This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
When you’re in trouble, are you more likely to feel joy or frustration? When you face opposition, are you more or less committed to faithful obedience? Troubles can deflate us. They can tempt us to wonder if God has forsaken us and whether living godly is worth the pain that often follows.
What if we could be convinced that suffering with Jesus is a great honor, well worth the pain? As the first Christian leaders suffered, their faith was strengthened and their loyal love for Jesus deepened (see Acts 5:17–42).
Arrested, Released, Arrested
For the second time, the apostles were arrested for being faithful. As the preceding report indicates, believers were putting others first and prioritizing gospel preaching, outreach, and diaconal care. And God graced the church with growth and respect (Acts 5:12–16). The church’s divinely blessed success moved the Jewish leaders to jealous retribution (Acts 5:17).
But don’t miss this: God was with his suffering people. Three times in Acts God delivered his servants from prison (cf. Acts 12:5–19, 16:25–40). God doesn’t always extract his people from harm. Most of the apostles were martyred. But neither God nor his word can be bound. God’s enemies are so helpless before his omnipotence that they can’t even keep a couple of fishermen locked up overnight! God either delivers his children from trouble or walks through it with them (Dan. 3:17, 25).
Refusing to be intimidated, the disciples immediately obeyed God and went to the temple to “speak to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). Opposition actually made them trust and obey God more!
The council’s reaction to learning of the apostles’ escape from prison is fascinating. They were “greatly perplexed …wondering what this could come to” (Acts 5:24). They knew something unnatural was happening. But they kept resisting God. Their eyes were blinded from the blazing glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). So, once again, they arrested the apostles and put them on trial.
The council charged the disciples with filling Jerusalem with the doctrine of Jesus and making them guilty of his death. The charge isn’t wrong (see Acts 2:23, 3:14–16, 4:10, 5:30). But blame for Christ’s death goes beyond the Jewish council or a Roman governor. We are all guilty (Rom. 3:19), but only believers claim responsibility for Jesus’s death and seek and find forgiveness in his blood.
Instead of owning their sin, the council members blamed the apostles for civil disobedience. The apostles stood firm: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Their dictum isn’t a free pass for anarchy. God requires that we “show honor, love, and faithfulness to … all who are in authority over” us.[i] But God had ordered the apostles to witness in the name of Jesus (Acts 1:8). So they had to disobey the council’s gag order. Arguments for civil disobedience must focus not on the character of lesser authorities but on the conflict between human and divine commands. And the disciples offer the best example of noncompliance; they followed their protest by actually obeying God.
At this point, council member Gamaliel gave good advice: be careful to try the spirits (1 John 4:1) lest you be found fighting against God. His words were prophetic: this new movement is from God. The ruling council took Gamaliel’s advice by not killing the apostles. But by beating them and again warning them not to speak in Jesus’s name, they show they still aren’t listening.
New Joy and Renewed Obedience?
The apostles had been sternly warned and beaten, probably with rods or whips. They were on pace to meet the same gruesome end as Jesus. So why did they leave the council rejoicing (Acts 5:41)? Because they believed Jesus’s promise that those who are persecuted for true righteousness are blessed. They should “Rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:11–12).
Suffering produces endurance, character, hope, a sharper sense of God’s love (Rom. 5:3–5), and an eternal reward (Rom. 8:18). That’s how Jesus ended his promise: those persecuted for righteousness’s sake have a great reward in heaven (Matt. 5:12). What we lose for Jesus’s sake in this life is always graciously paid back better in the life to come (Heb. 10:34). The disciples weren’t fools. They knew that as they suffered with Jesus they would be glorified with him too.
This is also why they weren’t intimidated into practicing a more moderate faith, but redoubled their efforts to teach and preach Christ (Acts 5:42). Their suffering for Jesus assured them that his name is powerful and worth spreading. Persecution is a sure sign that the gospel is not simply a message about salvation but the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). Some receive that power and are saved. Others resist it with all their might. But what they resist is real power. And the apostles knew it. The right response to religiously motivated suffering is a greater commitment to doing God’s will.
Do you want stronger faith and deeper love for Christ? Consider whether or not Jesus is worth suffering for. And if he is, then rejoice when he allows you to endure hardship. If we aren’t suffering for Christ’s name, we should ask ourselves how we might practice the kind of bold obedience that is sure to produce opposition.
[i] Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 104.