Wednesday May 17, 2023

Acts 5:33-42 - Rejoicing When Suffering

Introduction

     Luke had previously revealed the persecution of the apostles at the hand of the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-18), and how God had supernaturally rescued them from jail so they could continue to preach about Jesus (Acts 5:19-20). Afterwards, the Sanhedrin gathered together and had the apostles arrested a second time in order to question them (Acts 5:21-27). After being reminded that they were commanded to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:28), Peter stated they were under divine orders and said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Peter proceeded to share the gospel, saying, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross” (Acts 5:30), revealing that God had exalted Jesus to His right hand (Acts 5:31), and that the apostles were witnesses of these things (Acts 5:32). Luke recorded the response of the Sanhedrin and the apostles in the following verses.

Text

     Recording the hostility of the Sanhedrin, Luke wrote, “But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them” (Acts 5:33). Here we see the wicked hearts of the Sanhedrin—at least a portion of them—as they wanted to murder the apostles as they had murdered Jesus. But the Sanhedrin was a divided group. Josephus said of the Pharisees and Sadducees, “The Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of friendliness and concern for the public. But the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild; and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.”[1]

     Being a divided group, Luke informs us about one of their esteemed members, saying, “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time” (Acts 5:33-34). Gamaliel was a prominent leader in Israel at this time, and he was also the teacher of Saul, who later became Paul (Acts 22:3). Whereas earlier the high priest had “rose up” in defiance of the apostles (Acts 5:17), here Gamaliel “stood up” against some in his own party and argued for moderation (Acts 5:34). In a calm manner, Gamaliel asked that the apostles be put out “for a short time”, which indicated his confidence that it would not take long for him to argue his case. Luke records the words of Gamaliel as follows:

  • And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered” (Acts 5:35-37)

     Modern historians do not know anything about Theudas mentioned here by Gamaliel. Josephus mentioned a Theudas in his writings, but that was a different man who lived decades later. Gamaliel’s mentioning two men, Theudas and Judas, was to present historical precedents for men who rose up within the Jewish community and had followers, but who failed in their efforts. Both of these men “came to nothing” and “were scattered” among the people. Charles Swindoll states:

  • "Beginning with a short history of other failed movements, he reminded the men that their noninterference policy had served them well in the past. As each would-be messiah or populist movement had surfaced, the Sanhedrin had refused to lend its support for fear of Rome’s wrath. But they had also avoided taking sides with Rome to avoid angering the people. In each case, the deceptive leader was killed, his movement fell apart, and the crisis passed without the Sanhedrin’s involvement (Acts 5:35–37)."[2]

     Warren Wiersbe notes, “In spite of the fact that Gamaliel tried to use cool logic rather than overheated emotions, his approach was still wrong. To begin with, he automatically classified Jesus with two rebels, which means he had already rejected the evidence. To him, this ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ was just another zealous Jew, trying to set the nation free from Rome.”[3]

     Gamaliel argued for a response of noninterference, saying, “So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). Here was an argument for moderation and not hostility. It could be that God was working through this religious non-Christian to mitigate the hostility that was put forth. According to Thomas Constable:

  • "Gamaliel’s point was that if God was not behind the apostles, their influence would peter out in time. Obviously Gamaliel believed that this was the case, or else he would likely have become a Christian. He offered the theoretical option that if the apostles were of God, the Sanhedrin would find itself in the terrible position of fighting against God by opposing them. Obviously Gamaliel believed in the sovereignty of God. He advised his brethren to wait and see. He did not believe that the apostles presented as serious a threat to the leaders of Judaism as the Sadducees believed they did."[4] 

     Apparently, Gamaliel’s rational response was received by the Sanhedrin, as Luke records, “They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them” (Acts 5:40). Though the majority in the Sanhedrin backed off from killing the apostles, they still wanted their pound of flesh, so they ordered them to be whipped and commanded them not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. There was legal precedent under the Mosaic Law that permitted the flogging of a wicked person (Deut 25:2-3). Of course, this was an incorrect application and was unjustly applied. The flogging usually required the victim to be stripped of his shirt and be placed in a kneeling position, whipped both on the chest and back, with one whip on the chest for every two whips on the back.

     Though Gamaliel represented a portion of the Pharisees, apparently they did not all share his view on non-involvement. Later, we will learn about another Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus who took a different view than that of Gamaliel, and rather than live in peace with the early Christians, sought to exterminate them (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-2). This shows that there was not always agreement within the parties. Though Gamaliel seemed to advocate neutrality, he was actually against Jesus, Who said, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Matt 12:30). Jesus had previously prophesied this persecution would happen (Matt 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9).

     Luke records the faith response of the apostles, saying, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Here was a faith response as they were able to frame their suffering from a biblical perspective. Scripture reveals that those who wish to live righteously will suffer persecution (Matt 5:10-12; Phil 1:29; 2 Tim 3:12). Part of the reason for their rejoicing was because they knew God was working through them to bring others to salvation. Furthermore, Christians are called to the very difficult task of not retaliating when attacked. We are to obey the words of Jesus, who tells us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). It is okay to hurt, but not to hate. Operating from divine viewpoint, we walk by faith and trust God to handle the injustice, knowing He is the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) and that “it is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Th 1:6), as God states, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19b). In this way, we follow the example set by Jesus, who, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; and while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23).

     And the apostles continued to follow Jesus’ directive to preach, as Luke tells us, “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). The courage of the disciples was evident, considering their prior hiding during Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. What happened? Where did their courage come from? First, they had seen what the afterlife was like, having beheld Jesus in His resurrection body over many days. Second, the Holy Spirit had fallen on them and empowered them to be witnesses for Jesus. Third, they had Jesus’ promise that He was directing them and was with them, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20). To be encouraged is to receive courage from an outside source. To know that God is with us, for us, and will sustain us in our trials, is to be encouraged to do His will, trusting He will guide and strengthen us along the way, no matter the hardships of life.

Present Application

     God has rescued His people on many occasions (Heb 11:32-35a), but the record of Scripture is that there are numerous times in which He has chosen to permit them to face persecution, even to the point of death (Heb 11:35b-40). Whether rescued from harm or delivered to persecution and death, God always provides grace to the believer who lives by faith in the midst of adversity (Dan 3:16-18; Psa 23; Isa 26:3; ; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Phil 4:6-8). Rejoicing in the midst of suffering is a sign of faith under pressure (Acts 5:40-41; 16:22-25; Rom 5:3-5; Jam 1:2-4). It’s also a sign of spiritual maturity, as the advancing Christian disciplines his/her mind to look to the Lord and His Word rather than people, the world, or the circumstances of this life (Prov 3:5-6; Isa 26:3; 2 Cor 10:3-5; Phil 4:6-8; Col 3:1-2)

     Paul wrote, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, [5] knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:

  • "Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy."[6]

     Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content and rejoice in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. This is done by faith, not feelings.

     If we’re not careful, we can easily fall into a pattern of complaining, and this can prove harmful, not only to us, but those around us, for our lives influence others, for better or worse. Scripture states, “Do all things without complaining or arguing” (Phil 2:14). That’s a big order. How do we do this? By an act of faith; that’s how. Though the pressure can be great at times, we must consciously make the choice not to complain; instead, we must choose to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). These divine expectations appear elsewhere in Scripture, as we are called to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4a), “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Col 4:2a), and “Give thanks always for all things” (Eph 5:20a).

     These commands are relatively easy to accomplish when life is good, and we should certainly praise God for His many blessings. But what about those times when life is difficult; such as when we’ve lost our health, work is overly stressful, or we’re experiencing unjust persecution? Are we to rejoice, pray, and give thanks even during those times? Yes! Especially during those times. It’s in difficult moments that we need to operate by faith, not feelings. In fact, feelings can work against us when we’re experiencing difficulty. When feelings rise up, faith must rise higher. As we commit to obeying the Word, our feelings will eventually get in line. It’s only when we understand and obey these commands by faith that we rise above our difficult circumstances. Though we aren’t physically removed from the hardship, mentally we’re lifted above it and experience a joy that is free from it. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12). This is exactly what the apostles did when they were persecuted and flogged, for Luke tells us, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). And when Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail (Acts 16:22-24), we’re told they “were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Act 16:25). Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “we exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5:3a), and “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Col 1:24). One of the reasons we can rejoice in suffering is because we know God is using it to develop our character in order to mature us spiritually. God sometimes uses the furnace of affliction to burn away the dross of weak character and to refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. As Christians operating on divine viewpoint, it’s our responsibility to live by faith when the trials come.

     This may seem impossible to do, especially if we’re accustomed to living by our feelings and reacting to circumstances. However, living by faith is possible, and is the only way Scripture can be obeyed, especially in difficult circumstances. Living by faith is liberating, because it frees us from the tyranny of difficult circumstances over which we have no control, and from the knee-jerk reaction of hurt feelings that naturally rise up in such situations. If we stay the course of learning God’s Word and living by faith, we will reach a place in our spiritual development where His Word becomes more real than our circumstances and feelings. This is the place of freedom and joy, as long as we remain there. 

Dr. Steven R. Cook

 

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 608.

[2] Charles R. Swindoll, Acts, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016), 108–109.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 426.

[4] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Ac 5:38.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, 338.

[6] Ibid., 338.

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