and threatened them and released them. Now they’re back in the same position again. The same council has to ask the same question about the same issue with the same Peter in front of them. This time all the Apostles are there. This time the crowd outside is even bigger. This time the guards are getting hesitant about using force. What are they going to do this time? They’re not allowed to execute the Apostles by the law of the Romans. How can they punish them? How can they stop them? How can they prevent the message of Christ spreading? This was a real dilemma, and is recorded very interestingly by Luke, who describes something very surprising that happened when the Sanhedrin started discussing it.

Gamaliel Intervenes

Acts 5:33 - 40 tell us the story:

33 ‘When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a Teacher of the Law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed; all his followers were dispersed; and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” 40 His speech persuaded them. They called the Apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.’

Acts 5:33-40, NIV

Wow! This is a very surprising occasion because, in verse 33, it looks like the Sanhedrin are getting so angry about this, they want to do something really drastic to the Apostles, and just as they’re beginning to think about that possibility, one of their most respected leaders intervenes with a totally different suggestion. Who was Gamaliel? He was a respected father figure of Judaism. He was a well-known religious teacher in the city of Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, he was the teacher of a man called Saul, or Paul, who became Paul the Apostle. Acts 22: 3 names him as Paul’s teacher in the days when he was a Pharisee and training in Jewish religious teaching. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, one of the strictest sects of Judaism. We know from Acts 15: 5, that even some of the Pharisees were beginning to join the Christian faith. Maybe God was working in the heart of Gamaliel. We don’t know what was going on in his heart. Even when Jesus was condemned to death, there were members of the Sanhedrin who did not agree. We have two of them named in the Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who were his friends. They would have known each other. Gamaliel was aware of this and he saw what was going on. He saw the miracles; he saw the change of people’s lives; and his heart was somehow rather softened. He also understood the history of the fact that amongst the Jews there were often people arising, claiming to be the Jewish Messiah. This happened quite often. He quotes two examples of people who rebelled against the Romans and claimed to be the Messiah, Theudas and Judas the Galilean, both of whose movements were defeated and dispersed. Gamaliel was aware that people can claim to be the Messiah but it won’t come to anything unless there’s something genuine about them. He was also aware that Jesus was a totally different person to those kinds of people. Jesus wasn’t an armed rebel; he wasn’t creating a personality cult; he wasn’t an anti-Roman figure; he wasn’t a political figure. He was a genuine spiritual leader who genuinely helped people and genuinely performed miracles. Gamaliel was aware of all of this. This was well known to him. He cautioned the assembly of the Sanhedrin and said that they should be careful not to find themselves going against God.

The Apostles Flogged

This would have been a shock to the High Priest who was very keen as chairman of the Sanhedrin, and the whole leader of the establishment, to punish the followers of Jesus. But they let them go. They did have them flogged, which is a significant punishment but they didn’t have them imprisoned; they didn’t have them exiled; they didn’t hand them over to the Romans for execution, which was really the thing that they might have wanted to do. Flogging was used as a punishment amongst the Jews for people who taught false doctrine systematically. That’s how flogging was used on this occasion.

A Setback and a Step Forward

We have a surprising intervention and a remarkable outcome. Acts 5: 41- 42:

41 ‘The Apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the Temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.’

Acts 5:41-42, NIV

We see a familiar pattern developing in Acts; when there’s a setback, then the next step is a step forward. We’ve had a setback with the first intervention of the Sanhedrin with Peter and John. We had a setback with Ananias and Sapphira’s deceit and death. We have another setback here when all the Apostles are flogged. They bear the marks in their body of persecution. They’re in pain, they’re suffering, and yet they preach and they continue. The mission of the Church carries on and the Church keeps growing. This is the pattern of the book of Acts and we see this pattern all the way through the book.


As we now come to the end of this episode, and we reflect on what we’ve learnt, and things that we can apply in our own lives, the first thing that I want to draw your attention to is this pattern of events: advances and setbacks. I want to suggest to you that in your Christian life, in your family, in your job, in your church community (if you’re in a church community), you will find periods of advance and success and spiritual breakthrough, and you will find setbacks. Setbacks are the reality that we live in as Christians. Even the Early Church with all the Apostles, with the power of the Holy Spirit, with the active presence of angels, with a multitude of miracles, and being that close to the life of Jesus, and being in the very city where Jesus rose again from the dead, with people in the congregation who had seen Jesus risen from the dead, even that church had setbacks. So, we can expect to have setbacks in our own lives. For some of you this is the most important point about this episode because you are sensing now that you’re in a difficult time. Things have gone wrong; suffering has come your way; maybe you’ve made mistakes; maybe things have happened to you that aren’t your fault; maybe there’s mysterious things have happened; maybe you’re suffering with health issues; maybe your church is going through a difficult time; maybe your nation is going through a time of economic difficulty or religious opposition to Christianity; and setbacks are there. Let me say this, setbacks are not a sign of failure. They’re a sign of a spiritual battle. The Apostles were in a battle. The human representation of that spiritual battle was the Sanhedrin at this point. They’re the human representation of a bigger spiritual battle that involves powers of darkness wishing to stop the Church. Sometimes we’ll experience setbacks but if we’re faithful to the Lord, as disciples, he will overturn those and turn those circumstances to his advantage, for the spreading of the Gospel message. This is something embedded in the story of the book of Acts, and it is reproduced in the life of churches today.

My second reflection is that there are many different types of miracles that God does, and there are four in this passage. There are conversions as the Apostles preached; there are healings; but also two interesting miracles emphasised - a miraculous escape from prison; and a miraculous intervention by a man outside the church called Gamaliel. Let’s have a broad definition of miracles. Sometimes God oversees the circumstances and works them round. Something astonishing happened and the Apostles were amazed to find that they were out of the prison rather than inside. Sometimes, somebody intervenes; a human decision is made which opens the door or protects the Church, like Gamaliel’s intervention. We should have a very wide view of miracles. God can intervene in any kind of way.

Let me comment, briefly, on a right understanding of angels. We’re called never to worship angels, never to focus on them, never to be fascinated by them, but to treat them as Hebrews 1: 14 says, as ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’. God uses angelic forces to help, support, encourage and strengthen his people primarily. They appear and disappear. They’re mysterious to us in general. They’re not to be worshipped but we thank God when their actions help brothers and sisters in the Church.

My final point, in conclusion, this passage also helps us to understand what it means to embrace suffering when it comes. We can’t avoid suffering. The Apostles, having been flogged and subjected to a very difficult interrogation and an imprisonment, Acts 5:14, they

‘left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.’

Acts 5:14, NIV

Suffering for the sake of Christ, being misunderstood, being misrepresented, being mistreated, is a common experience of Christians all over the world, and has many different manifestations in different cultures. There’s something amazing God does when we realise that it draws us closer to him. We’re fulfilling his purposes if our standing for the truth causes offence to others. So, be encouraged that even in those hard and difficult times, God is with you and can bring joy in the pain and sorrow that it brings to you. Thanks for listening to this episode and I hope you’ll be back and join us for the last episode in Series 1.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What have you learnt from the setbacks in your life?
  • Discipleship
    1. Setbacks are not a sign of failure. What setbacks have there been in your own spiritual life, and in your church life?
    2. There are 4 types of miracles here. What miracles have you seen?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What is the spiritual battle that is shown here? Do you feel that there is a spiritual battle in your life? Pray about this.
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