By way of introduction you could recap by reading Acts 5:12-16, which we covered in our last study.
Now read Acts 5:17-42
(Perhaps split amongst those in the group who are willing readers: 17-21a, 21b-24, 25-28, 29-32, 33-40, 41-42)
17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.
Jealousy! – What a powerful emotion. And strange too – we might have expected anger, frustration, even confusion. And it seems specifically because they were Sadducees. So why were they ‘filled with jealousy’?
The High Priest was treated almost like the Pope today. He had supreme religious authority, together with political authority delegated from Rome. He was a man of great power and was revered by the people.
Now his authority was being undermined by a dead man, with many people claiming he had risen from the dead.
Why was that a problem? Sadducees taught that resurrection was not possible.
Not only that, Christians also claimed he was the Messiah and would save people from their sins
Why was that a problem? This challenged the need for regular Temple sacrifices, the role of priests, and ultimately questioned the position of the High Priest himself.
Arresting the Apostles at least gave vent to their Jealousy and gave them time to think. How many of them were arrested we are not told, but it must have been at least Peter and John (see v 29).
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 ‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people all about this new life.’
21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
Try to imagine the elation of the Apostles as they gladly obeyed the Lord’s command. They were envoys of a King who was vastly more powerful than any earthly authority.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin – the full assembly of the elders of Israel – and sent to the jail for the apostles.
And now we can imagine the scene as the Sanhedrin gather: the pomp of the high priest dressed in his great robes of office, other priests in their robes, senior council members also in their finery, the Temple guards in their uniforms – all to impress upon mere mortals their power and authority. When they were all assembled, and the preliminaries concluded, they sent for their prisoners
22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 ‘We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
Deflation: those who minutes ago were pompous and certain of themselves, ‘were at a loss’; it was inexplicable and frightening. Did they also remember a few months back, when the same guards reported that an angel had rolled the stone away to reveal an empty tomb?
25 Then someone came
The authorities had many informers, and someone realised that this was news that must be told.
and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’ 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
I picture a deflated group of officers asking politely if the Apostles would please come with them to the Sanhedrin meeting!
27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’
Their official instructions not to preach had not only been ignored but the Apostles’ preaching had been totally effective – filling Jerusalem. It had also reached the members of the Sanhedrin but it did not mean salvation for them – rather condemnation as it identified them as Christ’s killers, a charge they could not deny. That had been a hasty, possibly illegal decision which had now returned to haunt them.
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead – whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.
The Apostles replied with three indisputable truths:
31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’
33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.
Often the gospel message produces powerful reactions. For those who will accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, it is life-changing. Those who reject Jesus unwittingly join themselves to Satan’s cause, and his purpose has always been to destroy Christ and his Church (Matthew 12:30).
It is worth pointing out that in their culture there was no punishment of imprisonment. Prisons were for holding accused people before their trial. Punishments were corporal, and the death penalty was common.
34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.
Gamaliel was a Rabbi, and had disciples. One such young man was Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22:3) (for more information on Rabbis and disciples see the study on the introduction to JOHN).
35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’
‘if it is from God’: there were many who were beginning to ask this question. The details of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, were well known. Now his disciples were performing miracles in his name and the lives of many thousands were being dramatically changed. The disciples claimed that all this was from God and there was a growing suspicion that they might be right.
40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
In order to try to restore their authority they imposed a punishment. What was the crime? Merely disobedience! They repeated their command not to preach in the name of Jesus but I wonder if they expected for one moment that the Apostles would meekly obey . . .
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
Jesus had warned them to expect this ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad’ (Matthew 5:11-12)
That had now happened, so why did the disciples rejoice? What does ‘suffering disgrace for the Name’ mean?
They recognised that it was a privilege to share in Christ’s sufferings which not everyone would experience; and public punishment brought disgrace.
42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
It seemed that their sufferings had only served to give them more boldness in their ministry.
Does the fear of suffering produce timidity which stops us ‘teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah’ ?
Read verses 1-15
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
Hebraic Jews were those who maintained the language and traditions of their fathers. Hellenistic Jews were those whose mother-tongue and customs were Greek; possibly Jews of the Diaspora, who had returned to settle in Jerusalem.
Because of language or even cultural differences, it seemed that they were being ignored. In the end, they quite rightly had to complain.
2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’
For the Apostles, ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ was far more important than food. But they recognised that there was a need, and it had to be dealt with in a way that would be acceptable to all. Note too that these men must be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’.
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
It’s so encouraging to see their solution: the first six, with Greek names, were probably Hellenistic Jews. Nicolas, also Greek was not a Jew but had been converted to Judaism. That should satisfy everybody!
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly,
We can only guess at numbers. It is likely that many of those who were converted at Pentecost were in Jerusalem for the festival, and had since returned home. But even so, by now there could well have been thousands of Christians.
and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Could it have been that the Priests recognised that the constant ritual slaughtering of animals failed to have any beneficial effect on their own spiritual condition? Maybe they knew from personal experience that ‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). So they gladly welcomed the offer of salvation through the shed blood of the Lamb of God.
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia – who began to argue with Stephen.
There were many Synagogues in Jerusalem and obviously you chose to attend one suited to your ethnic origins. It is possible that this was the one that Stephen attended and so it would have been appropriate for Stephen to evangelise there.
10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Gamaliel’s prediction had come true and they found themselves ‘fighting against God' (Acts 5v39). Note that the Holy Spirit had taken over the conversation and they had no argument they could use against God’s wisdom. So they simply resorted to lies.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law.
At this point it was only the officials at the local Synagogue, but they then got the whole Sanhedrin involved.
They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Remember it was only a little while after the case of the missing prisoners, and that only a little while after the rigged trial of Jesus – so what was now going on in the minds of those who made up the Sanhedrin?