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God's Providence for God's Purposes

Acts  5:17-42

Many a Christian has been puzzled by the lack of response to prayer. It seems to them that their prayers are all to the good – giving God fine instructions on who to heal; to whom salvation should be brought; and in all ways providing the Almighty with a cogent list of those things to which he ought to attend.

We forget who is God.

There is a difference between placing an order at McDonalds and a pleading before the King of Kings. The providence of God – that way in which he works in our affairs, either miraculously or ordinarily, or even mysteriously in between – is used with a purpose. We see that here:

(Acts 5:17-42 NIV) Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. {18} They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. {19} But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. {20} "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life." {21} At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin--the full assembly of the elders of Israel--and sent to the jail for the apostles. {22} But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, {23} "We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside." {24} On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this. {25} Then someone came and said, "Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people." {26} At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. {27} Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. {28} "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood." {29} Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! {30} The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. {31} God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. {32} We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him." {33} When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. {34} But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. {35} Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. {36} Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. {37} After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. {38} Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. {39} But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." {40} His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. {41} The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. {42} Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.

Power: Displayed to God’s Purpose

There is a very curious fact in this story. The disciples are released in the middle of the night. You will find this motif throughout the Bible: God often refuses to make a display of his divine intervention. Daniel passes the night in the lion’s den alone – only in the morning does Nebuchadnezzar go to the mouth of the cave. God loves a good cartoon double take.

You can see this in the reaction of the Pharisees and the guards. If nothing unusual had happened, they’d have locked them back up without a word. If there had been a spectacular miracle, they would have bowed before it. Here, they are really puzzled.

·         They are puzzled about what has happened. After all, this is there town and their jail. By such providence does God crack the façade of arrogance in the sinner.

·         They are also puzzled by what is going to happen next. If, as it seems, the disciples can walk through locked doors, what else can they do? This could be very disturbing.

Why did God release them?

If God’s providence is for God’s purpose, then we should be able to see it here. We do. There are two reasons:

·         First, so that the disciples themselves would not feel abandoned. They are dealing with their own people, you will recall. They cannot feel about them the same way they might about the Romans.

·         Next, they are released that they might benefit and encourage others – especially those who are yet to be converted.


This is the same Gamaliel who taught Paul. We do not know if he ever became a Christian ( the Jews say not; there is no record he did). But it is a fact that God often uses those who are not his followers – even those who conceive themselves his enemies.

There are a number of reasons and ways for this. In this instance, it is sweet reasonableness. Gamaliel is a wise man. You can see how much inner conflict this situation creates for the council by the fact that they listen to his advice – and then have the disciples beaten! To compromise between reason and their hatred, they settle for beating them.

It is the usual reaction of the powerful to the prophetic. Consider Elijah: fire down from heaven and then Jezebel’s threat makes him run. Things have not changed very much, have they?

God’s Providence Includes Suffering

The poet Alfred Barrett, in his Repartee, pictures Christ and St. Teresa talking about the Christian suffering:

Smiled Christ – “Thus do I treat my friends

So must I treat you”

“No wonder Lord,” sighed Teresa

“No wonder you have so few!”

Why is it that, in that same providence of God which released the Apostles from prison that he did not protect them from getting a beating for it?

Suffering keeps us humble

If everything went marvelously (by our standards) we would soon begin to believe that this was God’s proper reaction to our wonderful character and personality. It is not so. Indeed, God often uses suffering as a form of cleansing judgment to prevent just such things. As Peter tells it,

(1 Pet 4:12-17 NIV) Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. {13} But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. {14} If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. {15} If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. {16} However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. {17} For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Suffering keeps us dependent upon God

We often forget where the source of our true strength is. God is, however, faithful and just to remind us of this. We need to remember that suffering is God’s tool by which he shapes us.

·         Suffering is God’s tool by which he produces perseverance in his saints.[1]

·         Suffering shows us – and the world – that in our weakness his strength is shown.[2]

·         Suffering is his way of preparing his saints for future work.[3]

Worthy to suffer for the name

We often forget that our Lord suffered “for the Name.” Because he claimed to be the Son of God, he suffered – all the way to the Cross. We are not greater than he is. We therefore may expect to suffer for the Name (if we prove ourselves worthy of it).

·         Suffering for the name is a sign that Satan finds you a worthy opponent. One does not come armed with a cream pie when going into combat.

·         Our Lord tells us much the same. Our reaction is to be grieved – but he says “no.” He tells us, rather, to rejoice.[4]

·         Indeed, suffering for the Name is a sign of our salvation![5]

·         If we suffer with Him, we shall be rewarded like him. God is just.[6]

God’s Providence and God’s People

It is extremely important for us to recognize God’s providence in our lives, for it helps mold us into proper instruments for his purpose. We can see that in this passage as well.

Mildness of the Apostles

One thing seems curiously lacking in the conduct of the disciples: there is no sense of venom. They seem completely unable to be vengeful. This is because they are carriers of the message of God – messengers, not the message itself. As Paul tells Timothy,

(2 Tim 2:24-26 NIV) And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. {25} Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, {26} and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Such mildness, however, hasn’t changed Peter’s sermon a bit. It’s still the same as before (and will continue to be until the Lord comes again).

·         Prophecy – “the God of our Fathers” foretold his coming.

·         The death, burial and resurrection of our Lord

·         Repentance

Note one new point that Peter introduces. Not only are the disciples witnesses of these things, but so is everyone who is obedient to the Holy Spirit. Obedience brings its own proof. The obedient servant of God soon sees how God’s providence is about him.

In all this, Peter has but one purpose: to seek and save the lost, even the members of the Sanhedrin. It is his Lord’s purpose, and therefore God will place at his disposal such providential power as may be required.


Perhaps Peter has been before this bunch enough that he has lost his fear of public speaking. But there is one point that is clear: God has granted him a sense of fearlessness. My reaction to the release from jail would be to leave the area as fast as possible for parts unknown – “to get out of Dodge.” But Peter is obedient to the Holy Spirit (see, it works) and returns right back to the Temple to bring the world the good news.

It is the same principle: fear God, dread naught. We know that perfect love casts out fear; we also find that obedience as a habit empowers us to fear God and be afraid of nothing else.


In all this there is a lesson for all of us. It is this: humility opens the door for Christ to come in – pride shuts it. The disciples make no complaint of jail and beating, returning to their tasks the very next day. Pride would complain, “Why me? Why am I being jailed and beaten?” Humility says, “Of course; they crucified my Master; why shouldn’t I receive much the same treatment.” Then, remembering God’s purpose, humility returns to the task.

There it is: when God calls you for a task and you suffer for it, do not complain. Rejoice that you are counted worthy to suffer for the Name – and then return to complete your task.

[1] Romans 5:3

[2] 2 Corinthians 12:10

[3] James 1:2-4

[4] Matthew 5:10-12

[5] Philippians 1:27-30

[6] Hebrews 10:32-39

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