Commentary on Acts 5:27-32
The apostles were doing what they believed they were commissioned to do.
Unfortunately, this conflicted with what others believed and how others lived. In this particular instance the apostles’ witness conflicted with the ideas of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. Later in Acts 19 Paul’s witness will conflict with the town of Ephesus and the economy that revolved around worship of the goddess Artemis.
The earlier stage of the current episode finds the apostles in prison because of their witness (Acts 5:12-19). But why? They just wanted everyone to know Jesus loved them, didn’t they? After all, isn’t that the essence of the gospel message? If this is the case, something doesn’t quite compute. Nowhere in Acts does anyone proclaim Jesus’ “love.” Such a benign message would not land the apostles in prison, either. While we’re not given clear reasons why the leadership did not agree with the disciples’ proclamation of Jesus, it is clear that they were doing something disagreeable that brought persecution.
We shouldn’t too quickly demonize the Jewish leadership. They, like the apostles, were acting out of their own convictions and concerns. Perhaps the problem is not just what the apostles said or did, but how they did it. According to Acts the apostles were imprisoned and warned because of their teaching about Jesus and healing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits (Acts 5:16). In other words, they were drawing public attention. It probably did not help that they were drawing public attention to carrying on the message of a Jewish man who was executed on a Roman cross, a message that not only upset certain conceptions about God’s anointed one, but also implicitly challenged claims associated with Roman rule.
We Must Obey God Rather Than Any Human Authority
After refusing to obey the Jerusalem authorities’ orders to keep quiet, Peter and the apostles find themselves on the defense in a courtroom setting. They remind Peter, “Did we not tell you to keep quiet?” Peter’s first response is not, “I’m sorry, sirs, we shall not go about publically proclaiming the name of Jesus any longer.” To the contrary, what he says carries the same effect of giving the authorities the middle finger.
Peter’s statement (“we must obey God rather than any human authority”) stands within a long tradition that appealed to a higher, transcendent authority to legitimize or challenge certain behaviors or actions. One is reminded of Sophocles’ Antigone where the decrees of Creon are set in opposition to the divine laws of the gods. What is the purpose of such appeals? Are they rhetorical ploys, the effect of saying, “We’re the ones doing what God wants, not you.” In part, yes. But these appeals also intend to call into question what manner of living should make the world go around.
Humans Crucified, but God Exalted
Ancient rulers often defined existence in their kingdoms, whether establishing new law or being law themselves. Peter’s statement in verses 30-31 uses language that commonly described ancient rulers: leader (“ruler”) and savior. These two verses bring Jesus rulership and his crucifixion together, highlighting the offense of calling Jesus “Lord”:
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed,
by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
This powerful and poetic statement can be summed up in terms of overturning. First, the actual death of Jesus is overturned by God’s rising of Jesus. Jesus’ death is not the final word, but for Acts it is the pathway into new life of repentance and renewal. The resurrection legitimizes and empowers the witness of the community, symbolizing that death to the ideologies of power and dominance in the old system results in new life.
Second, Peter’s statement overturns the meaning of Jesus’ death by relating it to God’s exaltation of Jesus. I do not suggest this in the Johannine sense (John 8:28; 12:32), but in the sense that Jesus’ Lordship over all is achieved through his cross. It is important to see the juxtaposition of Jesus’ death and his exaltation as ruler and savior. The defining element of Jesus’ lordship and thus the economy of his kingdom is one of overturning earthly power and dominance. The cross is the red carpet that leads to the subversive lordship of Jesus and defines his kingdom. If ancient rulers defined the nature of their kingdom, then Jesus’ kingdom is very unlike anything the apostles knew from the Greco-Roman world of the first century. The point is not unlike the one made in Luke 22:25-26.
The rhetoric of obeying God rather than humans serves to highlight that ceasing from public proclamation of Jesus would be submitting to the power hungry modes of existence that typified the world. Jesus’ resurrection says there is something better.
Repentance and Forgiveness
Peter’s short message concludes proclaiming “repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Ultimately the entire public hubbub relates to God’s offer of repentance and forgiveness. The apostles’ message that challenged and called Israel to God is brought not in judgment but, as we see in Acts 2–4, in acts of renewal and in the extension of forgiveness, which are extended even to those who scoffed at the message and found it offensive. Public proclamation of Jesus in obedience to God rather than humans intends not to cut off those who oppose; it intends to serve and even to suffer for doing it, pressing on to witness to God’s renewal of all things.
Going Off the Rails
In 1980 Ozzy Osbourne released a song called “Crazy Train.” The chorus of the song is ridiculously simple, but very evocative: “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train.” What the apostles were doing must have seemed like this to much of the surrounding world. The Pharisees and leaders certainly seem to think this. Drawing attention to the public proclamation of Jesus as Lord was indeed crazy. This crazy train, Peter is clear to note, does not have a human conductor, and God is taking it right off of the rails. This is not to condone going off of the rails for its own sake or irresponsible witness to Jesus Christ. Much depends on how one evaluates the rails in the first place. What to the authorities of the time seemed like going off the rails was accurate. But that’s because from the perspective of Acts, the current rails on which the human train journeyed were no longer bringing God’s forgiveness and renewal, but actually hindering it.