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Life of Peter

Providence and Suffering

Acts 5:17-42

Lesson audio

We begin with the story.

Acts 5:17-42 NASB  But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy.  (18)  They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail.  (19)  But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said,  (20)  "Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life."  (21)  Upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest and his associates came, they called the Council together, even all the Senate of the sons of Israel, and sent orders to the prison house for them to be brought.  (22)  But the officers who came did not find them in the prison; and they returned and reported back,  (23)  saying, "We found the prison house locked quite securely and the guards standing at the doors; but when we had opened up, we found no one inside."  (24)  Now when the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them as to what would come of this.  (25)  But someone came and reported to them, "The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!"  (26)  Then the captain went along with the officers and proceeded to bring them back without violence (for they were afraid of the people, that they might be stoned).  (27)  When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them,  (28)  saying, "We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man's blood upon us."  (29)  But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men.  (30)  "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross.  (31)  "He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  (32)  "And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him."  (33)  But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them.  (34)  But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.  (35)  And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.  (36)  "For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.  (37)  "After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.  (38)  "So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown;  (39)  but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."  (40)  They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them.  (41)  So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.  (42)  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.


May I point out the key verse in this chapter which concerns government: verse 28.

Strict Orders

Perhaps it would help if we began with an explanation of the players. There are two groups of people in the Jewish Council at this time:

·         The Pharisees, who are the right wing religious fundamentalists of the day. They had a great deal to the interpretation of the Old Testament, but they rigorously insist upon the authority of all that we would call today the Old Testament.

·         The Sadducees might be considered the intellectual wing. They accept as authoritative only the first five books of the Bible. They do not believe in angels, nor do they believe in life after death. They certainly do not accept the possibility of the resurrection.

It is important to note that the Sadducees are the ones who are most directly concerned with silencing the apostles. Their motive is quite clear (verse 17) — jealousy. They consider themselves to be the experts on religion; they now are confronted with unlearned men who can heal the lame and the sick in the name of this Jesus of Nazareth. Their complaint against the apostles this time is clear:

·         First, they have already given orders to the apostles to shut up. These people are used to being obeyed; they don't know what to do with polite defiance.

·         Second, the teaching is enormously popular. One reason for this is simply that it's easier to understand than the complicated theories produced by the Sadducees. Another great reason for it is that genuine forgiveness from God is included.

·         The point that hits home the most is this: even the simplest history of the crucifixion and resurrection makes it clear that the Sadducees are the primary culprits in railroading Jesus of Nazareth to death on the Cross. Nobody likes to feel guilty.

Of course, the apostles have a different view. While recognizing the authority of this Council in most matters, they have a conflict here which is irreconcilable. God has told them to preach the gospel; the Council has told them to shut up. It is a direct contradiction; one aspect comes from God; the apostles will obey God, not man. They will do this at whatever price is required.

Filled Jerusalem with Your Teaching

The nature of the teaching of the apostles is fairly clear. We may see their main points as follows:

·         They preach that Jesus of Nazareth was, is and always will be the Messiah of the Jews, the Christ. This may seem obvious to us today, to the point that it is no longer preached as being too familiar to mention. At this time, however, this was news. It was good news, at that, and we sometimes forget that that is what the word “gospel” means.

·         They preach the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Please note that there is absolutely no thought whatsoever of it being a "spiritual resurrection." It is a physical resurrection; no other possibility ever occurred to the eyewitnesses.

·         If the fact they preach is the resurrection, the doctrine that goes with it is grace. The command is simply this: repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.

·         Finally, they proclaim the fact that they are eyewitnesses to all the facts they are teaching. It's personal.

Bring This Man's Blood

There is a specific question: just who is responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? We are told that tour guides in Jerusalem, prior to the Israelis taking the city in 1967, always told tourists that the Jews were responsible. After the Israelis took over, they said the Romans were. The Sadducees here are in no doubt; if the crucifixion was a horrible miscarriage of justice, they are responsible for it. There is blame enough to share among other groups, of course.

If you want the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. We might better ask who is ultimately responsible for the crucifixion. The answer, in general, is that we are. If mankind did not sin, there would be no need for grace. If there was no need for grace, there would have been no crucifixion. Even at 2000 years distance in time, we can still say that it is our own fault. If you say that Christ died for your sins, you are perforce saying that you helped cause the crucifixion. He took my place.

May we return to the question of government for a moment? The fact of sin can be denied, but sin remains. We cannot avoid it. But we may ask what responsibility the church has in dealing with sin in the society in which it finds itself. I submit to you that the answer is different for the apostles that it is for us. The apostles lived in a dictatorship, namely, the Roman Empire. In their lifetimes the church was so infinitesimally small as to have virtually no influence on such things as legislation or public morality. Another 250 years would pass before they even began to have such influence. But in our time the church is a large portion of our society — and we live in a democracy. I submit to you that living in a democracy implies responsibility for the citizen which does not exist in a dictatorship. At the very least, the Christian citizen has the obligation to vote. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven; we are also citizens of our own nation. That citizenship implies responsibility. It is a historical fact that the church has most commonly spoken out on issues of sin and morality. Why?

Proverbs 14:34 NASB  Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people.

If you love your country, you will want to see it do well, not disgraced. This does not imply that we sit around with our mouths shut and our fingers pinching our noses tightly closed.


Permit me to bring to you a definition of the word which has fallen out of favor with preachers: Providence.

In theology, the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures. He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power which caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence. Some persons admit a general providence,but deny a particular providence, not considering that a general providence consists of particulars. A belief in divine providence, is a source of great consolation to good men. By divine providence is often understood God himself.

The above was taken from the original Webster's dictionary, published in 1828. The reader should note that in the earlier documents of the American Republic the word "Providence" is often used as a substitute for the word "God." An excellent example of this may be found in the writings of George Washington. You should please note that the Providence of God sometimes includes the miraculous, but most often does not. It often appears to be simply a divine coincidence. The reader having difficulty with the idea that God sustains his creation as well is having created it should read the second chapter of Philippians.

This account contains three instances of God's Providence: the release from prison, the attitude of the crowd and the words of Gamaliel.

Release from Prison

The release from prison may seem to you to be thunderously miraculous — after all, God sends an angel to do the work. But please notice that he does this in the middle of the night, without alarming the sentries (in fact, they are completely ignorant of the departure). There is nothing triumphant about it; it is not a display of God's power but of his care. As God told Zechariah,

Zechariah 4:6 NASB  Then he said to me, "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel saying, 'Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the LORD of hosts.

Note what this means: the fact that the angel has released them from prison does not confer upon them any particular power. This is an important aspect of God's Providence; if you receive his favor in this way, it does not mean that you have been given some sort of spiritual gift. It means that he has helped you.

Afraid of the People

One of the great inconsistencies in the early church history is the attitude of people in the mob of the ordinary. Sometimes we find that the mob is outraged by Christianity; sometimes, as here, the mob receives the word with gladness — and protects those who are delivering it. There seems to be no pattern to this, and it does not seem to be something over which the early church had any great control.

Of course, when it comes to public relations, we should have a good reputation. It's even more preferable to have a reputation which honestly represents what we mean. I was once given three rules for handling any public relations crisis:

1.       Tell the truth.

2.       Tell it quickly.

3.       Tell it with class.

Notice that in these instructions there is no sense of buying a reputation using the method of changing our moral values to match the political correctness of the moment.

Gamaliel's Advice

We must begin with a little bit of background history. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions Gamaliel is honored as "Saint Gamaliel." Jewish tradition, as you might expect, does not recognize any conversion on the part of Gamaliel. The evidence for this conversion does not date to the first century; in Fact, the earliest evidence is not for another couple hundred years. The proclamation of Gamaliel as a saint did not occur until the ninth century. It appears rather unlikely that Gamaliel was actually a Christian, or that he ever converted. But the reader should be aware that this is proclaimed by the two largest portions of Christianity.

Sometimes you find God's Providence in the most unlikely places — or unlikely things or unlikely people. That's a characteristic of God's Providence: it defies human expectations. The apostles did not think they were going to get sprung from jail by means of an angel. They certainly weren't expecting a Jewish Pharisee to speak up for them.

God's Providence is directly related to God's sovereignty. As far as we know, Gamaliel was a man who attempted to please God with his conduct. You can see from his remarks that his concern is not for appearances, or to soothe the jealousy of the Sadducees, but rather to do what God wants him to do. Such a man may be used as the instrument of God's Providence, without his own knowledge of it. Similarly, if you are surrendered to God and willing to do his will, you may be a divine Providence for someone else without knowing it.


Peter might well have ask at this point: "if God is favoring me with his divine Providence, why did I get flogged? Why am I suffering?" It's a good question. We often have the idea that if we are on the side of the Almighty, the trip should be a smooth one. Peter learned otherwise:

1 Peter 4:12-17 NASB  Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you;  (13)  but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.  (14)  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.  (15)  Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler;  (16)  but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.  (17)  For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?


It appears, therefore, that suffering is a normal part of the life of a true Christian. Indeed, as one author put it, if you don't have a thorn in your flesh and suffering in your life – at least eventually – then you ought to question whether or not you're really a Christian. So why then does God give us suffering as well as Providence?

Suffering Keeps Us Humble

My daughter, who writes science fiction with a lot of superheroes in it, pointed out something to me. At least in the early days of the comics, whenever Superman walked alongside Batman, Superman floated a few inches off the ground. Batman walked like the rest of us. Sore feet remind you that you are human. Similarly, suffering reminds you that you are not perfect; you are a sinner. Which is a reminder also that you need to do something about it.

Humility seems to have very little to recommend it. Our society takes great pride in being proud; arrogance is proclaimed to our children to be a virtue, particularly in athletic competition. But have you ever noticed that humility carries with it a certain attractiveness? You might admire a man who is a strutting, arrogant athlete — but you probably wouldn't enjoy his company very long. In fact, you'd think he was a jerk. You'd much rather talk with someone who's genuinely interested in you. Such a person has humility. We might not want to have it ourselves, but we cherish it in others.

Suffering Keeps Us Dependent on God

Some things are only taught by experience.

·         By suffering God gives us the grace of perseverance.[1]

·         Suffering also teaches us that God's strength is best shown in weakness.[2]

·         Suffering prepares us for future work[3] — a process which is often referred to in the Scripture as "perfecting."

Think about it: when you seek someone with whom to share your troubles, or someone to pray with you in your difficulties, don't you look for someone who has had the same kind of problems that you have? If you want to be that person, you have to have those problems.

Worthy to Suffer for the Name

It is quite the case that God's Providence will be available for God's purposes. It logically follows that God's Providence will be opposed by Satan's efforts. If you are the beneficiary of God's Providence, then it is highly likely you will be the beneficiary of Satan's opposition. In a sense, it means that Satan thinks that you are a worthy opponent — at least, worthy of a little aggravation. When that happens (notice that I did not say "if") you should rejoice – you have been honored.

It means more than that. If you are standing firm in the faith, despite the suffering you are having, that's a very good sign of your salvation.[4] It also means that Satan is trying to shake you out of it. Greater faith often means a rockier road.

Always remember that God is just. If you suffer for him, he will reward you for that — if you will be faithful about it. The author of Hebrews puts it this way:

Hebrews 10:32-39 NASB  But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings,  (33)  partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated.  (34)  For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.  (35)  Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  (36)  For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.  (37)  FOR YET IN A VERY LITTLE WHILE, HE WHO IS COMING WILL COME, AND WILL NOT DELAY.  (38)  BUT MY RIGHTEOUS ONE SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; AND IF HE SHRINKS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM.  (39)  But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

The difference between courage and cowardice is often simply five more minutes of endurance. Take courage; endure the suffering put before you. God will never put you through something which will completely overwhelm you, if you lean on him. Remember, at the end, the reward is great. If we suffer with him, we shall reign with him.[5]

[1] Romans 5:3

[2] 2nd Corinthians 12:10

[3] James 1:2-4

[4] Philippians 1:27-30

[5] 2nd Timothy 2:12

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