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A key verse in this portion of Scripture (Acts 5:12-42) is found in verse 29: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings.’ Here, in a nutshell, Peter points out where the Christian’s ultimate allegiance must lie.
Broadly speaking, Christianity teaches obedience to the stage, with Paul reminding us that human authority is given by God for our good. (Romans 13:1-7) We are called to be conscientious citizens; Jesus recognised a distinction between civil and religious loyalties (Luke 20:24-26), but commended honourable living in society. Paul reminded us ‘to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good’ (Titus 3:1) and Peter, whose impulsive actions had led to the loss of a man’s ear when Jesus was arrested, went on to command submission ‘for the Lord’s sake to every human authority, whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.’ (1 Pet 2:13-14)
Yet at the same time, the apostles also recognised limits. ‘If the authority concerned misuses its God-given power to command what He forbids or to forbid what He commands, then the Christian’s duty is to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s.’ (John Stott, ‘The Message of Acts’, P 116). This, in essence, was the heart of Peter’s refusal to obey the Sanhedrin’s prohibition on preaching.
In both Acts 4 and Acts 5, the apostles were warned not to preach in Jesus’ name. On both occasions, they openly disregarded this injunction and risked death (Acts 5:33). The key was the Sanhedrin’s refusal to obey God and heed what He had done by raising Jesus from the dead. The apostles clearly recognised their divine mandate to preach took precedence over the Sanhedrin’s ruling. God’s commands had priority over man’s.
This principle remains true today and can have enormous implications for how we live. May we have both the boldness and the courage of these early disciples and obey God rather than men!