“We Must Obey God as Ruler”
The apostles take a stand that sets a precedent for all true Christians
Based on Acts 5:12–6:7
THE judges of the Sanhedrin are simmering with rage! The apostles of Jesus are standing trial before this high court. The reason? Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest and president of the Sanhedrin, sternly addresses them: “We positively ordered you not to keep teaching upon the basis of this name.” The angry president cannot bring himself even to utter the name of Jesus. “Yet,” Caiaphas continues, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you are determined to bring the blood of this man upon us.” (Acts 5:28) The message is clear: Stop preaching—or else!
2 How will the apostles respond? Their commission to preach came from Jesus, whose authority was divinely bestowed. (Matt. 28:18-20) Will the apostles cave in to fear of man and be silenced? Or will they have the courage to stand firm and continue preaching? The issue really boils down to this: Will they obey God or man? Without hesitation, the apostle Peter speaks for all the apostles. His words are unequivocal and bold.
3 As true Christians, we are keenly interested in how the apostles responded to the threats of the Sanhedrin. The commission to preach applies to us as well. In carrying out this God-given assignment, we too may face opposition. (Matt. 10:22) Opposers may try to restrict or ban our work. What will we do? We can benefit by considering the stand taken by the apostles and the circumstances that led up to their trial before the Sanhedrin.*
“Jehovah’s Angel Opened the Doors” (Acts 5:12-21a)
4 Recall that when ordered to stop preaching the first time, Peter and John answered: “We cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) After that encounter with the Sanhedrin, Peter and John, along with the rest of the apostles, continued preaching in the temple. The apostles performed great signs, such as healing the sick and expelling demons. They did so “in Solomon’s colonnade,” a covered portico on the east side of the temple, where many Jews would gather. Why, even Peter’s shadow apparently effected cures! Many who were healed physically responded to words of spiritual healing. As a result, “believers in the Lord kept on being added, multitudes both of men and of women.”—Acts 5:12-15.
5 Caiaphas and the Sadducees, the religious sect to which he belonged, became “filled with jealousy” and had the apostles thrown in jail. (Acts 5:17, 18) Why were the Sadducees outraged? The apostles were teaching that Jesus had been resurrected, yet the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. The apostles were saying that only by putting faith in Jesus can one be saved, but the Sadducees feared reprisal from Rome if the people looked to Jesus as their Leader. (John 11:48) No wonder the Sadducees were determined to silence the apostles!
6 Today, too, the principal instigators of persecution against Jehovah’s servants are religious opposers. Such ones often try to use their influence with governmental authorities and the media to silence our preaching. Should we be surprised? No. Our message lays bare false religion. By accepting Bible truths, honesthearted people are set free from unscriptural beliefs and practices. (John 8:32) Is it any wonder, then, that our message often causes religious leaders to become filled with jealous hatred?
7 Sitting in jail awaiting trial, the apostles may have wondered whether they were about to suffer martyrdom at the hands of their enemies. (Matt. 24:9) But during the night, something most unexpected happened—“Jehovah’s angel opened the doors of the prison.”* (Acts 5:19) The angel then gave them specific direction: Take “a stand in the temple,” and “keep on speaking.” (Acts 5:20) That command no doubt assured the apostles that they had been doing the right thing. The angel’s words may also have strengthened them to remain firm no matter what happened. With strong faith and courage, the apostles “entered into the temple at daybreak and began to teach.”—Acts 5:21.
8 Each of us does well to ask, ‘Would I have the faith and courage needed to continue preaching under similar circumstances?’ We may draw strength from knowing that the vital work of “bearing thorough witness concerning the kingdom of God” has angelic backing and direction.—Acts 28:23; Rev. 14:6, 7.
“We Must Obey God as Ruler Rather Than Men” (Acts 5:21b-33)
9 Caiaphas and the other judges of the Sanhedrin were now ready to deal with the apostles. Unaware of what had happened at the jail, the court dispatched officers to fetch the prisoners. Imagine the officers’ surprise when they discovered that the prisoners were missing, although the jail was found “locked with all security and the guards standing at the doors.” (Acts 5:23) The captain of the temple soon learned that the apostles were back in the temple, bearing witness about Jesus Christ—the very work for which they had been thrown in jail! The captain and his officers quickly went to the temple to gather up the prisoners and escort them to the Sanhedrin.
10 As described at the outset of this chapter, the furious religious leaders made it clear that the apostles were to stop preaching. The apostles’ response? Serving as spokesman, Peter boldly replied: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) The apostles thereby set a precedent for true Christians throughout the ages. Human rulers forfeit their right to obedience in situations where they prohibit what God requires or require what God prohibits. So in our day, if “the superior authorities” ban our witnessing work, we cannot stop carrying out our God-given assignment to preach the good news. (Rom. 13:1) Rather, we will find discreet ways to continue bearing thorough witness about God’s Kingdom.
11 Not surprisingly, the apostles’ bold response incited the exasperated judges to violent anger. They were determined “to do away with” the apostles. (Acts 5:33) Martyrdom now seemed certain for those bold and zealous witnesses. Ah, but help was about to come in a most unusual way!
“You Will Not Be Able to Overthrow Them” (Acts 5:34-42)
12 Gamaliel, “a Law teacher esteemed by all the people,” spoke up.* This jurist must have been highly respected by his colleagues, for he took charge, even giving “the command to put the [apostles] outside for a little while.” (Acts 5:34) By citing past examples of uprisings that quickly fizzled after the leaders were dead, Gamaliel urged the court to be patient and tolerant in dealing with the apostles, whose Leader, Jesus, had only recently died. Gamaliel’s reasoning was persuasive: “Do not meddle with these men, but let them alone; (because, if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them;) otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.” (Acts 5:38, 39) The judges heeded his advice. Still, they had the apostles flogged and ordered them “to stop speaking upon the basis of Jesus’ name.”—Acts 5:40.
13 Now, as then, Jehovah may raise up prominent men like Gamaliel to intervene in behalf of His people. (Prov. 21:1) Jehovah can use his spirit to move powerful rulers, judges, or lawmakers to act in harmony with his will. (Neh. 2:4-8) But if he should permit us to “suffer for the sake of righteousness,” we can be sure of two things. (1 Pet. 3:14) First, God can give us the strength to endure. (1 Cor. 10:13) Second, opposers “will not be able to overthrow” God’s work.—Isa. 54:17.
14 Did the flogging dampen the spirits of the apostles or weaken their resolve? By no means! They “went their way from before the Sanhedrin, rejoicing.” (Acts 5:41) “Rejoicing”—why? Surely not because of the physical pain caused by the flogging. They rejoiced because they knew that they had been persecuted for keeping their integrity to Jehovah and for following in the footsteps of their Exemplar, Jesus.—Matt. 5:11, 12.
15 Like our first-century brothers, we endure with joy when we suffer for the sake of the good news. (1 Pet. 4:12-14) No, we do not enjoy being subjected to threats, persecution, or imprisonment. But we find deep satisfaction in keeping our integrity. Consider, for example, Henryk Dornik, who endured years of harsh treatment under totalitarian regimes. He recalls that in August 1944, the authorities decided to send him and his brother to a concentration camp. The opposers said: “It is impossible to persuade them to do anything. Their martyrdom brings them joy.” Brother Dornik explains: “Although I had no desire to be a martyr, suffering with courage and dignity for my loyalty to Jehovah did bring me joy.”—Jas. 1:2-4.
16 The apostles wasted no time in resuming their witnessing work. Undaunted, they continued “every day in the temple and from house to house” the work of “declaring the good news about the Christ.”* (Acts 5:42) These zealous preachers were determined to bear thorough witness. Notice that they took their message to the homes of people, as Jesus Christ had directed them. (Matt. 10:7, 11-14) No doubt, that is how they had managed to fill Jerusalem with their teaching. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for following that apostolic method of preaching. By calling at each house in our territory, we clearly demonstrate that we too want to be thorough, giving everyone an opportunity to hear the good news. Has Jehovah blessed our house-to-house ministry? Yes, he has! Millions have responded to the Kingdom message in this time of the end, and many first heard the good news when a Witness knocked on their door.
Qualified Men to Care for “Necessary Business” (Acts 6:1-6)
17 The young congregation now faced a subtle danger that threatened it from within. What was that? Many of the disciples being baptized were visitors to Jerusalem and wanted to learn more before returning home. Disciples living in Jerusalem willingly donated funds to meet the need for food and other supplies. (Acts 2:44-46; 4:34-37) At this time, a delicate situation arose. “In the daily distribution” of food, the Greek-speaking widows “were being overlooked.” (Acts 6:1) The Hebrew-speaking widows, however, were not being overlooked. The problem, then, apparently involved discrimination. Few issues have the potential to be more divisive than this one.
18 The apostles, acting as the governing body of the expanding congregation, recognized that it would not be wise for them “to leave the word of God to distribute food.” (Acts 6:2) To resolve matters, they directed the disciples to search for seven men “full of spirit and wisdom” whom the apostles could appoint over this “necessary business.” (Acts 6:3) Qualified men were needed because the work likely involved not just serving food but also handling money, purchasing supplies, and keeping careful records. The men chosen all had Greek names, which perhaps made them more acceptable to the offended widows. After giving prayerful consideration to the recommendation, the apostles appointed the seven men to care for this “necessary business.”*
19 Did caring for the distribution of food mean that the seven men appointed were now exempted from the responsibility to preach the good news? Definitely not! Among the men chosen was Stephen, who would prove himself to be a bold and powerful witness-bearer. (Acts 6:8-10) Philip too was one of the seven, and he is called “the evangelizer.” (Acts 21:8) Evidently, then, the seven men continued to be zealous Kingdom preachers.
20 Jehovah’s people today follow the apostolic pattern. Men recommended for congregational responsibility must manifest godly wisdom and give evidence that the holy spirit is operating on them. Under the direction of the Governing Body, men who meet the Scriptural requirements are appointed to serve as elders or ministerial servants in the congregations.* (1 Tim. 3:1-9, 12, 13) Those who meet the qualifications can be said to have been appointed by holy spirit. These hardworking men care for much “necessary business.” For example, elders may coordinate practical help for faithful older ones who have a genuine need. (Jas. 1:27) Some elders are very involved in constructing Kingdom Halls, organizing conventions, or doing hospital liaison work. Ministerial servants care for many duties that do not directly involve shepherding or teaching. All such qualified men must balance congregational and organizational responsibilities with the God-assigned obligation to preach the good news of the Kingdom.—1 Cor. 9:16.
“The Word of God Went On Growing” (Acts 6:7)
21 With Jehovah’s backing, the fledgling congregation survived persecution from without and a potentially divisive problem from within. Jehovah’s blessing was evident, for we are told: “The word of God went on growing, and the number of the disciples kept multiplying in Jerusalem very much; and a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) This is just one of a number of progress reports found in the book of Acts. (Acts 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31) Today, are we not encouraged when we hear reports about the progress of the Kingdom-preaching work in other parts of the world?
22 Back in the first century C.E., the infuriated religious leaders were not about to give up. A wave of persecution was on the horizon. Soon, Stephen was singled out for vicious opposition, as we will see in the next chapter.
See the box “The Sanhedrin—High Court of the Jews,” on page 39.
This is the first of some 20 specific references to angels in the book of Acts. Earlier, at Acts 1:10, angels are indirectly referred to as “men in white garments.”
See the box “Gamaliel—Esteemed Among the Rabbis,” on page 41.
See the box “Preaching ‘From House to House,’” on page 42.
These men may have met the general qualifications for elders, for handling this “necessary business” was a weighty matter. However, the Scriptures do not indicate precisely when men began to be appointed as elders or overseers in the Christian congregation.
Although the congregation recommended the seven certified men, the actual appointment was made by the apostles.
1-3. (a) Why have the apostles been brought before the Sanhedrin, and the issue boils down to what? (b) Why are we keenly interested in the apostles’ stand?
4, 5. Why did Caiaphas and the Sadducees become “filled with jealousy”?
6. Who today are the principal instigators of persecution against Jehovah’s servants, and why should this not surprise us?
7, 8. What effect did the angel’s command no doubt have on the apostles, and we do well to ask ourselves what question?
9-11. How did the apostles respond to the Sanhedrin’s demand that they stop preaching, and how did this set a precedent for true Christians?
12, 13. (a) What advice did Gamaliel give his colleagues, and what did they do? (b) How may Jehovah intervene in behalf of his people today, and of what can we be sure if we are permitted to “suffer for the sake of righteousness”?
14, 15. (a) How did the apostles respond to the flogging they received, and why? (b) Relate an experience showing that Jehovah’s people endure with joy.
16. How did the apostles show that they were determined to bear thorough witness, and how do we follow the apostolic method of preaching?
17-19. What divisive issue now arose, and what direction did the apostles give in order to resolve it?
20. How do God’s people today follow the apostolic pattern?
21, 22. What shows that Jehovah blessed the fledgling congregation?
[Box on page 39]
THE SANHEDRIN—HIGH COURT OF THE JEWS
Although Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, Rome permitted the Jews to observe their own traditions and for the most part to govern themselves. Minor crimes and civil cases were handled by local courts, but questions that those courts could not decide were referred to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. This body functioned as the supreme court of the Jewish people and as a national administrative council. It also had the final word on the interpretation of Jewish law, and its authority was respected by Jews everywhere.
The Sanhedrin met in its decision chamber, which appears to have been located either in the temple precincts or in its immediate vicinity. The council was made up of 71 members—the high priest, who was the president; other priestly nobles, including Sadducees; lay aristocrats, and learned scribes. The decisions of the court were final.
[Box on page 41]
GAMALIEL—ESTEEMED AMONG THE RABBIS
The Gamaliel of Acts is generally identified as Gamaliel the Elder, the grandson of Hillel, who was founder of the more liberal of the two schools of Pharisaism. Gamaliel occupied a leading position in the Sanhedrin and was so highly esteemed among the rabbis that he was the first to be given the honorific title “Rabban.” The Mishnah says: “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died.” He is credited with various humane enactments. “Of particular importance,” says the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “is his decision permitting a woman to remarry on the evidence of a single witness to the death of her husband.” He is also said to have enacted laws protecting wives against unprincipled husbands and widows against unprincipled children and to have argued that poor Gentiles should have the same gleaning rights as poor Jews.
[Box on page 42]
PREACHING “FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE”
Despite the Sanhedrin’s ban on their preaching activity, the disciples continued preaching and teaching “every day in the temple and from house to house.” (Acts 5:42) Exactly what does “from house to house” mean?
In the original Greek, the phrase katʼ oiʹkon literally means “according to house.” Several translators state that the word ka·taʹ is to be understood in a “distributive” sense, that is, the disciples’ preaching was distributed from one house to another. A similar use of ka·taʹ occurs at Luke 8:1, where Jesus is said to have preached “from city to city and from village to village.”
The plural form, katʼ oiʹkous, is used at Acts 20:20. The apostle Paul told Christian overseers: “I did not hold back from . . . teaching you publicly and from house to house.” That Paul here was not simply talking about teaching in the elders’ homes, as some suggest, is indicated in the next verse: “But I thoroughly bore witness both to Jews and to Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21) Fellow believers had already repented and put faith in Jesus. So the preaching and teaching from house to house clearly had to do with bearing witness to unbelievers.
[Picture on page 36]
“So they brought them and stood them in the Sanhedrin hall.”—Acts 5:27
[Picture on page 43]
Like the apostles, we preach “from house to house”