When I was a child, my parents taught me to respect authority and to do as I was told. And for the most part that has been sound advice and has kept me in good stead. But having said that, blindly following what other people say was never part of my education. And experience has taught me that not everyone in authority is worthy of being either respected or followed.
Respect needs to be earned, not automatically given. And, I guess, being a typical baby boomer, being brought up to question everything—and not simply accept people’s word for things but to examine everything carefully and decide for myself whether things are really true or not—that is one of the values that I have come to highly regard.
Of course, in one sense, you could say that those two things are not compatible. After all how can you respect authority and do as you’re told, while at the same time question everything and everyone? But then, maybe these aren’t completely opposite ideas. Maybe they are truths which are not mutually exclusive but are ones we need to keep in a sort of creative tension. And I’d like to illustrate what I mean from this story from Acts.
B. TELLING OTHERS ABOUT JESUS
1. Background (Acts 4:1-22)
Now the background to this story begins shortly after the resurrection. It’s a period where Peter and John were so excited about all that had happened that they just couldn’t keep it to themselves. So, instead they went out and told as many people in Jerusalem as they could: That Jesus had risen from the dead—and all that that meant and entailed.
Unfortunately the Jewish authorities heard what Peter and John were doing. And they were disturbed about what popular belief in a risen Jesus might mean. In particular what that would mean for their own positions and authority. Consequently, they had Peter and John arrested, put in jail, and brought before the Sanhedrin for trial. Indeed the same Sanhedrin that was responsible for condemning Jesus to death in the first place.
But at the time, Peter had just healed a crippled beggar (Acts 3:1-10). And the story had become so widespread—and the people, as a result, had such a regard for Peter and the disciples—that the Sanhedrin had to let them go. But not before they commanded the two of them to talk no further regarding Jesus. And they threatened them with punishment should they disobey.
2. The Apostles on Trial (27-28)
Now, of course, the idea of respecting authority was very important in those days. And doing what you were told was part and parcel of the culture even back then. But as today’s part of the story begins, what we have is the arrest of all twelve apostles, and they were all brought before the Sanhedrin for trial. And why? Well, it wasn’t just that Peter and John had continued to tell other people about Jesus—despite being told not to and despite being threatened should they continue—but the other ten apostles had been found doing exactly the same thing.
What’s more the twelve apostles had been so successful in their teaching that they were accused of filling the whole city with their teaching. And that was despite the expressed order about keeping quiet about Jesus—and the implications of what all the recent events meant.
3. The Apostles’ Defence (29)
Now it may well have been that the members of the Sanhedrin were concerned that recent events should not become widely known. Because if that happened then the blame for Jesus’s death would be laid at the Sanhedrin’s door—which although factually true, it was not something that the council wanted advertised.
The Sanhedrin functioned well, based on the people’s loyalty and acceptance of their authority. And if the twelve apostles wouldn’t obey them, imagine what it would be like if all the people realised what it was the Sanhedrin had done, and why they had done it.
The end result would be that the Sanhedrin’s power and authority would be broken. No one would take any notice of them, let alone be obedient to them. And what’s more, retribution rather than obedience could have been the end result.
But to the charge of being disobedient to the commands of the Sanhedrin, all the apostles pleaded guilty and spoke in their defence. And when Peter acted as their spokesman, he did not deny that they had disobeyed the Sanhedrin’s instructions. But he did admit that he had disobeyed them on the basis that there was a higher authority that they needed to respect and obey. And it was a priority that all Christians were bound to accept. And as a consequence, they had no alternative but to disobey the Sanhedrin when it came to matters requiring obedience to God.
4. Peter Evangelising the Sanhedrin (30-32)
And then, ironically, despite the fact that Peter and the others had been warned to speak no more about Jesus, Peter launched into the very thing they had been warned not to do elsewhere. He told the whole Sanhedrin all about Jesus, what had happened, and that it all meant.
Peter commented that to all the other great acts of God in the past, God had now added these things: He had finally given the people their promised Messiah; they had then killed him; and God had raised him from the dead to a place of dignity and power .
Now in doing this, Peter and the other apostles, weren’t trying to point the finger, or apportion blame. After all, their own behaviour at the crucifixion was nothing to be proud of. Rather they wanted the members of the Sanhedrin to accept Jesus too.
And as a consequence of all these things, Peter concluded that God had raised Jesus up as the leader and saviour of men. He had given people the opportunity to repent and to have their sins forgiven, even the members of the Sanhedrin.
Now, I can’t help be impressed by the story. Having been told not to tell people about Jesus—and being threatened with punishment should they continue—Peter and the other apostles were blatantly disobedient to the Jewish authorities. Furthermore, having been brought back before the Sanhedrin, they not only explained their need to be obedient to a higher authority—God himself—but they then used the opportunity to tell the Sanhedrin all the things they’d been warned not to speak of.
Which brings us back to my original point: The concepts of respecting authority and doing what we’re told, versus the need to question authority and the idea that respect must be earned.
Because both of these issues are here in the story.
Indeed, the issues that affected the apostles are the same issues we face today. And yet, in this story, the apostles, from a Christian perspective, come out with flying colours. Because as far as the apostles were concerned, the Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in what had gone on, they weren’t interested in the truth. All they were interested in was maintaining their own power and authority and covering up anything that was a threat to them.
In other words, the Sanhedrin didn’t deserve anyone’s loyalty or obedience. And, fortunately, the apostles had recognised there was a higher authority than the Sanhedrin anyway. And so they placed their allegiance in God, and in the truth which God had revealed to them.
And that has implications regarding our own allegiances, even today.
1. Obeying a Higher Authority
Because sometimes, today, we can find people who want to gag us from talking about our faith; there are people who just don’t want us to talk about religion; and there are those who get quite animated if we should even raise the issue.
To which our response could be to say little or nothing about our faith; to bite our tongue because we know it makes people feel uncomfortable. Or we can follow the command of Jesus and continue to share our faith.
So in this particular case the question is, “Does this person, or these people, or the pressures that we feel have the authority to keep us silent? Or should we, like the apostles, defer to a higher authority?
Peter and John were warned off, even threatened if they continued. But they continued anyway. They followed the higher authority of God, rather than listen to their fellow man. And it should be same for us today too.
2. Defending Ourselves
And as a consequence of what Peter and the other eleven apostles did, they were called on to defend themselves. To give reason for their disobedience to those who wished them to be silent. And that may well be our lot too.
Because like Peter and the other apostles, if we do as God demands, we may need to defend ourselves too. But God is faithful and has promised to be with us in such events. So we should be prepared at all times to stand up and claim that higher authority. We need to be prepared to defend ourselves in public or in private, with officials and with every day people too.
Of course, there is always the matter of sensitivity—being sensitive to situations and people’s needs. But we shouldn’t allow that to totally silence us when it comes to sharing the gospel.
Peter may have been the spokesman of the twelve. But in that court, all of the apostles stood up and defended their actions. And we should be prepared to defend our actions too.
3. Using Opportunities
And should such occurrences happen, even amongst those who have warned us and threatened us, like the twelve apostles, we should stand up and grab the opportunity to share what we know and believe, despite whatever repercussions that might come our way.
Christians are given opportunities to share what they believe from time to time, and it may not always be in the most hospitable of situations. But hospitable or not, we are still called on to obey the higher authority of God in all things. To use every opportunity he provides to share our faith.
And that’s certainly example that Peter and the other twelve apostles provide in our story.
In a sense the twelve apostles on trial—facing the Sanhedrin after the resurrection—is ironic. Because that should have been the scene prior to Jesus’s crucifixion. When Jesus was on trial for his life, he should have had his faithful followers on trial by his side—supporting him, standing up for what they believe. Instead they deserted him and Jesus faced the crucifixion on his own.
With this scene before us then, after the resurrection of Jesus, what the apostles demonstrated was the kind of loyalty and devotion that should have been there at the crucifixion. And, whilst it was too late to show solidarity to prevent the crucifixion taking place, they had at least now learnt exactly what it meant to stand up for Jesus. What it meant to pay the cost.
This time their own lives were on the line. But this time they weren’t running away, they were standing up for what they believed. They were doing precisely what God had asked them to do, no matter what demands were made on them by other people.
And that should be the same for us too. Because when it comes to the Christian faith—when it comes to standing up for what we believe, when it comes to sharing our faith with others—what the apostles finally displayed in their absolute obedience to the higher authority is exactly what is expected of us today too. The apostles finally put their lives on the line for their risen saviour—and so should we, regardless of the cost.
Respecting authority and doing as one is told, on the one hand, and questioning things and not being obedient blindly, on the other, then, is not just my upbringing. And it is not just the example that we see in those twelve apostles after the resurrection. Rather it is something that should be a feature of every Christian’s life.
Yes, there may be a matter of sensitivity in certain situations. But that is no excuse for not telling others about the gospel.
Peter, John and the other ten apostles finally realised what it meant to follow Jesus. And as a consequence, they shared their experiences with all Jerusalem, despite whatever risk to their own lives.
And that means that buckling in to pressures to keep our beliefs to ourselves, is not the Christian way. It never has been and it never will.
Rather what we should be doing, is to grab hold of every opportunity that comes our way, to share our faith and stand up and be counted with our saviour. A saviour who should have our full trust, total respect, and in whom we should do exactly what he asks.
Posted: 1st March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis