Simon Peter, Fisher of Men
10 - Rejoicing to suffer
"Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women." The sad incident of Annanias and Sapphira passed; there was much to do and the crowds outside were pressing. The miracles of healing continued; the physical absence of Jesus made no difference to that. Whenever and wherever Peter passed down the street he found the sick, the crippled and the lame on beds and couches, waiting in the hope that at least his shadow might fall on them as he passed. From the villages around Jerusalem came people bringing their sick for his ministry and the victims of demon possession in the hope of freedom; "and they were healed every one". There can be no doubt that every act of healing was accompanied by a witness to the good news of the coming Kingdom and of the fulfilment of all that the prophets had spoken concerning the future Messianic era. Then all men, the least to the greatest, will hear the gracious message of the goodness of God in Christ. So they exhorted all to believe on Him, and believing, be saved. Repeatedly the Apostles reiterated the basis of their message and the power behind what they were doing: "This Jesus God raised up and of that we are all witnesses." (Acts 2. 32 RSV)
Eventually the priestly party could take no more. Their first clash with Peter and John had left them defeated, but resentful. They were compelled to stand by helplessly and see the whole nation going after these men and they could not tolerate the situation. Perhaps they began to reason that their forefathers had frequently put the prophets of God to death and apparently not suffered vengeance from above. Perhaps they themselves had not been sufficiently resolute on the last occasion and the situation had got out of hand accordingly. In all probability it was in sheer desperation that they arrested, not merely Peter and John as on the previous occasion, but all the apostles, and locked them up in prison for the night pending an arraignment before the Sanhedrin in the morning. The captain of the guard returned to report that all instructions had been duly carried out, and for the first time for quite a while the high priest and his supporters enjoyed a good night's sleep.
Came the morning and with it the Sanhedrin assembled in formal session, Sadducees on one side and Pharisees on the other, the high priest presiding. When all was ready, the captain of the Temple guard was ordered to produce the prisoners. There ensued an unexpected and unexplained delay; after a while an officer appeared in the entry and beckoned urgently to the captain of the guard. There ensued a whispered colloquy that only served to increase the impatience of Annas, waiting to commence the proceedings. At length the unhappy captain, red of face, returned to inform the high priest that upon going to the prison and finding everything safely locked and in order with the jailers duly standing guard before the doors, his men had most unaccountably and inexplicably found no one inside. The news was received in shocked silence; it was not customary for the high priest's prisoners to get out so easily and there were muttered doubts as to what the outcome of this situation was going to be. "When the chief priests heard these things they doubted of them whereunto this would grow." The Sadducees, who believed in nothing supernatural, looked to Annas, himself a Sadducee, for a rational explanation of this unexpected happening but amongst the Pharisees, the conservatives who believed in all that the Old Testament recorded, there was whispering and head-shaking. Suppose that the angel of the Lord had gone to that prison in the dead of night, opened the doors and set these men free? Few among them would deny the possibility of such a happening, if that was God's will. If so, what an item on the credit side of their continual antagonism to the Sadducees, who did not believe in the existence of angels! The Pharisees settled themselves comfortably on their benches to see how their old enemy Annas was going to get out of this one.
That worthy was reprieved at the last minute. One of the busybodies who are always to be found haunting the courts of authority came bustling in to tell anyone who would listen that the men they had put in prison were at that moment standing in the Temple teaching the people. Anxious to retrieve his somewhat tarnished reputation, the captain of the guard was off like a shot with his officers, to make another attempt at the apprehension of these singularly elusive offenders. By virtue of his calling and social level he was a little more in touch with the general public than were his superiors. He realised that discretion would assuredly be the better part of valour in the somewhat ticklish business of taking the party of apostles away from the people who idolized them. He had been in Temple riots before. Moreover he was probably not quite sure what other-worldly power the apostles might possess wherewith to resist arrest. That matter of their escape from prison without opening the doors still rankled in his mind. No matter what his Sadducee superiors might say about the mythical nature of Old Testament history, he was painfully conscious of the story of the old prophet Elijah and what he was said to have done to two parties of fifty sent by the king of that day to arrest him (2 Kings 1.10,11). The more he thought about it the more he felt the matter should be approached in a spirit of sweet reasonableness. It was a greatly relieved captain of the guard, therefore, who found that the men he sought were perfectly prepared to accompany him, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the presence of the high priest!
Annas was annoyed and he was frightened. It is obvious that he felt he was losing command of the situation. The uncomfortable fact that they had escaped from his prison and then walked into his presence of their own free will had done nothing to improve his confidence. His opening words are not an accusation; they are a complaint, and a weak complaint at that. " We strictly charged you not to teach in this name yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us" (Acts 5 28 RSV). Considering that he and his, not many weeks previously, had incited the mob to cry "His blood be upon us and upon our children" Annas was, on the most charitable view possible, a bit forgetful. He also pretended to forget that when he imposed the prohibition Peter had flatly defied him and he had been powerless to do anything about it. This second arraignment was a policy of desperation, with no real belief that it could produce results. Annas knew it, and Peter knew it. Apparently all the apostles had their say. Probably Peter, as usual, took the lead and said the most. The joint answer was forthright. "We ought to obey God rather than men." The Apostles again accused them of their sin; "the God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed". Finally, they were His witnesses and they had no intention of abandoning their preaching and their work.
Once again the Sanhedrin faced a condition of stalemate. The expression in the A.V. "they were cut to the heart" means literally that they were rent with vexation. It is evident that the apostles had been sent out of the council chamber at this point while their judges deliberated on the action to be taken. The only apparent solution was to find ways and means to encompass the deaths of these obstinate and resolute men. But at this point a new voice was raised in the council, that of Gamaliel.
Gamaliel is famous in Jewish history outside the New Testament. He was a Pharisee, grandson of the even more famous Hillel, and himself greatly respected for his wisdom, learning, and knowledge of the Law. The Apostle Paul received his early training under Gamaliel (Acts 22.3). Thirty-five years later, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by Titus and the nation scattered, Gamaliel was one of those active in re-establishing the Sanhedrin at Jamnia and become its President. At this present time his opinions were sought and respected by both Pharisees and Sadducees, and when he intervened in this dilemma his words received marked attention.
Gamaliel counselled moderation. He reminded his hearers that there had been men in times past who had put themselves forward as the nation's deliverers and gathered followers, and had come to naught. Theudas, he said, had gathered a band of four hundred rebels but he was slain and his followers dispersed. Judas of Galilee had risen up and collected a band of adherents and met the same fate. "So in the present case," he went on "keep away from these men, and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail: but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God." (Acts 5 38,39)
Whatever may have been the personal feelings of Annas, the majority of the Sanhedrin agreed with Gamaliel. It was the second ignominious retreat of the rulers of Israel from the determination of Peter and John. The Apostles were recalled to the council chamber and told of the decision; but Annas had them flogged as a mark of his displeasure. Then, weakly, "they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus", knowing all the time that they would ignore the prohibition as they had done before. And so they let them go.
"And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the Temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ".
(To be continued)