Who’s in charge here? (part 2)

What do people do when they feel their authority is being disrespected?

Think of an angry parent. Dad gives Junior a direct order, and Junior ignores it. Don’t be surprised if Dad hauls Junior in and starts yelling.

Think of an angry boss, confronting a subordinate who repeatedly fails to follow directions. Don’t be surprised if the boss threatens to fire the employee.

Many people with power simply expect to be obeyed, and don’t tolerate insubordination, even though parenting experts and management gurus insist that intimidation is a poor way of wielding influence. You can cow people into obedience but that won’t buy you loyalty, respect, or even long-term change.

Intimidation, unfortunately, is the default setting for many people, and in some cases, the only strategy they know. Get bigger. Get louder. Make threats. They don’t naturally step back from the situation to ask themselves whether their own goals are the right ones, whether they really understand what’s going on, whether it might be better to calm down and let circumstances play out a bit more.

That is, unless someone who commands their respect tells them to chill.

When reading the New Testament, it’s easy to cast the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the rest of the Jerusalem leadership as the one-dimensional villains of the story. And to be fair, the story can sometimes be read that way, as is typically the case in John’s gospel.

But it’s not that simple. People with power, particularly religious leaders, can act in self-serving ways and believe they’re doing the right thing. Their sin is not simply opposing the good but being blind to it, and of course, being blind to their own blindness.

In the gospels and Acts, Jesus and his apostles did mighty works of God that led many to marvel and believe. But the Jerusalem leadership, trying to maintain the ancient authority and symbolic centrality of the temple, couldn’t allow themselves to see what God was doing right under their noses.

As we’ve seen, in Acts 5 the apostles were arrested by Caiaphas and his cronies. Luke uses a somewhat ambiguous Greek word to describe their motivation, which is translated as “jealousy” (vs. 17). The word may mean that (a) they were upset at and envious of the immense popularity of the apostles, or that (b) they were filled with righteous zeal for the place of temple in the life of Israel and (c) for their own role in maintaining it.

Which is it? If this were a multiple choice test, I’d choose “(d) All of the above.”

When the Sanhedrin found that the apostles had somehow escaped from jail (having been sprung by an angel), even though the cell was still locked and the guards were in place, it was an opportune time for a bit of circumspection: Hmm. I wonder what this could mean? But then they heard that the apostles were back preaching in the temple. Forget the musing and speculation; we have to do something. The temple police were dispatched — again — to round up the rebels.

Maybe the third time would be the charm?

It was still morning, so the apostles were dragged directly before the assembly to be interrogated. Caiaphas spoke (imperiously, I imagine): “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (Acts 5:28, NRSV).

He wasn’t exaggerating. The Sanhedrin had in fact issued the order. The apostles’ teaching and influence had spread throughout the city, and indeed beyond. And Peter had repeatedly laid the responsibility for Jesus’ death on the people and their leaders (2:23; 3:13-15, 17; 4:10). Caiaphas wasn’t saying anything the apostles didn’t already know.

Nor was there much new in how Peter responded on behalf of the apostles:

We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.  (Acts 5:29-32)

But imagine how all of this must have sounded to the Sanhedrin, the ones who believed it was their divinely sanctioned right and role to rule the people on God’s behalf:

  • You think you’re obeying God, but you’re not. You think you have divine authority, but you don’t.
  • We supposedly all worship the same God. But you executed the one he sent, and his resurrection should be enough of a sign to convince you that he was in fact from God.
  • God exalted the one you humiliated to the highest place.
  • All of this was for the sake of the repentance of the people and forgiveness for their sins. That includes you. Are you ready to repent and acknowledge your need for forgiveness?
  • You don’t have to just take our word for it. We’ve been called to witness to what we’ve seen, but we’re not the only ones. The Holy Spirit witnesses with us. You’d know that if you had the Spirit. But God only gives the Spirit to those who obey him. Obviously, as we’ve already said, that’s not you.

When Caiaphas and the rest of the council heard these words from the apostles, “they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (Acts 5:33). No surprise there. That’s what often happens when someone speaks truth to power.

And as suggested earlier, it would take someone with a commanding presence and a cooler head to get them to calm down. As we’ll see in the next post, his name was Gamaliel.