Last Sunday, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, gave us a snapshot of life in the early church. And he gave us two contrasting examples of both the good and the bad.
First of all, Luke told us about a man named Joseph – otherwise known as Barnabas – the Son of Encouragement. Filled with the Holy Spirit and motivated by love for the church, he sold a field he owned and gave the money to the apostles to give to the needy within the church. This was a great example of the generosity and care for each other that was common within the church in those early days!
But in contrast to Barnabas, Luke then goes on to tell us about another couple – Ananias and Sapphira. With hearts filled by Satan and motivated by pride – they also sold some land and gave the money to the apostles. However, they kept some of the money for themselves and decided to lie about it to the Apostles (and really, to the Holy Spirit) – claiming that they had given everything, when in fact, they had not. For their deception and as a strong warning to the rest of the church, the Lord stuck them both death.
Their sudden and dramatic deaths would have been quite a shock to the church, I’m sure! In fact, verse 11 tells us that…
11 Great fear gripped the entire church and everyone else who heard what had happened.
And that verse kinda sets the stage for the rest of the chapter. As we finish up Acts chapter 5 today, we’re going to see that God continues to do some amazing things in and through the church, and people just don’t know what to make of it all!
Are these followers of Jesus good or bad? Are they doing these amazing things with trickery and slight of hand or is God really behind it all? And perhaps most importantly, is their message of faith in Jesus merely empty ramblings, or is it really the Gospel truth?
Those are the questions that everyone was asking, and those are the questions that Luke wants you to consider as well!
So after these two contrasting examples of believers within the church – Luke goes on to give us a sense of how the church was being perceived from those outside the church. He gives us this summary starting in verse 12:
12 The apostles were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers were meeting regularly at the Temple in the area known as Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 But no one else dared to join them, even though all the people had high regard for them. 14 Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. 15 As a result of the apostles’ work, sick people were brought out into the streets on beds and mats so that Peter’s shadow might fall across some of them as he went by. 16 Crowds came from the villages around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those possessed by evil spirits, and they were all healed.
What an amazing time in the life of the church! And the way I read these verses, it seems to me that people of Jerusalem had a view of the early church that was much like my view of electricity.
Electricity is a powerful and amazing thing and I’m so glad we can harness it’s power for all the good that it does in our lives – however, its not something I want to mess around with! I’ll gladly use it every day, but I don’t want to get involved in all the inner workings – the wires and fuses and breakers and such… I have a healthy respect and a reverent fear of electricity – so I’ll prefer to keep my distance from all that stuff.
And that’s kinda how the people of Jerusalem saw the early church. They saw something that was powerful and amazing, but they didn’t want to get too close! They didn’t want to get personally involved.
Notice how verse 13 tells us that even though the believers were meeting as a group regularly at the temple, nobody else dared to join them – even though they had high regard for them.
And that’s not too surprising. You’ll remember how this church of about 10,000 people now were characterized by love for one another – in fact, there was no needy among them because they all just took care of each other. That in itself must have been quite notable and quite attractive to the other people in Jerusalem. I imagine everyone wanted to be part of a group like that. Plus the apostles were doing some amazing miracles – it seems that people were being healed even by having Peter’s shadow fall upon them – and so you might think that everyone would flock to join this new group.
However, I’m sure the stunning deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, plus the fierce opposition from the Jewish religious leaders may have caused them to consider this group with a bit more caution.
And I think we see that same kind of reaction to the church even today. A lot of people respect the church for the good things we do – they are pleased to see us get involved in the community, they appreciate us helping the needy and running our different programs. They are happy to send us the sick and down-trodden – but they sure don’t want to get involved themselves!
They don’t want to get too close! Maybe they don’t want to get labeled as a religious fanatic or or maybe they’ve had some bad experiences with the church before, or maybe they just don’t want to accept message of Jesus that we preach. But for whatever reason, they don’t dare to join us.
And I think that’s always been the case for the church. There are always great crowds of people who are interested in the church and maybe even attend on a Sunday morning, but there are far fewer who actually enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That was certainly Jesus’ experience! The crowds loved all the good things he did – but only a few chose to truly believe his message and join him in the kingdom! Jesus said in Matthew 7:13…
13 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.
This is certainly one case where you don’t want to be part of the majority! And I pray that you’re not. I pray that each one here today will be one of the few who find and choose the narrow gateway to life!
But getting back to Acts, there were a lot of people who were walking down that broad road destruction. But among the majority of those in Jerusalem who didn’t want to get too close to the power of Christ, there were still a few outliers – a few who found the narrow road to life! Verse 14 says….
14 Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. Acts 5:14
God was still very clearly at work – drawing people to Himself, just like he continues to do today!
Now it’s at this point that we see yet another reaction to the church. And this reaction was certainly not the reverence and respect like we’ve seen in the crowds. Take a look at verse 17…
17 The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. Acts 5:17-18
Again, this is not a surprising reaction. This is exactly how the religious leaders responded to Jesus – with jealousy! And, as we’re going to see, the religious leaders were prepared to kill the Apostles just like they killed Jesus. But for now, they threw them in the public jail and would put them on trial in the morning. However, God had some other plans. Take a look at the next verse:
19 But an angel of the Lord came at night, opened the gates of the jail, and brought them out. Then he told them, 20 “Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!” 21 So at daybreak the apostles entered the Temple, as they were told, and immediately began teaching.
While most of the Apostles would eventually be killed for their faith, that day was not today! In a miraculous intervention, God sent an angel to go and open the gates of the jail and to lead the Apostles out to freedom! Then, they were instructed to use their freedom to share the message of Jesus – the message of life – with everyone who entered the temple!
And so the Apostles did exactly as they were told! They went right back into the temple and continued bolding preaching and teaching as if nothing had happened!
And so far, no one else seemed to realize that anything had happened! Look what happened next:
When the high priest and his officials arrived, they convened the high council—the full assembly of the elders of Israel. Then they sent for the apostles to be brought from the jail for trial. 22 But when the Temple guards went to the jail, the men were gone. So they returned to the council and reported, 23 “The jail was securely locked, with the guards standing outside, but when we opened the gates, no one was there!”
24 When the captain of the Temple guard and the leading priests heard this, they were perplexed, wondering where it would all end. 25 Then someone arrived with startling news: “The men you put in jail are standing in the Temple, teaching the people!”
You can imagine what a shock this would have been for the leading priests! First of all, how in the world did the Apostles get out of jail? The doors were locked, the guards were standing guard – but yet no one was in the jail cell! And secondly, how in the world could they be so bold as to go right back the temple and continue teaching the people – the very reason they had been arrested in the first place?! This was a boldness like they had never seen – except for maybe in Jesus! Well, verse 26 continues:
26 The captain went with his Temple guards and arrested the apostles, but without violence, for they were afraid the people would stone them. 27 Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. 28 “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!”
You can tell that the high priest and the high council were just livid with the Apostles! The Apostles had completely had defied their authority and had entirely ignored their strict commands never to preach again in Jesus name! Instead, they had filled Jerusalem with their teachings about Jesus. And what’s more – the apostles’ message pinned the death of Jesus squarely on them! (Which of course, is where it belonged – but that’s certainly not the way they wanted to spin the story.)
So what did the Apostles have to say about all this? Well, Peter responds to them in verse 29:
29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by hanging him on a cross. 31 Then God put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. 32 We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”
In other words, when forced to decided between obedience to God or obedience to human authority – Peter clearly stated that they must choose to obey God. God had clearly over-ruled the High council regarding Jesus – since God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead after the high council had put him to death. In fact, God was the one who placed Jesus in the place of honour at his right hand as Prince and Savior – and so clearly, the high council was wrong about Jesus. Therefore, the Apostles had to choose to obey God rather than them and would continue preaching Salvation in Jesus’ name!
God had chosen them to be witnesses of all these things and had commanded them to bring this message of life to the people of Israel so that they would repent of their sins and be forgiven. And all those miraculous signs and wonders – including the apostles’ miraculous escape from jail – was all done through the power of the Holy Spirit – which affirmed God’s affirmation of what the Apostles were doing.
And so, their orders from God were clear and there was no way that the Apostles were going to change their course – no matter what the high council said or did.
Well, as you can imagine, this did not sit well with the high council. Verse 33 says….
33 When they heard this, the high council was furious and decided to kill them. 34 But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. 35 Then he said to his colleagues, “Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! 36 Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. 37 After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered.
38 “So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!”
There are a couple of interesting points in these verses. First of all, as we read, Gamaliel was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people. But as we will read later, he was also the Pharisee who was the primary mentor for Saul (who of course, would eventually become the Apostle Paul). It’s interesting that Gamaliel’s advice was to leave this ‘Jesus movement’ alone and let it naturally die out over time – whereas, when Saul, his protege – comes on the scene in just a few chapters, he’s fully ready to wipe out every Christian in the known world! It’s quite interesting that Saul had such a different approach than Gamaliel – even though he had apprenticed under him.
But Gamaliel’s advice in this situation is actually pretty sound. Movements do tend to die out when their leader is gone. And so if this ‘Jesus movement’ really is just the latest fad, well, with Jesus gone now, it will soon fade away.
But if God really was behind all this, then nothing they could ever do would stop this movement. In fact, they would find themselves fighting against God – which is not a position that anyone wants to be in!
And so we read in verse 40:
40 The others accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go.
It seems they were convinced enough not to kill the Apostles, but no so convinced as to just send them on their way. Instead, they had them flogged and warned them yet again never again to speak in the name of Jesus. I suppose their hope was that they could intimidate the Apostles into staying quiet.
But of course, that didn’t work at all. The chapter concludes with these words:
41 The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. 42 And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.”
You know, again, I’m reminded of the incredible transformation we see in the lives of the Apostles! They went from a ragtag group of fishermen – afraid to even admit to a little girl that they followers of Jesus – to being a bold witness for Christ – not backing down from anyone and even rejoicing after being flogged – rejoicing that God counted them worthy of suffering for the name of Jesus!
What a transformation when God gets a hold of a person’s life! There really is no stopping them!
And that’s kinda the theme that comes out of this chapter – there really is no stopping God!
- Ananias and Sapphira’s deception couldn’t derail the work of the Lord in the church.
- The Apostles getting thrown into prison couldn’t stop them from preaching in the temple the very next day.
- The orders of the high council couldn’t halt the advancement of the Kingdom of God!
When God is at work, nothing is going to stop Him! As Gamaliel said:
“If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” Acts 5:38b-39a
God’s purposes will always prevail. I think this can be both a warning and an encouragement for us. One one hand, if we are doing things in our own strength – following our own plans and pursuing our own agenda apart from God – our efforts are going to be futile. It will soon be overthrown.
Psalm 127:1 says..
Unless the Lord builds a house,
the work of the builders is wasted.
Unless the Lord protects a city,
guarding it with sentries will do no good.
And that’s very true. Human effort – apart from God – is really useless. In John 15, where Jesus talks about how he is the vine and we are the branches, he reminds us “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Nothing of eternal value will happen unless God is in the middle of it!
But on the flip side of that, if God is in the middle of something – nothing can stop it! If it is from God, you will not be able to overthrown them!
Proverbs 19:21 reminds us…
21 You can make many plans,
but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.
So maybe this morning you want take a moment to examine your plans. Are they just your plans or are they God’s plans? You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.
What have you been putting all your effort into? Accomplishing your purposes or accomplishing God’s purposes? Because unless the Lord builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted.
Whose agenda have you been following in your life – your own agenda or God’s agenda?
Because if you are planning and doing these things merely on your own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, no one will be able to overthrow them.
Yield your life to the purposes of God because the Lord’s purpose will prevail.