When two groups live alongside one another, tensions can rise. In Acts 5 such tension is growing in Jerusalem as the number of Jesus’ followers grows rapidly in its midst (Ac 2:47). Especially, the accusation of murder (Ac 4:10) and the warning of God’s judgement which the apostles keep bringing (Ac 4:12) is winding up the city’s, and nation’s, leaders (Ac 4:17). Yet, though they try to silence them, Jesus’ disciples cannot be cowed (Ac 4:19). They will judge Israel as Jesus told them to (Lk 22:28-30) and God makes plain his support for their judgements (Ac 5:1-11).
Therefore, though under huge pressure, the apostles still go publicly to the temple (v12). This is strong provocation to the rulers and a dangerous strategy, so others do not go with them (v13 – probably meaning other believers). God, however, is present in power such that the crowds are full of respect for the apostles. Indeed, the number of believers keeps on growing as men and women flood in (v14). A new Israel is being born out of the old and the excitement around the apostles reaches a high intensity. The twelve are well-known, with seemingly everyone desperate to get near them: the ill pour onto the pavements and rumours pass that even Peter’s shadow can heal (v15)! Furthermore, word gets out into the countryside and into the city come folk from the towns of Judea (v16 – as Jesus said would happen: Acts 1:8). And as they arrive the Lord works miracles through his apostles, so that it’s like Jesus himself returning to the city.
The history of the church has these ebbs and flows of drama. There are points of intense activity, such as here, and other points of quietness. The apostle Paul later found that some towns would react strongly to the gospel whilst others didn’t. The Holy Spirit works where he chooses (Jo 3:8). In Jerusalem it was vital to have a strong affect on the city because God was bringing the Old Testament’s words and prophecies to their fulfilment in Jesus (Lk 24:44); other places and times do not see the same. The task of Christians is to read the times they are in and learn to cope in the best way. Here in the UK we typically meet with indifference. This should not stop us believing that the gospel is the most powerful, important and beautiful message in the world. But we will need ways to help us press on rather than becoming downcast. Key to this is the distinctive life of the church. The Holy Spirit may not always work among us with powerful words and signs, but his fruit will grow in those devoted to the Lord (Ga 5:16-26). We must keep going to the Bible to: see our Saviour’s power; learn from him how he would has us live; and put that life into practice in the community of believers. If we do so, then we can thrive and honour him in our society.
However, for the apostles in Acts 5 their task is to face the authorities boldly, which provokes a jealous response (v17). Peaceful co-existence simply isn’t possible (as many Christians have found); the council decide they must take firm action (v18). Man does not rule history, however – God does. So he frees the apostles (v19) to return to temple preaching (v20), leaving the powers that govern looking foolish (v21-23) and feeling bewildered (v24), until they discover the truth and, gently, re-arrest the twelve (v25,26). In the Lord’s hands, the apostles are the most powerful force on the earth. That won’t prevent future aggression (Ac 12:2) for Jesus’ path always includes sacrifice (Lk 9:24). But using his weapons (Ep 6:10-18), we will ultimately be victorious over all.