Whom Do You Obey—God or Men?
“We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—ACTS 5:29.
1. (a) What is the theme text for this study? (b) Why were the apostles taken into custody?
THE judges of the Jewish supreme court must have been furious. The prisoners were missing. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, a man the high court had condemned to death a few weeks earlier. Now the court was ready to deal with his closest followers. But when the guards went to fetch them, they discovered that their cells were empty, although the doors had been locked. The guards soon learned that the apostles were at the temple in Jerusalem, fearlessly teaching the people about Jesus Christ—the very activity for which they had been arrested! The guards went straightaway to the temple, took the apostles back into custody, and brought them to court.—Acts 5:17-27.
2. What did an angel command the apostles to do?
2 An angel had released the apostles from prison. Was this to spare them further persecution? No. It was in order that the inhabitants of Jerusalem should hear the good news about Jesus Christ. The angel’s instruction to the apostles was that they “keep on speaking to the people all the sayings about this life.” (Acts 5:19, 20) So it was that when the temple guards caught up with them, they found the apostles obediently carrying out that command.
3, 4. (a) When ordered to stop preaching, how did Peter and John respond? (b) How did the other apostles respond?
3 Two of those tenacious preachers, the apostles Peter and John, had been in court before, as the chief justice, Joseph Caiaphas, sternly reminded them. He said: “We positively ordered you not to keep teaching upon the basis of [the name of Jesus], and yet, look! you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” (Acts 5:28) Caiaphas should not have been surprised to see Peter and John back in court. When ordered to stop preaching the first time, the two apostles answered: “Whether it is righteous in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves. But as for us, we cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” Like the ancient prophet Jeremiah, Peter and John could not hold back from carrying out their commission to preach.—Acts 4:18-20; Jeremiah 20:9.
4 Now, not only Peter and John but all the apostles—including the newly selected Matthias—had the opportunity to go on record with the court. (Acts 1:21-26) When ordered to stop preaching, they too boldly replied: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
God as Ruler Versus Man as Ruler
5, 6. Why did the apostles not obey the order of the court?
5 The apostles were law-abiding men who would not normally disobey a court order. However, no human, no matter how powerful, is authorized to order another to disobey one of God’s commands. Jehovah is “the Most High over all the earth.” (Psalm 83:18) Not only is he “the Judge of all the earth” but he is also the Supreme Lawgiver, as well as the King of eternity. Any court order that attempts to override one of God’s commands is invalid from God’s standpoint.—Genesis 18:25; Isaiah 33:22.
6 This fact has been acknowledged by some of the finest legal minds. For example, the noted 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone wrote that no human law should be allowed to contradict “the law of revelation” as found in the Bible. Thus, the Sanhedrin crossed the line when it ordered the apostles to stop preaching. The apostles simply could not comply with that order.
7. Why did the preaching work anger the chief priests?
7 The apostles’ determination to keep preaching angered the chief priests. Certain members of the priesthood, including Caiaphas himself, were Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection. (Acts 4:1, 2; 5:17) Yet, the apostles kept insisting that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. In addition, some of the chief priests had gone to great lengths to curry favor with the Roman authorities. At Jesus’ trial, when offered the opportunity to accept Jesus as their king, the chief priests went so far as to cry out: “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)a Not only were the apostles affirming that Jesus had been resurrected but they were teaching that apart from the name of Jesus, “there is not another name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must get saved.” (Acts 2:36; 4:12) If the people began to look to the resurrected Jesus as their Leader, the priests feared, the Romans might come and the Jewish leaders might lose ‘both their place and their nation.’—John 11:48.
8. What wise counsel did Gamaliel give to the Sanhedrin?
8 The future looked grim for the apostles of Jesus Christ. The judges of the Sanhedrin were determined to have them put to death. (Acts 5:33) However, events took an unexpected turn. Gamaliel, an expert in the Law, stood up and warned his colleagues not to act hastily. He wisely observed: “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.” Then, significantly, Gamaliel added: “Otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.”—Acts 5:34, 38, 39.
9. What proves that the apostles’ work was from God?
9 Amazingly, the court accepted Gamaliel’s advice. The Sanhedrin “summoned the apostles, flogged them, and ordered them to stop speaking upon the basis of Jesus’ name, and let them go.” Far from being intimidated, however, the apostles were determined to obey the angelic command to preach. Thus, after their release, “every day in the temple and from house to house [the apostles] continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.” (Acts 5:40, 42) Jehovah blessed their efforts. To what extent? “The word of God went on growing, and the number of the disciples kept multiplying in Jerusalem very much.” In fact, “a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) How devastating that must have been for the chief priests! The evidence was piling up: The work of the apostles was indeed from God!
Fighters Against God Cannot Succeed
10. From a human standpoint, why might Caiaphas have felt secure in his position, but why was his confidence misplaced?
10 In the first century, the Jewish high priests were appointed by the Roman authorities. Wealthy Joseph Caiaphas was placed in his position by Valerius Gratus, and he held that post longer than many of his predecessors. Caiaphas likely attributed this accomplishment to his skill as a diplomat and his personal friendship with Pilate rather than to divine providence. In any case, his confidence in men proved to be misplaced. Just three years after the apostles appeared before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas fell out of favor with the Roman authorities and was removed as high priest.
11. What end came to Pontius Pilate and the Jewish system of things, and what conclusion do you draw from this?
11 The order to strip Caiaphas of his office came from Pilate’s immediate superior, Lucius Vitellius, governor of Syria, and Caiaphas’ close friend Pilate was unable to prevent it. In fact, just one year after Caiaphas’ downfall, Pilate himself was removed from office and was recalled to Rome to answer serious charges. As for the Jewish leaders who put their trust in Caesar, the Romans did take away ‘both their place and their nation.’ This occurred in the year 70 C.E. when the Roman armies completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the temple and the Sanhedrin hall. How true the words of the psalmist proved to be in this case: “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs”!—John 11:48; Psalm 146:3.
12. How does the case of Jesus prove that obedience to God is the course of wisdom?
12 In contrast, God appointed the resurrected Jesus Christ as High Priest of a great spiritual temple. No man can cancel that appointment. Indeed, Jesus “has his priesthood without any successors.” (Hebrews 2:9; 7:17, 24; 9:11) God also appointed Jesus as Judge of the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:5) In that capacity, Jesus will determine whether Joseph Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate have any possibility of future life.—Matthew 23:33; Acts 24:15.
Fearless Modern-Day Kingdom Preachers
13. In modern times, what work proved to be from men, and what work proved to be from God? How do you know?
13 In our day, as in the first century, there has been no shortage of ‘fighters against God.’ (Acts 5:39) For example, when Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany refused to heil Adolf Hitler as their Führer, Hitler vowed to exterminate them. (Matthew 23:10) His efficient death machine seemed more than equal to the task. The Nazis did succeed in rounding up thousands of Witnesses and sending them off to concentration camps. They even managed to kill some Witnesses. But the Nazis failed to break the Witnesses’ resolve to worship God alone, and they failed to eliminate God’s servants as a group. The work of these Christians was from God, not man, and the work of God cannot be overthrown. Sixty years later, faithful survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps are still serving Jehovah ‘with their whole heart and soul and mind,’ whereas Hitler and his Nazi party live only in infamy.—Matthew 22:37.
14. (a) What efforts have opposers made to slander God’s servants, and with what results? (b) Will such efforts bring any lasting harm to God’s people? (Hebrews 13:5, 6)
14 In the years since the Nazis’ efforts, others have joined the losing battle against Jehovah and his people. In a number of countries in Europe, crafty religious and political elements have endeavored to brand Jehovah’s Witnesses a ‘dangerous sect,’ the same charge that was leveled against first-century Christians. (Acts 28:22) The fact is, the European Court of Human Rights has recognized Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion, not a sect. Opposers must know that. Still, they persist in slandering the Witnesses. As a direct result of this mischaracterization, some of these Christians have been discharged from their employment. Witness children have been harassed in schools. Fearful landlords have canceled contracts for buildings that the Witnesses have long used as meeting places. In a few cases, government agencies have even denied citizenship to individuals solely on the grounds that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses! Still, the Witnesses are undeterred.
15, 16. How have Jehovah’s Witnesses in France reacted to opposition to their Christian work, and why do they keep on preaching?
15 In France, for example, people are generally reasonable and fair-minded. However, a few opposers have promoted laws aimed at crippling the Kingdom work. How have Jehovah’s Witnesses there reacted? They have intensified their activity in the field as never before and with thrilling results. (James 4:7) Why, in just one six-month period, the number of home Bible studies increased by an amazing 33 percent in that country! It must infuriate the Devil to see honesthearted ones in France respond to the good news. (Revelation 12:17) Our fellow Christians in France are confident that the words of the prophet Isaiah will prove true in their case: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success, and any tongue at all that will rise up against you in the judgment you will condemn.”—Isaiah 54:17.
16 Jehovah’s Witnesses do not enjoy being persecuted. However, in obedience to God’s command to all Christians, they cannot and will not stop speaking about the things they have heard. They endeavor to be good citizens. Where there is a conflict between God’s law and man’s law, however, they must obey God as ruler.
Fear Them Not
17. (a) Why are our enemies not to be feared? (b) What should be our attitude toward persecutors?
17 Our enemies are in a very precarious position. They are fighting against God. Thus, in harmony with Jesus’ command, rather than fear them, we pray for those persecuting us. (Matthew 5:44) We pray that if any are opposing God out of ignorance, as Saul of Tarsus was, Jehovah will graciously open their eyes to the truth. (2 Corinthians 4:4) Saul became the Christian apostle Paul and suffered greatly at the hands of the authorities of his day. Still, he kept reminding fellow believers “to be in subjection and be obedient to governments and authorities as rulers, to be ready for every good work, to speak injuriously of no one [no, not even of their most ardent persecutors], not to be belligerent, to be reasonable, exhibiting all mildness toward all men.” (Titus 3:1, 2) Jehovah’s Witnesses in France and elsewhere endeavor to take this counsel to heart.
18. (a) In what ways might Jehovah deliver his people? (b) What will be the final outcome?
18 God told the prophet Jeremiah: “I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:8) How might Jehovah deliver us from persecution today? He might raise up a fair-minded judge like Gamaliel. Or he may see to it that a corrupt or antagonistic official is unexpectedly replaced by a more reasonable one. At times, though, Jehovah may permit the persecution of his people to run its course. (2 Timothy 3:12) If God allows us to be persecuted, he will always give us the strength to endure persecution. (1 Corinthians 10:13) And no matter what God permits, we have no doubt as to the final outcome: Those who fight against God’s people are fighting against God, and fighters against God will not prevail.
19. What is the yeartext for 2006, and why is it appropriate?
19 Jesus told his disciples to expect tribulation. (John 16:33) In view of this, the words recorded at Acts 5:29 have never been more timely: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” For that reason, these thrilling words have been selected as the yeartext of Jehovah’s Witnesses for 2006. May it be our resolve during the coming year and throughout eternity to obey God as Ruler at all costs!
a The “Caesar” whom the chief priests publicly embraced on that occasion was the despised Roman Emperor Tiberius, a hypocrite and a murderer. Tiberius was also known for his debased sexual practices.—Daniel 11:15, 21.
Can You Answer?
• What encouraging example did the apostles set for us by the way they faced opposition?
• Why should we always obey God as ruler rather than men?
• Our opposers are really fighting against whom?
• What outcome can we expect for those who endure persecution?
[Blurb on page 23]
The yeartext for 2006 will be: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29
[Picture on page 19]
“We must obey God as ruler rather than men”
[Picture on page 21]
Caiaphas put his trust in men rather than in God