Every once in a while, something happens that leaves you utterly confused: What the heck is going on here?
But the perplexity usually doesn’t last. Our brains won’t tolerate it. We’ll come up with some explanation, however far-fetched it may seem to someone else — or even to ourselves, if we stopped to think seriously. Even when evidence to the contrary is staring us in the face, we can persist with the daffiest of ideas, particularly the ones that leave us with the comforting illusion that we’re still in control of the situation.
You have to wonder, for example, about Caiaphas, the high priest who was instrumental in getting Jesus arrested and crucified. What did he make of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection? How did he explain the reports of the miracles being done by the apostles? How could he continue to set himself against what was so obviously the work of God?
Because he was human, like us, capable of nearly infinite rationalization and self-deception.
In the previous post, we saw how Caiaphas and his associates became jealous of the growing power and popularity of the apostles. If all of this had been happening in the backwaters of Galilee, where Jesus had done much of his ministry, they probably would have been less concerned, at least for a while. But the Jerusalem temple had become ground zero for the movement. They had to act.
They publicly arrested the apostles and threw them in jail. Let them sweat it out overnight; we’ll try them tomorrow. But while they slept, an angel of the Lord broke the apostles out of jail and told them to go right back to proclaiming the message of new life in Jesus.
Luke describes the scene that unfolded in the morning:
When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. Then someone arrived and announced, “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. (Acts 5:21-26, NRSV)
The scene is almost comical. Here are the council members in all their finery, arranging themselves to pass judgment on the upstart apostles who defied their earlier orders. When they’re ready, they smooth down their robes and officiously send for the prisoners. But the jail is empty and the guards haven’t a clue what happened.
As the captain and the chief priests scratch their heads, someone runs into the room to report that the apostles are back at it. They’re preaching in the temple courts, in the full light of day. The captain, therefore, takes a squad with him to arrest the apostles again.
The tone, however, has shifted. Before, he and his men had forcefully hauled the apostles away in plain view. But this time, he’s less certain of his place. He has no explanation for how the apostles escaped. The official show of superiority had backfired; here were the apostles, as if nothing had happened, as if no one had the power or authority to contain them. How bold would that make the crowds, if he tried to drag the apostles away now? The captain probably knew a thing or two about mobs, and didn’t want to be on the receiving end of a shower of stones.
Luke doesn’t say, but I imagine the captain’s demeanor as less imperious and more polite — less telling, more asking. Peter and the others agree and quietly go with him.
But not under duress. They know who’s really in charge.
That’s part of what makes the story that follows so interesting. While the captain seems to get some sense that he’s in over his head, Caiaphas and most of the Sanhedrin do not. Whatever they make of the apostles’ puzzling escape, they are no more impacted by it than they are by all the stories of healing.
They still think they’re in charge.
And they will act accordingly, as we’ll see in subsequent posts.