It is appropriate that in this second Sunday of Easter—the week immediately following the glorious celebration of the resurrected Christ—the New Testament reading contains an amazing story of the apostle’s courage and boldness in the face of opposition. Acts 5:27-32 beautifully displays the fearlessness the Holy Spirit bestows upon us when we are living in the resurrection of Christ.
In order to understand the full weight and context of this passage, one must look back over the last two chapters of Acts. A lot has happened to the early believers since Pentecost a few weeks prior: Peter and John were arrested for healing a crippled man and preaching in the Temple. After a harsh warning from the elders and rulers of Jewish religious law, they were released with the instruction to never again preach in Jesus’ name. But, being filled with the courage and boldness that came with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling among them, the apostles continued to heal many and preach publicly. They were arrested again and thrown in prison, but God miraculously arranged for their release and sent them back into the Temple to preach the name of Jesus. Now, in this week’s passage, our heroes find themselves in front of the high priest and other religious officials for a third time.
When asked by the Jewish ruling council, “Did we not give you strict orders not to teach in this name?” their response is fierce and bold: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)
Recently in American Christian circles, “civil disobedience” has become somewhat of a trend. Our ingrained spirits of independence and individualism cause us to have a desire to “stick it to the man;” even better when we can do so in the name of Christ. We might commit small, insignificant acts of “civil disobedience”—such as saying “Merry Christmas” when someone wishes us “Happy Holidays” or loudly proclaiming “under God!” when reciting the United States pledge of allegiance. Some American evangelicals go so far as to cry “persecution” when other religious groups are given the same rights as Christians.
It seems that everybody wants to be a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr.—up unto a point, at least. When it comes to actually losing your livelihood or costing your life, people quickly tend to get quiet. The “martyr complex” is a lot less glamorous for actual martyrs.
What Peter and the other apostles were doing was not a harmless or innocent thumb-nosing of the Jewish ruling council. The apostles were literally risking their lives by refusing to remain silent about Jesus. The persecution they were facing was real and imminent. As we see in the very next verse following this passage, “the high council was furious and decided to kill them” (Acts 5:33). The apostles understood the risks and had counted the cost; the fears of consequences they could face in this world diminished in comparison to the power and might that the Holy Spirit gave them. They knew that death was not the end since Christ had overcome it and provided a way for our salvation and resurrection. This was the moment they had prayed for in Acts 4:29: “And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” So they loudly proclaimed in the face of persecution, “We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard!” (Acts 4:20) Ultimately, the apostles knew that they must obey God rather than any human authority.
Particularly in this political season, we are so easily tempted to put our trust in human authority rather obeying God. That human authority may come in the cloak of fear: “You have to protect your rights! We are being persecuted!” That human authority may falsely look like the answer to all of our problems and the potential savior of our country or world. Or maybe we are tempted to obey those nagging questions that haunt our thoughts: “But what would people think?” “How can I best protect my interests?” “What can I do to get ahead?”
What are those earthly things or human authorities that demand our allegiance and call out for our obedience? In what ways have we let fear direct our path rather than praying for the courage that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit? This Easter season, in what ways might God be calling us to be bolder for the sake of God’s Kingdom?
It’s ironic that the Jewish rulers and priests accused the apostles of trying “to bring this man’s blood on us.” Because, in a sense, that was exactly what Peter and the other apostles were hoping to do: they were trying to make people understand that it is by the sacrificial blood of Jesus we are saved. These religious leaders were so caught up in obeying the purification rites and ritual sacrifices of Jewish law that they had completely missed the fact that Jesus had become both our High Priest and sacrificial lamb: “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27). Even while under interrogation, the apostles did everything they could to win the Jewish leadership over to the Way of Christ. They were “witnesses to these things” (Acts 5:32) even in the face of persecution. Unlike what happens in many evangelical Christian circles today, the apostles were not engaging in civil disobedience for the sake of putting on a display or a show. They were profoundly compelled to do everything in their power to draw people into the Kingdom of God--even their oppressors and persecutors! Their witness was that Christ had risen indeed, and they were not afraid to tell the world.
Ultimately, they did become “witnesses” for Christ in a final sense: the Greek word for “witness” is more accurately translated as “martyr.” Most of the original apostles were killed for preaching the gospel of Christ to the nations. They were truly witnesses even to the end.
So on this Sunday after Easter, may we be filled with that same courage and boldness that the Holy Spirit had given the apostles. May we not remain silent anymore, but loudly proclaim the victory that Christ has over death. May we experience the awesome power of our resurrected Lord. May we have the trust to obey God rather than any human authority. May our joy be so great and our hearts be so full that they cannot be contained as we declare all that the Lord has done for us.