Satan's Attack

Acts 5:1-2

In the days after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave believers a fervent love for each other. This love was more than a warm feeling. It changed their lives. No one blessed with material possessions refused to share them with poorer brethren. "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need" (Acts 4:34-35).

Yet even in the selfless concern that believers had for each other, Satan saw an opportunity to attack the church. He thought he might find people who could be tempted to share with the wrong motive. Such were Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They should have given to the church out of a desire to help others. Instead, because sharing was seen as a mark of spirituality, their motive was to gain applause. They sold a valuable piece of land and gave part of the proceeds to the apostles. The rest they kept for themselves. But Satan prodded them to seek greater credit than they deserved. He convinced them to claim that they were giving the entire proceeds.

Getting Practical

Sin of boasting

We might think that their sin was minor. After all, to give the church any proceeds from the sale of their property would have been a good deed. Their only offense was to exaggerate how generous they were. Who was hurt by their boasting? Don't we all do a little boasting from time to time? When we stand before the church and give a testimony, do we always tell the exact truth about ourselves? Or do we, like Ananias and Sapphira, exaggerate our good works and our devotion to God?

Two Confrontations

Acts 5:3-11

Peter did not think their sin was minor. He had the wisdom to recognize an attack of Satan. He knew that Satan was trying to plant sin in the church so that the Holy Spirit would withdraw His aid, which was essential for the church to be effective in preaching the gospel. The very name of the Holy Spirit suggests His nature. Because He is holy, sin grieves Him, and He refuses to empower a church that tolerates sin.

Peter confronted Ananias when his wife was absent and accused him of lying to the Holy Spirit. He gave him no opportunity to explain himself. The man had already been judged by God. Why? No doubt the Holy Spirit had repeatedly assailed the man's heart with gripping conviction of sin, but the man had warded it off until now he was a hopeless case. His heart was as hard as rock. So, as soon as Peter stated the charges, Ananias fell down dead. Immediately the young men wrapped him in burial clothes, carried him out, and buried him. The effect on all who heard about his death was to make them afraid. The incident was a strong reminder of how much God hates sin.

After three hours, Sapphira came in, unaware of what had happened to her husband. Peter immediately began to question her about her role in the deception. Perhaps the apostles had spoken with Ananias about the sale, but not with his wife. Thus, for the sake of justice, it was necessary to determine whether she, when separated from her husband, would repeat his false claim. She replied that indeed all the proceeds of the sale went to the church.

In God’s eyes she was, like her husband, a stubborn sinner with a history of ignoring the Spirit’s rebuke. So, with solemn anger, Peter declared his verdict that she had been her husband's accomplice in the deception, and he pronounced the same awful sentence on her that fell upon her husband, the sentence of death. She dropped dead, and the young men who were just returning from burying her husband carried her out as well. They made her grave beside his. Again, the news that God struck down a liar in the church had a sobering effect on all who heard it.

A Grave Offense

The charges that Peter brought against the couple reveal just how serious the sin was. It was serious for four reasons.

1. Ananias told a lie. Lying is the sin especially characteristic of Satan. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between God and Satan is that God is Truth, whereas Satan is a despiser of truth. Jesus said of Satan, "He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44). God was therefore extremely displeased when untruth, the mark of His enemy, entered His beloved church.

Getting Practical

Sin of lying

God has a special loathing for lying. If a man thinks he is a Christian, yet he can lie without shame on his face and guilt in his heart, it is doubtful that he is a true child of God. We are not saying that a Christian cannot lie. Rather, we are saying that if a Christian lies, the Holy Spirit will register a strong objection. He will instill fear of divine judgment and demand repentance.

Many children lie automatically and fluently. Sad to say, some never outgrow this sort of childish behavior. Instead, they grow up to be habitual liars. How do you teach children to hate lying?

  1. Set an example of loving truth. Always stress how important truth is to you, and let them see you choose truth over falsehood even when truth costs you something.
  2. Always punish any infraction much more severely if they lie to cover it up. To teach them transparency about their failings is important preparation for a spiritual life. A right relationship with God and with the people around us is impossible unless we are willing to confess sin.
  3. Teach them that lying is the way of a coward. It takes courage to base your life on truth. Cover-up is always cowardice.

2. Ananias lied to God, not man. Specifically, he lied to God in the person of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he and his wife had lied to the church, but Peter identifies the church with the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit indwells the church and is responsible for its existence.

3. In saying that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit, Peter meant that Ananias actually imagined that he could fool God. Ananias thought that God Himself would fail to detect the lie and would bless the couple for their generosity. How demeaning of God's great wisdom and knowledge!

Pondering a Question

How did Ananias imagine that his lie would go undetected?

Ananias was indescribably foolish. He could see from day to day that the Holy Spirit was speaking to the apostles and showing them the mind of God. He should have known that the Holy Spirit would notice the lie and point it out to Peter. But really he was no more foolish than any of us who sin, imagining that we will escape the consequences. We cannot hide our sin from God. "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23).

4. As Peter said when pronouncing his judgment on Sapphira, she and her husband tempted the Holy Spirit.

Pondering a Question

How could Ananias and Sapphira be blamed for tempting the Holy Spirit when the Bible says that God cannot be tempted (Jas. 1:13)?

Indeed, James says that God cannot be tempted. Yet Scripture speaks of temptation coming to all three members of the Trinity. Men can tempt God the Father (Heb. 3:9), although they are forbidden to do so (Matt. 4:7). Satan tempted God the Son (Matt. 4:1; Heb. 2:18). And here in Acts we learn that Ananias and Sapphira tempted God the Holy Spirit.

All these texts use the same word (or its intensive form) for "tempted."1 But James's exact wording—"tempted with evil"—explains his meaning. He means that God will never find evil attractive, nor will He ever consider doing evil. The other references to God being tempted are referring not to any moral struggle in the heart of God. Rather, they are describing someone's attempt, witting or unwitting, to maneuver God into a position of doing wrong. That's what the Israelites did when their habitual rebellion made it difficult for God the Father to keep His covenant promises. That's what Satan did when he urged Jesus to fulfill His mission by dramatically descending from a pinnacle of the Temple into the midst of all the worshipers below. Likewise, that's what Ananias and Sapphira did when they forced God to choose whether to go on blessing the church after they had infected it with sin.

Sin in the Camp

The lie told by Ananias and Sapphira defiled the whole church. Christians refer to sin in the church as "sin in the camp," an expression derived from the story of Achan in the Old Testament (Josh. 6:1–7:26). Achan was a soldier of Israel when Joshua led the nation into Canaan. The first city in the path of conquest was Jericho, which the Israelite army took easily by following God's directions. He told them to march around the walls once each day for six days and seven times on the seventh day, then to raise a great noise. They obeyed His instructions, and immediately after they shouted on the last day, the walls collapsed, allowing a direct assault on the city. The Lord commanded the soldiers to take all metallic objects found in Jericho and deposit them in the Lord's treasury. Everything else was to be burned. But Achan carried away spoil for himself and hid it under his tent. Thus, he brought sin into the camp of Israel. The result was that God withdrew His power and blessing from the whole nation, and Israel went down to defeat at the very next battle, the battle for Ai. After revealing the sin to Joshua, the Lord commanded that Achan be put to death. He required the nation to stone and burn not only the man himself, but also his children and animals. God knew that severe measures would, in the long run, save many lives.

Achan's story exactly parallels the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Both show God taking drastic measures to remove sin from among His people. God's judgment on Ananias and Sapphira was no less severe than his judgment on Achan, although they committed the lesser offense. Like Achan, they stole from the Lord and used deception to cover up their sin. Yet they violated no direct command of God, and what they took was theirs to begin with.

Pondering a Question

Why did Ananias and Sapphira suffer a penalty equal to Achan's?

Because guilt is in proportion to knowledge. Achan had no Bible or any portion of it. The instruction he had received in the ways of God was rudimentary. But Ananias and Sapphira probably owned the entire Old Testament, and they sat daily for instruction at the feet of the apostles. Perhaps they even heard Jesus teach.

Getting Practical

How we will be judged

What about us? We have the whole Bible, and our understanding of it is enriched by two thousand years of Bible study. Thus, having more knowledge than Ananias and Sapphira, we dare not think that if we bring sin into the camp, God will view it lightly. In His mercy, He may not strike us down. Yet He will surely remove His power from our attempts to serve Him, and our work will amount to nothing. And He will surely chasten us. He will bring pain and guilt into our lives to show us that we have taken the wrong path.

Pondering a Question

Why was death the penalty God decreed?

When chastening a disobedient child, God rarely employs the most severe penalty, which is death. He normally uses milder methods. Yet He may choose to remove a sinning child from this world if his heart has hardened against the Spirit’s conviction and his death accomplishes at least some of the following purposes:

  1. It warns others against the same sin.
  2. It prevents the sinner from falling even further from grace.
  3. It protects the church as a whole from losing God’s blessing.

Make no mistake. For believers, there is a sin unto death (1 John 5:16).

Pondering a Question

Were Ananias and Sapphira true believers in Christ?

If they were merely hypocrites, with no heart of genuine faith in Christ, the Lord would probably have guided Peter to treat their sin as grounds for church discipline leading, if they remained unrepentant, to their removal from the church. The Lord is never quick to visit death upon the unsaved. In His mercy, He prefers to allow them more opportunity to see themselves correctly, as rebels against God who need to be saved.

The account of what happened to this husband and wife is therefore a severe warning to us. Yes, we can love God and rejoice in the salvation He provided through Christ, yet we are still flawed enough to fall into sin, then to cling to it forever if need be rather than endure the consequences of confessing it before God and man.

Supernatural Power

Acts 5:12-16

After the Sanhedrin warned Peter and John to stop preaching Christ, the church prayed earnestly that God would increase their power to witness. They prayed also that God would verify their message by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. Not long afterward, in the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira, God tested how the church would react to sin in their midst. The church reacted just as He wanted, by judging the sinners and purifying itself. Then He was able to grant their requests.

The signs and wonders He enabled them to perform stirred up much talk throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Soon, the apostles had the reputation of being miracle workers. Crowds from neighboring cities came to the apostles with their sick friends and relatives, and the apostles healed every one. The people of Jerusalem held Peter in such high regard that they brought the sick into the streets, hoping that he would stop and heal them as he passed by. Many believed that the touch of Peter's shadow could heal the sick even if he took no notice of them.

Was this thinking superstitious? No, the author of Acts clearly implies that some people were healed just by coming under Peter's shadow. But it was not his shadow that healed them. They were healed because they had faith in the power that was working through Peter—the power of Jesus' name.

All Jerusalem was watching developments with intense interest. The company of believers was still meeting daily at Solomon's Porch within the Temple. It was perhaps the most public place in the city. The multitudes who worshiped at the Temple could stand at a distance and watch what the believers were doing. Some of the onlookers had enough courage to step forward and join them, and the church continued to grow. But most of the Jews were afraid to side with Jesus' followers, lest they suffer the wrath of the Sanhedrin. Even the fearful and undecided admired the believers greatly. They "magnified them," recognizing that they had the power of God.

Imprisonment and Escape

Acts 5:17-23

Popular feeling was running so strongly in favor of the church that the high priest and his allies became alarmed. They were afraid that the masses might rise up in revolt, seeking revenge upon the leaders for killing Jesus. They therefore resolved to take stronger measures to silence the church.

The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into prison. The expression "laid hands on them" (v. 18) suggests that the soldiers came with violence and handled them roughly. But just as the grave could not hold Jesus, so a prison could not hold His apostles unless He allowed it. An angel visited them at night and opened the prison doors. He sent them out with the instruction to continue preaching in the Temple.

Pondering a Question

Who was the angel?

He is identified as the angel of the Lord, but in many Old Testament appearances of a being so named, He is obviously the Lord Himself; specifically, the preincarnate Christ. How can God be called an angel? Because both in Hebrew and Greek, "angel of the Lord" can be translated "messenger of the Lord." As the Word of God (John 1:1), the second person of the Trinity is the One whose supreme function is to reveal through words the mind of the Father (John 8:26, 28).

Consider especially the angel of the Lord who came to Manoah, father of Samson (Judg. 13:1-21). Manoah and his wife recognized their visitor as an angel because His countenance shone and He ascended out of their sight in the flame of the altar. Yet He identified Himself as "I am" (v. 11), whose name is "secret" (v. 18, literally "Wonderful"). Wonderful is a name of God (Isa. 9:6). No angel would represent himself as deserving of these titles.

The angel of the Lord who appeared on other occasions likewise cast Himself in a role reserved for God. He told Hagar that He would multiply her seed, and Hagar identified the speaker as the Lord Himself (Gen. 16:7–13). He told Gideon that He was sending him to smite Midian, and in reply, Gideon addressed Him as the Lord (Judg. 6:12–17). On many other occasions remembered in the Old Testament, He conducted Himself in a manner appropriate for deity (Gen. 22:11–18; 31:11–13; Exod. 3:2–6; Num. 22:22–35; Judg. 2:1–3; 2 Sam. 24: Zech. 3:1–10). The promise that "the angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them" (Ps. 34:7) is wonderfully comforting because the angel is the Lord Himself. Only God could personally encamp about all the saints and protect them all.

But the title "angel of the Lord" does not have the same significance in the New Testament. We learn of a shift in meaning right at the beginning, in the very first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. An angel bearing this name informed Joseph that the child conceived in Mary was Immanuel (Matt. 1:20–23). Undeniably, the angel must have been a person distinct from the child, who was Christ. Nowhere in the New Testament must we view an appearance by the angel of the Lord as a theophany. On several occasions recorded in Acts, the angel of the Lord cannot be divine. After deliverance from prison, Peter said that the angel of the Lord who led him out was the Lord’s emissary (Acts 12:11). Much later, an angel with a similar title, "angel of God," appeared to Paul (Acts 27:24). He told Paul of God’s intent, as if in reference to another person. Throughout Luke’s account of the Lord’s appearance first to Saul on the road to Damascus and then to Ananias within the city, he never refers to Jesus as an angel, or even as the angel of the Lord. He always calls Him simply "the Lord" (Acts 9:3–17).

The hypothesis best attentive to all the evidence is that the angel of the Lord who released the apostles from prison was no higher than an angel. He was not Christ Himself.

The apostles were glad to obey the angel. As early as possible the next day, they returned to the Temple and resumed preaching. At about the same hour, the leaders convened the Sanhedrin and sent officers to bring the prisoners. Imagine their surprise when the officers reported back that the prisoners were gone! The prison was shut up tight and secure. Outside the guard was standing vigilant. But inside there was nobody. The prisoners had vanished and left no trail of escape.


Acts 5:24

The emotion that drove the authorities to arrest the apostles was "indignation" (v. 17). They were upset that the apostles were stirring up public opinion against them. But now their emotion turned to wonder and fear. Feeling themselves trapped by events beyond their control, they were unsure what to do next. What they finally decided to do shows that unbelief at last reduces a man to complete stupidity. As we will see in the next passage, they decided to arrest the apostles again.

Pondering a Question

How did the religious leaders maintain their unbelief in the face of all the evidence that Jesus came from God?

Consider how foolish these leaders were. They knew about the miracles that Jesus performed. They knew the overwhelming evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. They knew that His apostles healed a man lame from birth and worked many other signs and wonders. They knew that the same apostles disappeared from a prison under maximum security. How did the leaders explain all these strange happenings? The only rational explanation was that Jesus was truly the Christ. Yet although these were among the most intelligent and capable men in the nation, they could not see the obvious. Why? They were blinded by pride and by love of privilege.

The stubbornness of their unbelief should not surprise us. In our own day, many esteemed as great thinkers do not grasp the simplest and most important truths—that God exists, the Bible is His Word, and Jesus is our Savior from sin.

Delving Deeper

A major modern delusion

It is nothing less than amazing that the leading intellectuals in our day believe in evolutionary theory, the most sophomoric theory ever to win the support of modern science. When speaking to an evolutionist, I would use more diplomatic language to avoid cutting off further conversation, but when teaching a Bible lesson to God’s children, I do not hesitate to use severe language based on His Word. Twice in the Psalms we find this verdict: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Ps. 14:1; 53:1).

Of all people, modern intellectuals should know how complex a living cell is. They should know that it is vastly more complex than anything that could be assembled by random processes. They should know that chance is not constructive but destructive in its effects. They should know that lengthening the time scale does not make evolution more plausible, for time favors dominant processes like decay and dissolution. They should know that there is no evidence for evolution that meets the standards of observational or experimental science. They should know that the most highly publicized evidence depends on speculation, irresponsible extrapolation of meager facts, or circular reasoning. They should know that Darwinism rests on two assumptions that are wholly irreconcilable: one, survival of the fittest; two, evolution to higher species involves gradual change through a series of intermediate forms. It so happens that in every significant step upward the only intermediate forms imaginable would have been useless or even detrimental to survival.2 But we digress. Suffice it to say that intellectuals are no different than the rest of humanity. By nature we are all sinners who would rather believe almost anything than believe in God.

Delving Still Deeper

How the Jewish leaders justified unbelief

The religious leaders in Jesus' day could not see the truth because they were blinded by sin, especially pride. But what process of thought did they use to justify themselves in rejecting the apostles' message? No doubt the process was what psychologists call assimilation-contrast.

By "contrast," I mean that they distanced themselves from Jesus and the apostles by finding ways to belittle or even dehumanize them. They noticed that Peter was an unlearned man—in other words, he did not go to the right schools. Neither did Jesus. Besides, Jesus and most of His followers were Galileans in origin and tradesmen by occupation, both marks of inferiority from the perspective of the Jewish elite. So, it was not hard for the leaders to convince themselves that the people in the new religious movement centered on Jesus were ignorant troublemakers. To support this conclusion, they told each other lies defaming Jesus' character—that He was conceived by fornication, that He taught the people to break the Sabbath law, that He allied Himself with Beelzebub in order to perform miracles. They made little effort to refute His profound teachings, contenting themselves instead with ad hominem arguments—that is, arguments attacking the man rather than what He said. In logic, an ad hominem argument is considered the weakest type. It is generally the last resort of someone who has no substantive objection.

By "assimilation," I mean that the leaders looked to their friends for support. They took their picture of reality from each other. Any of them alone might have yielded to the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, but together they reinforced each other's unbelief. Of course, the men whose opinions counted most were Annas and Caiaphas. To get ahead in the Jewish religious establishment, you had to put yourself on the good side of these two high priests. Everyone hung on their words as if they spoke for God. Since their eminence depended on maintaining the illusion that they were always right, they were in no way inclined to admit that they were wrong in condemning Jesus, and once they set down the party line, the others followed out of self-interest.

To examine how the minds of such men worked not only makes the events in Acts more real, but cautions us against similar thinking. Also, it shows us the ways of God. Because the Jewish leaders would not repent, He gave them more opportunity to sin. Why? To leave them without excuse on the Day of Judgment. When God pronounces them guilty, Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies will have nothing to say except to praise God for His justice.

Getting Practical

Truth over pride

When we look at the Jewish leaders, we marvel at how stubborn they were in their unbelief. But really their stubbornness was very human. We all are prone to hold onto our pet ideas despite strong evidence to the contrary. That's why we must decide to follow the truth even when it hurts our pride. We must adopt the policy that we would rather be right than win an argument.

Another Hearing

Acts 5:25-33

When the leaders heard that the apostles were again teaching in the Temple, they sent officers to arrest them. This time the officers went without their superiors. The leaders probably figured that it was safer to stay in their chambers. The apostles were surrounded by sympathetic crowds who might stone anyone who came to arrest them. Also seeing this danger, the officers approached the apostles cautiously. They did not try to manhandle them. Rather, they ushered them away without violence.

As soon as the officers set the apostles before the council, the leaders attacked them with angry words. They rebuked them for disregarding the council's ruling at the previous hearing—the ruling that the apostles must cease witnessing for Christ or face severe penalties. Also, they accused the apostles of seeking revenge for Jesus' death. Obsessed with protecting themselves, they imagined that the apostles' motive for preaching was not to save souls, but to make the Jews angry with their rulers.

At this hearing Peter was not alone in answering the charges. The other apostles joined him in giving a brief but complete defense, stressing three points:

  1. To prove that their preaching was intended not to overthrow the rulers but to save souls, they preached to the rulers themselves.
  2. They repeated what Peter told the council before, that they had to obey God rather than men.
  3. To prove that they were doing God's will, they reviewed the facts about Jesus. He was no criminal, but God's chosen instrument to save Israel from their sins. God had raised Him from the dead, and He now sat as a Prince at the right hand of the Father. They offered themselves as witnesses that these facts were true. If the council wanted another witness, they could consult the Holy Spirit. God would give them the Holy Spirit if they would simply start obeying God.

The apostles sought to make the council understand what a terrible crime they committed when they killed Jesus. They succeeded in making them feel guilty, but a hard shell of pride kept conviction from penetrating deep enough to cause repentance. The rulers were cut to the heart, but the result was wrath rather than sorrow. They agreed among themselves that the only way to resolve the crisis was to slay the apostles.

Gamaliel's Advice

Acts 5:34-39

While the council seethed with talk of murder, a leading member stood forward and gave his opinion. He was Gamaliel, a man highly respected as a teacher of the law. Among Jews today he is remembered as one of the great rabbis in antiquity.3 One of his pupils was Paul, who later became Christ's chief ambassador to the gentiles (Acts 22:3).

Pondering a Question

Why did Gamaliel wield so much influence?

Gamaliel was a leader of the Jewish party known as the Pharisees, which traced their origin back to the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in about 165 BC. The Jewish nation that emerged from this conflict was determined to maintain its historic identity as the people of God. Yet the people came to different visions of the right course to follow in years ahead. The elite allied with the high priestly family wanted primarily to maintain Temple worship and to assure its strict conformity with the law of Moses. While fully supportive of traditional rites and ceremonies, many lay scribes from humbler backgrounds wanted to give religious faith a much broader presence in Jewish experience. In their work they gave priority to educating the common man in the Word of God, defined as the whole Old Testament, and to drawing out practical applications.4 Over time, they developed an elaborate system of rules for daily life intended as "a fence round the Torah [law of Moses]"5 that would protect adherents from any risk of displeasing God. Already in Jesus’ day, these rules were so rigid and unreasonable as to stifle true piety, putting mere outward show in its place.

In each generation, certain men emerged as the most respected teachers in the Pharisaic party. The two most famous in Herod’s day were Hillel (died c. AD 10) and Shammai (died c. AD 30). Today they are remembered mainly for their divergent views on divorce. Hillel said a man could divorce his wife for any reason, however contrived or self-serving. Shammai taught that sexual immorality was the only permissible grounds.6 But also on many other points of the law, the two stood for quite different interpretations, Hillel’s generally being the more liberal.7

The schools started by these two teachers dominated Pharisaism in subsequent generations. Most prominent among disciples of Hillel at the time of Acts 5 was the same Gamaliel, known as Gamaliel I (died c. AD 50), who counseled the Sanhedrin to proceed cautiously. He was actually a descendant of Hillel, probably his grandson,8 and he was the grandfather of another famous rabbi, known as Gamaliel II, who was a leader of the Sanhedrin convened in Yavne (formerly, Jamnia), a coastal city in central Palestine, about ten years after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.9 A tribute to Gamaliel I (also known as Gamaliel the Elder) in the Mishnah shows that in later generations he was fondly remembered as a faithful upholder of righteousness. "When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased, and purity and abstinence died."10 A Christian tradition that he became a believer in Christ cannot be traced any earlier than the medieval church.11

Delving Still Deeper

Presidency of the Sanhedrin

There is some confusion in Jewish tradition as to Gamaliel’s standing in the Sanhedrin. A view still widely held among conservative Jews is expressed in the Wikipedia article on the Sanhedrin, which says, "Before 191 BCE the High Priest acted as the ex officio head of the Sanhedrin, but in 191 BCE, when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the High Priest, the office of Nasi was created. After the time of Hillel the Elder (late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE), the Nasi was almost invariably a descendant of Hillel."12 The same article proceeds to identify Gamaliel I as Nasi—that is, president—of the Sanhedrin from AD 30–50.13 One basis of this tradition is the statement in the Talmud that besides Hillel, three of his descendants including Gamaliel "wielded their Patriarchate during one hundred years of the Temple’s existence."14

The most prominent Jewish scholars do not agree, however. In the Jewish Encyclopedia, first published in 1901–1906, Solomon Schechter and Wilhelm Bacher give as their verdict that "the reliability of this tradition, especially as regards the title of ‘nasi’ is justly disputed."15 Yet they allow that Gamaliel was an influential member of the Sanhedrin, exactly the picture we derive from the Book of Acts.

Scripture also does not support this tradition. In all of its accounts of the Sanhedrin taking action against Jesus and His followers, it identifies Annas and Caiaphas as chief officers of the tribunal. They are always the ones who preside over its sessions, question the accused, and guide deliberations. We conclude that in the years covered by New Testament records, Gamaliel was never the president of the Sanhedrin. Perhaps some scholars are correct, though, in arguing that besides the political Sanhedrin recognized by the Roman governor, there was a religious Sanhedrin that dealt solely with questions of Jewish faith and practice, and one of its presidents was Gamaliel I.16

Gamaliel’s command in regard to the apostles that they should be "put . . . forth a little space" is better translated "put . . . out for a short while."17 Evidently they were conducted out of the session, because after Gamaliel spoke, they had to be recalled (v. 40).

Gamaliel had a calming effect on the Sanhedrin. They were ready to rise up and do violence against the apostles, but he stopped them with sensible advice. He reminded them that Jesus was not the first who attracted many followers by claiming to be close to God. Others included a certain Theudas, "boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought." The second troublemaker Gamaliel mentioned was Judas of Galilee, who "arose in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed." Historical sources apart from the New Testament are silent concerning any Theudas active before Judas, but Judas is remembered by Josephus.18

Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the Romans in AD 6.19 Caesar Augustus had sent two prominent officials, Cyrenius and Coponius, to take charge of affairs in the province of Syria, which included Judea. Their particular assignment was to conduct a census and taxation. Judas with the help of another rabble-rouser, Sadduc, gained a national hearing by boldly declaring that the measures undertaken by the imperial legates were nothing less than the first steps of enslavement, and they promised God’s help if the nation would rise up in revolt. With a wide following among the masses, they started a civil war, but, according to Gamaliel, Judas was killed, and his revolt came to nothing.

Delving Deeper

Luke under attack

Critics hostile to Biblical authority joyfully wave Luke’s account of Gamaliel’s speech as proof that he is not a reliable historian after all. What he reports here, they say, is a glaring anachronism. He has Gamaliel placing Theudas before Judas, and he imagines that Gamaliel in the mid-30s AD remembers Theudas. But who was Theudas? According to Josephus, a certain Theudas promoted himself as a great magician during the administration of the procurator Fadus,20 who held office in 44–46 AD.21

"Aha," chortle the critics, "Now we’ve got you. Try to escape from this kind of evidence against your blind faith! Try to deny that in this story your beloved Luke has really bungled things! We even can tell you why he made such a gross error. Luke—or whoever the author was, probably not Luke—was writing more than sixty years after the events he records, and he was cribbing some of his material from Josephus’s Antiquities, but he was not reading it carefully (or maybe he could not quite grasp what Josephus was saying), for immediately after Josephus speaks of Theudas, he tells that the successor to Fadus, Tiberius Alexander, executed the sons of Judas of Galilee, the same Judas who led the revolt in the days of taxation.22 Luke apparently missed ‘sons’ as he was reading and jumped to the silly conclusion that Theudas preceded the sons’ father."

What can we say in defense of Luke? Let us remember that the critics make a big issue out of this passage because it is the only one in Acts that they feel totally confident in claiming as support for their side. But the obvious accuracy of Luke elsewhere surely warrants a presumption that there is an easy defense for the words he attributes to Gamaliel. The defense is likely this: he is referring to an earlier Theudas overlooked or misidentified by Josephus.23

Delving Still Deeper

The apparent anachronism explained

We can offer many grounds for asserting that Gamaliel had an earlier Theudas in mind.

  1. Gamaliel’s version of the man’s revolt does not agree with Josephus’s. Josephus says that "a great part of the people" followed Theudas, all of whom were killed or captured.24 Gamaliel says that Theudas won four hundred men to his side before he was killed and his supporters were scattered.
  2. The name Theudas was very common. "It is a contraction of Theodore, Theodotus, Theodosius, etc."25
  3. The nation of Judea was racked throughout its history by violent uprisings.26 One especially unstable period followed the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC. Josephus says, "Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture."27 It may be that due to the necessity of being selective in his coverage, Josephus chose to pass over details of the revolt led by Theudas.
  4. Yet there is an even more attractive explanation for Theudas’s absence from Antiquities. According to Josephus, one of the leading instigators of turmoil after Herod’s death was a certain Judas (not Judas of Galilee), who wreaked widespread havoc under the delusion that he should be king.28 We need only suppose that Josephus, who makes many mistakes,29 has got his name wrong, writing Judas instead of Theudas. The difference is slight. The mistake may have arisen because Judas was a name that would have come more readily to mind from one’s memory of rebels.
  5. Antiquities was not available until after AD 93 or thereabouts.30 This date nearly at the close of the first century does not deter critics from arguing that the writer of Acts used Antiquities as a source when he fabricated Gamaliel’s speech. But it is inconceivable that the work of a writer so far from events and so indifferent to facts could otherwise be so impeccably accurate.

Let us examine the larger significance of Gamaliel’s speech. If both Theudas and Judas date from the decade or so after Herod’s death, Gamaliel may have named them because they were the basis of a precedent for his advice concerning the church. They both lived while Hillel, Gamaliel’s grandfather, was still alive. Perhaps Hillel had come under pressure either to endorse or condemn these men, but had refused, arguing that further events would establish whether such agitators were really men of God. Hence, seeking to craft policy in line with his own Pharisaic tradition, Gamaliel told the Sanhedrin, "Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God." Evidence that Gamaliel was in fact articulating a perspective characteristic of his religious party comes from a teaching dating from the second century AD.31 "R. Johanan the Sandal-maker said: Any assembling together that is for the sake of Heaven shall in the end be established, but any that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not in the end be established."32

Gamaliel finished his address to the council by arguing that there was no risk in tolerating the religious movement started by Jesus, but great risk in opposing it. It was either a work of man or a work of God. If it was a work of man, it would also come to nothing. But if it was a work of God, they dared not fight against it unless they wished to fight against God Himself.

In composing his narrative, Luke may have included this incident at Paul's request. As we argued in our introductory lesson, Luke wrote Acts probably to assist in Paul's defense before the authorities in Rome. Probably he was with Paul when he wrote it. Paul no doubt retained affection for his old teacher and wanted him to be remembered not for any of his faults, but for the best moment in his life, when he defended the cause of Christ.


Acts 5:40-42

The council accepted Gamaliel's advice. The warning that the apostles might be right made the council afraid to kill them, but led to no change of heart. The leaders were still intent on showing who was in command. They called in the apostles and declared them guilty of disobeying the Sanhedrin. For punishment, they had the apostles beaten. The beating was not as severe as Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans, but it was a serious matter. It was humiliating, because the leaders probably stood by and watched. And it was painful, because the apostles probably received thirty-nine lashes across a bare back. The limit set by the law was forty (Deut. 25:1–3), but to avoid an excessive number by mistake, the Jews customarily gave no more than thirty-nine.33 After the beating was finished, the leaders again commanded the apostles to refrain from preaching Christ.

Again, the apostles paid no attention. They left the council rejoicing that God considered them worthy to suffer for Christ's sake. As soon as possible, they resumed teaching in the Temple and in private homes, and they continued in the work day after day.

Getting Practical

Suffering that gives joy

Firsts in the Bible are often significant. This account tells the first time that someone received physical abuse because of his testimony for Christ. As the apostles made their way back from the Sanhedrin to their lodgings in Jerusalem, all were in pain from severe wounds. All were weak from loss of blood. Perhaps some were faint and had to be supported by their friends. Yet their suffering did not defeat them. Instead of reducing them to grief, it lifted them to joy. The obvious purpose in this account of a first is to show us how to act when we are persecuted. As Peter said years later, "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy" (1 Pet. 4:13).

Getting Practical

Softness of today’s Christian

The reason why any kind of trouble tends to discourage us and make us unhappy is that we are too soft. Unlike many in past generations, we live in a world of comfort. If you are a senior saint, the home of your youth was perhaps not very fancy. But today's children are raised in the lap of luxury. We cater to their fleshly wants even in our Christian colleges. No wonder so many pursue a self-indulgent life rather than a life of sacrifice. No wonder they would find persecution difficult to accept.


  1. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, reprinted in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 1128–1129; William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 243, 646.
  2. Ed Rickard, "Against Evolution. Lesson 2: Mechanisms of Change," Bible Studies at the Moorings, Web ( apologetics/against_evolution/mechanisms_of_ change.html), August 4, 2016; Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, Md.: Adler & Adler, 1986), 56–60, 201–230.
  3. Mish. Sotah 9.15 (TB Sota 49a); Solomon Schechter and Wilhelm Bacher, "Gamaliel I," in Jewish Encyclopedia (orig. pub. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906), Web (, August 4, 2016.
  4. D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod, vol. 5 of The New Clarendon Bible: Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 155–164.
  5. Mish. Aboth 1.1 (TB Avoth 1.7).
  6. Mish. Gittin 9.10 (TB Gittin 90a); W. W. Davies, "Divorce in OT," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, 864.
  7. "Hillel and Shammai," Wikipedia, Web (, August 11, 2016.
  8. "Gamaliel," Wikipedia, Web (, August 11, 2016.
  9. "Gamaliel II," Wikipedia, Web (, August 11, 2016.
  10. Mish. Sotah 9.15 (TB Sota 49a).
  11. "Gamaliel."
  12. "Sanhedrin," Wikipedia, Web (, August 11, 2016.
  13. Ibid.
  14. TB Shabbath 15a.
  15. Schechter and Bacher.
  16. Wilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, "Sanhedrin," in Jewish Encyclopedia, Web (, August 11, 2016.
  17. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (N.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 440.
  18. Jos. Ant. 18.1.1; 20.5.2; Wars 2.8.1; 7.8.1.
  19. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 177.
  20. Jos. Ant. 20.5.1.
  21. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 176.
  22. Jos. Ant. 20.5.2.
  23. William Whiston, trans., The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus (Chicago: The John C. Winston Company, n.d.), 523 (note on Jos. Ant. 17.10.5).
  24. Jos. Ant. 20.5.1.
  25. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 176.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Jos. Ant. 17.10.4.
  28. Ibid. 17.10.5.
  29. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), 147.
  30. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 176.
  31. Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 323.
  32. Mish. Aboth 4.11 (TB Avoth 4.75–77).
  33. TB Makkoth 22b, Kerithoth 15a.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.