Persecution of Peter and Apostles

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Oct 15th 2017
Luke describes the amazing case of Ananias and Sapphira's sudden death and the continued persecution of the Apostles by the Jewish leadership.

Let us review our outline as we follow the first section of Acts dealing primarily with the ministry of the Apostle Peter.

  1. Peter's First Sermon – Acts 1:1-2:47
  2. Peter's Post-Pentecost Ministry – Acts 3:1-4:37
  3. Persecution of Peter and the Apostles – Acts 5:1-42

We left off at the point where the church in Jerusalem was rejoicing and experiencing spiritual power at the release of Peter and John by the Jewish leaders. This joy would soon turn to concern as a new wave of persecution would be experienced by Peter and the Apostles.

Ananias and Sapphira – Acts 5:1-11

36Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), 37and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.
- Acts 4:36-37

In this passage we read about the joy and spiritual momentum the church experienced as a result of Peter's bold witness before and after his release by the Jewish leaders. This enthusiasm motivated the members of the church to give generously in order to care for the needs of the young and growing congregation. Into this period of joyful liberality, Luke inserts an unusual episode of fraud perpetuated by a husband and wife who were also members of this very same assembly.

1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles' feet. 3But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." 5And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. 6The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
- Acts 5:1-6

Note several things about this action and why it was so serious:

  • They were pretending to duplicate the giving done by Barnabas (give all the proceeds of a land sale to the church).
  • The man and his wife plotted the fraud in advance and together. They planned to sell the land, keep a portion for themselves and give the balance to the church pretending that they were turning over all the proceeds as a gift.
  • The sin was not the fact that they kept some of the money for themselves. Peter said that the land and money was rightly theirs and in their control. The sin was creating the lie concerning their giving. They pretended to give all their proceeds but in fact kept some of it back for themselves.
  • The gravity of the sin was not based on them keeping the money, but as Peter states, believing they could lie to the Holy Spirit and think they would get away with this.
  • Their failing was not greed, their failing was faith. Their faith in Christ was so weak, and they themselves so jaded that they could actually come up with a devious scheme like this in order to be praised as generous by other Christians.
  • Ananias dies instantly and goes to judgment without a chance to repent, change or grow. Note that the effect on the church is no longer enthusiasm and spiritual power but that of fear; fear for what has just happened before them and possibly fear as they searched their own hearts and actions for signs of greed and insincerity.
7Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8And Peter responded to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?" And she said, "Yes, that was the price." 9Then Peter said to her, "Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well." 10And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.
- Acts 5:7-11

Note that Peter gives Sapphira a chance to confess the wrong, repent and receive forgiveness, but she doubles down on the lie and experiences the same fate as her husband. Note also that Peter confronts her with her sins (conspire to defraud the church, lie to the Holy Spirit). This time Luke says that fear not only came on those who heard about this incident but also over the entire church. This is the first time in the book of Acts that this term "church" is used (from the Greek - "the called out". Originally referring to those called to serve as city leaders, eventually used exclusively in connection with the body of believers in Christ).

Growth of the Church – Acts 5:12-16

After describing this particular episode, Luke provides a wider view of the situation in Jerusalem as the church was experiencing dramatic growth largely due to the dynamic ministry of Peter and the Apostles.

12At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico. 13But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.
- Acts 5:12-13

Luke describes the location where the church met (Solomon's Porch) an open promenade in the Temple complex which could accommodate thousands of people. He notes the unity of the young church as well as its favor with the people, even though they were afraid to join them on account of the Jewish leaders.

14And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, 15to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. 16Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.
- Acts 5:14-16

Here we see the widening influence of the Apostles' work opened the door of opportunity for reaching people who lived beyond the city of Jerusalem. This fulfilled Jesus' promise in Acts 1:8, that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea (which was now happening) and Samaria, even to the remotest parts of the earth (Paul's ministry).

Persecution – Acts 5:17-42

Second Arrest

17But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. 18They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, 20"Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life." 21Upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and began to teach.
Now when the high priest and his associates came, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent orders to the prison house for them to be brought. 22But the officers who came did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported back, 23saying, "We found the prison house locked quite securely and the guards standing at the doors; but when we had opened up, we found no one inside." 24Now when the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them as to what would come of this. 25But someone came and reported to them, "The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!"
- Acts 5:17-25

They had been arrested before (Acts 4:3) and warned not to preach Christ. As more and more people were converted and met in the temple area, the leaders were not only jealous but fearful that this movement would threaten their authority and position. After the Apostles' first arrest they were released with a warning. This time they are miraculously freed by an angel and told to continue with their preaching. When the leaders send for them, the guards not only report that they are gone, but that the Apostles had returned to the temple to preach.

Third Arrest

26Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, that they might be stoned).
27When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, "We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man's blood upon us." 29But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him."
- Acts 5:26-32

Peter's Defense

They arrest them once again, with care this time fearing the people, and bring them before the Jewish leaders to be questioned. At their first arrest the leaders wanted to know, "By what authority do you do these things?" (preach and heal). At that time Peter answered:

  • By Jesus' authority.
  • Who you crucified.
  • That God raised.
  • He is the Messiah according to prophecy ("the stone rejected by the builders").
  • He is the only Savior of all men.

This time their tone is different, almost self-defensive, "Why do you continue doing this (preach and heal), do you want to have us bear the guilt for Jesus's death?" They were being disingenuous since they knew exactly what they had done in order to force Pilate into executing Jesus unjustly.

Peter's answer repeats some of the points from his previous appearance before them:

  • This teaching and healing power is from God.
  • It was you, the leaders, who put Him to death. This sin is yours.
  • God, however, raised Jesus up.

At this point Peter adds more information to his response:

  • Jesus is now in heaven occupying a place of authority and power at the right hand of God.
  • Ironically, if they are guilty, Jesus is the only one that they, as Jews, can appeal to for forgiveness, the one they killed.
  • The teaching and miracles they see are a result of the Holy Spirit who empowers them and indwells all who believe and obey the gospel.

We see in this short excerpt Peter's boldness and insight growing. For example, he refuses to stop preaching and healing; he continues to accuse them of killing Jesus, their Messiah; he proclaims Jesus as the only Savior of both Jews and Gentiles; he reveals His position in heaven; and he claims that He is the source of their power to preach and heal. Peter, not groveling and fearful before them, causes jealousy and anger among them but also forces these men to stop and think about what they must do.

Gamaliel's Counsel

33But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them. 34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. 35And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."
- Acts 5:33-39

Gamaliel was an expert in the Law and teacher who was a member of the Sanhedrin. His intervention saved their lives because Peter's reply had brought the council members into a murderous rage. Peter must have known that the content and boldness of his response would probably get them killed, but he spoke out anyways. What is interesting here is that God used one of the men that opposed the Apostles to actually save them. You never know how God will rescue you, but He will.

Gamaliel's advice (wait and see, don't do anything rash) is accepted by the other leaders. The Bible mentions him as Paul's teacher before he was converted (Acts 22:3) but has no other references to him after that. According to Photios (a 9th century church leader), Gamaliel, along with his two sons, was eventually baptized by Peter and John, and died in 52 AD.

Punishment by the Council

40They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. 41So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
- Acts 5:40-42

The leaders follow Gamaliel's counsel to prudence, but in a repeated effort to frighten and discourage the Apostles they warn them to stop their preaching and reinforce this warning by torturing them. Flogging or flaying was 39 strikes on the back and sides with rods (Matthew 10:17; II Corinthians 11:24). Note that all the Apostles endured this beating. Their reaction was the complete opposite of what the Jewish leaders expected: fear, discouragement, doubting their cause and mission. Luke writes that on the contrary, they rejoiced because this event proved several things:

1. They were sincerely faithful. Taking this beating and receiving these threats without losing faith proved the quality and strength of their belief.

2. This event also proved the sureness of Jesus' word and promise.

16"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. 17But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; 18and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. 20For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
- Matthew 10:16-20

The bad thing that He said would happen did take place but so did the promise to know what to say when the critical moment arrived.

3. Their actions demonstrated the weakness of the opposition. Peter had now spoken before the Jewish leaders twice and both times they had no counterargument to his preaching of the gospel. These supposed teachers, wise men, leaders of Israel, had no answer to the accusations and proclamations of a humble fisherman from Galilee.

4. God considered them worthy (faithful) enough to suffer for the name of Christ. They did not invite rejection and violence but when it happened because of their faith, they were fully assured that they were following Jesus' lead who also had suffered for the doing of God's will.

Since the beating was administered in the presence of the Sanhedrin, the joyful reaction of the Apostles must have been disquieting to these men looking on.

Luke ends this section by noting a new element in the development of the early church, house to house teaching and preaching. This was probably done for two reasons:

  1. The congregation was becoming too large to effectively minister to by coming together in a single place.
  2. To avoid the mounting opposition of the Jewish leaders who controlled the temple area where the church met.

Lessons

God Knows

Peter knew about the deception of Ananias and Sapphira because it was revealed to him by God's Spirit. It is amazing how believers, who should know better, think they can hide their sins or motivations from God. In the end it is not our spouses or friends or even ourselves that will judge us, it is the all-knowing God who will judge.

But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.
- Matthew 12:36

There is Always a Cost

Luke writes that many were becoming Christians but the majority of the people, even though they respected them, would not join them. It was commendable that the people respected the church but respect does not save you or forgive your sins. Faith and obedience does that. Even though these people respected the sincerity, spirituality and lovingkindness of the disciples, they would not pay the price (faith and possible rejection by their family and friends). And so, they were left to observe and admire something they would never have, a Spirit-filled and eternal life.

God is Stronger

We need to remember, in times of trouble and sorrow, that God is stronger than what opposes us. We may not be stronger than what is hurting us, but He is. Luke describes the battle lines in Acts: Jewish leadership, tradition, Roman Empire, pagan world against the 12 Apostles and a young church. With the accuracy of hindsight we know that each of these were eventually overtaken to make way for Jesus' word and His church. John says, "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world." (I John 4:4). Keep this in mind when discouraged: the Spirit of God that dwells in you is greater than the spirit of the one who rules this world. This may not always be evident, but the final proof of it will be seen when He will raise us from the dead and destroy the evil one and all that opposes us, once and forever.

Reading Assignment:  Acts 6:1-7:60

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways do we "lie" to the Holy Spirit today? What would be the proper repentance for this?
  2. In the face of such strong evidence, why do you think the Jewish leaders continued to disbelieve? In your opinion what is the reason that people today believe or reject Christ when presented a similar gospel and arguments?
  3. Describe a way or an instance when you suffered for Christ and how you felt afterwards. How was your faith affected?

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