Persecution and Paradoxical Joy
Main Idea: Opposition and persecution cannot stop the advance of the gospel; rather they unwittingly reveal the active power of Jesus in the persevering faithfulness of his blood-bought people.
I. The Apostles’ Impact (Acts 5:12–16)
II. The Apostles’ Arrest and Punishment (Acts 5:17–39)
III. The Apostles’ Response (Acts 5:40–42)
Good morning church. As we turn our attention back to the book of Acts this morning, we are in many ways returning to the central theme of Acts that we highlighted at the very beginning of our study— Nothing can stop the advance of the gospel because the risen and ascended King Jesus is actively enabling its advance through his Spirit-empowered people. The direct threats of the Sanhedrin have not stopped the advance of the gospel. The sin of Ananias and Saphira have not stopped the advance of the gospel. And as we are going to see today, outright persecution cannot not stop the advance of the gospel.
So if you are taking notes today, I’ll be organizing the sermon around three simple headings:
- The Apostles’ Impact (Acts 5:12–16)
- The Apostles’ Arrest and Punishment (Acts 5:17–39)
- The Apostles’ Response (Acts 5:40–42)
The Apostles’ Impact (Acts 5:12–16)
The Power of God in the Temple of God (5:12)
Now I realize that these five verses might raise any number of questions. So let me begin with a question of my own that is anchored in the preceding context. How did the church respond to the Sanhedrin’s threats and demand that they stop preaching about Jesus in Acts chapter 4?
Acts 4:29–30 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
Notice, they prayed for two key things, supernatural boldness that they might continue proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ AND that God would place his divine stamp of approval on their teaching through miraculous healings. Don’t miss this they are not just praying for miracles. They are praying for a supernatural boldness that is accompanied by undeniable evidence of God’s favor and his active work in their midst.
And what do we see in our verses today? We see that God is not only answering their prayer; he is doing it at the very center of Jewish worship and religion, the Temple itself! And in all of this Luke wants his readers to see that Christianity did not grow in a dark, secret corner of the Roman empire, but in the spiritual heart of Israel and in the full light of day. Nothing hidden. Nothing secret. Every act, every miracle, and every gospel sermon open for public inquiry and inspection.
In fact, it is this very public ministry of the apostles and positive response of the people the that fuels the conflict in our rather extended text today. Let’s take a quick look at the people’s response in verses 13–16.
The Peoples’ Response to the Apostles’ Ministry (5:13–16)
Verse 13, Even though some of the Jews appear to be cautiously viewing their ministry from a distance, the Jewish people as a whole are holding the apostles in high esteem, they look on them with great favor, and are listening to their message with the utmost eagerness because they can see that God is actively working through them.
Verse 14, as a result of this, more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. Don’t miss this, the apostles are not simply gathering a group of miracle seekers or lecture attenders. No. Jewish men and women are coming to faith in Jesus as they hear and believe the message that Jesus and his church are the direct fulfillment of God’s Old Covenant Promises through the prophets. Now, Luke could have stopped here but he didn’t. And that’s because he wants us to grasp the monumental impact of the apostles’ ministry in Jerusalem and the resounding towns. Notice how do the Jewish people respond.
Verse 15, they held Peter in such high esteem that they laid their sick on the side of the street hoping that Peter’s shadow might fall on them! Now does this mean that the Jews were superstitiously hoping that Peter’s shadow might heal their illness OR that countless people were truly healed by Peter’s shadow? Even though I’m not sure, I lean rather tentatively toward the first option because of an explicit detail that Luke records in verse 16 that he does not in verse 15—”and they were all healed.”
Notice in verse 16 that good news of the apostles’ ministry isn’t restricted to the temple courts or the city of Jerusalem. No, it’s spread like wildfire into the surrounding towns. And how do they respond? They bring their sick and demon possessed people to the apostles that they might be healed and delivered. And how many are healed? Some, most, many? NO. All of them were healed. Every single person that was brought to the apostles was healed in the name of Jesus Christ. This is an overwhelming manifestation of God’s presence and power!
God is answering their prayer in the most amazing ways and as he does the message of the gospel is spreading from Jerusalem into the surrounding regions of Judea. This is important because it’s Luke’s way of telling us that Acts 1:8 is being fulfilled!
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
But it is this very success and popularity that sparks the conflict in the following verses.
The Apostle’s Arrest (Acts 5:17–39)
Their Arrest (Acts 5:17–26)
Did you notice the immediate contrast between the people of Israel and the high priest and the Sadducees in this verse? The temple authorities are not filled with joy and awe and wonder at the obvious work of God in their midst. Nor are they filled with interest and curiosity. No. They are filled with jealousy and gripped with envy over the rapid expansion of the Apostles’ ministry and their soaring popularity among the people of Israel. And to add insult to injury, it’s happening in the temple itself.
And this is important because it helps us see, once again, that Israel’s religious leaders are spiritually bankrupt; they have forsaken their true calling. The chief priest and the Sadducees are not jealous for God’s glory. They are not jealous for his Word. There are not waiting for his promises. Nor can they celebrate the obvious outpouring of his mercy and power in their midst; even though nothing like this has happened in the history of Israel. Yet in all of this, they are not moved to praise and worship, they are moved to jealousy and they arrest the twelve in hopes that they can contain their influence and intimidate them into silence.
But what happens? God vindicates his apostles’ by sending an angel to not only deliver them from prison but to command them to immediately return to the temple and continue preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Don’t miss this, God is not rescuing the apostles from danger, he is sending them right back into the very heart of the “lions’ den.” Yet in this God is doing two things: he is saying these are my messengers and this is the message that I want my people to hear. And he is answering their prayer for boldness… you don’t need boldness when life and ministry is easy, you need boldness when life and ministry are hard. And most certainly when faithful ministry puts you in direct conflict with those who have authority over you… especially when they are abusing their authority.
Their Boldness (5:27–33)
The first thing I want you to see in these verses is that the apostles have clearly disobeyed the high priest and the Sanhedrin (“the counsel” v. 21).
The second thing I want you to see is that the disciples’ disobedience was not simply a matter of rebellion against men but their wholesale obedience to God— “we must obey God rather than men” (v.29). As we saw three weeks ago, A person’s obedience to God always trumps their God-given call to submit to their religious or political authorities. Yet in this, I think it’s important to point out that the apostles’ actions in this instance are not a simple matter of “civil disobedience” in the popular modern sense. What I mean by this is that they are not responding to a societal injustice in hopes that they can raise awareness of and end a true injustice. Nor are they standing up for their civil rights. As Brian Vickers points out in his commentary on these verses: “True, injustice abounds on the council’s part, but it is not the cause of, nor does it lead to, the apostles’ decision to continue speaking and preaching in Jesus’ name. Yes, the apostles hope for change! But the change they seek is faith and repentance, not freedom of speech. In fact, they apparently do not even need official freedom to preach in the temple because they have been commissioned by Christ himself and commanded by an angel to do the very thing that the Sanhedrin has forbidden.” This is, first and foremost, a matter of obedience to God (v. 29).
The third thing I want you to see is that for all of its abuse of authority and complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the apostles are not withholding the gospel from the Chief priest and the Sanhedrin. Yes, they killed him. Yes, God reversed their death sentence by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand. But, for what end? So that Israel might find repentance and forgiveness of sins in the rejected but resurrected Jesus Christ! Don’t miss this, the apostles are responding to the injustice and threats of the Sanhedrin by faithfully proclaiming God’s free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Yet, it is at this very point that the chief priest and Sanhedrin reveal their spiritual blindness and utter hatred of Jesus. They have seen countless miracles in Jesus’ name. They have heard countless sermons explaining how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises through the prophets. They have seen the work of the promised Holy Spirit in their midst. And they have witnessed the love, compassion, and care that defined the early church. They have every reason to slow down, to lean in, to ask questions, and to open the Scriptures and see what they have to say. But they don’t… They fly into a murderous rage because they have already rendered their verdict. And they would have killed the apostles on the spot if a wise but unbelieving Pharisee had not intervened.
The Teacher’s Warning (5:34–40)
We still have a lot to cover so I’d like to quickly highlight three things in this section about Gamaliel.
One, Gamaliel is a very important figure in Israel. Like the apostles he is held in honor by all the people. Which means that he is well known for his steadfast commitment to both God and his Word. But even more in Acts 22:3 we find out that the apostle Paul studied under Gamaliel. Just think about it, even though we have no evidence that Gamaliel ever became a Christian; in the providence of God, he not only protected the 12 apostles from death; he unknowingly prepared the future apostle Paul for ministry.
Two, even though Gamaliel’s proposal reveals a high view of God’s sovereignty and ultimately saves “the 12” by swaying the Sanhedrin, it falls short as spiritual advice. As a broad historical principle is he right? Yes, there are over 2 Billion Christians today. But waiting to see how things turn out is not a proper response to difficult situations! He does not encourage the Sanhedrin to consider the apostle’s claims that God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus nor does he call them to examine the countless miracles that have accompanied their teaching. He opts for a pragmatic solution that is loosely based on general principles instead of searching the Scriptures to see if their message was true (like the Bereans in Acts 17:11).
Three, Gamaliel’s pragmatism might have saved “the 12” from sudden death, but it did not protect them from the Sanhedrin’s wrath or from experiencing their first taste of real suffering and persecution for Christ.
Acts 5:40 And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
As Craig Keener notes in his commentary: Many scholars believe that the “beating” in verse 40 was the traditional Jewish punishment of thirty-nine lashes (cf. 2 Cor 11:24) … In the custom preserved in later rabbinic sources, the person would be tied to a post or lie on the ground, receiving one-third of the blows on the front of the body and two-thirds on the back. Thus, the one inflicting the punishment would strike a strap of calf leather with interwoven thongs against the offender’s back twenty-six times and the chest thirteen times.
This was not a simple slap on the wrist! According to historical records, this punishment left countless people close to death, if not dead, from the sheer loss of blood (Marshall 1980: 124). In modern terms we would say that they were beaten to within an inch of their life for the obedience to Christ. But it is at this very moment of uncontrollable blood loss, flayed flesh, and mind-numbing pain, that we see the power of God and the accuracy of Gamaliel’s proposal in the apostle’s response.
The Apostles’ Response (Acts 5:41–42)
These two verses never cease to amaze me. The apostles do not respond with angry, defiant determinism, like a High School delinquent being hauled off to the principle’s office or Saddam Hussein walking to the gallows. Nor do they respond in disillusioned self-pity that God did not stand up for them. No, they respond to their brutal flogging with joy. In fact, the present participle “full of joy” (χαίροντες) in the original Greek emphasizes the truth that this joy is not just a brief emotional reaction in the presence of their persecutors but a continuous and overflowing sense of paradoxical gladness.
And in this we see the power of God on display in their lives. What I mean by this is that their joy is not the delight of a masochist who finds a twisted sense of pleasure in physical pain. No. Their joy is anchored in the Spirit-empowered boldness, perseverance, and tenacious faithfulness that led to the pain— they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus because they did not cower in the face of the Sanhedrin’s threats. Or to put it another way, they understood that their beating was directly linked to their obedience to Jesus Christ.
But even more than this, Luke tells us that they did not cease teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Christ in the temple and from house to house! Their beating did not destroy their obedience! They didn’t pull back, they didn’t retreat to friendlier towns, they didn’t restrict their ministry to “house to house.” They boldly returned to the temple in their physical weakness and pain (bloody, bruised, and bandaged) to continue preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In light of this, I think Luke’s main point in this passage is this: Opposition and persecution cannot stop the advance of gospel because they unwittingly reveal the active power of Jesus in the persevering faithfulness of his blood-bought people.
Don’t miss this, the promise that nothing can stop the advance of the gospel is not a promise that evangelism or the Christian life is easy. It’s a reminder that even though we are responsible to proclaim the gospel and live a life that is worthy of the gospel, God is responsible for its effectiveness because he is the one who empowers its advance. And that gives everyone of us hope!
So how can the truths of this passage help us today? Well, let me highlight one application.
When Christians face opposition, social ostracism (shame), or outright persecution for their steadfast commitment to Jesus it is NOT a sign that God has lost control or that Satan is “winning;” it’s an indication that Jesus is our greatest treasure.
Matthew 13:44–46 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
What I want you to see in this, is that public shame and persecution are designed to threaten and attack our earthly treasures like: positions of influence, social respect, workplace opportunities, financial security, and physical safety. And when we see this, we can see that they are ultimately directed toward one of two primary goals: (1) to compel us to abandon Christ OR (2) to punish us for our commitment to Christ.
Christian, we are living in a dark and confusing time. We not getting more popular. One the one hand, the American church is a mess. It has been rocked by scandalous sin at the highest levels of leadership. And its gospel, in many cases, has been perverted by degenerate preachers into a self-serving pursuit of health, wealth, and prosperity. It’s a travesty of the highest order and it rightfully deserves condemnation. But, on the other hand, the church is facing increasing conflict and condemnation for our steadfast commitment to the gospel and the authority of God’s Word. Specifically, our refusal to worship the modern idol of wanton, untethered sexuality or to sanction its bloody sacrament of abortion. And as a result, we are increasingly called haters and oppressors and abusers. But, why? The simple reason is that we belong to Jesus and are trying to live a life that magnifies his worth above all earthly things.
John 15:20–21 Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
 “Luke does not say that Peter’s shadow actually had any healing effect, but that this was the expectation of the crowds (cf. 19:11–12 note);” (David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009], 215).
 Brian J. Vickers, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in John–Acts, ESV Expository Commentary, ed. Iain M. Duguid, James M Hamilton, and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 384.
 “Peter declares that Jesus was also exalted as ‘Savior.’ In the OT, Yahweh is the Savior of Israel—the only Savior. As Isaiah records, ‘I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.… I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior’ (Isa. 43:3, 11; cf. 45:15, 21; 49:26; 60:16; 63:8; 2 Sam. 22:3; Pss. 17:7; 106:21; Jer. 14:8; Hos. 13:4). Thus by declaring Christ to be ‘Savior,’ the apostles equate him with Yahweh;” (Vickers, “The Acts of the Apostles,” 384–85).
 Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 226.
 Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-14:28 (Grand Rapid: Baker Academic, 2012), 1 & 2:1241.
 Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 252.