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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Acts 5

 

 

Verse 32

The Inner Life of the Church, Acts 4:32 to Acts 5:11.

The characteristic feature is concord among the believers. The great topic of preaching among them is the Lord’s resurrection. The favour they were held in among the people. Their community of goods. Two notable examples of this generosity in giving up all earthly goods are given—(a) that of Barnabas, who became subsequently a famous leader in the Church; (b) that of Ananias and Sapphira, who were punished by death for hypocrisy in this matter, daring to claim from men a reputation for self-denial which the Holy Ghost knew was undeserved.


Introduction

Verse 1-2

The Episode of Ananias and Sapphira, 1-11.

Acts 5:1-2. But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price. In striking contrast to the entire self-abnegation of some of the richer brethren, of whom Barnabas was an example, appears the conduct of another of the wealthier converts, Ananias. ‘The history of the infant Church has presented hitherto an image of unsullied light; it is now for the first time that a shadow falls upon it. We can imagine that among the first Christians a kind of holy emulation had sprung up all were eager to make over their superfluous wealth to the Church. This zeal now seems to have carried away some, in whose hearts still lingered a love for earthly things. Such an one was Ananias, who secretly kept back part of the price he had received for property (which he had devoted to God’s service). Vanity was the motive for the sale, hypocrisy the motive of the concealment. He coveted the reputation of appearing as disinterested as others, and yet could not let go his hold of mammon’ (from Olshausen).

Special circumstances surround the sin of these two unhappy ones, whose guilt met with so prompt and terrible a punishment. We must remember that the early Church, strong and enduring as it proved itself to be, in those first days stood alone and defenceless, while the hands of all, seemingly, were against it. The secret of its strength lay in the faith of its members in the Risen One—a faith which nothing could shake; in their perfect trust in the guidance and presence among them of the Holy Ghost; in the sure confidence that, though they as individuals might not, probably would not, live to see it, the triumph of their Master’s cause was certain. Now Ananias—partly, perhaps, persuaded that this new sect had before it a great future, and wishing to secure his own share in its coming prosperity; partly, perhaps, moved by genuine admiration for its pure saintly life—voluntarily threw in his lot with these Nazarenes, and by a seemingly noble act of self-denial, claimed the position among them which was ever promptly given to those saintly men and women who had given up lands and gold for Christ’s sake. In his heart, however, a lingering doubt remained whether perhaps, after all, the whole story might not be a delusion; so, while professedly stripping himself of his possessions, he kept back enough of his worldly wealth to secure himself in the event of the dispersion and breaking up of the communion of the Nazarenes.

Ananias knew he could deceive men; he believed so little in that Almighty Spirit who guided and inspired the little church of Christ, that he dreamed he could deceive, too, that Holy Ghost.


Verse 3

Acts 5:3. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost? It was in the solemn assembly of the believers for prayer and counsel, Peter and the twelve no doubt sitting on their raised chairs (see note on chap. Acts 4:35), when Ananias presented his rich offering. We are not directly told how Peter obtained his information respecting the fraud; still, we can have no doubt of the source: it was no earthly presence which guided and executed the dread judgment of that court.

In Peter’s question to Ananias, ‘Why hath Satan filled thine heart?’ two points claim a special comment: (1) The foremost of the Twelve, who had learned his doctrine from the life of Jesus, distinctly here acknowledges his belief in the existence and personality of the spirit of evil, Satan; (2) By his Question, ‘Why,’ etc., he evidently recognises man’s free will, his power to resist if he choose, the promptings of the evil one.


Verse 4

Acts 5:4. Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? All this shows that this community of goods was purely voluntary; even in the Church of Jerusalem it was required of no member. ‘If you were unwilling to sell (your possession), who compelled you? if you wished to offer but the half, who required the whole?’ (Augustine, Sermon cxlviii).

Thou hast not lied onto men, but unto God. The doctrine of the early Church on the subject of the Holy Ghost is plainly declared in the words of this and the preceding verse. The personality of the blessed Spirit is assumed by the words of Acts 5:3, and from Acts 5:4 we gather that, in the esteem of St. Peter, the Holy Ghost was God. In the first question Peter asks, ‘Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost?’ In reference to the same offence, in Acts 5:4 his words are, ‘Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.’ To lie to the Holy Ghost is not to lie unto men, because the Holy Ghost is not man, but to lie unto God, because the Holy Ghost is God (see Pearson, art. viii.).


Verse 5

Acts 5:5. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost. In considering the questions which cluster round this terrible death scene, we must put aside all such interpretations which ascribe ‘the death’ to what is termed natural causes. It was no stroke of apoplexy, the result of sudden terror and amazement. It was occasioned by no shock to the nervous system; for even if the supposition could be entertained in the case of Ananias, it would at once break down when the circumstances attending the death of Sapphira were examined into. In both instances the end must be regarded as a direct Divine interposition, by which a speedy and terrible punishment was inflicted; and the same God who revealed to Peter the secret sin, enabling him to read the hearts of the two unhappy ones, now directed him to pronounce words which, in the case of Ananias, were immediately followed by death—which, in the case of Sapphira, were an awful prediction derived from the inspiration of the Spirit, that, as she too had committed a like deadly sin and persevered in it, her own death was at hand.

Much bitter criticism has been wasted on this gloomy incident from the days of Porphyry, sixteen centuries ago, to our time; the judgment pronounced and executed upon the unhappy pair has been condemned, now as a needless cruelty on the part of Peter, now as an inexplicable act of Divine revenge: the obligation to defend it has been stigmatized as one of the saddest duties of an apologist (comp. De Wette, Erklarung der Apostelgeschichte, pp. 69-71, 4th ed.; S. Jerome, Reply to Porphyry, epist. 97). Wordsworth observes how, on the ‘first promulgation of God’s laws, any breach of them has been generally punished in a signal and awful manner, for the sake of example and prevention of sin, and for punishment of sin. So it was now in the case of Ananias on the first effusion of the Holy Spirit, and at the first preaching of the gospel. So it was in the case of Uzzah touching the ark when about to be placed on Mount Zion (2 Samuel 4:6-12). So it was in the case of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day, at the first publication of the Decalogue’ (Numbers 15:32-36).

Had not Ananias and Sapphira ‘been cut off from the congregation,’ had their gifts been accepted, and they as saints been admitted with respect and admiration into the congregation, a new spirit would have crept into the little Church. As the real history of the transaction began to be whispered abroad, a new-born distrust in the Holy Ghost, who had allowed the apostles to be so deceived, would have sprung up. The advantage of serving two masters—the world and Christ—would have dawned on the mind of many a believer as a possibility. The first fervour of the new-born faith would have become dulled, and that mighty strength in weakness we wonder at and admire with such ungrudging admiration in the Church of the first days would rapidly have become enervated, would in the end have withered away; and the little community itself might well have faded and perished, and made no sign, had not the glorious Arm been stretched out in mercy to the righteous and the guilty.

Now, did the punishment end here? Swept out of life, leaving behind them a name of shame, was this the close? Could the All-merciful take them to His home? or, fearful thought, was the death for eternity as well as for time? Such a question, perhaps, anywhere but in this solitary instance, when death was in a peculiar manner the judgment of the Almighty, would be presumptuous and worse than useless. Theologians have given varied opinions here. One, perhaps the greatest who ever lived, replies to the question, it seems, with words of great truth and beauty, arguing against the charge of extreme severity so often urged against the Almighty Head of that little Church. Augustine quotes St. Paul’s words concerning offenders in the Corinthian Church, many of whom he said were weak and sickly, and many sleep, that is, die, thus chastened by the scourge of the Lord, that they may escape being condemned with the world. And something of this kind happened, said Augustine, to this man and his wife: they were chastened with death that they might not be punished eternally. We must believe after this life God will have spared them, for great is His mercy. One well worthy of being heard has echoed Augustine’s words in our own day: ‘Will these two be shut out of heaven? We may hope even these may come in, though perhaps with bowed heads.’

Ana great fear came on all them that heard these things. The ‘great fear’ refers only to the ‘first death,’ that of Ananias. It does not relate, as De Wette and Alford urge, to that general feeling of awe which came not only over the Church, but affected also many who were outside its pale. This statement simply speaks of the solemn feeling excited in the assembly of the faithful, where we know the judgment of God fell upon Ananias.


Verse 6

Acts 5:6. And the young men arose. These young men probably occupied in the Church some authorized official position. As yet to look for a definite organization in the little community, would be of course premature; yet it is in the highest degree probable that the earliest Christian worship was modelled upon the synagogue, with such modifications as the position held by the apostles and perhaps the ‘seventy’ would require. The place the apostles evidently occupied at these meetings of the brethren (see note on chap. Acts 4:35), the strong probability that definite forms of prayer were already introduced as a part at least of their worship, the prompt and orderly acts which followed immediately upon the terrible event just discussed—all point to a simple order and discipline reigning from the first among the new congregations.

wrapped him round. This seems the best and most accurate rendering. The officials whose duty it was to arrange the details of these meetings of the believers, reverently took up the poor body, and hastily,—as is ever the custom in the East in the case of death,—but reverentially, wrapped round each limb with the linen cloths used in the burying of the dead, sprinkling spices between each fold of the linen. Other translations have been proposed, the best of which renders ‘placed together,’ ‘laid out’—that is, that the stiffening limbs were composed (Meyer); the Vulgate reads amoverunt, which the older English Versions appear to have followed in their renderings, ‘moved away’ (Wickliffe); ‘put apart’ (Tyndale, Cranmer); ‘removed’ (Rheims).

And carried him out. The Jews did not bury, except in special cases, within the walls of their cities. This accounts for the long interval of time (three hours) which elapsed before the young men who had carried Ananias to his grave without the city, returned.

And buried him. In the East the usual custom is only to allow a few hours’ interval between death and burial. In the Jerusalem of our day we read it is the practice not to defer burial as a general rule more than three or four hours after decease.


Verse 7

Acts 5:7. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife. The words ‘about the space of three hours’ form a parenthesis. Then ‘it came to pass—some three hours had now elapsed—when his wife.’ She was puzzled at the long absence of her husband, who had left her to present his rich gift formally to the Church, and she was anxious, no doubt, to learn with what grateful words of acceptance the apostles had received it.

Not knowing what was done. No one, it has been suggested, who had seen her, as yet had had the courage to tell her of her husband’s doom.

Came in. A second assembly of the Church might have been sitting, if the Jewish hours of prayer were rigidly attended to; but it is more likely that the apostles, and many with them, remained in the same house during the whole interval of the three hours’ absence of the young men who were charged with carrying out the burial details.


Verse 8

Acts 5:8. And Peter answered unto her. Her entrance into the assembly of saints, where one sad thought was present in each one’s heart, was, as Bengel happily says, equivalent to her speaking. So Peter, looking at her, answers her mute look of inquiry, her voiceless question, with the words, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? pointing at the same time to the pile of gold Ananias had laid at his feet three hours before. ‘Was it for so much’—naming the sum given him by her husband—‘that ye sold the land for?’ Now, even in this supreme moment, had she possessed the noble courage to confess the truth, she had been saved; but she held stedfastly to the same miserable deceit, and in the presence of the Church and of the apostles of that Lord she professed to love so well, repeated the lie, ‘Yea, for so much.’


Verse 9

Acts 5:9. How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? This evidently in the apostle’s mind is a serious aggravation of their guilt. They had agreed together to do this thing. It was no sin committed hastily, but one thought over and planned—a preconcerted scheme to deceive that loving Master whom they professed to serve as their God. It was as though they wished to test the omniscience of the Holy Spirit. Could, then, that God who ruled so visibly in His chosen servants be tricked?

Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door. ‘Behold.’ The voice and gesture calling attention to the sound of the entering in at the door of the room or hall where they were sitting, of the young men who had just returned, having completed their sad office. The apostle’s words told the whole story to the unhappy woman. In a moment she saw the Spirit who ruled in that Church could not be mocked. It was all real and true.


Verse 10

Acts 5:10. And the young men came in, and found her dead. The death of the wife was instantaneous, and took place exactly as the words of Peter had foretold. She lay dead in the midst of the assembly, and the young men who had just returned from the grave of Ananias laid her in that same sad evening by his side.


Verse 11

Acts 5:11. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things. Within and without the story was told. On the Church, in all the city and neighbourhood, on many an indifferent and careless citizen outside the Church’s pale, fell the shadow of that great fear—fear, however, in its best and noblest sense better, perhaps, expressed as ‘a deep awe.’ ‘The rulers of the Jews,’ says Bengel, ‘without doubt heard of these things, and yet they did not institute proceedings on that account against Peter.’ The immediate effect within and without was one of the ends which the terrible judgment was intended to produce; it was not meant as an example of the way in which the varied communities of the Church of Jesus were to be governed in the future. As in the older dispensation the fire which consumed Nadab and Abihu burned no more after that first awful judgment, and the earth which opened to swallow up Korah and his impious company remained for ever closed, though seemingly worse acts dishonoured the Land of Promise, so the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were never repeated: the mercy, not the severity of God, was henceforth shown to those men who professed His high service, and at times, alas I dishonoured it, in a way less visibly awful.

Such an event was in fact only possible then, in those first days, in the early morning of the faith, when the Spirit of the Lord ever dwelt with the disciples, when still every thought and act and word was prompted and guided by His sweet and blessed influence—only possible when the old world love of self, bringing cheerless doubt and accursed deceit in its train, for the first time polluted that holy atmosphere.

The name Ananias is the same as Ananiah mentioned in the catalogue of the builders of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:23), and signifies the ‘cloud of gold,’ or possibly is identical with Hananiah, one of the companions of Daniel (Daniel 1:6). The meaning of Hananiah is ‘mercy of God.’ Sapphira is derived from the Greek σάπφειρος, sapphire, or directly from the Syriac <sub>שׂ</sub> פירא, beautiful.


Verse 12

Acts 5:12. And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people. Notwithstanding the great fear which came over the Church after the terrible event just recorded, the apostles seem to have pressed on their work with greater enthusiasm than before, and with marked success. The miracles of healing performed among the people were the credentials these plain unlettered men had received from their Lord, then reigning from His glory throne in heaven, and were in striking contrast with the scenes of terror the Church had just witnessed. The terror men might see was something strange and unusual, while the mercy and love were the everyday characteristics of the Master of these new teachers. The signs and wonders here referred to are described at greater length in Acts 5:15-16.


Verses 12-16

A Further Picture of the Progress of the Church.—The Power of St. Peter in those First Days, 12-16.

The relations of the little Church towards the outside world are now dwelt on. Already we have seen how all public teaching in the name of Jesus was strictly forbidden, and in chap. Acts 4:31 we are told how the brethren determined to disregard the prohibition. The present description gives us a picture of the manner in which Peter and his companions carried on their work; and for a time there was no interruption, the popular feeling being so strong in their favour.


Verse 13

And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. Acts 5:13. And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. Thus, while the apostles were busied in their work of healing and teaching, using for the purpose of spreading the knowledge of their Master’s kingdom the extraordinary powers their Master had for a time entrusted them with, the great mass of believers would meet together at different hours in the great cloistered court of the Temple, called Solomon’s Porch. There great companies of these believers in Jesus would thus meet, no one hindering them, no one crowding them or listening with jealous ears to their words. Those who made up the crowds who usually thronged those courts, left them alone, reverently keeping away from the groups of the followers of Jesus, the people generally regarding them with a kind of fear mingled with admiration.

Without hesitation we have thus adopted that explanation which gives to the word ‘all’ (Acts 5:12) the meaning of all the believers, and to the words ‘of the rest (Acts 5:13) the meaning of all who were not believers—that is, the people generally.

Many great expositors have, however, preferred to understand by ‘all (Acts 5:12), the apostles only—not all the Christians, as the apostles are the subject of the paragraph, and have regarded the words of Acts 5:13 as added, to show with what reverence the Twelve were generally looked upon by the people.

The words ‘of the rest,’ some scholars understand to mean ‘all else, whether believers or unbelievers;’ some, believers only; and they go on to explain the passage (Acts 5:13) thus: ‘None of the rest, whether believers or unbelievers, ventured to equal themselves to the apostles. They kept at a distance from them, regarding them as an isolated group, as superhuman, as beings distinct from them.’

Others, again, restrict the expression ‘of the rest’ to the rich and noble, terrified by the death of Ananias, who belonged to their order. Gloag believes the meaning of Acts 5:13 to be, ‘that none of the rest of the people ventured on false pretences to unite themselves to the Church: by the death of Ananias an effectual stop was put to hypocrisy for the time;’ but the exposition we have adopted above is the easiest and most obvious. It is adopted in the main by Ewald and Meyer. It is, too, the view most in accordance with the simplicity of early Christian tradition, which resolutely sets itself against all unnatural separation of ranks and orders. What could be more contrary to the ordinary loving intercourse between the apostles and their disciples,—between Paul, for instance, and his loved converts of Philippi,—than a statement which represents the apostles as an isolated group, fenced off from the mass of believers in the Lord Jesus, who kept themselves at a distance from them, looking on them as superhuman?


Verse 14

Acts 5:14. And believers were the more added to the Lord. This statement confirms the exposition given above of the words, ‘Of the rest durst no man join himself to them.’ A sense of religious awe kept the crowds who thronged the Temple courts and the people generally from intruding upon them and disturbing them when they met together; but multitudes of both sexes, impressed with the truth of what the apostles were preaching, kept joining the ranks of the believers, and were added to the Lord. The numbers were now so great that the historian of the Acts no longer gives them, as had been his practice on each of the three previous descriptions of the Church’s progress, chap. Acts 1:15, Acts 2:41, Acts 4:4.

Multitudes both of men and women. This is one of several special mentions in the history of the early Church of women.


Verse 15

Acts 5:15. Into the streets. Those between the apostles’ house and the Temple. The whole scene of growing admiration and respect for the persons of these brave and earnest teachers, who enforced their burning words with such mighty loving acts, reminds us of a still greater enthusiasm excited by the Master of Peter and his companions (see Mark 2:1-2; Mark 6:55-56).

The shadow of Peter. Peter especially is mentioned as the greatest and foremost of the apostles in all work and preaching in those early days. At this period there is certainly no doubt but that this apostle, both in reality and also in the popular estimation, was the acknowledged chief of the community of believers in Jesus.

On the much-disputed question respecting the efficacy of the ‘shadow of Peter falling upon the sick, two points must not be lost sight of—(1) the reality of the miracles wrought at this juncture of the Church’s history; (2) the great number of the miraculous cures which were just then worked; for we read ‘how from the city the sick were brought from their houses and laid on beds and couches: and from the cities round about Jerusalem a multitude came, bringing sick folks; and they were healed, every one.’ Occurring as it does in the midst of this matter-of-fact relation of a number of cures performed on the persons of the sick of the city and the neighbouring towns, the statement respecting the effect of the ‘shadow of Peter must not be watered down by an attempt to explain it as an accident existing only in the opinion of the people, or by a suggestion that the author of the Acts makes no assertion whatever respecting the effect of the ‘shadow’ falling on the sick. (See Meyer, Lange, and Gloag.) The writer’s plain statement is, that some at least of these miraculous cures were effected by Peter’s shadow falling upon them as, fervently trusting to be healed, they lay waiting his passing by. Instances of this special form of miracle, where the healing virtue appears to exist in the person, independent of all instruments, are very rare; in the Old Testament, the case of the prophet Elisha stands by itself. In the New Testament, our Lord (Luke 8:46), St. Peter in this passage, St. Paul (Acts 19:12), where the miracles in question are designated as ούϰ αἰ τυχοῡσαι, the ‘rarest’ or ‘special’ alone seem to have exercised this peculiar power. Dean Alford has an admirable note here: ‘In this and similar narratives (Acts 19:12), Christian faith finds no difficulty whatever. All miraculous working is an exertion of the direct power of the All-powerful—a suspension by Him of His ordinary laws; and whether He will use any instrument in doing this, or what instrument, must depend altogether on His own purpose in the miracle—the effect to be produced on the recipients, beholders, or hearers. Without His special selection and enabling, all instruments were vain; with them, all are capable. What is a hand or a voice more than a shadow, except that the analogy of the ordinary instrument is a greater help to faith in the recipient? When faith, as apparently here, did not need this help, the less likely medium was adopted. In this case at Jerusalem, as later with St. Paul at Ephesus, it was His purpose to exalt His apostle as the herald of His Gospel, and to lay in Jerusalem the strong foundation of His Church; and He therefore endues him with this extraordinary power.’


Verse 16

Acts 5:16. With unclean spirits. The subject of ‘demoniacal possession’ will be found discussed in chap. Acts 16:6.


Verse 17

Second Arrest of the Apostles.—They are freed by the Interposition of an Angel, 17-25.

Acts 5:17. Then the high priest rose up. Not from his throne in the council, for the Sanhedrim is not said to have been sitting. ‘Rose up’ implies that the high priest, excited and alarmed at the growing power of these followers of the Crucified, determined at once again to try and crush them by violent measures. The high priest is no doubt Annas, as in chap. Acts 4:6, though his son-in-law Caiaphas nominally filled the office.

All they that were with him. These were not his brother judges in the great council, but those who sympathized with him in his bitter hatred of Christ’s followers.

Which is the sect of the Sadducees. The fact of the resurrection of Jesus had now been made known beyond the walls of the city, and was believed in by ever-increasing multitudes. The fear and anger of the Sadducees were more than ever stirred up. Very many, as we have said (see note on chap. Acts 4:1), of the most influential of the nation belonged to this sect. Whether Annas himself was a Sadducee is doubtful. We know, however, that his family was friendly to them, and his son one of the prominent members of the sect; and with them, in their bitter hostility to the doctrines of Jesus, Annas heartily joined.


Verse 18

Acts 5:18. The apostles. Peter and others of them. It does not necessarily mean the whole twelve.

In the common prison. This is specially mentioned, that no doubt may rest on the fact of the deliverance by means of an unearthly hand that night. It was no mere temporary confinement in the high priest’s house, or in a room of the Temple, but in the state prison of the city.


Verse 19

Acts 5:19. The angel of the Lord. Commentators even of the schools of Meyer, Neander, and Ewald dislike to acknowledge this angelic interference as a historical fact, and seek by various devices to explain away the statement. So Neander writes: ‘The fact of a release by a special Divine guidance to us unknown, became involuntarily changed into the appearance of an angel of the Lord.’ Others of the schools of Baur and Zeller reject the whole story as purely unhistorical. An earthquake which opened the doors of the prison, a secret friend of the Nazarenes, perhaps a prison official, have been suggested as the instruments of the apostles’ escape; but the narrative admits of no such explanation. It is a simple matter-of-fact statement, and to guard against any such false expositions, the very words spoken by the angel to St. Peter are given us. The frequency of angelic interference in the early days of the Church is remarkable. In this book of the Acts the word ‘angel occurs twenty times (Wordsworth). Six distinct works of angels are related, chap. Acts 5:19, Acts 8:26, Acts 10:3, Acts 12:7; Acts 12:23, Acts 27:23.

The reluctance to acknowledge angelic interference in the affairs of men here and on other occasions mentioned in the ‘Acts,’ proceeds from a notion, deep rooted in many minds, that angels do not exist, and that the whole theory of angelic ministries is built up upon comparatively late Jewish tradition, none dating before the captivity in Babylon and the time of Daniel. (Respecting this strange but widespread error, see the Excursus at the end of the section on ‘Angels.’)

Opened the prison doors, and brought them forth. It has been asked, What was the purpose of this miraculous interference of the angel, since they were brought on the following day before the council and shamefully beaten? But surely the effects of this interposition were immediately felt—(1) by the apostles, to whose faith new strength was added by this visible manifestation of the protecting hand: fearlessly they appear in the most public spot early in the morning, again proclaiming the holy name of the Master; (2) by the Sadducee chiefs, whose perplexity and anxiety were increased by this new proof of a strange and awful power connected with these bold men.


Verse 20

Acts 5:20. Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people. The very words spoken by the angel of deliverance are here quoted. The imprisoned ones were to go at once (the new day was probably already dawning) into the public courts of the temple to proclaim to the people all the words of this life, no doubt laying stress upon the words this life, which the angel, a being from heaven, himself enjoyed. The life, the existence of which the Sadducees, the men who had imprisoned the apostles, denied. The life, which was the subject of the teaching and preaching of Peter and his devoted companions (see John vi 68).


Verse 21

Acts 5:21. They entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. During many months of the year in the Holy Land the heat becomes too oppressive for the ordinary labour of the day soon after sunrise. In the early dawn (see John 20:1) the work of the day would begin, and the worshippers and the many traders and others connected with the busy life of the great Temple of Jerusalem would have arrived, and crowds would be already thronging the courts when Peter and the others who had been brought out of the public prison by the angel arrived at Solomon’s Porch.

But the high priest, and they that were with him. The ordinary session chamber for the San hedrim was on the south side of the temple, at some considerable distance from Solomon’s Porch, where the apostles no doubt were speaking to the people. The high priest and his friends in the council assembled in the early morning without being aware of the escape of Peter and the others.

And called all the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel. Meyer, Alford, and Stier understand by the words πᾶ σαν τὴ ν γερουσί αν, which are translated all the senate, that a special meeting of elders was summoned to assist the Sanhedrim in this difficult matter of suppressing the teaching respecting the resurrection of the crucified Jesus; but the same word γερουσί αν, senate, which occurs only here in the New Testament, in the second book of the Maccabees is constantly used for the Sanhedrim. The meaning here seems to be that on this occasion there was a meeting of the whole council, including all the elders who were members of it.


Verse 23

Acts 5:23. The prison truly found we shut with all safety. We have here the report of the guard who were sent by the high priest to fetch the accused from their place of confinement. They found the prison locked and barred, and the keepers watching as usual, fully believing all was secure; but on entering the guard found the prisoners gone.


Verse 24

Acts 5:24. Now when the high priest. For the word rendered high priest here, in the original Greek we find only ἱ εροῦ, priest—that is, the priest just mentioned in Acts 5:21, and who we have explained was Annas.

The captain of the temple. As before, the Jewish priest in command of the Levite guard of the Temple. This ‘priestly’ captain was most probably himself one of the ‘chief priests,’ and in consequence had a seat in the Sanhedrim.

The chief priests. This order is supposed to have been made up—(1) of those distinguished men who had formerly borne the title and rank of high priest (Caiaphas, for instance), an office which we know at this time was only held during the pleasure of the Roman Government; (2) of the heads of the twenty-four priestly courses.

They doubted of them whereunto this would grow. The strange unexplained escape filled them with terror; but this new incident would only serve to excite the popular mind, already so much moved in favour of the new sect.


Verse 26

They are arrested again, and accused before the Sanhedrim,Peter’s Defence.—The Impression it made on the Pharisee Members of the Council,—The Sentence, 26-40.

Acts 5:26. And brought them without violence: for they feared the people. At this period the popular favour which the apostles enjoyed had probably reached its culminating point. The many sick who had been lately healed had predisposed a vast number of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the neighbourhood to listen with interest and kindness to the earnest preaching; and the words and arguments, we know, had won thousands to the faith, while many others were still wavering before they joined the community. Then the spirit of love which reigned among them, the self-denying eagerness of the richer members, their devotion to the poor and sick, the number of widows and other unemployed women, who before had been leading purposeless lives, for whom the growing Church had found congenial occupation,—all these things weighed with the fickle populace, who so short a time before had clamoured for the crucifixion of the same Master whom now they were ready to worship. The tide, however, soon turned, and a few months later we shall see a bitter persecution raging against the Church, the populace apparently careless of what might happen to those men whose words they had listened to so gladly, and to that society whose works and life had won their admiration and respect


Verse 28

Acts 5:28. Did not we straitly command you, that ye should not teach in this name? and behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. A concealed dread underlies the whole of the high priest’s accusation. He never asks them how they came to be in the Temple teaching that morning, though he knew the evening before they were securely lodged in the state prison. He carefully, too, avoids mentioning the sacred name of Jesus, no doubt uttering with fierce contempt the words, ‘this name,’ ‘your doctrine,’ ‘this man’s blood.’ The charge against them really was one of direct disobedience to a decree of the Sanhedrim: this plain command, said the high priest, these men, Peter and his companions, had disobeyed in the hope that they might excite the people to rise against the Sanhedrists, as the murderers of an innocent man; in fact, had not unexpected friends been found in the midst of the sacred assembly itself, no popular favour without could have saved the apostles then from a most severe sentence of long and rigorous imprisonment, perhaps of death; for in their public teaching, the high priest and his assessors in the council were charged with the awful accusation of murdering the Messiah (sec Acts 5:33). Nor was the manifest favour in which they were held by the people generally without, and the powerful intervention of the Pharisee party in the council, sufficient to procure the acquittal of the accused. The council, in spite of these, condemned the teaching and severely punished the leaders before letting them go (see Matthew 27:25).


Verse 29

Acts 5:29. we ought to obey God rather than men. Peter here commences his defence with the same words which he had made use of before, when the Sanhedrim dismissed the apostles with threats of future punishment. He took up the same solemn argument now a second time; it was as though he said, ‘I told you before when you threatened me, we must obey God rather than men,’ thinking, no doubt, now of his Master’s voice from heaven by His angel, the night before, bidding him stand and preach publicly in the Temple.

Not in this, the earliest Church history we possess, do we find any of the leaders of Christianity unfaithful to this principle, twice laid down by their foremost leader; but while they refuse utterly to obey any command which they feel would be contrary to the voice of God, we find them quietly, without murmuring, submitting as now to any penalty the law of the land enforced against them.

This was conspicuously instanced in the life, history, and teaching of Peter and Paul.


Verse 30

Acts 5:30. The God of our fathers. Identifying himself, in the words ‘our fathers,’ with the glorious line of patriarchs, prophets, and kings whom the children of Israel in their then state of humiliation and subjection remembered with so passionate a love; while he pointed to Jehovah, the Mighty One of Jacob,—as the God who had raised up Jesus,—raised up not in this place ‘from the dead,’ as Meyer, following Chrysostom and others, would understand it, but raised up from the seed of David as the Sent of God. This interpretation, adopted by Calvin, Bengel, De Wette, etc., admirably agrees with the order in time of the events named by Peter, ‘raised up from the seed of David,’ ‘slain by you,’ ‘exalted to all power.’ Jesus, the beloved name, shunned and dreaded, and then left unnamed by the high priest, but gloried in by the accused apostle, who makes it the central point of his defence.

Whom ye slew. The Greek word is chosen with pointed significance: ‘And this Glorious One, the Sent of the God of our fathers, ye slew with your own hands.’

And hanged on a tree. The cross is here called ‘a tree,’ a well-known expression to those learned Jewish priests and rabbis who sat in the great council; they would too well remember how, in their sacred law, this death was pronounced accursed (see Deuteronomy 21:23).


Verse 31

Acts 5:31. Him hath God exalted with his right hand. ‘To His right hand,’ not ‘with’ (see the note on chap. Acts 2:23, where a similar change has been adopted). That same Jesus whom you slew and hanged on the cross of shame and agony, hath the God of your fathers exalted to His right hand, to be a Prince, thus describing His kingly dignity—a Prince to whom all Israel owes obedience; and not only to be the royal chief of all, for he adds, and a Saviour too, by whom you must be saved from your sins. The apostle now proceeds to describe the purpose of the exaltation of the crucified, which he says is to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. With His exaltation, the working of Jesus from His throne in heaven began—the working which, by means of the Holy Spirit, gradually drew men to Him. By the preaching of the gospel He brought men to a change of heart (repentance), and then through faith in Him, which came with their change of heart, He made them sharers in His forgiveness of sins. We must remember that till Jesus was exalted, the Holy Ghost was not sent to men, and till the Holy Ghost was sent, the real work of Christ could not be said to have really begun in the homes of this world. Israel is here alone mentioned by Peter, for at this time the idea of a universal salvation was grasped by none of the leading teachers of the doctrine of Jesus: at first none of these men could conceive the God of their fathers offering a broad scheme of salvation, which was to embrace not merely all the coasts of Israel, but the known and unknown isles of the Gentiles. One of the objects of this book of the ‘Acts’ is to show how the apostles of an exclusive nation developed into the Christian missionaries whose message was to a world.


Verse 32

Acts 5:32. And we are his witnesses of these things. ‘His,’ as appointed by Him, as chosen by Him when on earth. ‘Of these things,’ viz. the death on the accursed tree and the ascension from earth, they were eye-witnesses; but they were witnesses in a yet higher sense of their Master’s exaltation, as conscious of the Holy Ghost, which He promised should descend upon them when once He had ascended, and which, in accordance with the promise, fell on them at Pentecost and gave them their new grand powers.

And so is also the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost, too, is joined with them as a witness. His solemn testimony is publicly borne by those miracles performed by the apostles through His power.


Verse 33

Acts 5:33. They were cut to the heart. Literally, ‘they were cut asunder as with a saw’ (so the Vulgate, dissecabantur).

Took counsel to slay them. To carry out such a sentence, the sanction of the Roman Government must have been first obtained, unless they had effected their purpose by having recourse to one of those hurried, arbitrary procedures which some Roman governors, to win popularity, connived at. This was the case in the summary execution of St. Stephen the deacon.


Verse 34

Acts 5:34. A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people. This Gamaliel ( גַּמְלִיאֵל, benefit of God. See Numbers 1:10, Acts 2:10) is generally acknowledged to be identical with the celebrated Gamaliel the elder, who lived at the time, and was the grandson of Hillel, the famous founder of one of the rabbinical schools. His name frequently occurs in the Mishna as an utterer of sayings subsequently quoted as authorities. Although liberal in his views and a student of Greek literature, he was held in high estimation as a most learned and devout Pharisee. ‘As among the Schoolmen Aquinas and Bonaventura were called respectively the “Angelic” and “Seraphic” Doctor, so Gamaliel among the Jews has received the name of the “Beauty of the Law,” and in the Talmud we read how since Rabban Gamaliel died, the glory of the law has ceased. He is one of the seven among the great Rabbis to whom the Jews have given the title of Rabban. Among his pupils, St. Paul and Onkelos (the author of the well-known Targum) are the most famous. The latter, when Gamaliel died, some eighteen years before the fall of Jerusalem, about the time when Paul was shipwrecked at Malta, raised to his master a funeral pile of such rich materials as had never before been known save at the burial of a king’ (Howson, S. Paul).

Partly from the statement of his interference in behalf of the apostles contained in this chapter, partly from a well-known passage in the Clementine Recognitions, where Peter is represented as saying, ‘which, when Gamaliel saw, who was a person of influence among the people, but secretly our brother in the faith’ (i. 65), he has been supposed to have been, like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and other wealthy and distinguished Pharisees, a Christian; but this supposition is totally without authority. Gamaliel lived and died a Pharisee in all the rigid acceptation of the term. A well-known prayer against Christian heretics was composed, or at least approved, by him; in it the following words referring to the followers of Jesus occur: ‘Let there be no hope for them who apostatize from the true religion, and let all heretics, how many soever they may be, perish as in a moment.’

The motives which influenced Gamaliel’s conduct on this occasion have been much discussed: he prevailed upon the Sanhedrim not to adopt any violent measures towards these leaders of the rising sect, persuading them to let the matter alone; for if it were of mere human origin, it would come to nothing without any interference of theirs; if, on the other hand, it were divine, no human effort would prevail against it. He seems to have acquiesced in the temporary expedient of allowing the accused to be scourged, as the public teaching of the apostles had been carried on in direct defiance of the Sanhedrim (see chap. Acts 4:17-21), and the honour of the great council seemed to demand some reparation for its outraged authority. Two considerations seem to have influenced him—(1) After all, the main accusation on the part of the high priest and his influential followers was the earnest teaching of those men of a great truth—the resurrection from the dead: in this Gamaliel and the Pharisees sympathized with the apostles against their Sadducee enemies in the council. (2) The rumours of the mighty works which publicly accompanied the teaching, no doubt caused grave misgiving in minds like Gamaliel’s, whether some basis of truth did not underlie the whole story.


Verse 35

Acts 5:35. Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. Gamaliel here, as a wise and far-seeing man, persuades the angry and unreasoning zealots in the council, who would have taken the lives of the teachers of the new sect, to consider well what they were doing; and in confirmation of what he was advancing, appeals, as we shall see in Acts 5:36-37, to the experience which past history teaches. He names two well-known political agitators whose enterprises utterly failed, and that without any interference on the part of the Sanhedrim; but while he mentions Theudas and Judas of Galilee, another name, well loved by the accused and persecuted teachers, is in his mind, though not on his lips. He argued, if these things, which then so powerfully exercised their thoughts, were merely derived from a human source, like the matter of Theudas and Judas of Galilee, they would soon simply fade away into contempt and be forgotten. Let them pause then awhile before they proceeded to any extreme measures.


Verse 36

Acts 5:36. For before these days. That is, ‘not long ago;’ so Chrysostom understands the words when he remarks, ‘He does not speak of ancient records, though he might have done so, but of more recent histories, which are most powerful to induce belief.’ Gamaliel’s meaning is: ‘This is by no means the first time wild enthusiasts have appeared amongst us; but as you will see from the instances I am going to cite, such men have invariably finished their course in utter defeat and shame.’ Still, though he is evidently arguing on the probability of the followers of Jesus turning out similar impostors, in Acts 5:39 he just hints at the possibility of another issue.

Rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain. This is one of the so-called historical inaccuracies of the ‘Acts.’ Josephus mentions (Antt. xx. 5,1) a Theudas who persuaded a great company of people that he was a prophet, to induce them to follow his lead. This impostor was defeated and executed by the troops of Fadus, the Procurator of Judea. Now this happened in the reign of Claudius, some ten or twelve years after this speech of Gamaliel.

The mistake of identifying the Theudas of Josephus with the Theudas instanced by the writer of the ‘Acts,’ is probably in great measure owing to the mistake of Eusebius, who, forgetful of the dates, and misled by the similarity of the names, confuses the two; but on examination, the details of the two outbreaks are different, for Josephus speaks of a great company of people as following the (later) Theudas of Josephus, while the Theudas of Gamaliel seems to have had comparatively few adherents, about four hundred. The apparent discrepancy between the history of Josephus and the Acts is best explained by the supposition that two persons bearing the name of Theudas appeared as insurgents at different times. Josephus relates how, at the time referred to by Gamaliel (see note on Acts 5:37), the land was overrun by insurgent bands under the leadership of fanatics. Some of the leaders he mentions by name, others he merely alludes to generally. One of these latter most probably was the Theudas mentioned by Gamaliel, selected by him for special notice, for some reasons unknown to us. The name was by no means an uncommon one, nor is there any improbability in supposing that one Theudas, an insurgent, should have appeared in the time of Augustus, and another fifty years later, when Claudius was reigning. Josephus writes, for instance, of four men named Simon, all leaders of insurrections within forty years, and of three insurgent chiefs named Simon within ten years. It cannot for one moment be conceded that in the speech of Gamaliel, reported by the author of the ‘Acts,’ a grave historical error exists, considering that the whole writing of the ‘Acts’ was evidently supervised by St. Paul, the pupil of Gamaliel.


Verse 37

Acts 5:37. After this man arose. These words determine pretty closely the date of the failure of the pretensions of Theudas. The attempted rising of Judas of Galilee, related in this verse, was a well-known one, and happened in the reign of Augustus about A.D. 6 or 7—that is, about twenty-six years before the arrest of the apostles. This rising is stated to have taken place after that of Theudas; and as both are related as events which happened not long ago (see note on Acts 5:36), in the memory of some still living, we must fix the date of the attempt of Theudas not very long before that of Judas of Galilee. Now, the period of the death of Herod the Great, which happened a few months after the Bethlehem massacre related in Mark it, when, as Josephus states, the land was overrun with insurgents led by various fanatics, one of whom we have suggested was Theudas, in all respects fits in with the history.

Judas of Galilee. A well-known Jewish enthusiast, styled by Josephus the author of a fourth Jewish sect, though his followers professed the opinions held generally by the Pharisees. The great feature of his teaching was that it was unlawful to pay tribute to Caesar, as God was the only Ruler of the nation. His followers were dispersed and himself slain, but his opinions were revived by the fierce faction of the Zealots, which arose in the last days of Jerusalem; two of his sons were subsequently crucified, and a third was also put to death by the Roman authorities, as dangerous rebels, before the outbreak of the Jewish war.

In the days of the taxing. Better translated enrolment. Not that alluded to in Luke 2:2, and which took place at the birth of Christ, and probably was merely a census of the population. This taxing or enrolment was made after the dethronement of Archelaus, when Judea was converted into a Roman province, and the enrolment of persons and property was made with a view to taxation. It was in consequence of this taxing that Judas of Galilee revolted.


Verse 38-39

Acts 5:38-39. And now I say into you. Gamaliel’s words could be paraphrased thus: ‘Is this work a Divine one? does it emanate from God? If not, it will come to nothing, like those examples of imposture of Theudas and Judas of Galilee I have just been quoting to you. There is no reason for our council to interfere as yet with a strong hand, but every reason for us to refrain for the present.’ Gamaliel well knew, if the preaching of the Crucified and its strange attendant circumstances were merely a fanatical movement, any very violent measures to suppress it would only assist its progress. His closing words, Lest haply ye be found even to fight against God, betray a lurking suspicion in his mind that in the Nazarene story there was something more than met the eye of the ordinary observer; perhaps after all in this later cause there was something Divine.


Verse 40

Acts 5:40. And to him they agreed. How bitterly many of that council must have reproached themselves for the past! The present vote, which dismissed the apostles with a comparatively light penalty, silently condemned the crucifixion of the apostles’ Master as a mistake, perhaps as an awful crime.

And beaten them. The Sanhedrim thus declining to pronounce any decisive judgment on the real question before them, they inflicted scourging as a penalty for disobedience to their commands. This cruel punishment was inflicted on the naked back of the sufferer. The scourge which was used generally consisted of two lashes knotted with bronze, or heavy indented circles of bronze, or terminated by hooks; it was looked upon by Romans as so shameful a chastisement that it was forbidden to be inflicted on a Roman citizen. This torture was endured by our blessed Saviour.


Verse 41

Acts 5:41. Rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame. The glad and joyful willingness to endure martyrdom for the sake of the Master which has been ever so distinguishing a feature in the Christian story, is here shown for the first time. Everything like fear was banished from the minds of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth long before this crisis in the Church, but now for the first time appears in Christian history the spirit which welcomes pain and suffering for the sake of Christ. The first consequence of the communion of the Risen Lord with His own, was fearlessness on the part of His disciples of all consequences which might ensue from their openly ranging themselves on His side. Fearlessness with them rapidly passed into a glad and joyful readiness to welcome death, if need be, or any agony or shame, for His dear sake. Peter and his brother apostles bore their joyful witness in this cruel suffering of scourging: we shall very soon see a Stephen witnessing his triumphant witness of death; and these famous instances were only the first of that long line of splendid triumphs over pain, and weakness, and mortal suffering, men call martyrdoms—the first joyful pouring out of that blood of the martyrs, men have come to call rightly the seed of the Church.

For his name. The better reading here is the nobler expression by far, for the name—the well-known name of Him they accepted as Messiah, Redeemer, and God—Jesus. The name was a familiar expression among the disciples and as such required no addition of ‘his, as in the Received Text, to make it clearer. Hackett well observes, that it is a loss to our religious dialect that the term in this primitive sense has fallen into disuse.’


Verse 42

Acts 5:42. And daily in the temple. Undismayed by any punishment in the past, undeterred by any fear for the future, they did their Master’s bidding daily without rest or repose, in public, in the courts of His ancient and beautiful temple.

And in every house they ceased not to teach. In private assemblies, too, held in the now many homes of the faithful, they taught the doctrines of their Crucified and Risen Lord.

And preach Jesus Christ, better translated ‘the Christ.’ Here, in one word, the special purpose of their public and private teaching is told us. They proclaimed to all in the crowded Temple courts, as in the little earnest home gatherings of the believers, that Jesus the Crucified was no other than the Christ—the Messiah.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 5:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/acts-5.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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