North American Christians increasingly find themselves facing the pointy end of the law. This is a relatively new experience for us. For most of the last 200 years the law has been our friend, our ally and even at times our weapon. But now all of a sudden, that weapon has seemingly been turned back upon us.
This has given rise to all manner of new and untested thinking. Thankfully we have been down this road before. The early days of Christianity in a particular culture often resemble the latter days, and so it is with respect to our interactions with the law. Therefore it is with fresh urgency that we read through the Acts of the Apostles. As a new faith in a hostile world, the early disciples had many run-ins with the law and there is much that we can learn from their example. Chief among those gleanings would be the following 5 observations.
The Apostles understood that the authorities had a mandate from God
The Apostles were not anarchists. They understood that the authorities had a mandate from God – whether or not those authorities acknowledged God. The Apostle Paul said:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1–2 ESV)
When Paul said that, it’s very likely that Nero was Caesar of Rome. Even bad leaders have a mandate from God. Even a bad King does not bear the sword in vain. The authorities have a job to do and they have been given power and divine right by God to do it.
Peter said the same when he was arrested in Acts 4. He said: Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20 ESV).
See those words again. Peter said to the authorities: “you must judge”.
Peter didn’t say: “You have no right to judge me” because he knew full well that they did. A Christian’s loyalty to God does not remove his or her obligation to the state.
The Apostles understood that they were ultimately subject to a higher power
Peter did not contest the fact that he was subject to his earthly authorities, he knew full well that he was. But he also knew that he was ultimately subject to a higher authority. When he and the other Apostles were arrested again in Acts 5 and brought before the council he says: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV).
The context helps us understand how to interpret that sentiment. 4 verses earlier we are told that he allowed himself to be arrested – he did not protest and force was not required in order to bring him before the courts. Peter recognizes the right of human authorities to summon him to account. He further recognizes their right to administer punishment in accordance with their judgment. 11 verses after Peter claims his higher authority, he and the other Apostles endure a beating and a scourging at the hands of their human authorities. Their reaction to this punishment is instructive:
they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 5:41–42 ESV)
They did what they had to do and they counted it an honour to pay a heavy price for so doing.
Notice what they didn’t do. They didn’t write letters to their elected representatives; they didn’t file a protest with the Human Rights Commission, nor did they take their story to the press.
They got on with the mission.
Being subject to warring authorities made the prospect of conflict seem inevitable and the likelihood of avoiding suffering minute. So they got on with it.
The Apostles understood that legal rights should be exercised with discernment
The Apostle Paul was very discerning in his use of the legal privileges that he enjoyed as a Roman citizen. In his first missionary journey Paul never appears to have made use of his legal protections despite that it placed him at the mercy of the mob. In Acts 14:19 it says:
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. (Acts 14:19 ESV)
No mention is made there of an attempt to claim the legal privileges Paul was entitled to as a Roman citizen. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul recounts some of his run-ins with the law. He says:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. (2 Corinthians 11:24–25 ESV)
The “once I was stoned” might conceivably refer to the incident in Acts 14, and the 40 lashes minus 1 was the standard synagogue punishment, but what are we to make of the “three times I was beaten with rods”? That sounds like a Roman punishment – a punishment Paul could have avoided by identifying himself as a Roman citizen.
He does that very thing in Acts 22. Just as he is about to be flogged he says to the centurion who was standing by:
“Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. (Acts 22:25–29 ESV)
A Roman citizen could not be bound or flogged without trial – so why did Paul submit to those injustices on other occasions?
Perhaps he was travelling with a non-Roman companion such as Barnabas or Luke – we don’t know. What we know is that Paul claimed his legal rights with discernment. They were not ultimate to him – the mission was ultimate. If the legal rights would advance the mission – as when he appealed to Caesar in Acts 25:11 – then he would use them. If they did not advance the mission, then he was content to suffer injustice along with other believers who did not enjoy similar benefits.
The Apostles understood that legal proceedings could be used for the glory of God
There is no doubt that Paul wished to be released from his various imprisonments – and equally no doubt that those imprisonments did a great deal to further the cause of Christ throughout the world. Through the several stages of his journey through the Roman legal system Paul was able to give testimony before governors, kings, queens and Caesars. It is highly unlikely that any of these people would have heard the Gospel otherwise. In addition Paul was able to witness to the many Roman guards who watched over him in rotation. He refers to this unexpected benefit in Philippians 1:12-14:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12–14 ESV)
Jesus told his disciples that all of this was part of the plan:
But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:12–19 ESV)
The Apostles did not seek out imprisonment – and when the Lord released them they rejoiced – but neither were they surprised or disheartened when they found themselves in chains. They understood that their chains would open doors that would otherwise remain closed. They cared more about the mission then they did about their freedom so they looked upon their imprisonments as a Gospel opportunity.
The Apostles understood that legal power could be wielded as a weapon by the enemy
The Acts of the Apostles was likely written while Paul was in Rome awaiting his hearing before Caesar. The book ends without recording the outcome of Paul’s trial. It says simply:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:30–31 ESV)
Historians disagree as to whether Paul was released from his Roman imprisonment – some say he was and that he made his way to Spain where he was rearrested and returned to Rome – others say that he was not. What we know with reasonable certainty is that around the year AD 64 Paul was beheaded by order of the Emperor Nero about a mile outside the city of Rome. The Apostle Peter was killed around the same time.
The Apostles knew that this was coming because Jesus had told them plainly: “some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16 ESV).
Jesus did not tell his disciples to expect a cordial relationship with the power of the state. On the contrary he said: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19 ESV).
Jesus predicted that his people would attract the ire and animosity of the secular powers. We have allegiances they don’t understand, we have values they don’t share, we have a mission they resent and we serve a Master that they condemned and crucified. Therefore, the Apostles expected conflict. They didn’t seek it, they expected God to redeem it, but they did not attempt to avoid it. Instead, they ministered through it. When they lost their freedom and mobility they wrote epistles to encourage the churches. When they were flogged they rejoiced. When they were questioned they witnessed and when they were martyred they were remembered. For, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15 ESV).
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter