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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 5

 

 

Verses 1-42

Chapter 5

TROUBLE IN THE CHURCH (Acts 5:1-11)

5:1-11 A man called Ananias, together with his wife Sapphire, sold a bit of ground he had, and surreptitiously kept back part of the price, and his wife knew about it. He brought some part of the price and laid it at the feet of the apostles. Peter said to him, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you have deceived the Holy Spirit and kept back part of the price of your ground? While it remained yours did it not remain your own, and after it had been sold was it not entirely at your disposal? Why did you put this business into your heart? It is not to men you have lied but to God." As Ananias listened to these words, he collapsed and breathed his life out. Great awe came upon all who heard it. The young men rose and bound him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in and she was not aware of what had happened. Peter said to her, "Tell me, did you sell the piece of ground for so much?" "Yes," she said, "for so much." Peter said to her, "Why is it that you agreed to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Look now, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door and they will carry you out." Immediately she collapsed at his feet and breathed her life out. When the young men came in they found her dead and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great awe came upon the whole Church and upon all who heard these things.

There is no more vivid story in the book of Acts. There is no need to make a miracle of it. But it does show us something of the atmosphere which prevailed in the early Church. It is on record that once Edward the First blazed with anger at one of his courtiers and the man dropped dead in sheer fear. This story shows two things about the early Church, the expectancy of men's minds and the extraordinary respect in which the apostles were held. It was in that atmosphere that the rebuke of Peter acted as it did.

This is one of the stories which demonstrate the almost stubborn honesty of the Bible. It might well have been left out because it shows that even in the early Church there were very imperfect Christians; but the Bible refuses to present an idealised picture of anything. Once a court painter painted the portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was disfigured by warts upon his face. The painter, thinking to please the great man, omitted the disfiguring warts. When Cromwell saw the picture, he said, "Take it away, and paint me warts and all." It is one of the great virtues of the Bible that it shows us its heroes, warts and all.

There is a certain encouragement in this story, for it shows us that even in its greatest days the Church was a mixture of good and bad.

Peter insists that sin is sin against God. We do well to remember that, very specially in certain directions. (i) Failure in diligence is sin against God. Everything, however humble it may be, that contributes to the health, the happiness and the welfare of mankind is work done for God. Antonio Stradivari, the great maker of violins, said, "If my hand slacked, I should rob God." That is a motto for every man to take. (ii) Failure to use our talents is sin against God. God gave us such talents as we have; we hold them in stewardship for him; and we are responsible to him for the use we make of them. (iii) Failure in truth is sin against God. When we slip into falsehood it is sin against the guidance of the Spirit in our hearts.

THE ATTRACTION OF CHRISTIANITY (Acts 5:12-16)

5:12-16 Many signs and wonders were done among the people through the hands of the apostles; and they were all together in Solomon's colonnade. Of the others no one dared to meddle with them. But the people held them in the highest esteem; nay more, crowds of men and women believed in the Lord and attached themselves to them. The result was that they brought the sick to the streets and laid them on beds and pallets, so that, when Peter came, even his shadow might fall on some of them; and a crowd assembled from the cities round about Jerusalem carrying the sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits; and all of them were healed.

Here is a cameo-like picture of what went on in the early Church. (i) It tells us where the Church met. Their meeting-place was Solomon's colonnade, one of the two great colonnades which surrounded the Temple area. The early Christians were constant in their attendance at the House of God, desiring ever to know God better and to draw upon his strength for life and living. (ii) It tells us how the Church met. The early Christians assembled where everyone could see them. They knew what had happened to the apostles and what might well happen to them; but they were determined to show all men whose they were and where they stood. (iii) It tells us that the early Church was a supremely effective Church. Things happened. The days when the healing ministry of the Church was in the forefront of its work are past, although they may well return. But the Church still exists to make bad men good; and men will always throng to a Church where lives are changed.

This passage closes with a reference to those troubled by unclean spirits. The ancient people attributed all disease to the agency of such spirits. The Egyptians, for instance, believed that the body could be divided into separate parts and that every part could be inhabited by an evil spirit. Often they believed that these evil spirits were the spirits of wicked people who had departed this life but were still carrying on their malignant work.

ARREST AND TRIAL ONCE AGAIN (Acts 5:17-32)

5:17-32 But the high priest and his party (the local sect of the Sadducees) were filled with envy, and they laid hands on the apostles and put them under public arrest. But through the night the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison and led them out and said, "Go, stand in the Temple and tell the people all the words of this life." When they heard this they came into the Temple very early and began to teach. When the high priest and those with him arrived, they summoned the Sanhedrin and all the council of the sons of Israel; and they despatched messengers to the prison that they should be brought. When the officers arrived they did not find them in the prison. When they returned, they brought news saying, "We found the prison shut with all security, and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside." When the superintendent of the Temple and the chief priests heard these words, they did not know what to make of them and could not understand what could have happened. But someone arrived and told them, "Look now, the men you put in prison are standing in the Temple and teaching the people." Then the superintendent of the Temple went away with his officers and fetched them, but he used no force, for they were afraid of the people in case they might be stoned. When they had fetched them they stood them amidst the Sanhedrin. The high priest questioned them, "We laid the strongest injunctions on you not to teach in this name; and, look now, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are aiming at bringing on us guilt for the blood of this man." Peter and the apostles answered, "It is necessary to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you got into your hands and hanged on a tree. God has exalted him as Prince and Saviour at his right hand, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins, and we are witnesses of these things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God gave to those who obey him."

The second arrest of the apostles was inevitable. The Sanhedrin had strictly ordered them to abstain from teaching in the name of Jesus and they had publicly disregarded that injunction. That to the Sanhedrin was a doubly serious matter. These apostles were not only heretics, they were also potential disturbers of the peace. Palestine was always an inflammable country; if this were not checked it might well result in some kind of popular rising; and that was the last thing the priests and Sadducees wanted, because then Rome would intervene.

There is not necessarily a miracle in the release of Peter and John. The word angelos (Greek #32) has two meanings. It means an angel; but it is also the normal word for a messenger. Even if the release of the apostles had been brought about by human means, the agent of the release would still be the aggelos of the Lord.

In the narrative of the events after the release we see vividly displayed the great characteristics of these early men of God.

(i) They were men of courage. The command to go straight back and preach in the Temple sounds to a prudent mind almost incredible. To obey that command was an act of almost reckless audacity. And yet they went. (ii) They were men of principle. And their ruling principle was that in all circumstances obedience to God must come first. They never asked, "Is this course of action safe?" They asked, "Is this what God wants me to do?" (iii) They had a clear idea of their function. They knew that they were witnesses for Christ. A witness is essentially a man who speaks from first-hand knowledge. He knows from personal experience that what he says is true; and it is impossible to stop a man like that because it is impossible to stop the truth.

AN UNEXPECTED ALLY (Acts 5:33-42)

5:33-42 When they heard this they were torn with vexation and planned to destroy them. But a certain Pharisee called Gamaliel stood up in the Sanhedrin, a teacher of the law held in honour by all the people, and ordered that the men should be put out of the meeting for a short time. He said to them, "Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves regarding these men and think what you are going to do with them. Before these days Theudas arose, saying that he was someone. Men to the number of about four hundred attached themselves to him. He was destroyed and all who were persuaded by him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilaean arose, in the days when the census was taken, and he persuaded the people to follow him. He too perished and all the people who were persuaded by him were scattered abroad. And in the present circumstances I say to you keep off these men and let them go, because if this purpose and this affair is of men it will come to nothing; but if it is of God you cannot stop them. So take care that you do not turn out to be men who are fighting against God." They were persuaded by him. So they called in the apostles, and, when they had threatened them, they enjoined them not to speak in the name of Jesus and sent them away. So they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they were deemed worthy to suffer dishonour for the name. Every day in the Temple and from house to house they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was God's Anointed One.

On their second appearance before the Sanhedrin the apostles found an unexpected helper. Gamaliel was a Pharisee. The Sadducees were the wealthy collaborationists, who were ever seeking to preserve their own prestige; but the Pharisees had no political ambitions. Their name literally means "The Separated Ones," and they had separated themselves from ordinary life in order to devote themselves to the keeping of the law in its every small detail. There were never more than about six thousand of them all told, and the austerity of their lives made them highly respected.

Gamaliel was more than respected; he was loved. He was a kindly man with a far wider tolerance than his fellows. He was, for instance, one of the very few Pharisees who did not regard Greek culture as sinful. He was one of the very few to whom the title "Rabban" had been given. Men called him "The Beauty of the Law." When he died it was said, "Since Rabban Gamaliel died there has been no more reverence for the Law; and purity and abstinence died out at the same time."

When the Sanhedrin seemed likely to resort to violent measures against the apostles Gamaliel intervened. The Pharisees had a belief which combined fate and free-will. They believed that all things were in the hand of God and yet that man was responsible for his actions. "Everything is foreseen," they said, "yet freedom of choice is given." So Gamaliel's point was that they must have a care in case they were exercising their free-will to go against God. He pleaded that if this matter was not of God, it would come to nothing anyway. He quoted two examples.

First he cited Theudas. In those days Palestine had a quick succession of fire-brand leaders who set themselves up as the deliverers of their country and sometimes even as the Messiah. Who this Theudas was we do not know. There was a Theudas some years later who led a band of people out to the Jordan with the promise that he could divide the waters and that they would walk over dryshod, and whose rising was swiftly dealt with. Theudas was a common name and no doubt this was just such another fire-brand.

His second example was Judas. He had rebelled at the time of the census, taken by the governor Quirinius in A.D. 6 in order to arrange taxation. Judas took up the position that God was the King of Israel; to him alone tribute was due, all other taxation was impious and to pay it was a blasphemy. He attempted to raise a revolution but failed. The Sanhedrin listened to Gamaliel and once again, after threatening the apostles, they let them go.

They went rejoicing in their tribulations. They rejoiced in persecution for two reasons. (i) It was an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to Christ. In Russia in the early days of communism the man who could show the marks of the fetters on his hands and the mark of the lash on his back was held in honour because he had suffered for the cause. It was Mr. Valiant-for-Truth's proud boast, "My marks and scars I carry with me." (ii) It was a real opportunity to share in the experience of Christ. Those who shared in the cross-bearing would share in the crown-wearing.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 5:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-5.html. 1956-1959.

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Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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