19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. – Acts 5:19-26 ESV
This may sound a bit strange, but there’s a part of me that feels sorry for the Jewish religious leaders. I know they’re supposed to be the villain in this story, but they come across as so hapless and helpless in Luke’s account. It is almost as if Luke was intentionally trying to add a bit of levity to the situation. The high priest and the Jewish council or Sanhedrin, over which he presided, had arrested Peter and his fellow apostles for their activities in Solomon’s Portico on the Temple grounds. Their crime? According to Luke, they “were performing many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12 NLT) and “people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed” (Acts 5:16 ESV). Not exactly sinister and seditious activity. But Luke makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was that led the Sanhedrin to arrest the apostles. “The high priest and his officials, who were Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17 NLT). They were jealous. They didn’t like the idea that huge crowds of people were flocking to seen and listen to these uneducated disciples of the dead rabbi, Jesus. They had spent a lot of effort getting rid of their former master. He had been a thorn in their side for three years, teaching about His Kingdom and calling the people to repentance. This Jesus had said some fairly caustic and cutting things to and about them. He had been a nuisance, but now they were facing a resurgence of interest in His teachings on the part of the people because of His trouble-making disciples. And it didn’t help that a big part of the apostles’ popularity was their teaching regarding the resurrection of Jesus and His offer of eternal life. The Sanhedrin was made up primarily of Sadducees, a Jewish religious sect that rejected the possibility and plausibility of resurrection, so this was a particularly touchy subject for them.
So, out of jealousy and frustration, the Sanhedrin had placed the apostles under arrest. Think of it as a form of crowd control. With Peter and this companions in jail, the crowds at Solomon’s Portico would disperse and this would give the Sanhedrin time to think about what their next steps should be. This was not the first time the apostles had faced confinement for their activities. Back in chapter three, we have Luke’s report of the arrest of Peter and John for preaching in Solomon’s Portico.
1 And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. – Acts 3:1-3 ESV
On that occasion, they had threatened and warned the apostles to cease and desist, and had “charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 3:18 ESV). Peter and John had politely refused, stating, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 3:19-20 ESV).
Now, here they were again. Peter had been true to his word, and they had not stopped speaking about, and in the name of, Jesus. So, the Sanhedrin had arrested them one more time. The truth is, they were at a loss as to what to do with these men, because the growing popularity of the apostles was going to be a problem. Thousands had chosen to follow their teachings, and many more were attracted to their miracles and signs. If they shut them down, they could have a riot on their hands. So, they arrested them, most likely in the hopes that they could threaten them once again and bring this entire thing to an abrupt halt. But this is where it gets humorous and the Sanhedrin begin to garner my sympathy. They had no idea what or who they were up against. Luke simply records:
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. – Acts 5:19-21 ESV
The Sanhedrin had the apostles locked up and God set them free. The Sanhedrin were most likely planning to tell the apostles to shut up, and God commanded them to speak up. And He specifically told them to “speak to the people all the words of this Life.” The Greek word, zōē, is translated from the same Hebrew word from which the Greek word for salvation comes. So, God was commanding Peter and the apostles to preach about the salvation or new life found in Christ. It is the same message Peter had spoken to the Sanhedrin in his first encounter with them – “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). It is the same message Peter and the other disciples had heard Jesus teach. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).
While the apostles were preaching new life through Christ, the high priest and his associates were sending the Temple guard to retrieve their prisoners and bring them into their presence so they could interrogate them. But surprise! They weren’t there. Their cells were empty. And the report of the guards had a somewhat familiar ring to it.
“We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” – Acts 5:23 ESV
In his gospel, Matthew records a similar, miraculous release of a servant of God.
2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. – Matthew 28:2-4 ESV
Not only were the guards paralyzed with fear and the massive stone rolled away from the opening. The occupant of this prison was released from the bonds of death and resurrected to new life. Jesus was made alive and set free from the penalty of death. He had paid the price and satisfied the just, holy demands of His Father. And Matthew goes on to record what happened when these guards reported back to the chief priest and the religious leadership.
11 …some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. – Matthew 28:11-15 ESV
God had set Jesus free. And the Sanhedrin had resorted to lying about it. They fabricated a lame story in an attempt to cover up what had really happened. And they paid off the guards, commanding them to state that the body of Jesus had been stolen by His followers. But now, almost two months later, there was renewed talk of Jesus having been resurrected and ample proof that these claims were true. Miracles and signs were being performed by the followers of Jesus. People were being healed. Lame men walked. Demons were being cast out. The gospel was being preached and lives were being transformed. And Luke simply states, “Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to” (Acts 5:24 ESV). Just when these men thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. And the bad news was followed by even worse news.
25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. – Acts 5:25-26 ESV
How do you stand opposed to God? What are you supposed to do when your greatest enemy is God Almighty. The Sanhedrin could concoct all the fake stories they could come up with, but they could not contradict the truth of God. They could deny Jesus’ existence, but they couldn’t do a thing to prevent the message of His resurrection and the reality of redemption taking place all around them. They had killed Him and God had brought Him back to life. They had threatened the apostles and they had continued to speak in Jesus’ name. They had attempted to imprison God’s messengers and confine their message, but God had released them to do what they had been commissioned to do.
The Sadducees were sad, you see. They had no chance of stopping what God had ordained. They could try, but they would fail. And even one of their own, a man named Gamaliel, would end up giving them some very wise counsel regarding the apostles.
38 “…keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” – Acts 5:38-39 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.