It is interesting to notice the methods the authorities used in their offensive against the disciples. They used the world’s methods. That is, they used force or power, because naked power is the only weapon the world really has. Sometimes it is the power of wealth; people who have wealth will often use it to control other people. I do not believe in communism. But the Communists are right when they say that those who have wealth often use it to control, exclude or oppress others. The government will use the courts, policemen, guns, and eventually the army. Because in the last analysis this is the only power it has.
The Jerusalem authorities exercised their power in this way. The first thing they did was attempt to intimidate the disciples. In the Greek of this chapter there is an emphasis that does not come across as strongly in English but indicates that when the priests, the captain of the guard, and the Sadducees came upon Peter and John, they came upon them “suddenly.” That is, they did not just meander up out of the back of the crowd and begin to talk to them. One moment Peter and John were there teaching earnestly. The next moment, suddenly there were the soldiers. They must have said, “Enough of this,” as they grabbed them and took them away.
This was a way of declaring, “We have the power. If you are allowed to preach, as you have been preaching, it is because we have permitted you to do it. If we decide that you are no longer to be permitted to do that, well then, you can’t do it anymore. Anytime we want, we can arrest you and carry you off to jail.”
Throwing them in jail was also intimidation. The leaders did not have to arrest the disciples at this point. They could have picked them up the next morning. Peter and John were not hiding. The leaders must have said, “Let’s just throw them in jail overnight. Let them cool their heels there. That will dampen their spirits. Then we’ll see how they function in the morning.” Peter and John had courage in spite of this intimidation, and that impressed the authorities (v. 13). Intimidating the disciples didn’t work, but that is what they were trying to do all the same.
The world continues to operate this way, and it is one reason why the witness of Christian people often fails. Or if it is given, it is given in an ineffective way. If Christianity is true, it is the greatest message in the world. Yet we are afraid to proclaim it, and the major reason we fail is the world’s intimidation. We fail to speak, because we are afraid someone might laugh at us or harm us.
The Jerusalem authorities also used threats. It says so explicitly in verse 21, “After further threats, they let them go.” If there were further threats, there must have been earlier threats. And I suppose this is what is being suggested in verse 18, where it says, “They called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” They must have said, “If you speak about Jesus in public again, we are going to beat you and put you in jail. It will be decades before you see daylight again.” Or they might have said—I don’t know whether they would have been bold enough, but they might have said it (maybe as Peter and John were going out the door, maybe in a whisper)—“And don’t forget what we did to Jesus.”
I think Luke shows a sense of irony at this point, though the situation is hardly funny and perhaps it is only the irony of the situation itself that I notice. But here these men were, trying to intimidate the apostles, threatening them. Yet even before they give their witness, Luke records in verse 4 that “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about 5,000.” The last figure we had concerning the size of the church was from the days immediately following Pentecost, when it was said there were about 3,000 (Acts 2:41). At this point—not very long afterwards, a couple of weeks or so at the most—there are 5,000. It was an increase of 60 percent. And they hadn’t even had a chance to speak yet!
The world thinks that it can stop a spiritual movement by intimidation such as threats, force, imprisonment, and death, but it cannot. A good idea, especially a true spiritual idea, will always spread. I do not think you can stop any good idea, even a good secular idea, by threats. A good idea will always thrive and eventually permeate a culture. Perhaps you can slow it for a time. Maybe some good ideas have been stamped out temporarily by harsh rulers. But most have not been, and certainly you cannot stamp out Christianity. The rulers were trying to stamp it out. But what we discover in Acts—which we also find in later church history and see in our day too, if we just look around and see it—is that the more the church is oppressed, the more the Gospel spreads. As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”