Obedience to Jesus Is Costly & Leads to Joy
Passage: Acts 5:17–42
Recalling God's Power in the Church
I want us to recall God’s power in the church. As we’ve gone through Acts, Jesus ascended to God’s right hand (Acts 1:9-11; 2:34); he poured out the Spirit (Acts 2:33). The Spirit empowers the church with bold witness (Acts 4:31), with deep unity (Acts 2:34; 4:32), with impressive generosity (Acts 2:35; 4:34), with awareness of God’s holy presence (Acts 5:5, 11). He even empowers some to perform great signs and wonders to authenticate the good news of Jesus’ kingdom (Acts 2:43; 5:12). God’s power in the church is something to pray for (Acts 4:24). We want God’s power to impact us so much that it also impacts those beyond us.
But we’ve also seen that God’s power in the church will not mean a more comfortable church. It won’t mean a safer church. It won’t mean an easier life. What happened in chapters 3-4? God heals a lame man, Peter preaches the gospel boldly, and then gets jailed for it. The same will happen in today’s passage. When God empowers his people to do great things for God, opposition will come. Persecution will come. Suffering will come. Doing great things for God will lead to suffering.
At the same time, we’ll see today that the opposition cannot win. The power of God that provokes the world to persecute the church, that same power enables the church to persevere through suffering to get the gospel out. The gospel will advance, because God’s purpose in the risen Christ to spread the gospel cannot fail. That should encourage us to obey Jesus, even when it’s costly.
Reading through Acts 5:17-42
Let’s pick it up in verse 17. We’ll read to verse 42, and I’ll make some comments along the way before drawing out four lessons from this passage. God’s power was impacting Jerusalem through the church. All kinds of Jews are leaving Judaism to follow Jesus. And the religious elite don’t like it. Verse 17…
But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
God miraculously delivers the apostles. We shouldn’t think that he’ll always deliver this way; or that when he does choose to deliver, it’ll happen in the same way. God will deliver Peter from prison in Acts 12 while James gets executed. At other times, Christians stay in prison until they die. The point isn’t to say that God will always deliver Christians when they’re suffering. The point is that God is making a statement about who’s really in control here, and it’s not the Jewish authorities. God is in control. If he wants them out; he’ll get them out. The Jewish authorities are the laughing stock here. Look at verse 21…
Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
This is funny. They go to the prison as if they’re in control—“We’re going to show these apostles!”—only to find there’s nobody there. They’re confused—“Wasn’t everybody in place?” They’re worried—“This can’t be good.” Then you get someone average Joe, “Hey, those guys you put in prison…Yeah, they’re preaching in the temple.” Then they’re all scared of what’s going to happen—“We don’t want the people to stone us.” Verse 27…
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The boldness in these guys! “You intend to bring this man’s blood on us?” Peter basically replies, “Look, you’re guilty. The man you killed is King. And you don’t have the Holy Spirit; we do.” Wow! This is Peter, who just a couple months before denied Jesus. But now the Spirit has made him bold to preach Christ. How easy it would’ve been to just skirt the issues—“Let’s work out an agreement here.” No, “We must obey God rather than men.” We’ll come back to that in a minute. Verse 33…
When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
1. God is with the apostles not the Jewish authorities.
Four lessons to take away from this passage. Number one, God is with the apostles not the Jewish authorities. In verse 19, the Jewish authorities lock up the apostles, but God delivers them to preach. In verse 32, God gives the Holy Spirit to the apostles, because the apostles obey God unlike the Jewish authorities. In verse 42, God gives the apostles strength to keep preaching Jesus despite the suffering they endure.
If I was a Jew in the first century, and I was reading Acts, it would become very obvious which Jews God was blessing, which movement God was supporting. He was blessing the Jews who had given their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Acts has an evangelistic appeal in this way: “Don’t follow the authorities God himself has rejected. Follow the apostles who proclaim forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God isn’t with the leaders telling you to follow the Torah; he’s with those telling you to follow Jesus. That’s just as relevant for today. God is not with leaders who refuse to preach the apostles’ gospel. It doesn’t matter how charismatic their personality is, or how many numbers follow them, or how many times they may even use the name “Jesus”; God is only with those who follow the Jesus preached by the apostles.
2. Christianity succeeds because of the risen Lord not human revolt.
Lesson number two: Christianity succeeds because of the risen Lord not human revolt. The political situation hadn’t favored Israel over the years. So Israel witnessed lots of little revolts. Gamaliel reports two of them in verses 36-37, one by Theudas and another by Judas. Guys would claim to be somebody, gain a following, and then Rome or somebody else would intervene, and their followers would be scattered and the whole thing comes to nothing. Is Christianity just another one of these revolts?
By including Gamaliel’s counsel, Luke contrasts Christianity with other human revolts. First, Gamaliel mentions that Theudas got a following of about 400 men. But Luke has already told us that 3,000 became Christians in 2:41. Then the number of men alone came to about 5,000 in 4:4. And then in 5:14 you have multitudes of believers joining the Lord. The rapid growth is such that the Jewish authorities accuse the apostles of filling Jerusalem with their teaching (Acts 5:28). In other words, Gamaliel seriously underestimates the situation (cf. Acts 5:28).
Something else he underestimates: Theudas and Judas are both dead; Jesus rose from the dead never to die again. That might be a factor to consider more seriously. Of course, the Jewish authorities don’t want to believe that. But as readers we’re snickering in the background. We know the truth. Jesus won’t ever die again nor can anyone thwart his kingdom. Even the opposition to Jesus is already worked into God’s sovereign plan to advance his kingdom. We saw that very clearly in 4:28. Truly, no opposition can stop the church; it’s already included in God’s plan to advance the gospel.
Gamaliel also says that when the followers of these other movements were “dispersed” or “scattered,” they came to nothing (Acts 5:36-37). Not so with the church. In 8:4, it says that when the persecution scatters the church, those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Christianity isn’t a fleeting revolt. It’s not a human uprising. It’s not a man-made attempt to overthrow the world. It’s the fruit of Jesus’ death and resurrection victory; and his kingdom’s advance will not stop until he gathers all his elect from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. It’s the result of Jesus already overthrowing the ruler of this world (John 12:31); the decisive battle was fought and won at the cross. The church is the fruit of his victory. Don’t melt into a puddle when the world “takes prayer out of the schools” or Starbucks says “Happy Holidays”. My Bible says that Jesus Christ will build his church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. We’re talking about the risen Christ!
3. God Is Committed to Spreading Life through the Gospel.
Lesson three, God is committed to spreading life through the gospel. There’s an intentional oscillation between persecution and preaching. The apostles are jailed, but an angel delivers them and tells them to preach (Acts 5:18, 20-21). The apostles get rearrested and questioned, but Peter preaches Christ to the authorities (Acts 5:27-32). The apostles get beaten, but they keep preaching in the temple and from house to house (Acts 5:40, 42). Point being, whatever suffering the church faces, God will ensure that his gospel keeps advancing through his people.
He will use heavenly authorities for a prison break, or the folly of an earthly authority like Gamaliel to make sure that the people he wants saved hear his message. He strengthens the church through suffering so they carry on that message. When he wants people to hear, he will not fail to get them the message. He revealed his plan in 1:8 that the church would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. He’s still making that happen through us.
But what is this message that God is spreading? In verse 20, the angel calls it “all the words of this Life.” Life. Luke doesn’t mean mere human existence; he means the eternal life bound up with knowing God through the risen Jesus who has conquered sin and death (cf. Acts 2:28; 3:15; 11:18; 13:46, 48). This life is good news in a world cursed with death. We have a problem…
Jesus became a curse to give us life with God
In response to our sin, God cursed humanity with death. The Bible tells us that “sin [entered] the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Physical death—people’s bodies grow old and get buried, because of sin. We’re also cursed with spiritual death. Death is more than something we meet at the end of life. Death is separation from life with God. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that we, even though physically alive, were dead in trespasses and sins. We’re also cursed to eternal death. The apostle John portrays death as coming into judgment under God’s wrath without escape forever (John 3:36; 5:24; Rev 14:9-11; 21:8).
How does one escape this curse of death, death, death? The answer is by hearing and believing “all the words of this Life” in Christ. Some of the words of this Life we find on the lips of Peter in verses 30-32. Verse 30 tells us that Jesus died as a cursed man: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Not just a cross—though that would be fine—but a tree.
The language comes from Deuteronomy 21:22-23. It says, “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” By using this language from Deuteronomy, we learn what the Jews really thought about Jesus: he was no more than a criminal who deserved God’s curse.
The truth, however, is that God exalted Jesus. He raised Jesus from the dead and made Jesus the King. Which means, Jesus didn’t deserve God’s curse. If God exalted Jesus, he proved that the world’s opinion about Jesus as a cursed man was wrong. Jesus was in the right; the world was in the wrong.
But there’s another element here we cannot miss. It wasn’t simply that the Jewish authorities killed Jesus as a cursed criminal; Jesus chose to die as a cursed criminal, and by so doing, he took away that curse of death, death, death from us. Paul says in Galatians 3:10 that those who fail to keep God’s law are under God’s curse. Sinners deserve the curse of death, death, death. But then Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
The one who didn’t deserve God’s curse, became a curse in our place. That’s why Jesus died. He endured that curse of death, death, death that hung over us, in order to save us. That’s why Peter goes on to say in verse 32 that Jesus rose to give repentance and forgiveness of sins. He can forgive our sins, because he already bore the penalty for our sins. If you reject that message, then you remain under death, death, death. But if you believe that message, God gives you life, life, life. You get the hope of resurrection, reconciliation to God, and an eternity in his blissful presence.
And even before that day comes when we see God face to face, Peter says he also gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. What does the Spirit bring to us, according to John 4:14? Life. Eternal life, which is to know God (John 17:3).
Give your life to spreading God’s message of Life
God is committed to spread this message to the world. If God is committed to spreading this message to the world, then what should we give our lives to? We should spend and be spent to get this Life to others who are drowning in death. Does it concern you that people are perishing? Have we forgotten how awful and hopeless that death was before Jesus? Can you see the world sinking in the sea of death, while we somehow got snatched up and put on this rescue boat called Life?
What does God want me to do with my life? Make his Life known to the world; that’s what he wants you to do. Really clear in the Bible. We don’t have to wonder what his will is for our lives. At home, at work, at the park, at the hospital bed, at the funeral, at the parties, at graduation, on the streets, in the store, over coffee, in a letter, on the phone, on Facebook—get creative—just do something, and find ways to get the message out. God gave us “the words of this Life” to rescue people from death.
It’s got to go to the end of the earth, all peoples. Jesus gave his life to ransom people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and they shall reign upon the earth. If they’re going to reign in life, they’ve still got to hear of the life. God is committed to getting them the message. Ask him to use you and be ready to speak. I know we have limitations on what we can do. But sometimes we limit ourselves by what we want to do. Let’s want to get this message out.
4. Obedience to Jesus Is Costly but Leads to Joy.
Lesson number four: obedience to Jesus is costly but leads to great joy. In verse 29, the apostles say, “We must obey God rather than men.” Similarly, there’s an emphasis in verse 32 on obedience: God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. Spreading the gospel of life is a matter of obeying God. Men are telling them to keep quiet about Jesus in verse 28, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name.” But the apostles refuse to obey the authorities in order to obey God.
One thing we must always remember is that governing authority is never absolute authority. Absolute authority belongs to Jesus alone. Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 teach that the Christian should be subject to the governing authorities. We should even honor those in places of authority. But if those authorities demand we live in ways contrary to Christ, we must disobey them in order to follow Christ. If any superior demands that we affirm what Jesus would deny or deny what Jesus would affirm, we’re not obligated to obey them. We must disobey them to obey Christ.
A few months ago, I had a friend that worked for a major helicopter manufacturer in the area. He handed a fellow employee a book that he thought would help him with his depression. The book was written from a biblical perspective. That employee reported him to HR, who then asked him to sign a statement that he would no longer “impose” his religious views on fellow employees.
When we obey Jesus in spreading the gospel, the world will attempt to silence us. The Jewish authorities attempted to silence the apostles. They used threats (Acts 4:21), public humiliation (Acts 5:18), and even physical abuse (Acts 5:40). Verse 40 says the authorities beat them. Darrell Bock says that “the whipping would have been on the back and chest with a three-stranded strap of calf hide. This could leave one close to death…from loss of blood.”[i] All this to deter them from speaking about Jesus.
Jesus said this would happen to them. But the occasion wasn’t a matter of silencing the gospel. It was actually their opportunity to be witnesses. He says in Mark 13:9, “Be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake [And what is the divine purpose in all this?], to bear witness before them.” Obedience to Jesus is costly. It will cost us our lives. But is he not worthy to represent? Is it not the highest privilege to be counted his messenger?
Here’s where a real challenge comes in for some of us. It forces us to question whether the lack of persecution in our lives is because we look too much like the world. Is the world not persecuting us, because they find no need to silence us? What reason does Satan have to silence those who never speak for Christ?
I want to be very careful here. I’m not suggesting that all Christians will experience the same degree of persecution; we won’t (John 21:18-23; Acts 12:2-3). It also seems that God restrains severer forms of persecution in some parts of the world more than others (Prov 21:1; 1 Tim 2:2). The question isn’t, “Why are we not experiencing the same amount or the same kind of persecution others may be?”
You also shouldn’t leave with a false guilt for not yet experiencing persecution. Many of you are being very faithful to the Lord, but your time of suffering just hasn’t come yet (cf. John 21:18-23; Rev 1:9; 6:11). I’m also not suggesting that you leave and actively pursue persecution. We pursue love and obedience to Christ even when that love and obedience may bring persecution (1 Pet 2:20-22). But we don’t pursue the persecution itself, as if that’s what really counts.
Having said that, we can still ask whether the world finds no need to persecute us, because we’re too silent about Jesus already? Does the world not persecute us because we share the same passions anyway? The sufferings of these apostles for Christ’s sake, really force us to evaluate what’s most precious to us. Is Jesus most precious? Or our own lives, our own agendas, our own sports teams, our own degrees, our own families even?
Do we share the Apostle Paul’s passion in Acts 20:24? “…the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only…” That’s the language of treasuring: “I will give everything, if only I could…!” That’s how we talk when we treasure something. Is that treasure in our lives Jesus?
He was that treasure for the apostles. Jesus’ name was so precious to them, that suffering for his name became reason to rejoice. Verse 41 says they went out “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-12).
I must say how far removed I can be from this heart disposition. I can grumble about slightest things that inconvenience me, and sometimes they have nothing to do with speaking for Jesus. And here these apostles go out with bloodied backs rejoicing that Jesus counted them well suited to suffer dishonor for his name. They look at their sufferings for Jesus, and it signals something to them: grace made the unworthy worthy to suffer for Christ.
More than anything else, the apostles’ joy was rooted in their solidarity with Christ and his sufferings. They found more joy in being Christ’s messengers than in anything else in life. Jesus’ name was so precious to them. He’s that treasure in the field. Remember the parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy [Don’t miss that!] he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44).
The apostles are willing to lose all they have—comfortable days, reputation, jobs, the flesh off their backs—if they can just have the Treasure and share that Treasure with others. It is the highest privilege to be counted among the High King of Heaven’s servants. Oh that we would find Jesus to be such a treasure in our own lives. When Jesus is treasured within, we will speak of his glory to others. When Jesus is treasured within, we will obey God at all costs. He’s risen! He’s glorious! He saved us! He’s everything! That’s ultimately what the apostles’ suffering shows us: Jesus is everything! He’s more valuable than anything the world can offer.
As we come to the Lord’s Supper this morning, let us consider once again the Treasure Jesus is. We’re going to sing, “The Lord Is My Salvation.” While doing so, let’s remember how precious his death for us truly is. Let us once again be amazed that, unworthy as we are, he has fit us to eat at his Table, to serve in his kingdom, to spread his message of life to others. And let us also pray that when suffering comes as a result of our obedience to him, that we too might be able to rejoice in him.
[i]Bock, Acts, 252. Cf. Deut 25:3; 2 Cor 11:24.
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