We continue our theme in exploring our respect for the ‘Law of the Land’ amidst our moral loyalty to our Lord Jesus Christ. The patriarchs lived as strangers and sojourners, without the citizenship rights of a ‘freeborn’ people (article 1). Having no rights, they suffered themselves to be defrauded. Christ lived a life of allegiance to our God (article 2), presenting a good confession before Pilate while being defrauded more than any other. In this article we move on to examine the work of the apostles as they witnessed in the face of a disgruntled Sanhedrin and a powerful pagan administration.
Let us not think that Christ’s command to preach to the world was an easy one for first century believers. Oppression of the followers of Christ had commenced as soon as Christ ascended to his Father. There were the high priest, the kindred of the high priest, the chief priests, the rulers, the captain of the Temple, the Pharisees, the Sadducees – no one in Jewish religious pre-eminence wanted this new belief in Jesus Christ to succeed.
And it wasn’t just the Jews who stood in the way. Later Nero ordered the first recorded persecution of Christians, which saw them coated with pitch and ignited as human torches in the circus. Tacitus records that “Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians … vast numbers were convicted – and derision covered their end: they were covered with wild beast’s skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.” Amidst all of this, our brothers and sisters emerged to testify of the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.
“Commanded them not to … teach in the name of Jesus”
Christ left his disciples with a simple command – “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). And they did, firstly in Jerusalem where they taught (Acts 2:21; 3:16) and healed (Acts 3:6) in the name of Jesus Christ, and later in Judea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
But they were constantly dogged by the religious and political authorities. While thousands were baptised in a day, and multitudes gathered to hear addresses about Jesus the Messiah, the ruler of the Temple together with the priests and Sadducees became grieved that they taught the people such. Peter and John were arrested and put in custody for simply obeying their Master. The judgment of the Council was to “straitly threaten” them “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17–18; note use of “name” in verses 7,10,12,17, 18 and 30).
What a charge! They were commanded not to even say a word in Christ’s name – the very name of the one who had told them to preach to the whole world! What were they to do? Surely we have all experienced this pressure, although in very different forms for different people. The pressure to laugh at a worldly joke, to use unsavoury language, to vote for a political party, to recover a debt in a court of law. In the not too distant past there was the call to arms, or the need for union membership. Many years before that was the demand to forsake one’s beliefs for the church of Rome. The world wants one thing; our God wants another. What were they to do?
The response by Peter and John is concise and clear: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19). The accused had become the accusers! So in matters of contradiction like this we have a choice. We can obey God or we can obey man, and Peter and John could not help but speak the things that they had heard and seen. We also witness their Christ-like temperament and style – there was no disrespect shown, no belligerence, just a firm and uncompromising refusal to be intimidated by threats.
We may think that this was customarily brave of these mighty apostles, but spare a thought for their next action – a prayer of praise and specific request for boldness in their speech (Acts 4:29). It is never easy to confront authorities on a matter of conscience, and Peter and John needed help as we all do. What an encouragement to us, that we too can seek strength in speaking for Christ, in doing those things that we know are right, and in continuing the testimony already begun.
“We ought to obey God rather than men”
It wasn’t long before the apostles were accosted again. Their workings of signs and wonders in the healing of many led to their imprisonment, divine release at the hands of an angel, recapture by the Sanhedrin, and questioning by the high priest, “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine” (Acts 5:28).
Rather than being intimidated, the apostles had in fact had their prayer for bold speech answered, and had filled a whole city with their teaching. This of course was not to spite the ruler’s command, but to adhere to their Master’s command. Once again Peter presents their logic, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Greek is in the active voice, present tense – “We must obey”!
Again, this was not an easy path to take. Their subsequent address enraged the Council, who resolved to slay the apostles (Acts 5:33). It was only through the timely and wise intervention of Gamaliel that this resolution was thwarted. Their actions were flirting with death. Wouldn’t it have been easier to keep quiet, to preserve one’s life? Instead it was right to obey God.
Working within the boundaries
But while the apostles refused to be intimidated or bullied by authorities attempting to contravene God’s wishes, the very law the authorities stood for also provided remarkable opportunities. Paul in particular knew this and was able to work within it to the advantage of the Truth. We see this in the following occasions where Paul made use of the Law of Citizenship to:
- obtain an escort out of jail and to the safety of the house of Lydia (Acts 16:35–40). Paul and Silas had been beaten and imprisoned, in the open and without trial (“uncondemned”, v 37). Paul possessed the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship, and these rights had clearly been violated. Note that Paul did not use this right to evade the beating, but to demonstrate to the sergeant, magistrates, jailer, and the local brethren, that they were principled believers in Jesus Christ. (Note the contrast in verse 37: they had been beaten openly, now the magistrates wanted to cast them out secretly!)
- arrange for a speech to the Jews (Acts 21:39–40). The Jews of Asia stirred up trouble (v27) and almost had Paul killed (v31). The intervention of the chief captain saved Paul, and gave him the platform to request an audience with the people, saying: “I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” (v 39). This citizenship allowed Paul to be given licence to speak to the Jews.
- be delivered from a band of Jewish conspirators who had made an oath that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul (Acts 23:12–35). Paul’s nephew overheard their plot and informed Paul, who arranged for the information to be passed on to the chief captain. The chief captain secretly transferred Paul to Caesarea and out of harm’s way, because (as he noted in his letter to the governor Felix in Caesarea) he had learned that Paul was a Roman (v27).
- appeal to be heard before Caesar (25:6–12). Neither Felix nor Festus had found anything to prove against Paul, and Paul claimed that he had not offended the law of the Jews, the Temple, or Caesar (v8). Festus enquired whether Paul would be happy again to be judged of the Jews of these things, but Paul rightly pointed out that he stood before Caesar’s judgment seat (v10), Festus being Caesar’s representative. There was no point the Jews judging Paul, because he had done nothing against the Jews, so therefore he appealed to be judged before Caesar himself (v11). This was the right of every Roman citizen, and that right now needed to be upheld by Festus. By this right Paul was also about to be removed from the constant agitation of the Jews.
- spend two years preaching in Rome in his own hired house (Acts 28:30–31), even receiving Caesar’s own household (Phil 1:12–13; 4:22). What a liberty the law of Rome afforded Paul, and he was even able to make converts in Caesar’s palace!
The law of our land today provides for our life in the Lord too. Generally we are able to meet, pray, and hold religious beliefs without fear. We are able to obtain exemption from voting and involvement in war. Our homes and ecclesial halls are not attacked. Very few of us would have ever received physical punishment for the beliefs we uphold.
Like Paul, we are most blessed with the privileges of our laws and citizenship. Like Paul we must use them to the furtherance of the gospel.
Discerning the circumstances
And yet Paul also showed restraint in his preaching methods. Often the better part of valour is discretion! On the one hand he could be fearless, even singing at midnight in jail in the hearing of all there (Acts 16:25). But at other times he avoided tumult. In Thessalonica the Jews stirred up strife, claiming that Paul advocated Christ to be a rival king to Caesar (Acts 17:7). Paul agreed to leave the area, and travelled on to Berea (v10). Yet the Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and again stirred up trouble against Paul, who again agreed to move on (v14; Matt 10:23).
Paul may well have been a Roman citizen, and he may well have been preaching the gospel of God, but there was obviously a point where no more could be gained. Further fuelling the flames of Jewish nationalistic fervour would only detract from his principal objective of taking the gospel to all the world.
Right in the sight of God
What a wonderful example the apostles are to us. They lived in a merciless environment, with the Jews fighting to protect their system of religious observance, and the Romans on the verge of a brutal era of Christian oppression. Yet their position was firm – it was better to obey God than man, better to do what was right in the sight of God – a position that led to the martyrdom of many.
So, in assessing the apostles respect to the law amidst their moral obligation to Christ, we note (i) their resolute adherence to Christ’s commands, (ii) their walking within the boundaries of the local law, and even using it to assist where possible, and yet (iii) their not taking the law to its limits, so that a tumult could be avoided or a principle observed.
In an age and land where we have fewer obstacles than possibly at any other time, we do well to faithfully witness in also doing what is right in the sight of God.