Studies in the Book of Acts
Brought to the Sanhedrin (5:26-28)
The captain of the temple police and his officers now go to fetch the apostles as they are preaching to the people. No force is used, because the Sanhedrin is afraid the people would stone its members if they arrest the apostles (5:26). The apostles comply with the order and do not resist (Luke 22:50). After they are brought before the Sanhedrin, the high priest berates them for teaching in Jesus’ name at the temple. The leaders are especially concerned that they are being singled out as responsible for the death of Jesus. They say that the apostles are “determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” (5:28). They clearly fear a violent insurrection against them.
By accusing the Jewish leaders of murdering the Messiah, whom God had then raised from the dead, the Christians were in effect publicly calling for divine retribution. The Jewish leaders regarded the death of Jesus as the result of the legal trial of a malefactor; the Christians were making it out to be an act of murder, and thus claiming that the Jewish leaders were guilty men. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 119.]
While the apostles are placing accountability on those with whom it obviously lies — the Sanhedrin — they are not interested in pointing the finger of blame. They are preaching the forgiveness of sin, not condemnation. We should note that the high priest cannot bring himself to use Jesus’ name. Rather, he contemptuously refers to “this man’s blood” (5:28). Earlier, he avoided using Jesus’ name by using the phrase “in this name.” The disdain and hatred for Jesus ran deep.
The charge answered (5:29-32)
The apostles then respond to the Sanhedrin’s threat. In a brief summary of their defense, Luke describes Peter as the spokesman for the others. Nonetheless, all the apostles agree with the argument. They assert that they should obey God rather than human beings (5:29). Since God commanded them to preach about the work of Jesus, that’s what they are going to do. Peter and John had affirmed this principle at their first trial, that they are constrained to obey God over human authorities (4:19). Now all the apostles take the same stand.
They were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and glorification (2 Peter 1:16-18). Now they are obligated to testify that the one they heard, saw and touched is the Word of life (John 1:1-2). “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20).
Hanged on a “tree” (5:30)
Peter begins the apostles’ defense by asserting that the God of Israel “raised Jesus from the dead” (5:30). The phrase “from the dead” is not in the Greek — the Greek text simply says that God raised Jesus. Peter may be referring to Jesus’ exaltation (5:31). That is, Peter would be saying that the very person the Jews rejected and killed is the person God brought onto the stage of history to fulfill the role of Messiah. God “raised up” or chose Jesus to accomplish his purpose. In any case, the resurrection was the focal point of God’s purpose. God had to raise Jesus from death in order to “raise him” to glory and exaltation. The resurrection is the divine vindication of Jesus. This contrasts with his rejection by humans, epitomized by the crucifixion (2:23; 3:14; 4:10).
In Greek, Peter refers to a “tree” (xylou) to describe Jesus’ crucifixion (5:30). But this doesn’t mean Jesus was crucified on a living tree. Luke tells us that the cross was carried through the streets of Jerusalem (Luke 23:26). In Jesus’ day, the Greek word xylon was used for objects made from wood, including poles. Luke uses xylon in referring to the clubs carried by those arresting Jesus (Luke 22:52) and the wooden stocks into which Paul was placed (Acts 16:24). A few times in the New Testament, as here in verse 30, xylon is also used for the cross of Jesus (10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
The phrase “hanged on a tree” comes from Deuteronomy 21:22-23. In the law of ancient Israel, a person guilty of a capital offense was put to death by stoning. Any such executed criminal was considered to be under God’s curse. After his execution, the condemned person’s body was hung on a tree during the day, but buried before nightfall. What Peter is saying is that the Jews had inflicted the greatest disgrace on Jesus. They condemned him to death with a capital offense, and then crucified him as a heinous criminal. Paul discusses this paradox of God’s chosen vessel being placed under a divine curse to die for the sins of humanity (Galatians 3:10-14, with reference to Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
By using the phrase “hanged on a tree” in this context, Peter highlights the contrast between the people’s rejection of Jesus and God’s glorification of the One accounted as accursed. “God exalted him [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior,” said Peter (5:31). Paradoxically, Jesus’ rejection and death (and resurrection) is what makes it possible to “bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins” (5:31). Thus, salvation is being offered to the very people who “hanged Jesus on a tree.”
Prince and Savior (5:31)
This is the first time in Acts that the title “Savior” (Greek, soter) is used of Jesus. It is used only once more in Acts (13:23) and a few times in the Gospels. Although the title is common now, it is used less than 20 times in the rest of the New Testament. There is no question, however, that God’s plan of salvation works through Jesus Christ as Savior (Philippians 3:20; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 4:14). As Peter stressed earlier, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In these early sections Luke often reminds his readers that the promise of salvation was made to Israel (1:6; 2:36; 4:10, 27; 5:21). In keeping with God’s promises, the offer of salvation went to the Jews first.
Peter made an important observation about salvation in his summary defense. Repentance and forgiveness of sins are given by God (5:31). Human beings, on their own, cannot decide to repent and then present themselves as fulfilling the requirements for salvation. To repent involves having a “new mind” that connects with God’s thoughts. This is something that must be given by God, and it is given through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 8:10).
Those who obey him (5:32)
Peter and the apostles say they are witnesses of these wonderful truths about salvation (5:32). Another witness is the Holy Spirit, “whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). When taken out of context, this verse might seem to teach that obedience must come first and is a requirement for receiving the Holy Spirit. However, the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a gift, not a payment for work.
True obedience to God, which comes from a relationship of trust, is internal and is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit must come before faith and obedience can occur. We are saved through faith, not because of what we do (Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians 2:8). Faith goes hand in hand with an obedient, submissive spirit. But complete obedience — which would include sinlessness — is not the actual state of any human being, except Jesus.
Peter is not making a timeless or general statement about the cause-and-effect relationship of the Holy Spirit, faith and obedience. The context makes his point clear. The Sanhedrin is challenging the apostles’ claim to be speaking for God. To the council, the apostles are rogues and revolutionaries, the leaders of a purely human movement who are trying to make the executed Jesus a martyr. The apostles counter the accusation by saying the Sanhedrin is the one resisting the purpose of God (5:30-31). The disciples insist that their witness to Christ is given under the direction of a divine witness (5:32). Apart from the Holy Spirit’s presence in their preaching, the apostles’ witness could fall only on deaf ears, as the attitude of the council itself revealed. Human testimony can have the desired effect on listeners only if the Holy Spirit is operating as a “witness” in the message and in the mind of the hearer.
Here, Peter is reaffirming that the Holy Spirit is revealing and guaranteeing the truth of the apostolic message. Peter points out that God’s Spirit is “given to those who obey him” (5:32) – in other words, the Holy Spirit has already been given to the people who are obeying him – that is, the apostles. Peter is asserting that the apostles truly have the Holy Spirit. This is not saying anything about why or when the Holy Spirit is given.
Peter says that he and the other apostles are obeying God rather than human beings (5:29). How are they doing so? By being witnesses to Jesus and preaching in his name! Peter is saying that this fact — that they are obeying God by preaching — is evidence of their having the Holy Spirit. Peter is emphasizing in verse 32 that he and the other apostles are obedient to the command of God to preach the gospel (1:8; 5:20). The specific obedience Peter refers to is that of being Jesus’ witnesses, and he is declaring that their witness is corroborated by the Holy Spirit.
The fact that the apostles are witnessing to Christ is evidence that the Holy Spirit is with them — and not with the Sanhedrin, despite their claim to speak for God. In short, the Holy Spirit is given to those who, after being commanded to do so, obey God in faithfully preaching about Jesus Christ. The true representatives of God are the ones who are obeying him.