Alice Thompson lived with her parents in rural southern Illinois. Besides a house and a tool shed, the other building on their small acreage was a chicken coop where the egg-laying hens roosted. When young Alice found some matches, she took them into the chicken coop to see if she could figure out how to strike one. She did figure it out, and held the burning wooden matchstick until it got too hot, then dropped it. Instead of burning out, the bit of flame fell on a piece of straw, which came alive with fire.
Determined that no one know about the matches, Alice covered up the flame with readily available material — a handful of straw For a minute, it seemed to work, but then the pile began to smolder. She decided to smother the whole thing, so she scooped up a full armload of straw to bury the evidence once and for all. Satisfied that she had finally taken care of the matter, she ran out into the yard to play. Soon the chicken coop had burned to the ground.
In the book of Acts, the high priest saw a fire and wanted to get it under control. If he knew anything, it was that he was supposed to be the central religious figure of the day. He was the keeper of God, not these upstart followers of Jesus. The high priest was a busy man. He had a demanding job juggling the many responsibilities of managing the Temple and keeping the Roman authorities at bay. The Romans were easily fanned into fiery responses when any local disturbance happened in Jerusalem. It was the high priest’s job to keep them happy.
This whole matter concerning Jesus had been a threat. There was too much civil unrest. That march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday bordered on anarchy. It had to be stopped. The high priest thought that burying Jesus seemed like the best solution. If he were done with Jesus, then he would be done with civil unrest, and done with excited crowds. If he were done with Jesus, he could get back to the business of being high priest.
But as it turned out, it seemed like he had merely buried the match with straw. Three days of calm were followed by pesky claims that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Rumors flew around Jerusalem. Smoke rose from the straw and threatened to burst into open flames again.
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It had been 50 days, and now at Pentecost the smoke was worse. Peter and the other disciples were preaching boldly in the Temple, healing the sick and teaching that in Jesus there is the resurrection from the dead. Peter even said, There is salvation in none other, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, by which we must be saved!” (Acts 4:12)
The worst part was that these men were uneducated and ordinary men. They had not been trained in the Temple, they did not know orthodox teaching, they had no degrees, and they were not approved teachers. They had merely studied under this radical Jesus for three years.
So the high priest put some straw on the flames. He arrested Peter and John, reprimanded them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. He assumed that a direct order from the highest religious authority in Jerusalem should be enough to shut them up.
But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, judge for yourselves, for we can’t help telling the things which we saw and heard” (4:19-20).
The high priest didn’t like that answer at all. But finding no reason to keep these two in prison, he let them go, assuming this new pile of straw had solved the problem.
One chapter later, there was smoke again. Now all twelve of the disciples were teaching the same things in the Temple! These upstart Christians were not good listeners. He had told them to stop that nonsense!
He had let Peter and John off with just a reprimand, and that obviously was not enough. The high priest was determined not to make the same mistake again. So he arrested the whole lot of them, and threw them in prison. There! A whole arm load of straw would solve the problem for sure!
But the prison locks were no match for the Holy Spirit. In the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out of the jail, and told them, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life,” which they promptly did.
The council of the Sanhedrin gathered the next morning ready to throw the book at these disciples, so they sent someone to the prison to bring them out. The temple police hustled off into the dungeon of the prison and came back with an amazing story. “We found the prison shut and locked, and the guards standing before the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside!” (5:23).
The temple police and the Sanhedrin were perplexed about this, and wondered what on earth was going on!
But at that very moment a man arrived from the Temple and announced, “Behold, the men whom you put in prison are in the temple, standing and teaching the people” (5:25).
This was stunning news! And it was disturbing news. Not only had these men escaped from a well-guarded jail cell, but instead of fleeing for their safety, they immediately continued their preaching right in the middle of the temple courtyard. It was a blatant affront to the power of the high priest!
But the high priest was in a spot now! Look how popular these men and their message had become. The crowds were not only impressed with the miraculous escape from prison, but they were believing this message about the Risen Jesus!
The high priest knew he could not deal too harshly with the disciples because of the crowds. So the escaped prisoners were gingerly escorted back to yet another full meeting of the Sanhedrin.
When the disciples stood before the high priest, he said, “Didn’t we strictly command you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us” (5:28).
The high priest refuses to say the name of “Jesus” as he berates his captives and scolds them for their disobedience. It was a sign of contempt toward Jesus, but it was also a means of trying to keep the Sanhedrin members at arm’s length from the power of that name!
The high priest levels two additional accusations at the apostles. First, “you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (5:28). It was carefully worded to suggest that what the disciples teach is their own, not Jesus’ message.
Secondly, the disciples were accused of a vendetta against the authorities for their role in Jesus’ arrest and execution. You “intend to bring this man’s blood on us” (5:28). But the high priest was actually weakening his position because he was uttering the thought that had crossed everyone’s mind.
For Peter and John, this is round two. They had faced the Sanhedrin on the same charges and with the same warnings before. For the rest of the apostles, this is their first experience standing before the Council.
When the high priest forbids Peter to witness, he might as well have been forbidding Peter to breathe. Peter once again takes up his new role as voice of the disciples. He replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).
What a choice! By portraying their decision in these terms, Peter was calling back to the long history of Israel, which is filled with stories of men and women who bravely chose to obey God rather than their human rulers. How could the Sanhedrin possibly argue with such a choice?
Then in verses 30-32, Peter gives a brief summary of the gospel in a mere handful of words:
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Peter strongly asserts that it was God who raised up Jesus. It was the same God of their ancestors. The story of Jesus is a part of the ongoing salvation story of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Then he again asserts that these Jewish leaders killed Jesus, and adds that they killed him by “hanging him on a tree.” This phrase is taken directly from Deuteronomy 21:23, which says, “…for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Peter knows that part of the reason behind the cry of the crowd to “crucify him” was so that the religious authorities could point to the manner of Jesus’ death, recite this verse from Deuteronomy and proclaim Jesus “cursed.”
Instead, Peter proclaims that God had exalted Jesus and made him leader and Savior. Peter is more concerned with testifying about the wondrous good news of the Savior than he is in fixing blame for Jesus’ death. Peter is saying that even the members of the Sanhedrin must seek Jesus as their Savior if they want to experience the repentance and forgiveness God would offer Israel.
Verse 33 says, “They, when they heard this, were cut to the heart, and determined to kill them.” The council is enraged to the point of wanting to silence Peter forever, as they thought they had silenced Jesus. They are politicians who fear a loss of power and credibility, as well as repercussions from Rome. They are the officials of faith, and do not take kindly to being upstaged in the realm of religion. Killing Peter could solve the problem of his filling up Jerusalem with impassioned teaching and relieve the building pressure of their rage.
But in the end, the level head and historic perspective of council member Gamaliel prevailed. He said,
“You men of Israel, be careful concerning these men, what you are about to do…. Now I tell you, withdraw from these men, and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!” (5:36-39).
He recognized that this criminal was not a common market thief, and that in time one of two things would happen. The chicken coop would be reduced to ashes and lost to memory, or the fire would spread, refusing to burn itself out. It was beyond the power of the high priest to determine the outcome.
The high priest had lost. No matter how much straw he had doused on this fire, the flames kept coming back. In the end, he could only order that the accused be flogged, scolded, and released again. They were ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus again!
But the disciples were barely out the door when they were heard to be rejoicing that they had had the honor of suffering in the name of Jesus.
The chapter ends with this line, “Every day, in the temple and at home, they never stopped teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2010, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.