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The mother church of Christendom, after so glorious a beginning, grew mightily, both inwardly and outwardly, and at first found great favor with the people, (Acts 2:47), for the purity of its walk, and the glow of its first love and benevolence, which reached even to a community of goods. But even the opposition, which soon arose against it in the unbelieving world, must, according to a universal law of the kingdom of God, serve only to purify and extend it. As on the day of Pentecost, so also in the succeeding history down to the appearance of Paul, Peter is the great leader, promoter, and defender of the church, by word and deed. Behind him walks John, in mysterious silence, betokening a hidden depth of life and great promise for the future.
The miraculous healing of one, who had been more than forty years a cripple, by the sublime word of Peter: “Silver and gold have I none; but what I have, that give I you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!” (Acts 3:6) This very much became known among the people and increased the number of male members of the church to five thousand. But at the same time, it roused the jealousy and hatred of the priests; especially of the Sadducees, since the resurrection of the Lord, so offensive to them, was the central theme of the apostles’ preaching and the main argument for the Messiahship of Jesus, (Acts 4:2). The two apostles were arrested and imprisoned by the temple guard, and on the next day, brought with the healed cripple before the Sanhedrim, in which the Sadducean party just then had the upper hand. Then Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, boldly declared that the miracle was wrought in the name and by the power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead; whom they, the builders, had rejected, according to the prophecy of the 118th Psalm; but whom God had made the cornerstone of his whole kingdom. Then, passing from the bodily healing to the spiritual, he announced the fundamental article of Christianity as the only saving religion: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
As the members of the council could not deny the fact of the miraculous healing, and at the same time, feared the people, they discharged Peter and John for this time with simply a warning not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus. The apostles returned to the brothers, who united in fervent prayer; when, in token of their being heard, as on the day of Pentecost, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were filled anew with the Holy Spirit.
In this first persecution, we have a genuine common characteristic of all the subsequent hostilities against the church of Christ. Edward D. Andrews points out: “There is a chess game going on in the spirit world, wherein God makes a move to advance his people, Satan counters that move trying to kill that effort in its infancy. This is followed by Jehovah giving his people the strength and courage to withstand the onslaught from Satan and his fallen ungodly world of humankind alienated from God. However, the adversaries come back even stronger with all their power and maneuverings in an effort to prevent the proclaiming and teaching of the Word, to make disciples for Jesus Christ. In these last days, as the Father had handed ‘all authority in heaven and on earth to the Son,’ Christ’s disciples have been sheep among wolves, yet the great multitude of followers grew from five thousand in 33 A.D. to over one million by 150 A.D.”
However, according to their principle, which they openly avowed before the high council, they must obey God rather than man. (4:19, comp. 5:29) The apostles could not keep silent. Their preaching and miracles (Acts 5:12–16), with the terrible judgment upon the hypocritical Ananias and his wife, more and more attracted the attention of the people and awakened their admiration of the church. The Sadducean party, therefore, again had the apostles arrested and confined. But the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison (Acts 5:19), and they taught all the more joyfully in the temple. Brought again before the council, they reiterated their protest against the prohibition to teach, as conflicting with their obedience to God; and testified anew of the resurrection of Jesus, whom the counselors had slain, but whom God had exalted at his right hand, as a Savior to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to the people of Israel. The enraged fanatics desired at once to pass sentence of death on the apostles when the Pharisee, Gamaliel, grandson of the renowned Hillel and one of the most distinguished Rabbis, brought them to moderation. The apostles this time escaped with scourging, which was the customary punishment of disobedience, and with a repetition of the injunction to cease preaching. “So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, for if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown.” (Acts 5:38) In these famous words, he betrays his undecided posture towards Christianity. He had not yet clearly made up his mind respecting the new religion, and he wished, from human prudence and caution, to wait the judgment of time; convinced, that what was good and of God would ultimately prevail over all opposition, and that, on the other hand, fanaticism and wickedness would only gain from attempts to suppress them by force.
Hence, it was better to leave them to condemn themselves, as, sooner or later, they surely would. Gamaliel, here, shows himself an impartial, justice-loving man, thoroughly imbued with the Old Testament faith in a divine providence, which would not leave false prophets long unpunished. But this expression by no means warrants us to suppose that he was a secret adherent of Christianity. We should rather infer the contrary from the fact that, down to his death, he remained a Pharisee and in great esteem with the Jews. He probably passed from neutrality to hostility as soon as Christianity came into open conflict with Pharisaism, as we may conclude from the earlier spirit of the apostle Paul, who proceeded from his school.
This opposition of Christianity to Pharisaical Judaism soon showed itself in Stephen, who, though not an apostle, was undoubtedly a man of apostolic spirit and marks an epoch in the development of Christianity. Thus far, the division between the Pharisees and Sadducees had been favorable to the church. But after the appearance of Stephen, the Pharisees also became decidedly hostile, and Pilate and Herod leagued themselves anew for the suppression of the common enemy.
By Philip Schaff