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Followers of Jesus Never Back Down -- Acts 5:29-42

Will the threats of the world discourage you from obeying God?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 5:29-42

Following the chilling events of last week's passage, the apostles are again brought before an angry (and jealous) Sanhedrin. And again, Peter tells them that their threat will not discourage the Christians from obeying and sharing Christ. The Sanhedrin decides only to flog the apostles, who rejoice that God thought them finally ready to suffer for Christ.

Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (5:42)

When We Studied This Passage in 2016

Lifeway has largely followed the same outlines as the last time we studied Acts. Hey, more notes! I remember enjoying researching that year's lesson:

That lesson overview has one of my favorite illustrations:

  • The importance of resistance training

If you haven't used that illustration recently, I highly recommend it for this week's lesson. Other than that, I also had sections about

  • Christian persecution

  • Gamaliel

  • Solomon's colonnade

You really can't avoid the topic of Christian persecution when studying this lesson, although we talked about that recently:

There are many resources on the topic of current Christian persecution, and I'm sure you did not exhaust them all back in May! Tap into a different one this week.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Stop and Think

What's your preferred method of "stopping and thinking" before you do something rash?

Take a deep breath.

Count to 10

Count to 100

Count backwards from 100

Anybody have anything more severe than that?

The internet has agreed to call that "mindful pauses" (I asked), and pretty much everyone says that taking a "mindful pause" before reacting or making a decision is a great way to keep yourself out of trouble or from making a poor decision.

What's a time in your life when you took a mindful pause that really helped you make the better decision? I actually can't think of a time when that didn't help me. I make my worst decisions when I'm just reacting.

In this week's passage, the most unlikely group agrees to take a mindful pause -- the Sanhedrin. And the most unlikely person (imo) gave them that advice -- a leader of the Sanhedrin. As a result of their mindful pause, the Sanhedrin unexpectedly made the right and reasonable decision. (Granted, it didn't turn out the way they thought it would...)

Getting in Trouble for Doing a Good Thing

You've heard the phrase, "No good deed goes unpunished." You've probably seen it in action somewhere. When is a time in your time when you faced backlash for a good deed?

I'm currently with a group of KBA churches on a mission trip in West Virginia. We're hosting Bible schools and doing some maintenance projects where local churches need the help. Several groups are hosting Vacation Bible Schools. This group is the epitome of "We're just here to do nice things for the community. It'd be silly to be upset with us."

Well, on one of the work sites, a local inspector received an anonymous call to check out the project. Of course all of the work was in order, and the inspector was grateful for the work being done. But it begs the question -- who called the inspector, and why? At another site, when they invited the neighborhood to their events (VBS for kids and adults plus food and sports clinics), the response was not positive. (But after a couple of days and a lot of "chin up", just about everybody started coming and having a great experience.)

You all know that we live in a country where people love to get upset. A friend of mine recently got cussed out for offering to put a person in need up in a hotel. Seriously! Has something like that ever happened to you?

More sadly, we're to the point where we almost expect such a reaction when we're doing such work in the name of Jesus. I remember an evangelism course (25 years ago) where it was a rite of passage to be the poor student who got cussed out for sharing the gospel. Do you have stories about being rejected when telling someone about Jesus or inviting someone to church?

It took me a while to realize this, but one of the main purposes of that evangelism course was to build our courage and perseverance. The professor counted on people vehemently rejecting us help us not let a bad experience sharing the gospel discourage us from trying again. And we always had enough stories of people responding positively to remind us that God wasn't finished with that community yet.

That's what this week's passage teaches us. Peter got in trouble (again) for doing what Jesus told him to do, and how did he respond? He went right back out and did the same thing, bigger and bolder. And he rejoiced that God found him worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.

If you've been discouraged by bad experiences doing a good deed (like sharing the gospel), let this week's passage remind you that you're in good company. There are polls that suggest that many people would accept an invitation to church; whether that's true or not, I know for certain that 100% of people not invited won't respond.


Where We Are in Acts

Last week, we covered the first turning point in Acts: Luke wanted us to know that while the church was bold in ministry and many people were coming to faith in Jesus, Satan was escalating the ways to oppose that work. Danger from the outside grew in the form of persecution. Danger from the inside appeared in the form of church members who wanted to manipulate the church for their own ends (based on God's response, they were pawns of Satan). And we studied the very uncomfortable passage of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira.

This leads to one of the more underrated humorous comments in the Bible that immediately follows last week's shocking events:

12 Many signs and wonders were being done among the people through the hands of the apostles. They were all together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared to join them, but the people spoke well of them.

You think!

Word would have traveled quickly about the sudden and inexplicable deaths of two people. I like the phrase the Lifeway material used to describe the chilling effect: "it kept the window shoppers away".

[There's an old missionary story about a church service in Communist Russia where some police broke in and said that anyone who didn't want to be arrested could leave. After those people left, the police then said, "Now that the hypocrites have left, we can have a serious worship service." Great story. I'm going to bring this up at the end to ask how this might apply to this week's passage.]

There was a similar inflection point in John's Gospel:

5:53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves." ... 60 Therefore, when many of his disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is hard. Who can accept it?” 61 Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, asked them, “Does this offend you? ... 65 He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father.” 66 From that moment many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus' ministry seemingly went from "free food and a good show" to "spiritual cannibalism". And the "window shoppers" just weren't prepared for that. But the people who believed Jesus? They kept coming to Him and believing.

Just like in Acts 5:

14 Nevertheless, believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers—multitudes of both men and women.

Hard truth won't keep true believers away.

And this really annoyed the Jewish leaders. Infuriated them, really. They burned with jealousy about the success of the apostles. (And probably that the apostles could perform miracles.) And so they threw the apostles in jail (again). This time, it seems to be all 12 apostles.

5:19 But an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail during the night, brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple, and tell the people all about this life.” 21 Hearing this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.

In the meantime, the entire Sanhedrin had gathered to pass judgment on the apostles. But when the time came, the apostles were back out in the temple courts preaching again! Words like "dumbfounded" probably applied to the Jewish authorities.

So, sheepishly (I imagine), the officers went back out to arrest the apostles (again) to bring them to trial. But this time, Luke specifically points out that they did not use force for fear of the people. After all, the people probably like the apostles more than the Jewish leaders. (Which of the Sanhedrin performed miracles of healing?)

[Not as serious, but it makes me think of a line in Oceans 13 where Clooney tells Pacino that Pacino's goons like Clooney more.]

And that brings us to this week's passage.


This Week's Big Idea: Thus Spake Gamaliel

This week's passage is one of the truly out-of-the-blue moments in the New Testament. I'll just say one thing about Gamaliel to set the stage: he trained Saul the persecutor (Acts 22:3). So, what's he doing here preaching caution and laissez faire about the apostles?

I have two simple answers:

  1. He thought he was right, and

  2. he loved every chance to stick it to the Sadducees.

The first one we will talk about more in the notes, although you can probably guess what I mean. The second one is based on Luke specifically calling Gamaliel a Pharisee (5:33).

You might remember that the Sadducees were the chief party when it came to the temple and to the courts. Pharisees were in the minority, and they were very aware of it. Gamaliel's student (by then called Paul) used this partisanship to influence the outcome of his own trial before the Sanhedrin.

23:6 When Paul realized that one part of them were Sadducees and the other part were Pharisees, he cried out in the Sanhedrin, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am being judged because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 9 The shouting grew loud, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party got up and argued vehemently, “We find nothing evil in this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

In other words, when Pharisees had an opportunity to make a point in the Sanhedrin, I think they took it. Gamaliel knew that the Sadducees were furious with the apostles for preaching about the resurrection, and he personally believed in the resurrection. I wonder if Gamaliel thought that this trial would be a harmless way to assert influence over the Sanhedrin; he really didn't care about Jesus or the apostles at all. He just wanted to mess with the Sadducees.

That's entirely speculation on my part! But to me, it makes the irony all more rich when everything turned out exactly the way he said it would.


Part 1: The Sanhedrin Needs a Timeout (Acts 5:29-33)

[27 After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28 “Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”]
29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted this man to his right hand as ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.

Go ahead and start with verse 27. The Sanhedrin really has capitulated any credibility they thought they should have -- Yes, they are guilty for the death of Jesus! -- and Peter would have been in his rights to fly off the handle at their hypocrisy. And the old Peter certainly would have. But as great proof that the Holy Spirit is real and the teachings of Jesus are true, Peter demonstrated far greater composure than the assembled panel of Jewish elders. Let's take that further: Peter, the man in custody and on trial, demonstrated far greater composure than the large group of men who were supposedly in power over him.

Peter doesn't say anything to them that he hasn't already said -- read 4:8-20 again. In fact, I believe the problem is that the Sanhedrin has finally realized that they have no power over Peter or anyone in the Jesus movement. Their reaction is one of desperation and denial.

Like I said when we studied Acts 4, Peter's reaction was the proper one. He is going to obey God rather than people, and everyone should acknowledge that as the only reasonable decision. The Jewish leaders, of course, realize the implication: if someone claiming to be listening to God is staunchly opposing you ...

Your Primary Learning Exercise This Week

Read Acts 5:30-32 (many times) and write bullet points for every truth Peter packs into those verses. I know that you read these notes because you're trying to streamline your studying, but this is an exercise you can do without help.

  • God of our ancestors

  • raised up

  • Jesus

  • hanging him on a tree

  • exalted

  • right hand

  • ruler

  • Savior

  • repentance

  • forgiveness

  • witnesses

  • Holy Spirit

  • given to those who obey him

What is everything Peter taught in these verses? How well do you think you understand it all? I'm going to give a hot take: if your Bible study group can leave this group time semi-confidently able to explain those bullet points and how they fit together, you can call your group time a success.

Here's the "lesson" for this first section: Peter has just given the most powerful, Spirit-packed, Gospel presentation of ultimate truth bombs we've seen yet. And the audience wanted to kill him.

The next time you get rejected when you share the gospel, just remember that it could be worse.


Part 2: The Sanhedrin Takes a Mindful Pause (Acts 5:34-39)

34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. 35 He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re about to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his followers were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. He also perished, and all his followers were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.

This is truly such a surreal turn.

Gamaliel: "You know, it's possible that these guys could be from God."

The People Who Killed Jesus and Were About to Kill the Apostles: "Now you're telling us this?"

You remember from my section on Gamaliel that he didn't think that at all. He thought that the Jesus movement would amount to nothing, and leaving them alone was the most prudent thing the Sanhedrin could do. He spoke up more than anything to put the Sadducees in their place (that's conjecture on my part). His "history lesson" was a tweak to those elders who were about to grossly misuse their judicial power.

One great, eternally-useful observation: the first thing Gamaliel did to defuse the situation was remove the apostles from the room. They were the cause of the anger; distancing them would immediately lower the temperature. Just a little PSA from Gamaliel.

Gamaliel could have called upon any number of historic examples of rebellion. Historians like Josephus mention dozens of extremist movements in that time and place.

His statement is basically a platitude: "if it is from men, it will fail; if it is from God, it will succeed". No Jew could argue with that. (Or Christian, for that matter.) But what is so interesting is that Gamaliel opened the door for the apostles to be from God. This utterly shocks me. Remember that Jesus was condemned for blasphemy. Now, Peter and the apostles were doubling down on that blasphemy. And Gamaliel says to leave them alone.

To me, that's cognitive dissonance.

Again, Gamaliel didn't think the apostles were from God, so he thought it would all come to nothing. And he was also preventing the Sanhedrin from giving itself a black eye. But that's a far cry from "let's kill them!" to "let's leave them alone". The only way that makes sense to me is if Gamaliel was primarily playing the politics card -- using this terrible intention by the Sadducees to increase the prestige of the Pharisees, by any means necessary.

Frankly, this reminds me of an exchange in John 11:

49 One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You’re not considering that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to unite the scattered children of God.

Caiaphas was right, but for the wrong reason. Just like Gamaliel was right, but for the wrong reason. Here's the bigger picture from Luke the author: he included these machinations to help persuade leading Jews that they were on the wrong side, so to speak. And the fact that he had this information (from leading Jews who had already converted) gave credibility to his argument.

All of these details are for the purpose of convincing Luke's audience that they need to join the Jesus movement.


Part 3: Acts 5:40-42

40 After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 41 Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name. 42 Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Here's where the rubber meets the road.

Nobody likes rejection, right? What's one of the hardest rejections you endured? And what did you do next?

If you watch enough Indeed commercials, you'll believe that everybody gets turned down for their first 50 job applications. But that 51st... In fact, some would say that our culture lauds perseverance in the face of rejection.

  • Abraham Lincoln had multiple failed businesses and runs for public office.

  • Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected by 27 publishers.

  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

And yet, rejection and/or failure is hard to deal with. I don't know if there's ever been a Sunday morning service or Bible study I've led I didn't come away with "I could have done that better". Or when I felt like things went pretty well, someone would come up after with an "I didn't like such-and-such". (To be fair, I've had plenty of the opposite -- where I thought things were rough, and someone said how well things went.)

How many times have you second-guessed your job choice, or your leadership position, or anything else in your life?

Our second-guessing is usually outcome-based. Something doesn't turn out the way you hope, and so you question if you're doing the right thing.

Well, Peter did everything "right", and he was flogged! But did that discourage him in the least? Not according to this passage. He and the other apostles were immediately back out in the temple courts and the streets of Jerusalem sharing the message of Jesus.

I'd love to have that kind of confidence at all times. And the Bible tells us to have it -- but on a very important condition: doing the right thing. Peter was very clearly doing the right thing, and he had the encouragement of the Holy Spirit to persevere.

Galatians 6:9 Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up.
Hebrews 12:3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up.

I'll readily admit that I don't know if you should try out for the high school basketball team a second time, or submit your book to a fifth publisher. (But I believe that the Holy Spirit will help you know.) But I do know this for certain: if we are living and acting for Jesus, God wants us to persevere, even if the world rejects us.

Luke 6: 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, insult you, and slander your name as evil because of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy. Take note—your reward is great in heaven, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.
John 15:18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

In fact, we can expect the world to reject us. Further in fact, Peter (rightly) saw that rejection by the world as evidence that he was following Jesus. How's that for confidence!

Thought Exercise

At the beginning, I mentioned the old missionary tale of the Soviet police officers threatening church members for the purpose of chasing off the hypocrites (because they were "true believers" in disguise). With that story in mind, ask yourself, What really happened in this week's passage? Was God using the Sanhedrin to test the mettle of the first church? (I don't think so -- their mettle was already proven.) Was the Sanhedrin trying to chase off the "hypocrite apostles" from Judaism? (I don't think so -- they had long since abandoned the Sanhedrin.) So, what's going on? Well, the only part of that story that I think helps us in any way is the fact that it took place in Soviet (Communist) Russia. What do you know about life for Christians in Soviet Russia (pre-Gorbachev)? That's worth a little research. Those Russian Christians emerged both battle-hardened and battle-weary. That was life for the early Christians (we're about to learn that life was about to get a lot harder for Christians in Israel). Not for the faint of spirit. Not for the "Easter and Christmas Only" Christians. Imagine your church transported to Soviet Russia (and if history isn't your thing, imagine a place like North Korea). What would happen? How many of you would succumb to the fear of the authorities? What kind of ministry would your church adapt to? Would your church survive?

I truly hope that this passage encourages you that if your church stays true to Jesus, God will give you the courage and boldness to continue to obey Him no matter the obstacles.

Closing Application

How well-liked are you by the world? Or, how much do you care about being liked by the world? It's fine to want to live at peace with all people and be a respectable citizen (the Bible wants us to want that). But do we care more about what the world thinks of us, or what God thinks of us?

All of the questions and illustrations I raised about this passage come back to this basic idea: when push comes to shove, are we going to obey God or men?


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