Don’t be afraid of the world. God is greater than the world.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 5:25-42
The early church was faced with a real threat: stop talking about Jesus, or be thrown in prison for a long time. They had already been through enough that their faith was strong enough not to back down. And their faith became even stronger as a result of this tough event. What would you do in their shoes?
We must obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
If your folks aren’t into heavy exercise, you can find this principle in any hobby of skill, so I encourage you to go with something like this for your icebreaker. Bring in a weight or resistance band. Ask somebody to lift it (and if they can do it easily, find a muscle group that’s not completely up for it). If it’s hard, ask, “What do you need to do to make it easier to lift the weight?” The answer, of course, is you train for it by challenging your muscles through resistance. Lifting a 5lb weight will not prepare you for a 50lb weight. But progressing up to 10lb, 15lb, 20lb, and so on will. And here’s the amazing outcome: once you’re lifting that 50lb weight, a 20lb weight will seem light and easy. I can tell this in the exercise program that Shelly and I are using; when we started, I was sucking wind about 1/3 of the way through any session. Now, I can get almost all the way through without feeling the inexorable progress of aging.
The same principle is true of most things in life. When you started playing the guitar, or crocheting, or woodworking, my guess is that your fingers hurt, hurt, hurt through nicks and cuts and uncomfortableness. But over time, your built up callouses and those callouses protected your fingers from harm (plus your fingers got stronger). Eventually, as you kept working at it, that skill became easier and less painful because your mind and body were prepared and trained.
Think about school (everything you talk about doesn’t have to be physically painful!). I know with my kids that there are some things they’ve started learning that just haven’t made sense, and it’s very frustrating. But after a long time of repetition and testing, they’ve figured it out and eventually become pretty good at it. But it took a lot of work. And it didn’t come easy.
Here’s the point: things got hard for the early church very quickly. But they stuck to it and became very strong—certainly stronger than us! (because their “resistance” was greater than ours today) If we have a habit of giving up our exercise programs or our diets because they get too “hard,” we’ll never reap the benefits. Likewise, Jesus calls us to be faithful even in the hard times, and we will grow strong in Him!
Your leader guide recommends this as an icebreaker, and I think it’s also pretty good. In every job, in every relationship, things eventually get hard. You have the choice to bail out or stick with it. Recognizing that sometimes leaving is the right decision, we also want to talk about how we grow the most through adversity, and our relationships grow stronger when we go through hard times, and we become better workers when we learn from the school of hard knocks. If you want to go down this road, that’s fine—just make sure you bring it back to Jesus.
This Week's Big Idea: Christian Persecution in the World Today
I’ve brought this up in a few different lessons, but I think this is the week to give you a full dose of persecution statistics. The reason you would use any of this would be to make the story in Acts more real in our world—that what happened to the early church is still happening today. Here are some stories:
Yklas Kabduakasov was a Muslim in Kazakhstan who converted to Christianity. Ever since then, the secret police was watching him closely and eventually charged him with having Bible study with university students. They tried to have him put in jail for 7 years; Yklas argued that he did not disparage Islam in any way, but the court still put him in a labor camp for 2 years. He has 6 children at home that his wife alone now has to provide for.
Tohar Haydarov is a Christian in Uzbekistan who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling drugs. His fellow church members insist that police planted the drugs and the punishment is really for his Christianity. His warden does not allow him to read his mail because there are too many Bible references in the letters.
Li Jiatao is a Christian and house church financial secretary in China whose church also ran a Kindergarten. They wrote their own curriculum focused on character and integrity, making sure not to mention God or Jesus in print, but promoted Christianity verbally among the students. 3 leaders in all were arrested (without a warrant) for illegally profiting off of curriculum, which of course is not true. These actions did cause the church to close the school and reassign the teachers elsewhere in the country. They are still in prison.
“I was traumatized. A nearby pastor paid for me to get out of town when he discovered that Boko Haram said they made a mistake by not also killing me. Boko Haram decided later that they should have killed me because I am the daughter of an apostate Muslim mother who converted to Christianity. So the pastor paid for me to get out of that region. I fled and Jubilee Campaign helped me come to a 9/11 child survivors of terrorism camp in America. On May 15, 2013, that pastor, Rev. Faye Pama, was killed by Boko Haram in front of his kids.” (Nigeria; the speaker is not identified)
And then here are some statistics from other countries. In Iraq, the Christian population has shrunk to 300,000 as ISIS systematically executes or kidnaps them (girls are sold for US$170). In Syria, it is estimated that half of the Christian population has fled as refugees, but they cannot accept any US aid because the Muslim refugees threaten their families. In Iran, almost all Christian activity is illegal, and yet the church there is actually growing. In India, a new radical Hindu nationalist movement has begun attacking Christians, particularly pastors and nuns. In Sudan, which practices Sharia law, Christians are killed and churches are destroyed with impunity. In North Korea, there are tens of thousands of Christians in labor camps. In Turkey, ancient (and I mean ancient) Christian churches are being seized as state property. In Pakistan, Christian girls have been kidnapped by the hundreds, raped, and forced to convert to Islam. Ultimately, where the church is not literally being killed off, it is actually growing.
This map shows the countries in which Christians are persecuted (as the colors get darker, persecution gets heavier). The most dangerous places for a Christian are North Korea, most of the Middle East, Sudan, and Somalia. OpendoorsUSA identifies three reasons for this persecution: (1) authoritarian governments that want to control their people, (2) natural hostility toward all “nontraditional” groups (including minority religions), and (3) the lack of basic human rights in those countries. International Christian Concern (persecution.org) gives some clear things that American Christians can partner in doing: care for orphans and hurting children, support for families of imprisoned pastors, spread the gospel by supporting underground pastors, save women from abduction and sexual exploitation, and rebuild communities devastated by persecution. We already partner in these through the Lottie Moon offering (our IMB is as involved in these activities as our missionaries can safely be), and there are other groups I cannot vouch for who claim to be even more directly involved in this kind of support. I don’t know what your class wants to do with this information, but I think it wise that we all realize such persecution is going on all around us. The worst thing we can do is ignore it. No matter what, we can all pray—and I encourage your class to do so Sunday morning!
And we must also realize that persecution has already come to America. The “Freedom from Religion Foundation” and “American Civil Liberties Union” have been working hard to remove protection of freedom of religion, and until more religious folk stand up to it, they will continue eroding our freedoms.
There is a great phrase in church history: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What that means is that when things have gotten hard and dangerous, the church has actually grown. Why? For two good reasons: (1) Christians under persecution have no choice but to focus on the essentials, putting their effort into evangelism and life-saving; (2) Christians under persecution have credibility with the people they are evangelizing. I say that to say this: don’t fear persecution. God can use it to make every church stronger, and He has a hero’s welcome waiting for everyone who has suffered for the cause of Christ.
The resources that I use for information on persecution:
erlc.com (this is an SBC site)
persecution.com and persecution.org
The Context of Acts
Remember that the Sanhedrin recently told the apostles to stop teaching in the name of Jesus. And the apostles responded that they must obey God rather than men. Anyway, the apostles have continued teaching and performing great miracles in the Temple. All of the local members of this new “sect” gather regularly in the Temple along Solomon’s Porch (see the sidebar), eventually forcing the Sanhedrin to make good on their threat. But by now (and I hinted at this a couple of lessons ago) the believers are bold. They realize the power of God and are no longer scared by the human authorities. I hate that we skip this story, but we just don’t have the time (if you have time, slip it in!): the Sanhedrin arrests the apostles, an angel miraculously releases them from jail, and they go right back out and start teaching again! When the Sanhedrin calls for them to appear in trial, they’re nowhere to be found! Or, uh, wait, they’re standing in plain sight just outside, still doing the very thing they were arrested for. Hm. And that’s where we pick up.
Part 1: Returning to the Scene (Acts 5:25-28)
Someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple complex and teaching the people.” Then the commander went with the temple police and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, “Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!”
This is one of those passages where you read it and say, “Are you being serious? Are you guys that obtuse?” And the answer is of course yes. They were more worried about their perception than the truth, and we sometimes see that in our government today. Luke makes it very clear who is in charge here, and it’s not the Sanhedrin. Walk through all of the inevitable confusion. The Sanhedrin thought they could scare the apostles into silence. They gathered their full force together only to find out the apostles had escaped. But rather than flee, the apostles stayed—they weren’t afraid! The “commander” (who would have been second in command to the High Priest) was wise enough to realize that and brought them in without force, preventing a riot from all the people who would have heard the story of the miraculous escape and known that God was behind the apostles. The commander realized that the apostles wanted to be put on trial.
Much of the proceedings will go the same way as the earlier trial, and I don’t need to rehash that for you. But the situation is clear: the Sanhedrin thought they had put the apostles on trial, but in reality God had the Sanhedrin on trial.
Part 2: Standing Their Ground (Acts 5:29-32)
But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted this man to His right hand as ruler and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Peter repeats the same thing he said before. And by now he has even more miracles to back up his authority (including an escape that could not be explained). If you didn’t talk about this before, your leader guide wisely recommends talking about authority. Peter is not disregarding authority! He is simply explaining that God’s exceeds the Sanhedrin’s. And again the olive branch is presented: forgiveness through Jesus is made available to all Israel, including them. He concludes by reminding them of their role on trial—as witnesses—pointing out that the witness of recent events clearly supported their understanding of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Sanhedrin is in a pickle!
Part 3: Waiting (Acts 5:33-39)
When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 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. He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re going to do to these men. Not long ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about 400 men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his partisans were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. That man also perished, and all his partisans were scattered. And now, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” So they were persuaded by him.
The reasonableness of this presentation implies that Gamaliel had not been invited to Jesus’ trial. Note that he invokes what is now considered standard procedure for deescalating a situation: remove the person(s) who are the cause of the dispute. With the apostles gone, talking would be easier. Gamaliel had the respect to take charge of this room in this way, even though he was not the High Priest. He gave a very wise counsel, but don’t mistake it for being on the side of the apostles. Gamaliel did not believe the apostles! Assuming they were not from God, the apostles would eventually do something to turn the people against them, and the Sanhedrin could safely get their justice. Of course, everything he said was true in the exact opposite way he intended. The apostles were from God, and their message endured.
Your leader guide says a little about him, and I want to reinforce it. The name means “God rewards with good.” According to Acts 22:3, he was Paul’s teacher and the grandson of the renowned Rabbi Hillel. Just before Jesus’ day, Hillel and his colleague Shammai were the heads of the two most important “schools” in Jewish teaching. Hillel was more liberal; he is most famous for the negative version of the Golden Rule. In response to the heart of the Torah, he said it is “what is hateful to you, do not do to your brother.” (This is close to but very different from Jesus’ Golden Rule!) He also created a new rule against the Torah: people are required to pay back their debts, even during a Sabbath year. He did this both to protect creditors and also to encourage them to continue making loans. The differences between Hillel and Shammai can be summarized in a few examples. Shammai believed that only the worthy could be accepted to Torah study. Hillel accepted all believing they would become worthy. Shammai said it was always wrong to lie. Hillel believed white lies were acceptable by motive. Shammai restricted divorce. Hillel said a man could divorce for just about any reason.
This would explain why Gamaliel spoke up in favor of the prisoners. The conservative approach would be to “throw the book” at the apostles, and he opposed that. It seems that his method would be to give them more "rope" with which they could hang themselves. Of course, seeing as how the apostles did turn out to be from God . . . Christian tradition says he became a convert along with his son later in life.
Bonus Aside: Solomon’s Colonnade
You might be able to tell from this picture that all along the outer wall of the Temple are columns supporting a large walkway. The covered area, which surrounded the entire Temple structure, was called “Solomon’s Portico” or “Porch” or “Colonnade.” Acts tells us that the early church met in this covered area.
Now, tradition says that the Sanhedrin met in the Hall of Hewn Stones, which is often said to be the great room fed by the door marked by a star in the picture. What does that tell us? Well, depending on which part of the Colonnade the church met, the members of the Sanhedrin had to walk directly by them to get to their assembly. And—the apostles could literally have been standing right outside the Sanhedrin assembly preaching about Jesus.
Part 4: Rejoicing for the Opportunity (Acts 5:40-42)
After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 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. Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
Apparently, “leave these men alone” involved flogging. In flogging, shirt were removed and the back was whipped. This probably would not have been anywhere as severe as the flogging Jesus received (it was done by Temple guards, not Roman soldiers). It was intended as deterrent but had opposite effect: the apostles now knew they would follow Jesus to the death. Fear was no longer their enemy.
There’s obviously way more than you can include in just one lesson, especially if you need to rehash any of the data from the apostles’ earlier trial. Make sure your class understands the facts, and make sure they know who was really on trial and who was really in charge. The early church learned from this event how to be bold, how to be civilly disobedient, and how to bring honor to Jesus. For the rest of the church’s history, believers have taken bold stands for Christ that have led to many people being saved. Your leader guide mentions an obscure movie about one (“Polycarp”); it’s legit, and the trailer is safe and straightforward. If you have a tablet, show it. And there are other examples of movies you might know that are about those who stood up for Jesus in the face of persecution.
Your leader guide gives two great questions: What has my faith been challenged or opposed by others? and When have I boldly proclaimed the truth of the gospel in the face of persecution? That would be good discussion.
Ultimately, I hope you will reserve meaningful time for prayer. Pray for the persecuted Christians around the world, protection, provision, guidance. Pray that we would use our freedoms while we have them and that we know when to turn to government for support, and when to turn to God.
Finally, prepare one another for the kinds of opposition you face in our world. What questions/complaints do people have and how should we respond to them? What can we learn from the apostles and how they responded to authorities? (Remember that we will face challenges from “regular” people around us and from people in authority over us. Does that change how we should talk?)