Speaker: Peter and the apostles (v. 29)
Audience: The Jewish high priest, council, and senate (vv. 21, 27)
Occasion: The high priest and Sadducees were jealous of the power and popularity of the apostles, so they arrested them. During the night an angel released them from prison and told them to go to the temple to speak to the people. At daybreak the next morning the apostles entered the temple and began to teach. When the Jewish leaders found the prison empty and heard a report that the apostles were in the temple, they sent the captain of the temple guard and his officers to bring them in, peacefully. This presentation of the gospel takes place during the ensuing inquiry.
Result: The Jewish leaders were enraged and wanted to kill the apostles. One respected leader, Gamaliel, calmed them down and kept them from killing them. They ended up flogging them, charging them again not to speak in the name of Jesus, and releasing them. Just as in Acts 4, there were no conversions from this presentation of the message, but the apostles continued to speak.
As in the previous examples of telling the message in Acts, Peter begins by commenting on the occasion. The apostles were obviously being called on the carpet, yet they saw it as an opportunity to speak about Christ. The apostles’ answer to the charge of speaking about Christ even though they had been told not to was simply that they had to obey God instead the human beings. And as before, the thing that ultimately explained their way of living was what God did in Jesus. All four of the recorded messages we have explored so far (Acts 2, 3, 4, 5) entail God providing an opportunity to speak, the apostles recognizing and making the most of the opportunity, and explaining what was going on around them in terms of God’s mighty action in Jesus. This gives us some practical insight about how to find opportunities to speak. First, we need to make sure our lives really are based on what God has done in Christ. Then, when someone asks about or shows interest in something we have done or said, we don’t downplay the real reason for it but instead tell the ultimate basis for our behavior, namely, God’s act in Christ.
After addressing the situation, Peter and the apostles described that which ultimately accounted for their actions, namely, the gospel—the good news of what God had done in Christ. The primary points in the story they told are things we’ve seen in previous messages:
- God raised Jesus (from the dead), whom the Jews had killed (v. 29),
- the unique identity God gave Jesus (v. 30),
- the appropriate response and blessings (v. 31), and
- evidence for their truthfulness of their message (v. 32).
Here again the death and resurrection of Jesus were central to the message. (For the language of “tree” to refer to the cross, cf. Acts 10:39; 13:29; and Galatians 3:13, which comes from Deuteronomy 21:22-23.) As before, Peter made the contrast between the Jewish leaders killing Jesus and God raising him. Since he mentioned Jesus’ resurrection before his death, it appears that chronology was not his primary concern. Instead, he mentions the resurrection first to underscore its importance (cf. 4:2, 33; 17:18, 31-32; Romans 1:4). That humans thought Jesus was worthy of death but God showed he was worthy of life implies Jesus’ unique and special identity. Peter states his identity directly in the next sentence.
Not only did God raise Jesus from the dead, he exalted him to his own right hand (5:31; cf. 2:33). This indication of Jesus’ special identity is the second part of his message. The word “exalted” means raised, elevated, or lifted up. That is why words like “above” and “high” are often used with it. The elevation can be literal or can be figurative for being raised in status or condition. Kings, who sat on raised thrones, were exalted in both senses. The word for exalt in Acts 5:31 is also used regularly of Jesus in John (3:14; 8:28; 12:32). He, too, was “lifted up” in both senses—literally on the cross and figuratively as Lord of all. Elsewhere, other words are used to express high position (Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 1:8-9).
Jesus’ royal identity is also communicated by the word “prince” (5:31). This word can mean “chief, leader, ruler or prince” (and in some contexts author or founder). The word clearly describes him as having high status and authority. Prince is a fitting description since God is also a King and a prince is the Son of a King.
Jesus is also Savior and is called this frequently in the New Testament. This role is ascribed to him in other messages in Acts as well (13:23; cf. 4:12; cf. 16:17; 28:28). As noted in the previous post (link), salvation includes the wonderful gifts of forgiveness and rescue from God’s wrath but is also much broader than that, including salvation from the power and practice of sin as well.
Thus, the identity of Jesus is that he is exalted (like a King), prince/ruler/leader, and Savior. His special identity is mentioned again at the end of this section of Acts where the message is summarized as “teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” Christ is an important title we have seen previously in this series (for more depth about the word see here) . The unique and authoritative identity of Jesus is paramount in the telling of the good news in Acts.
The reference to the identity of Jesus, especially as Savior, leads to the third part of the message, namely, the response and blessings. The basic response here is repentance, as we have seen previously (Acts 2:38; 3:19). Repent literally means “to change the mind” but indicates a far more drastic change than we mean when we talking about changing our minds. It entails a complete change of disposition, attitude, and outlook toward God. Instead of ignoring him, making excuses, putting our words in his mouth, patronizing him, or giving him token respect, we change our outlook to one of absolute devotion (Matthew 6:24; 10:37-39).
The literal wording of “give repentance” (see ESV) indicates that repentance is not merely a matter of human choice but also is something that the Savior gives (v. 31). Though some see this as evidence that God has chosen only certain, select people to be saved, this is unlikely in view of the regular calls for audiences at large to repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19), the frequent statements that anyone or all can believe (John 3:15-18, 36; 5:24; 7:38) and direct statements that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). Still, the wording here reminds us that we are not acting on our own. Rather, we are responding to the message, call, and conviction that come from God through Christ (cf. John 6:34; 12:32; 16:8-11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). This is in keeping with the regular New Testament teaching that our salvation is dependent on the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 15:11; 20:24). It is because Jesus is exalted, Prince, and Savior that he can offer us repentance.
Jesus, the Savior, also gives forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). This has been mentioned previously as well (Acts 2:38; 3:19) and is an important part of our salvation. We must always remember that we fall terribly short and are dependent on Christ for forgiveness. We may also have to consciously struggle to find and maintain a healthy balance between the desperate need and profound importance of being forgiven for our sins, on the one hand, with the equally pressing need mentioned above to also be saved from its power and practice, on the other.
The fourth part of the message told here consists of reasons for believing it, namely, the twin witnesses of the apostles and the Holy Spirit. We noted before (post) that we are not eyewitness like the apostles, but be we still can and should testify to what we have experienced and learned about Christ. The Holy Spirit is also a witness. He convicts people of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11; cf. Acts 6:10; 7:51). Acts 5:32 reminds us that it is God’s will for both humans and his Spirit to testify to others about Christ (John 15:26-27). Both evangelism and salvation include God’s working as well as ours. Previously we noted that Scripture is another reason for believing the message (Acts 2:25-28, 34-35; 3:18, 22-26).
So the message told here is the resurrection and death of Jesus, his exalted identity as Ruler and Savior, the need and blessing of repentance and forgiveness, and the evidence of both human and divine witnesses. In Acts 5, these specifics of the message are accompanied by two brief summaries of the message, namely, “the words of this life” (v. 20) and “the Christ is Jesus” (v. 42).
Our purpose in this series of posts is to clarify the message that was told in Acts. We are not doing this for theoretical reasons, however, but to help us actually tell God’s message. So it is fitting to also notice some matters about how they told it.
For many years I missed the fact that the message was told in terms of something God has done. Jesus did not merely die and rise from the dead. Rather, God raised him (Acts 5:30). And he was not merely seen to be Leader and Savior but rather God exalted him to his own right hand as Leader and Savior (5:31). We have seen the message presented in terms of God’s activity previously as well (2:22-24, 36).
This perspective fits the fact that “gospel” means “good news.” Though many of us have known for years the meaning of the word gospel, the implications of “news” seems to elude us. To tell the gospel is to tell news of something wonderful that God has done. In contrast, I have most often presented the message as “teaching.” This is not wrong (cf. 5:42) but does not appear to be its primary form. Others today present the message as an “explanation” (of how to go to heaven or of how grace works), an “offer,” a “deal” or even a “sales pitch.” There are some things to be explained for sure, and there is in fact an offer inherent in the gospel, but the idea of a deal and sales pitch seems off track (2 Corinthians 2:17). If we want to follow the early proclaimers, we should look for opportunities to tell the news of what God has done in Christ before explaining or offering anything.
It is also helpful to notice how devoted the early spokespersons were to speaking. Though they had been ordered by the authorities not to speak, they did not “scale it back a little” but rather “filled Jerusalem” with their teaching (v. 28). After being told a second time not to speak in the name of Jesus and even after being flogged for doing so, they still “never stopped” preaching and teaching about Jesus (v. 42, NIV). This determination is all the more impressive when we pause to remember that flogging is a much longer, horrific and painful ordeal than it seems like from the less than ten seconds it takes to read v. 40. Yet even with such intense repercussions, they continued to speak, both publicly and in the various homes (v. 42). It is not surprising that secular authorities and social conventions today seek to prevent us from telling about Jesus. What is surprising is that now even many Christians not only refuse to speak personally but even discourage other Christians from speaking. A study from the Barna Research group found that 27% of practicing Christians believe it is wrong to share their religious beliefs with people of other faiths in hopes that they will come to share their faith. Among young adult practicing Christians, the number who believe it is wrong is 47% (Reviving Evangelism, 2019, p. 46). In a climate like this it is all the more imperative that we have the hearts and courage to obey God rather than people (Acts 5:29).
To help the teaching of this great passage change our hearts and lives, you may want to take a few minutes to ponder and pray about how your current understanding of the gospel you (would) speak to non-Christians compares and contrasts to the message told here. Are any corrections needed? And is anyone telling you directly or giving you the impression that Christians don’t need to speak to others about Christ? How does your determination to speak the message anyway compare to theirs?