Acts 5

Manifestation of grace provokes the adversary, and the flesh would gladly gain the highest credit to itself at the least possible cost. It was early to forget that God had just made the assembly His dwelling-place; and certainly the witnesses to His presence therein were many and plain. But the enemy knows how to lure the soul by degrees into fatal evil; and spiritual pretension is a direct road and a slippery as well as rapid descent.

Barnabas had been singled out for special mention as he was afterwards to be used and honoured of God in the front rank of His servants. Ananias follows, but his heart was not right with God: that moment of ‘great grace upon all’ was seized for his great deceit, with the aggravation of his wife knowing and taking part in it. How many a Christian woman has been the true helpmeet of her husband in timely warning and instant appeal, condemning any and every evil at the first buddings! How dreadful when the man and the woman aid one another to forget God and His gracious but holy presence! when they agree to dishonour the name of the Lord by lying pretensions to self-sacrificing devotedness!

‘But a certain man, Ananias by name, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession and reserved [part] of the price, his wife also being privy: and brought and laid a certain part at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to reserve for thee of the price of the land? When it remained, did it not remain to thee; and when sold, was it not in thy power? How [is it] that thou conceivedst this thing in thy heart? Thou didst lie not to men but to God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down and expired, and great fear came upon all the hearers, and the younger [men] arose, swathed him, and carrying [him] out buried [him]’ (vers. 1-6).

Sin is aggravated by the position of the guilty, as is carefully shown in Lev. iv. The ruler is distinguished from one of the people, and the anointed priest involved far more serious consequences than both.

But there is another and yet more solemn criterion, the presence of God, and this according to His nature now fully revealed. In Israel it was Jehovah dwelling in the thick darkness, Who governed His people, around Him yet unable to draw near, the Holy Ghost thus signifying that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest. Now it is, by virtue of the blood of Christ, Who has therefore entered once for all into the holies, having found eternal redemption. Therefore also is the Holy Ghost come down to constitute us God’s dwelling-place, His holy temple. If sin became exceeding sinful through the commandment, how abominable in the light of the cross! But therein God condemned sin, not only in its fruits but in its root, and this in Him Who became an offering for sin. Such was God’s work in sending His own Son, the Holy One yet made sin that we might become God’s righteousness in Him. The sins of the believer are blotted out and forgiven the evil nature which could not he forgiven is already condemned in His cross Who died for it; and He is risen, and we are in Him, freed from all condemnation, and living of His life Who is alive again for evermore. The Holy Ghost also is not only witness to us but power in us, and personally here to make good God’s presence.

Then, again, the dwelling of God is the true and full ground of the call to holiness. Even in Israel it was so: ‘Holiness becometh Thine house, O Jehovah, for ever’ (Ps. 93:5). So shall they hereafter sing in truth of heart when the kingdom comes and Jehovah reigns. And thus, looking back not forward only, it had been when Israel had no more than a temporal redemption by divine power from Egypt, a type of the incomparably more blessed and permanent, yea eternal, redemption, which the Lord Jesus acquired by His blood. Even then, when the redemption was but the shadow of better things to come, the God of Israel manifested His presence on behalf, and in the midst, of His people. Now all is real; because Christ Who is the truth, came to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. The full result does not yet appear for the universe till He comes to reign in righteousness, after which shall be the new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. But meanwhile the mighty work of propitiation is not only accomplished but accepted, and the Spirit of truth is come down in person to effectuate the presence and dwelling of God here below in the assembly of the saints as His house.

Hence if the Book of Exodus, above all Books of the Bible, is in its first half the figure of redemption, its last half shows us the consequent dwelling, the tabernacle, of God in the midst of His people; and the ways of the people are regulated accordingly. ‘There I will meet with the children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar. I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God; and they shall know that I am Jehovah their God That brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I may dwell among them: I am Jehovah their God’ (Ex. 29:43-46).

So it is in the church now. Holiness is imperative individually, for the Spirit of God dwells in each of us as saints purged by the blood of Jesus, alive from the dead, freed from sin and become bondmen to God, that we may have fruit unto holiness, and the end eternal life. ‘What! know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost that is in you, Whom ye have of God? and ye are not your own, for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore with your body’ (1 Cor. 6:19, 20). But He dwells in the assembly also (1 Cor. 3:16, 17), and makes us collectively the living God’s temple, responsible as come out from unbelievers to be separate, and to touch not what is unclean. There God dwells; to such He is a Father. ‘Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every pollution of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Cor. 6:16-18; 2 Cor. 7:1). Thus in every way, individual and corporate, holiness is grounded, not on law, but on what grace has wrought and given us through our Lord Jesus; and the Holy Spirit is present abidingly to make it good, or, if there be evil, to raise up a suited testimony against that which the cross has proved to be absolutely intolerable. In His children, in the church least of all, will God make allowance for iniquity. God is there in the power of the Holy Spirit to avenge the wrong done to His grace as being there and to His nature of which the Christian is made a partaker.

Ananias, then, comes forward seeking credit for a display of faith working by love, which the flesh, set on by Satan, sought to emulate without trust in God, nay, seeking to deceive Him too, as if He had no house on earth in which to dwell and manifest His power as well as grace. Part of the proceeds of his sold possessions he kept for himself, part he laid as the whole at the feet of the apostles. The Lord by His servant resents the sin and insult. ‘Ananias,’ said Peter, ‘why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to (deceive) the Holy Spirit and to reserve for thee of the price of the land? . . . Thou didst lie not to men but to God.’ What can more simply and withal more powerfully let us know their sense of God’s presence? Sin then blinded the eyes of the guilty disciple; in days not so far off unbelief stole the truth away from the church, which thereon set up its own bulwarks, rules, and functionaries, works of its own hands, its calves of gold, in forgetfulness both of Him Who is coming back from on high and of Him Who meanwhile is here to glorify the Son as the Father. There is no ground to suppose that the motive of Ananias was the hoped-for possession of spiritual gifts like Barnabas, or the coveted power to impart them as in Simon’s case (8:19). It is an error to infer that thus his sin was indeed against the Holy Ghost. The truth of God is deeper than any mere product of human reasoning. It is the same verb ( ψεύδομαι) in verses 3 and 4, but with a different construction: with an accusative (3) in the sense of imposing on any by falsehood, with a dative (4) as addressing a lie to a person, here to God Himself in the person of the Spirit sent down from heaven.

God was in His holy temple (the old temple being now by the rejection of the Messiah no more than ‘their house’, the house of unbelieving Jews) and there one bearing the name of the Lord dared to lie to His face. It was no mistake of haste, but deceit with a selfish and hypocritical aim purposed in the heart, and it was so much the more heinous in presence of fresh and boundless grace on God’s part, and of its fruit in the unexampled self-abandonment of many saints before all. God of old sternly judged an Achan who coveted the accursed thing, and a Gehazi who enriched himself by a shameless prostitution of the prophet’s name. ‘Is it a time,’ said the indignant man of God, ‘to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and men-servants, and maid-servants?’ (2 Kings 5:26). So, though it be the day of grace, it is on this account all the more solemn in God’s eyes that one professedly a believer in Christ should expect his iniquity to pass muster in the house of His holiness.

On hearing the apostolic words Ananias fell down and expired; so that all that heard were overawed. The younger men that swathed and carried out his body to burial had not returned when, about three hours after, his wife entered, not knowing what was done, and Peter, drawing out from her the distinct evidence that she was privy to the imposture, said, ‘How [is it] that ye agreed together to tempt the Spirit of [the] Lord?’ (ver. 9).

This is just what Satan desires and prompts, that those who are, or at least profess to be, the Lord’s should not believe that He is among them. To tempt Him is to doubt this in word or deed — to say in heart, Is He among us or not? How unworthy of those who ought best to know His presence, secured at infinite cost as the Christian at least should also know! How awful to think of the prevalence of this sin now, little felt or judged even by true children of God! So completely, in fact, have the saints in general lost sight of the presence and action of the Spirit in the assembly that they notoriously and periodically pray that He may be poured out afresh. They, of course, mean thereby little if anything more than an accession of comfort for believers, and a great increase in the conversion of sinners. But all the while they ignore His actual presence on earth, and seem quite unconscious of the deep slight put upon Him by shutting out His revealed and sovereign working for the glory of Christ in the midst of the gathered saints. They may be waking up to allow more of His free action in gospel work outside for man’s salvation; but as for His energy in the church for God’s glory and in subjection to His word, they will not hear of it, whatever it may have been, it is out of date and disorderly now! Alas I this is to make the church of man and not of God, though what is of His purpose of grace will last for ever.

But Peter added, to the convicted widow, ‘Behold, the feet of those that buried thy husband [are] at the door and shall carry thee out. Then she fell immediately at his feet and expired, and the young men coming in found her dead, and carrying [her] forth buried [her] by her husband’ (vers. 9, 10). An infliction from its repetition so unmistakably divine could not but make an immediate and still deeper impression; and we read that ‘great fear fell [came] upon all the assembly, and upon as many as heard these things’ (ver. 11). It was meant for warning to all within as well as without

This is me first distinct mention of the church or assembly. It is spoken of, not as if just inaugurated, but as a known and already existing body. The church began as a fact on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit (the promise of the Father, Whom Christ sent from the Father as the Father sent Him in the Son’s name) baptized all the saints into one body. There had been saints from Abel; now they in the Holy Spirit became one. In Acts 2:47 it is well-nigh certain that the true words run that ‘the Lord was day by day adding together those that should be saved’, without calling them as yet the church, though of course such they were. The thing was there, not yet so named. Now, according to the words of the Lord in Matt. 16:18; Matt. 18:17, they are thus entitled, when God was establishing in the gravest way the reality of His presence by the action of the Spirit Who dwells there, and had all power and promptness to avenge deliberate wrong to His nature and majesty done within; unless He would be a party consenting to His own dishonour.

The Lord seized the critical moment when Ananias and Sapphira thus sinned unto death, and a death so awe-inspiring, to put fresh and gracious honour on the Twelve. One of their number had just stood prominently before all as the vessel of divine power in judging deliberate and hypocritical iniquity, in which the offending pair had been consenting partners. Now it was according to His wisdom to manifest the normal flow of His goodness and compassion in honour of the Lord Jesus, and in a world ruined through sin and wretched under its dismal effects.

‘And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; and they were all of one accord in the porch of Solomon. And of the rest durst no man join them, but the people magnified them; and believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women; insomuch as even to carry out the sick into the streets and put [them] on beds and couches, that, as Peter came, at least his shadow might overshadow some one of them. And there also came together the multitude from the cities round about [?unto] Jerusalem bringing sick [persons] and [persons] troubled by unclean spirits; and they were healed every one’ (vers. 12-16).

This witness to the supremacy of the rejected Messiah now exalted to the right hand of God we are apt to forget, being so long accustomed to its absence, and, it may be, thinking too exclusively of His grace to us and too little of His glory. What mercy it is that keeps up that which is yet more precious, and even more profoundly wonderful, the unchanged efficacy of His blood, the new creation, union with Him, and the ever-abiding presence of the Holy Ghost in and with us on earth! But we ought not to be insensible to the blessed, even if partial, display of the testimony to His power over all the groaning creation, and those evil spirits who seduced man to his ruin into their own rebelliousness against God, nor should we ignore the humbling fact that such a display so soon faded away, as doubtless it was meet that it should. The God of all grace (and so now pre-eminently is God revealing Himself) would not stay such an answer on earth to Christ’s exaltation to the seat of divine power, were there not the wisest and most adequate reasons, not only on the side of His own moral glory, but because the continuance of signs and wonders would be an anomaly in His ways, and an injury rather than a blessing to the saints when the assembly fell more and more from the grace and truth which came by our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is evident that here as on other occasions the apostles were those above all distinguished by doing many signs and wonders. But plainly from Acts 6:8; Acts 8:6, 7, 13, the power was in no way confined to those whom God set first in the church, for the martyr Stephen and the evangelist Philip were both remarkable in that way. Nor can there be an intelligent doubt, for the believer who reads 1 Cor. 12, that such sign-gifts might be distributed widely and apart from all public office; even as our Lord intimated in Mark 16:17, 18, 20, for ‘those that believed’, not merely for certain prominent functionaries. Here, however, the mighty works were done by those in the front rank, nor were they done in a corner, but in all publicity, for they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch, of the rest no man daring to join them. And the moral effect was immense. On the one hand, the people magnified them; on the other, believers were more than ever added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. ‘Women’ had been emphatically mentioned in Acts 1:14, when the disciples, however closely found together, were only so many individuals cleaving to the Lord in faith, and giving themselves up with one accord to continual prayer, before the uniting power of the one Spirit sent down from heaven baptized all into one body. The prophecy of Joel applied to the Pentecostal gift supposes the common share women were to have in the promise of the Father, and its mighty consequence (Acts 2:17, 18); and now we hear ‘women’ again named explicitly among the multitudes of believers added to the Lord.

Among the signs and wonders a very special feature is pointed out in ver. 15; their bringing out the sick into the streets and putting them on beds and couches that the mere shadow of Peter as he came along might overshadow some one of them. So did the abundant goodness of God by man in honour of Jesus fill men’s hearts with confident expectation. Nor do we hear of disappointment. On the contrary we are told that the multitude also of the cities round about Jerusalem flocked thither, bringing sick people and those troubled by unclean spirits; and healing was vouchsafed to them all. How wondrous the virtue of that Name which thus unfailingly invested His servants with power superior to every demand over evil seen or unseen!

Again come forward the Sadducean party. For liberalism is no more friendly to the truth than traditionalism. And who can wonder? Their citadel had been stormed by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. They felt themselves assailed and pursued in the open field by the proclamation of the gospel, and by the miraculous powers which magnified the Name of the crucified but now risen Messiah.

‘And the high priest rising up, and all those that were with him, which is [the] sect of the Sadducees, were filled with wrath, and laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in public ward. But an angel of [the] Lord by night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, Go and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life’ (vers. 17-20).

During the ministry of the Lord Jesus here below the Pharisees had been His chief adversaries: their self-righteousness, unrighteousness, zealously held fast tradition; and, veiled by religious forms, waged constant warfare against the Righteous One; and the more, as He was ever the expression of God’s grace and truth to those who owned their true condition of guilt and ruin before God. When He presented Himself as Messiah for the last time to the unbelieving people, and was going, as He well knew, to death, not in rejection only but for atonement, all came out in unambiguous opposition, whatever the pretence, chief priests and elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, coming to judge Him, but in result to be themselves judged by the word. Now after He rose from the dead those who said there is no resurrection nor angel nor spirit were naturally the most embittered, notwithstanding their usual self-complacency and wish to pose as the mildest of the people.

But man never knows himself apart from Christ, any more than he thinks or feels rightly about God. The revealed truth detects and lays him bare in his departure from God; and this is so much the more intolerable as he has a religious position to maintain. Hence the excessive anger of the Sadducean high priest and his party at this time. Their boasted liberty of conscience is only for the different forms of error. The truth of God is ever unwelcome, and those who preach it are mere troublers to be punished without hesitation. They ‘laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in public ward.’

But the God Who had acted in the assembly with a stroke which slew the guilty husband and wife was not wanting now, and a providential messenger of His power was sent to deliver His faithful servants. ‘An angel of [the] Lord by night opened the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said, Go and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life.’

The intervention then was as sensible as it was striking. God is marking in this chapter the reality and the varied forms of His action for His assembly and those members of it in particular who are charged with His word and who rouse most the animosity of the foe. Angelic care has in no wise disappeared for His servants, though there is no such display of power as of old, any more than the presence and energy of the Spirit within the assembly. It is our fleshly activity, and our lack of spirituality, which hinder. We grieve the Spirit by our self-confidence and worldly wisdom, and we fail to discern the wonderful ways in which God delivers. Were our eyes more truly opened of the Lord we should see that, when beset with seemingly countless and overwhelming adversaries, they that be with us, if really with and for Christ, are more than they that be with them. Are they not all ministering spirits sent out for service on account of those that shall inherit salvation?

Here no doubt there could be no mistake about the matter; for it was no question of men escaping by strength and skill or any earthly means, but of an angel opening the doors of the prison by night, leading them out, and commanding them to speak in the temple to the people all the words of this Life. The source of the deliverance was as plain as the commission to speak. The religious chiefs were in flat opposition to the God of all grace Who would have men that believed through grace to be His chosen vessels in proclaiming all the words of this Life in Christ the Lord. For there is no other Name of salvation given among men, nor any other way than the Son to the Father. Life in Him, remission of sins through His blood, the gift of the Holy Spirit, such are the first blessings which the gospel announces to every soul that believes in Jesus. And God will have it go forth freely and fully, let men say or do as they may. But who shall measure the guilt of thus rejecting every testimony from God, not only despising the message of grace, but forbidding and imprisoning the messengers, that the mercy and truth of God in so speaking to man may never reach his ears? Who can wonder that their judgment slumbereth not? The higher the estate, the deeper the fall.

But God, Who knows best that His words are the seed of everlasting life, will not have the proud and evil will of man to intercept His message of good. He therefore, as in a day of wonders, interfered by an angel to do extraordinarily that which He could have accomplished by more ordinary means, if so it had pleased Him. But the occasion itself then was beyond all that is usual; and it was according to His wisdom that, as His power had been shown judicially within the assembly, and in healing grace by the special envoys of the Lord Jesus, so also with marked superiority over the hostile will of man and authority of the world by the angelic deliverance from the prison. The words of this Life must be spoken at His command that souls might hear and live. One can understand how the courage of faith would be confirmed and increased in His servants by an act so signal; and what a testimony it ought to have been to the consciences of all, especially to the sect of the Sadducees! But unbelief is as hard and as blind towards God, as it is credulous of its own vagaries, and bent on its own will, even with the knell of perdition sounding in its ears.

The apostles, thus miraculously brought out of prison, acted forthwith on the message to the confusion of the enemy.

‘And when they heard, they entered about dawn into the temple and were teaching. And when the high priest arrived and those with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the sons of Israel, and sent unto the jail to have them brought. But the officers that arrived did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported, saying, We found the jail shut in all security and the keepers standing at the doors, but on opening we found no one within. And when both [the priest and]18 the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were utterly perplexed about them whereto this would come. And there arrived one and reported to them, Behold, the men whom ye put in the prison are in the temple standing and teaching the people. Then the captain went away with the officers, and brought them, not with violence, for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And having brought they set them in the council, and the high priest asked them saying, We strictly charged you not to teach on [in] this name; and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and purpose to bring upon us the blood of this man. And in answer Peter and the apostles said, Obedience must be to God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus Whom ye slew by hanging on a tree: Him God exalted with His right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. And we are [His]19 witnesses of these things [lit. words], and the Holy Spirit Whom God gave to those that obey Him’ (vers. 21-32).

In the temple there was no hindrance to instruction in the word of God, the Old Testament scriptures; and as yet none others were written. The apostles therefore used their liberty to teach, as their Master had done before (Matt. 21:23 - 28; Mark 11:27 - 12; Luke 20; Luke 21:37, 38; John 7:14, 28, 37; John 8:2-59; John 10:23-39). So it was too in the synagogues; and the apostles were in no way disposed to forego the opportunity of expounding the scriptures to the people, as we see in the history of Paul especially. There they were teaching at break of day; they were obedient, and their hearts in the work.

But the adversaries were not slack on their side. ‘And when the high priest arrived and those with him, they called together the council and all the senate of the sons of Israel, and sent unto the jail to have them brought But the officers that arrived did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported, saying, We found the jail shut in all security, and the keepers standing at the doors, but on opening we found no one within.’ Thus the Sanhedrim met in due form, and in all the confidence of the highest religious authority. But the prisoners were no longer in custody; and, what was the most surprising news of all, without violence from within or from without. The building was found by the officials in all security, the keepers on guard at the doors, but not a prisoner was there.

‘And when both the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were utterly perplexed about them whereto this would come.’ Conscience could not but whisper, the more inexplicable to them it might seem. Strange things had Jerusalem seen and heard: not only when the Christ was here, but more widely and wonderfully since He died, and, as the disciples affirmed, rose and went to heaven. That God had somehow brought out of prison the apostles, whom Jewish authority had put in, was rather in keeping with all that had been of late transpiring in their midst in Solomon’s porch and elsewhere. But unbelief is the rebellion of the heart and may work most proudly in the face of the fullest testimony, without one solid ground of objection or a reasonable excuse. And as it is the heart that is in question, neither age nor sex, neither knowledge nor ignorance, exempts a single person from its poisonous activity. Indeed an active or subtle mind, however much furnished and exercised only gives the larger means and scope for its evil opposition to God. ‘Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life.’ ‘For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ ‘He that hath received His testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.’ Men dread consequences. Faith is subject to God’s word, and seeks to please Him. The Jewish rulers were afraid of the issues now. They had no thought of God in the unseen light of eternity.

‘And there arrived one and reported, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are in the temple standing and teaching the people.’ God took care to give publicity to the defeat of the guilty people in the hour of their seeming power over His servants. Had the council before charged and threatened them strictly not to speak at all nor teach on (in) the name of Jesus? Had they now, filled with envy, put them in the public prison? God had by an angel brought them out from doors ever so secured and guards vigilant as they might be; and there they were in the temple standing and teaching the people. ‘Then the captain went away with the officers and brought them, not with violence, for they feared the people lest they should be stoned.’ How comforting to faith the witness of the weak strong, and of the strong weak! Hardened as the captain and the officers might be, they were overawed, so that they abstained from violence even to the escaped prisoners; and not these but those feared lest they should be stoned. But it was man they dreaded, not God. The apostles had God before their eyes, the only true deliverance from the fear of man.

‘And having brought they set them in the council; and the high priest asked them, saying, We strictly charged you not to teach on [in] this name, and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and purpose to bring upon us the blood of this man.’ They assuredly had no wish for or thought of accentuating their own powerlessness in presence of a few poor and weak and ignorant Galileans. Yet they could not conceal from themselves any more than from others that their stern commands were impotent, and that the teaching of the apostles was everywhere prevalent in the city, with the blood of Him Whom they dreaded to name weighing heavily and increasingly on their consciences. But a little while ago Pilate had vainly washed his hands before the multitude, as if he could thus rid himself of his dark blot in delivering Jesus to their will; and then answered all the people, His blood be on us and on our children; and the priests, yea the chief priests, pleaded against the Holy Sufferer, instead of interceding for the Guiltless. Now are they the first to deprecate and feel the guilt of that blood on their own heads, and to shrink from its intolerable burden, and (save to faith) its irrevocable curse. There was, however, no uprightness of conscience: had there been, they would have found a sure and immediate and everlasting resource in the purging efficacy of that blood.

What had the boldest of the apostles proved? Were they ignorant of his denying his Master? Yet was he soon after restored in soul so completely as to be able calmly and earnestly without a blush to tax the people with denying the Holy One and the Just and desiring a murderer to be granted to them! Such is the virtue of Him Who came by water and blood: life is in Him only. So testifies the Holy Spirit, and He is the truth. But what did the Sanhedrim care for the truth, especially from the lips of unlearned and ignorant men in reproof of all the erudition and dignified office in Israel?

Peter and John had before this asked, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken to you rather than to God, judge ye (Acts 4:19, 20). Now they all join Peter in his still firmer reply, ‘Obedience must be to God rather than men.’ This is the great practical principle of faith, as it was the uniform characteristic of Christ in all perfection here below. ‘Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God’: not miracles, not doing good, not teaching, not zeal, so much as unqualified and unfailing obedience rendered to God. Yet was Jesus a man approved of God unto them by powers and wonders and signs, which God did by Him in their midst beyond past example no less than present doubt. Yet was He anointed with the Holy Spirit and went about doing good, and healing all oppressed with the devil. The people too were astonished at His teaching, and all bare Him witness and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth, and the very officers sent to apprehend Him declared with truth, Never man spake like this man. And for burning jealousy for the Father’s glory His disciples could not but be reminded that it was written, ‘The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up.’ But all these instances had their fit seasons. Obedience was always there, as unfaltering as constant, as lowly as perfect.

Nor is there any principle so essential for the Christian. He is sanctified of the Spirit unto Christ’s obedience as well as to the sprinkling of His blood (as the gospel is for faith-obedience, in contrast with enforcement of law), and his soul is purified by obeying the truth to unfeigned brotherly love, for God chose him to salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and faith of the truth. Hence, though he may have sometimes to wait on God for light, obedience is the invariable place and duty of the believer. It is never a question of his rights; he is called to obey. He is to be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to rulers as sent by him, free though not having his freedom for a cloak of malice but as God’s bondman.

Hence, if collision come between God’s word and the ruler’s requirement, the believer’s path is clear: God must be obeyed, but in suffering perhaps, not resistance to authority. He is always to obey, though in some cases it may be God rather than men. Nothing is so humble, nothing so firm. Naturally the believer might be feeble and timid; obedience by grace gives strength and courage. He might be self-confident and unyielding; obedience gives distrust in self and meekness in doing God’s will. ‘He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever’; even as sin is self-will or lawlessness, and its end judgment and perdition. Therefore is obedience not only an inalienable duty, but the true pathway of power, and the sure means of extrication from every snare of the enemy. So the blessed Lord defeated Satan, and so the apostles now lay bare the tremendous fact that the Jewish heads and people were as wholly beguiled by Satan, as they themselves were wholly in simple-hearted subjection to God. Once the elect nation had God in the world, as they had the Messiah in hope. Now that they had rejected their Messiah, they were not only without God like the Gentiles but the proved adversaries of God. They were only ‘men’ like others, and ‘obedience must be to God rather than men.’

This Peter proceeds to demonstrate in a few plain, pointed, irrefragable words. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, Whom ye slew by hanging on a tree: Him God exalted with His right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. And we are [His] witnesses of these things, and the Holy Ghost Whom God gave to those that obey Him.’ Here the proof is short and unanswerable, the antagonism to the God of Israel in chiefs and people beyond question. The God of their fathers (how unlike them the children!) raised up Jesus Whom ye slew (and with the deepest ignominy too) by hanging on a tree. Here, it is no longer the ambiguous word ἀνέστησεν, but the more determinate ἤγειρεν, not merely raising Him up as a living Messiah on earth, as in Acts 3:22, 26; Acts 7: (18), 37; Acts 13:33, but waking Him up after death. Nor was resurrection all: for God exalted Him (not ‘to’ as in Webster and Wilkinson, but) by His right hand (as Peter had preached, Acts 2:33, in fulfilment of the undeniably Messianic Psalm 110.). For in what relation to them did He take His place in heaven? As Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. The door of grace was still open. God was waiting to be gracious to His people though guilty of the great transgression; and He could afford by that blood to free them even from their guilt in shedding it. Surely Christ will appear in judgment one day. Meanwhile He is announced as Leader and Saviour to give Israel just what they wanted — repentance and remission of sins.

There was testimony more than adequate — abundant: ‘And we are [His] witnesses of these things [or, words], and the Holy Spirit Whom God gave to those that obey Him.’ Compare the Lord’s own words in John 15:26, 27. ‘But when the Comforter is come Whom I will send unto you from the Father, the Spirit of truth Which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me, and ye also bear witness, because ye are with Me from the beginning.’

The Holy Spirit is not only their power of duly remembering the past, but is Himself the Witness of the glory of Christ in heaven. And this blessed Spirit, Who wrought mightily in the apostles and others set high in the assembly, is given of God to those who submit to the authority of the heavenly Leader. Such is the full force of the peculiar word ‘obey’ (peiqarcevw) employed in verse 32. The distinct personality of the divine Spirit is as carefully guarded here as in ver. 3, though in a different way.

One can hardly conceive an answer more direct than this of the apostles. Israelitish authority was for them a judged system, for were the chiefs not convicted of deadly opposition to the God of their fathers? They might again and again command the apostles to be silent about Him Whom they had hanged, though God had sent Him as Leader and Saviour; nor was it their testimony only, but that of the Holy Spirit also, Whom the Jews could not pretend to have. How awful and terrible their position!

‘And when they heard, they were cut to the heart [lit., sawn asunder] and took counsel20 to slay them’ (ver. 33). It is always dangerous to oppose the truth, and the more so in proportion to the importance of that in question. Here it was the foundation of all, and so estimated by those whom the Lord called to proclaim it, and as the adversaries were resolved to reject the testimony, they all naturally betook themselves to designs of blood. Convicted yet rebellious, and abhorring the witnesses whom they could not gainsay, they were chagrined to the utmost, and consulted to slay those before them. No compunction, still less self-judgment, as in Acts 2, but they were torn with rage.

Then the God, Who by His angel had just brought His exposed servants out of prison, was pleased to shield them from these more and more guilty murderers, and wrought after another sort of providential interference not now angelic but human. The hearts of all are in His keeping.

‘But there stood up one in the council, a Pharisee, by name Gamaliel, a law-teacher, in honour with all the people, and commanded to put the men [or, apostles] out a little while, and said unto them, Ye men of Israel [or, Israelites], take heed to yourselves as to these men what ye are about to do. For before these days rose up Theudas, saying that he himself was somebody, with whom a number of men, about four hundred, took sides; who was slain, and all as many as obeyed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him (this one) rose up Judas the Galilean, in the days of the census, and drew into revolt people after him, and he perished and all as many as obeyed him were scattered abroad. And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or if this work be of men, it will be overthrown, but if it is of God, ye will not be [or are not] able to overthrow them21 lest ye be found [even] fighting against God’ (vers. 34-39).

From such a quarter these words of sobriety, as opposed to Sadducean violence, were irresistible. There seems no just reason to doubt that Gamaliel is the same celebrated man, son of Rabbi Simeon, grandson of the once famous Hillel; he presided over the Sanhedrim during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius; his son succeeded to the same chief place, and perished during the siege of Jerusalem. Under Gamaliel, we are told in Acts 22:3, Paul studied the law, of which he was styled ‘the glory’, as he was the first to bear the title of Rabban. That he was a Christian publicly, or even secretly, is only the assertion of unscrupulous legendmongers. Scripture gives us not only a perfectly reliable but a most graphic account of the man and of his character, as well as of the way in which he was providentially used at this critical moment.

For his intervention entirely fits in with the entire context, where God is tracing for our instruction how He watches over His own on earth for His glory. There was the manifestation of the Spirit’s presence where they were all assembled and all filled with Him (Acts 4:31), lights in the world, holding forth the word of life, living to the forgetfulness of all selfish interests, whilst the apostles with great power testified of the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 4:32-37). Then follows the display of the energy of the Holy Ghost in judgment of hypocritical deception and covetousness within (Acts 5:1-11), but along with it the renewed activity of miraculous power through the apostles in grace (vers. 12-16). Next, the Jews growingly oppose themselves to the testimony of Christ, but their measures are manifestly frustrated by divine power through the angel which set free the prisoners on their mission of grace and truth (vers. 17-25). Lastly, when the exasperated will of men would proceed to deeds of blood, God interferes in the ordinary way of His providence to protect His faithful servants by a grave and wise man even in the enemy’s camp. The voice of moderation and wisdom, though only natural, prevailed over the rash impulses of pride and passion intermingled with fear. God would still provide a further space for truth to awaken consciences and win hearts among His ancient people, guilty though they were. It was the day of grace, when He would save to the praise of the Lord Jesus. ‘Ye Israelites take heed to yourselves as to these men what things ye are about to do’ (ver. 35)

Of Theudas, who is in the first instance named by Gamaliel, we know no more than Luke records. ‘For before these days rose up Theudas, saying that he himself was somebody, with whom a number of men, about four hundred took sides, who was slain, and all as many as obeyed him were scattered and brought to nothing’ (ver. 36). What less likely than that the Theudas, who, according to Josephus, appeared at least a dozen years after Gamaliel’s speech in the fourth year of Claudius (A.D. 44), can have been so seriously misplaced even by an historian abounding in inaccuracies, as all competent men acknowledge? If Luke had been only an ordinary godly Christian, is it conceivable that he would put into the mouth of a prominent and respected Jew like Gamaliel a falsehood so egregious as antedating the story of Theudas? If he be an inspired writer, it is needless to assert his immaculate exactness. God Who knows all and cannot lie is the true source of inspiration, whoever may be the instrument. The fact is that, on the one hand, the historical accuracy, as tested by the minutest shades of knowledge in the varying conditions and circumstances of which Luke writes freely in his Gospel, and even more amply in this Book of the Acts, is too well known generally by the most competent to need proof here; and, on the other, the name of Theudas22 was too common (cf. Cicero Ad Fam. vi. 10, ed. Orell. iii. 41; Galeni Opp. xiii. 925, ed. KÂhn) to provoke the least well-grounded surprise that more than one so called could rise up among the many insurgent chiefs who agitated the Jews either before or since the death of Herod the Great. Josephus himself alludes to many, of whom he names but three, the Theudas, whose defeat by Fadus he places a dozen years later, seems to have had a far larger following than the 400 men of whom our evangelist writes.

To the believer it is certain that the revolt of Judas the Galilean was subsequent to that of the Theudas of whom Gamaliel spoke. Josephus entirely agrees with the Acts that it was in the time of the census under Quirinus, A.D. 6 (Antt. xviii. sub. init.). And it is remarkable that the Jewish historian, though describing him there as a Gaulonite of the city of Gamala, subsequently (6) speaks of him, just as Gamaliel does in our chapter, as ‘the Galilean Judas’. Had this later mention been withheld, the impugners of revelation would have become loud in decrying Luke as they are absurd in their disposition to treat Josephus as infallible. But short as is the inspired report of Gamaliel’s speech, we have strikingly accurate information of Judas perishing, as to which the historian is silent, and of the mere but thorough scattering of his most numerous supporters, who did not come to naught like Theudas, but again and again reappeared till the last and for a time successful effort terminated in the death of his younger son, Menahem, A.D. 66. ‘After him rose up Judas the Galilean in the days of the census, and drew into revolt people after him, and he perished, and all as many as obeyed him were scattered abroad’ (ver. 37). Whether Origen (Homil. in Luc. xxv.) had authority to say that this Judas really pretended to be Messiah may be doubtful; but he drew his vast crowds with the cry, ‘We have God as our only Leader and Lord.’ The uprising was fanatical as well as revolutionary. But how did it end? pleaded Gamaliel: a question unanswerable.

Then follows his advice of patient waiting for results. ‘And now I say to you, Refrain from those men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or if this work be of men, it will be overthrown, but if it is of God, ye will not be able to overthrow them, lest ye be found also For, even] fighting against God’ (vers. 38, 39). It was the form of toleration which a grave Jew might feel, impressed with recent facts, the character of the accused, and the state of public opinion. But there is far more reference to the issue under God than in the modern doctrine of toleration, which is in general a mere homage to the rights of man, ignoring God and the truth. He may have felt that persecution is a sorry means of subverting error or maintaining truth. Whatever the value or the motives of his judgment, it commended itself to the council, and saved the apostles from a death that seemed imminent.

Perhaps it may not be amiss here to give a specimen of the famous John Calvin’s skill in handling the word of God. In his comment on the passage he first of all shows little favour to the sober speech with which Gamaliel swayed the council and extinguished the fiery zeal of those inclined to extremities. ‘But if any one weigh all duly, his opinion is unworthy of a prudent man. I know indeed that by many it is held as an oracle; but that they judge badly appears with sufficient clearness even from this, because in such a way one must abstain from all punishments, neither were any wickedness to be corrected longer: yea, one must refuse all helps of life, which not even for one moment is it in our disposal to prolong. Both things indeed are said truly: what is of God cannot be destroyed by any efforts of men; what is of men is too weak to stand. But it is a bad inference that meanwhile we must do nothing. Rather should we see what God enjoins: and His will is that wickedness be restrained by us’ (I. Calvani Opp. vi. in loc. Amstel. 1667).

Here breaks out the inflexible rigour which insisted on the burning of the unhappy Servetus, and the excessive punishment of others. Their evil doctrines are not questioned; but what have servants of Christ to do with measures of the kind? We have not so learned Him. The church has no doubt its own responsibility in the spiritual domain; as the world in what pertains to this life. Calvin has confounded all this in the opinion which censures Gamaliel, who meant nothing less than to deny the duty of the powers that be, but rightly urged that men should await the manifestation of that which was doubtful, instead of yielding to the hasty measures of passion and prejudice. To dissuade from extreme violence where the work might prove to be of God was certainly wiser than punishing to the utmost where they knew of no adequate reason. Calvin’s logic seems as precarious as his confusion is evident of things spiritual and worldly. But this is not so extraordinary as his judgment that when Luke says, ‘After him [Theudas] rose up Judas’, he does not mark the order of time, as if Judas were the latter, that Gamaliel brought in his two examples promiscuously ‘in disregard to time’, and that ‘after’ means no more than ‘besides’ or ‘moreover’!23 He had said before, ‘If we credit Josephus, Gamaliel here inverts the true series of history.’ Not so; unless we assume there could be only one insurrectionary Theudas. Now Josephus tells us of four men named Judas in ten years, who broke out in rebellion, and of three named Simon in forty years, and he in no way professes to name all, but on the contrary implies many more as unnamed. The assumption of Calvin is anything but rational and certainly fails in reverence.

As usual, one wrong step leads to many. For Calvin is led thereby into the truly absurd consequence that, if we reckon the time, we shall find that it was at least twelve years since the death of Christ before the apostles were beaten! This blundering computation is founded entirely on confounding the Theudas of Gamaliel’s speech with him who, as Josephus tells us, was dealt with by Cuspius Fadus in the reign of Claudius. ‘Therefore that space of time of which I spoke is complete, and so the more excellent the constancy of the apostles, who, though ill-requited for the long pains they endured, are in no way discouraged, nor cease to hold the even tenor of their way.’ Calvin was a great and good man, I doubt not; but the more striking and instructive is the lesson of boldness and folly when a man, no matter who, abandons the sure meaning of the written word for his own reasoning, which in such a case will ever betray its weak and worthless, not to say presumptuous, character. For what is man when he lifts up his voice against God? We need not dwell on other remarks of the commentator, which let out singular unfairness towards Gamaliel, as there is no desire to defend the latter nor expose the former beyond that measure which seems to be profitable for the reader. But I give his actual words: — ‘Ergo conficitur illud quod dixi temporis spatium. Quo praestantior fuit Apostolorum constantia, qui quum post diuturnos labores obitos tam indignam mercedem reportent, non tamen franguntur, neque desinunt cursum suum persequi.’

‘And to him they yielded, and, having called the apostles, they beat and charged [them] not to speak in [lit. on] the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore went their way from [the] presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to be dishonoured for the Name.24 And every day in the temple and at home they ceased not to teach and preach that the Christ [is] Jesus’25 (vers. 40 42).

Thus, though plucked from death, the apostles suffered the indignity of stripes at the hands of Jews, as Paul was afterwards to experience at least five times. ‘The unjust man knoweth no shame.’ If the Roman judge scourged the Lord of glory, the disciples were not above their Master, and must bear from Jew or Gentile to be treated as wicked men worthy to be beaten, Deut. 25:2. Doubtless it was for their alleged disobedience; and they are dismissed with a fresh command not to speak in the name of Jesus. How senseless is the will of unbelief! Impossible for one who knew His glory and His grace to be silent! God is concerned in such testimony supremely, and not man only or chiefly because he is otherwise lost for ever. And what is due to Him Who so humbled Himself, and suffered for our sins, and glorified God as nothing else could? ‘They therefore went their way from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to be dishonoured for the Name.’ Who can doubt the deep and divinely-sprung joy of hearts that answered in their little measure to Him Whose delight is in His Son above all? What an impulse, not discouragement, to their testimony ‘in the temple’ to all comers (for of course, no proper assemblies would have been permitted there), ‘and at home’ where the saints broke bread, prayed, edified one another, and the like! But everywhere and every day there was but one theme: teaching or evangelizing, it was Jesus as the Christ.

If the chosen people were blind to the Messiah, if they despised Jehovah the Saviour when here, and crucified Him according to the prophets and His own word, it was the more incumbent on those who believed the report of divine grace to bear witness persistently, in love to their unbelieving persecutors, and in care for such of the lost sheep of Israel as were now saved by faith. And this the apostles did with a zeal not to be put down by prison, scourge, or death itself, as we shall see in due time. And God would in honour of His Son awaken others to imitate them as they imitated Christ.

18 The more ancient MSS. and versions reject ‘the priest and’ as in the Received Text. But while one can readily understand the omission from ignorance of the phrase, it is hard to see how some good copies, as well as a great many, accepted it unless genuine. ‘Proclivi lectioni praestat ardua’ is an acknowledged maxim in such matters. The fact is however, that in the Old Testament the use of ‘the priest’ for ‘the high priest’ is common. See Ex. 29:30; Ex. 35:19, Ex. 38:21 Lev. 4:5, 6, 7, 10, 16; Lev. 6:22; Lev. 13:2; Lev. 16:32; Lev. 21:21, Num. 3:6, 32; Num. 4:16, 28, 33; Num. 7:8, Num. 16:37, 39, Num. 18:28; Num. 25:7, 11; Num. 26:1, 3, 63; Num. 27:2, 19, 21, 22, Num. 31:6, 12, 13, 21, 26, 29, 31, 41, 51, 54; Num. 32:2, 28; Num. 33:38; Num. 34:17. Nor is it only in the books of Moses that we find the use of ‘priest thus frequently for ‘high priest’, for so it is in Joshua 14, 17, 19, 21, 22; so in 1 & 2 Sam.; 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chr. So the Lord is predicted in Ps. 110.; Zech. 6. We are not driven, as Krebs would seem to have supposed, to the Apocrypha (1 Macc. 15:1, 2), though the usage is there, and in Josephus (A. vi. 12, 1), to whom he refers. In the New Testament itself compare Heb. 5:6, and (not to speak of Heb. 7:5) Heb. 7:3, 11, 15, 17, 21; Heb. 8:4; Heb. 10:21.

19 The greater copies exclude ‘His’; but the strange reading of B rather strengthens EHP and the mass in holding to it.

20 ἐβουλεύοντο DHP and the bulk of cursives, the Vulgate, Syriac Versions, et al., Lachmann, Tregelles, et al., prefer ἐβούλοντο (‘were minded’) with ABC, et al. (the addition or omission of a syllable in the middle, easily made, is all the difference between the readings).

21 αὐτούς ABCcorr. DE, at least a dozen cursives, the later Syriac et al., as against αὐτό (‘it’) C p.m. HP, most cursives, versions, et al.

22 Abp. Ussher (Works x. 484) identifies the Theudas of Acts 5:36 with one of those called Judas in the days of Archelaus. ‘Cum vero Hebraeorum Yehudah fuerit Syrorum Thudah. indeque Judas et Thaddaeus, multoque magis Theudas idem plane nomen extiterit: non alius videtur fuisse Judas hic quam Theudas ille de quo Gamaliel dixit . . .’

23 It is true that Calvin might have pleaded the example of Eusebius (H.E. i. 5; ii. 11) for the same bad preference of a worldly to an inspired historian: so early, so inveterate, is the working of the evil heart of unbelief, and this in men of reputation. Even Th. de BÂze seems to be ashamed of all this, and certainly scouts the view of his predecessor as unfounded, though he speaks of Eusebius rather than of Calvin.

24 E and many other copies add ‘of the Lord Jesus’, as others simply ‘of Jesus’, or ‘of Christ’, or ‘of Him’, which last is in the Received Text.

25 The Received Text has ‘Jesus the Christ’, Ἰησοῦν τὸν Χριστυόν, HP, et al., not τόν Χριόστον Ἰησοῦν as in AB and very many more.