It’s interesting to notice how often the Christians of the early Church were imprisoned. Although Christians were told that they should “obey the rulers and authorities and not . . . be rebellious” (Titus 3.1), the apostle Paul was often falsely accused and jailed many times by those who opposed his teachings. Faced with unjust, ungodly laws, Christians sometimes need to follow the path of civil disobedience. Here, Peter and the apostles lay down the ground rules: we must obey God rather than people. When the two come into conflict, God wins.
In years past, the Church had played a prominent role in civil disobedience. Christians helped with the Underground Railroad that saved the lives of thousands of escaping slaves in America. In World War II, Christians organized shelter for Jews escaping the Nazis. Christians have been prominent campaigners against apartheid, discrimination, and war, and have worked to achieve prison reform, good health care and public education for all.
There are higher laws. The demands of God are to be given priority over the demands of people and human institutions. The apostles were tried, abused, beaten. Why? Because they obeyed a higher calling from God.
Peter said, “We don’t obey people. We obey God” and was willing to face the consequences of such a statement. Are you in agreement with this statement? How do you show that you place God’s law above that of people? On the other hand, how can someone who is obedient to God work within the system?
How will you show your choice (obeying God) this week? What would cause you to protest against an unjust human law? What steps would you need to take first? Go on, stick your neck out. Support a group with whose action or campaign you can wholeheartedly agree. Pray: Lord, sometimes people need to have courage to be obedient to you above all else. This is true for those with power, and those without. I, too, need courage. You are an awesome God. Protect the rights of all, especially those who are oppressed.
Peter and the apostles replied:
We don’t obey people. We obey God. You killed Jesus by nailing him to a cross. But the God our ancestors worshiped raised him to life and made him our Leader and Savior. Then God gave him a place at his right side,so that the people of Israel would turn back to him and be forgiven. We are here to tell you about all this, and so is the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to everyone who obeys God.
When the council members heard this, they became so angry they wanted to kill the apostles. But one of the members was the Pharisee Gamaliel, a highly respected teacher. He ordered the apostles to be taken out of the room for a little while. Then he said to the council:
Men of Israel, be careful what you do with these men. Not long ago Theudas claimed to be someone important, and about 400 men joined him. But he was killed, and all his followers were scattered. That was the end of that.
Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.
So I advise you to stay away from these men. Leave them alone. If what they are planning is something of their own doing, it will fail. But if God is behind it, you cannot stop it anyway, unless you want to fight against God.
The council members agreed with what he said, and they called the apostles back in. They had them beaten with a whip and warned them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Then they let them go.
The apostles left the council and were happy, because God had considered them worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
- Acts 5:29-42 -