(EDITOR’S NOTE — The Sunday School commentary originally posted for the Sept. 6 Formations lessons erroneously followed an out-of-date schedule. This lesson, originally printed in the April 14, 2001, issue of the Biblical Recorder, follows the same text as the updated Sept. 6 Formations lesson. We regret any confusion this may have caused.)
Formations Commentary – Acts 5:27-32
At its birth, Christianity was one Jewish sect among several, and these existed alongside scores of Greco-Roman religious sects. While most of those died, Christianity thrived. By the end of the 4th century it was the official state religion the Roman Empire. By the Middle Ages it dominated all of Europe. Since then it has become the world’s largest religion.
Today’s text takes us to the earliest days of the church. By observing it we can better comprehend why it appears that “nothing can stop the gospel.” Three things stand out in this text: the opposition, the Christian witness, and the work of God.
Verses 17 and 21 identify the opposition to Peter and John as the high priest, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin (or, the “council” according to some translations) and the elders of Israel (or, the “senate” in some translations). In the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, each city or region had several ruling assemblies, variously termed city councils (boule), councils of elders (gerousia), or Sanhedrin (councils).
These overlapped in terminology, in composition, and in function, and hence cannot always be clearly distinguished. A supreme Sanhedrin appears to have operated in Jerusalem.
All such councils were concerned with the general well being of the state – civil, religious, political and judicial matters fell under their purview. Because the councils were also a link to the Roman government, we can better understand the concern of the Sanhedrin expressed in John 11-48:50 and Acts 4-5 – the Jesus movement might cause unrest, provoking the Romans to attack the Jews.
Our interpretation of the text will be more legitimate and more challenging to our thinking if we do not immediately characterize the Jewish leaders as “bad.” We can recognize mixed motives in them. On the one hand, they were jealous (v. 17), but they were also leaders desperately trying to maintain order in their community, lest the Romans strike against them. We should try to understand why they considered the Jesus movement a threat, and we should ask ourselves how we perceive those who differ from us and what measures we take to silence them.
The Christian witness
Today’s text is the continuation of a story that began in chapter 3, and it will be helpful in our teaching to review that entire story. Already Peter and John had been ordered not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, but they had refused to be silent (4:18-20). Their response in 5:29 resonates with their earlier response in 4:20.
Peter enunciated a principle significant for Christians of all times and places – “we must obey God” (5:29). Notice the foundation of Peter’s affirmation (v. 30-32). He knew that God raised up Jesus because he had encountered the risen Christ. He knew that Jesus was exalted at the right hand of God because he had seen it (1:6-11). He knew that Jesus brought forgiveness of sins because his guilt had been cleansed. He knew the power of the Holy Spirit because he had experienced Pentecost. No wonder he was so calmly confident.
Three hundred years after Peter spoke these words the Christian church gained political power. For centuries the church would use political power to spread the gospel, and too often it acted like the Sanhedrin in silencing its enemies. The gospel of God, however, progresses not by political coercion but by the confident testimony of Christians: “we must obey God.”
The work of God
Theologian Douglas Hall notes that “the largely unspoken working assumption about the life and work of the church is that it is dependent upon our individual and corporate commitment, energies and promotion. And this working assumption is regularly and painstakingly reinforced by the whole machinery of our institutional churches from financial drives to the generally exhortational mood of most preaching. Precisely this working assumption is what we must now question . . .” (Confessing the Faith, 45-46)
He’s right. Notice again the actions of God in v. 30-32 and throughout the book of Acts. If nothing can stop the gospel, it is because of God, not us. The divine Spirit indwells and empowers Christians to live the life of Christ in the world.