The endgame for most persecutors is silence. Whether they attempt to silence you through intimidation, violence, or death, the point is to stamp out your message and your influence.
In recent months we’ve seen that scenario play out repeatedly in the Middle East. Among the thousands targeted, many believers in that part of the world have been driven from their homes. Others have nobly accepted martyrdom, refusing to reject Christ and pledge allegiance to Islam. In the end, their persecutors seek to cut off the influence of God’s Word and His people in that region.
The members of the Sanhedrin had the same goal in the fourth chapter of Acts. Faced with Peter’s bold proclamation of the gospel—including his indictment of them as Christ’s murderers—they had to decide how to stop the apostles’ evangelistic ministry.
Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply. But when they had ordered them to leave the Council, they began to confer with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.” And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. (Acts 4:13-18)
Peter and John healed a man who had been crippled for more than forty years. There was no denying their miracle, and they hadn’t broken any law. That left the Sanhedrin in an uncomfortable position. We’re told earlier in the chapter that the Jerusalem church had 5,000 men in it, but the total number of members could have been as high as 20,000. With that many followers, the Sanhedrin couldn’t simply imprison or kill the apostles; they likely feared a revolution.
But neither could they turn them loose to continue their exploding ministry. So instead they attempted to intimidate Peter and John into abandoning their gospel preaching altogether.
It didn’t work.
But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened. (Acts 4:19-21)
Scripture doesn’t tell us what the Sanhedrin threatened to do to Peter and John, but it doesn’t matter. No threat could sway their commitment to preach the gospel. Their response is incredibly shrewd—the apostles defied the command by appealing to the very authority the Sanhedrin was supposed to represent. These supposedly “uneducated and untrained men” had confounded and exasperated Israel’s religious elite.
You might wonder if Peter’s response here contradicts what he would later write in his first epistle: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). In that passage, he goes on to explain how it’s ultimately the Lord who puts authority in place, and that your faithful submission adorns the gospel and builds up the credibility of your testimony.
But when that authority commands you to stop speaking the name of Christ, to stop preaching the gospel, or to do something immoral, unjust, or unrighteous, you cannot obey. As Peter himself would later explain to the Sanhedrin on another occasion, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
We see that same conviction in the life of Daniel. Under normal circumstances, Daniel had no difficulty submitting to the authority the Lord had placed over him. In fact, he excelled and prospered under pagan leaders, putting his God-given skills to good use in their service. But when that authority contradicted the law of God (Daniel 6), Daniel had no choice but to obey the Lord and face the due punishment of the law.
As the world becomes more hostile to the truth, it may not be long before more Christians face similar consequences for preaching the gospel. We need to be resolved not to cave to the pressures of society, or even to fierce persecution and violence. We need to have the same attitude as the great Scottish reformer John Knox, of whom it was said that he feared God so much that he never feared the face of any man.
When persecution comes, we cannot give in to the pressure or fear. We need to faithfully obey God, no matter the cost.