Society celebrates Easter over a four-day holiday period, then packs it away, to be rolled out again next year. In the church, Easter is not a short-term holiday opportunity. It is a full-on season, taking place over seven full weeks. The season of Easter begins on Easter Sunday, and concludes with the Day of Pentecost.
Pentecost, of course, means 50th, and it is actually a Jewish festival in origin; the festival of Pentecost was the Feast of Weeks (the spring harvest festival of Shavuot), taking place after seven weeks of weeks (7 x 7 = 49 days). So we have forty nine days to celebrate and remember Easter, and then the great feast of Pentecost, the 50th day!
One way that the church has devised to continue the celebrations of Easter Sunday throughout those seven weeks, has been to lay aside the First Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, and provide readings from the book of Acts for that period.
Why? Because, in traditional Christian understanding, the church was brought into being on the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus “gathered in one place” (Acts 2:1) Presumably they were in the Temple court for the festive celebrations, along with the crowd of “about three thousand persons” mentioned later in the narrative (2:41). They were certainly in the Temple at 3:1–4:3, and again at 5:20–26, and quite regularly according to 5:42.
From that event at Pentecost, the church grew and spread; and this is what the book of Acts recounts. So, in anticipation of that pivotal Pentecostal moment, the First Reading on each Sunday in Easter offers one of the important moments in the growth and spread of the church in its early years.
Each year, the lectionary offers selected incidents from the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:43–8:3); in the early dispersion of disciples (8:4–12:25); and in the missionary travels undertaken by Paul and his companions (13:1–21:26).
This year, Year C, we have just such a selection: the early morning at the tomb of Jesus (John 20) and the journey on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) on Easter Sunday; then an incident involving Peter and John (Acts 5), the early section of the life-changing call of Paul (ch.9), a striking account of the resurrection of Tabitha (ch.9), the report of Peter’s revolutionary vision to the church in Jerusalem (ch.11), and two stories from the time that Paul spent in Philippi (ch.16), before hearing again the story of Pentecost (ch.2). It is a rich fare!
1 Peter and John on trial
The reading from Acts this coming Sunday (Acts 5:27–32) is a small part of Luke’s account of the second trial of Peter and John (5:17-40). They had been brought to trial previously (4:1—22), but released because of the recognition that these “uneducated and ordinary men” were companions of Jesus and had effected a miracle in his name (4:13—14). Nevertheless, the antagonism of “the priests, the captains of the temple, and the Sadducees” (4:1) continued, so that the high priest once again intervened, having them arrested for a second time (5:17-18).
The account that Luke provides offers one of the most striking statements about the responsibility that followers of Jesus have, to give first priority to God (5:29). The authorities are “filled with jealousy” (5:17), indicating that they were at odds with the divine will (13:45; 17:5; 22:3-4), and contrasting with being “filled with the spirit” (see 4:8).
The apostles were released overnight by God’s intervention (5:19—21), and they resume their teaching in the temple (5:21a). The authorities order their re-arrest and return to the court (5:21b-26) on the charge of “standing in the temple and teaching the people” (5:25,28), in defiance of their earlier command (4:18).
2 Peter’s speech: “we must obey God”
A response to the charge is given in the fifth speech of Peter reported in Acts (5:29-32). Although brief, this speech nevertheless reflects the elements already established in Peter’s speeches, through the use once more of explicit talk about “the God of our ancestors” (5:30; see 3:13) who “raised Jesus” (5:30; see 2:24,32; 3:15) and exalted him” (5:31; see 2:33). There follow the standard references to repentance and forgiveness of sins (5:31; see 2:38), the apostolic witness (5:32; see 2:32; 3:15) and the gift of the holy spirit (5:32; see 2:33).
Most striking, however, is the introductory statement, “we must obey God” (5:29). Luke justifies the apostles’ action by having Peter employ this widely-known Greek proverb.
Plato includes this proverb in his Apology 29D: “I must obey God rather than you”; the proverb is used also by Sophocles, Antigonus 453-455; Herodotus 5.63; Epictetus, Diss. 1.30.1; Athenaeus, Deipn. 12.502A; Livy 39.37.17; Plutarch, Conviv. 125C. It was well-known in Greek literature. It is striking that this “uneducated and ordinary man” (4:13) has such erudite knowledge; surely a sign that the author of Acts has shaped the speeches himself.
The proverb also has strong resonances with the persistent scriptural language of obedience to YHWH. The language about the obedience that is due to God is particularly Deuteronomistic and prophetic. Abraham is told, “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:18) and Moses warns the people of Israel, “like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Deut 8:20).
Samuel laments to the disobedient Saul, “why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” (1 Sam 15:19) and instructs him, “surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). Solomon is assured by God, “if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel” (1 Kings 6:12)
Jeremiah persistently laments that the people “have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our ancestors, from our youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God” (Jer 3:25), whilst Ezra declares to those returning to settle in Jerusalem, “all who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment” (Ezra 7:26).
(See also Gen 26:5; Exod 19:3-6; Deut 4:30, 9:23, 11:13,27-28, 13:4,18, 15:5, 26:14,17, 28:1-2,13,15,45,62, 30:2,8,10,16,20; 1 Sam 28:18; 1 Kgs 13:21,26; 2 Kgs 18:11-12; Neh 9:16-17; Jer 3:13,25, 7:23-24,28, 9:13, 11:7-8, 22:21, 25:8, 26:13, 32:23, 34:17, 38:20, 40:3, 42:6, 43:4,7,23; Dan 9:9-14; Hag 1:11; Zech 6:14.)
“We must obey God”. This proverb sounds forth the note of divine necessity which resonates throughout the book of Acts: obedience is a necessity. (I wrote about the various ways that language about God is used by Luke to validate the course of events he narrates, in my book on The plan of God in Luke-Acts). The speech is framed with references to God’s effort to persuade human beings (5:29,32). The authorities, however, are not yet persuaded; they seek to kill the apostles (5:33).
The necessity which presses upon the apostles ensures that they, and others in their movement, will be seen as “people who have been turning the world upside down” (17:6).
In this, they have remained faithful to the way set forth by Jesus, who regularly called people to follow him (5:27: 9:23; 9:59; 14:27; 18:22). Jesus himself was accused by the Jewish authorities of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (23:2), of “stir[ring] up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5). Following Jesus does require a way of life that others will perceive as political activism.
3 The speech of Gamaliel: “this is of God”
Unfortunately, the lectionary omits Gamaliel’s speech (5:34-39), which provides support to the apostles and ensures their release (39b—40). Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the council who is described as “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people” (5:34) provides a surprising witness in defence of the apostles.
Gamaliel refers to the Jewish uprisings under Judas and Theudas, which serve as warnings to the council (5:36-37).
Josephus calls Judas the Galilean the leader of “the fourth of the philosophies” (Ant. 18 §23; J.W. 2 §433). But let’s not be fooled by the description of Josephus; he was no armchair philosopher; Judas, son of Hezekiah the Zealot, was an activist, an insurgent, a renowned rebel, a clever and capable organiser of men bonded by a desire to rid the nation of the Roman overlords. Planning insurrection and leading rebellion was what Judas was on about.
Luke dates the activity of Judas to “the time of the census”, already referred to in Luke 2:1-3. This was probably around 6 CE. Josephus also refers to the uprising under Theudas (Ant. 20 §97-98), but places him at the time when Cuspius Fadus was governor (c.44-46 CE). This is more than a decade after the presumed date of the trial scene reported in Acts 5. So there is a problem with this dating.
Although the historical references are somewhat inexact, the apologetic purpose of this speech is clear. The Pharisee Gamaliel reinforces the claim made by Peter. His speech ends with a forthright exposition of the Lukan perspective: “if this is of God, we will not be able to resist them, and we may be found fighting against God” (5:39; cf. Luke 7:30). This sentence climaxes this subsection and holds the whole sequence of events in the temple (3:1-5:42) within the framework of God’s overarching sovereignty.
So the outsider, one who was not a follower of Jesus, underlines what the leader of those followers had claimed. “We must obey God”, the apostle Peter declared. “This may well be of God”, the Pharisee Gamaliel concurred. Insights from the outsiders are valuable; they may, in fact, confirm our hunches, consolidate our thinking, and lead us to creative and courageous ways of living.
It is a pity that the lectionary cuts short the excerpt that is offered. Perhaps you might include it in your reading, and sermon, if you are preaching on this passage?
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).