God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. – Acts 5:31 (ESV)
Thus Peter spoke before the council of the elders in Jerusalem. Hearkening back to what we find in the fourth chapter of Acts, when Peter and John were first brought before the council, Peter is reminded of their previous decision and its accompanying order, saying “We strictly charged you not to teach in this Name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (5:28). Ironically, Peter and the rest of the Apostles did, in fact, intend to bring the blood of Jesus upon them, as an efficacious sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, but this was not the way that the council supposed.
Peter, fully aware of what had been told to him in the wake of the healing of a crippled man, answered that “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). He adds “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, Whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree” (5:30). It was in this raising that Jesus was then exalted as “Leader and Savior”. That is, Jesus was exalted as “archegon kai sotera.” This is something at which the council would have cringed. This was the crux of the matter. This was what had the leaders of the people so gravely concerned, the continuing proclamation of this Jesus fellow in such ways. This was the type of talk that would bring about the very thing that they feared the most, which we find in the eleventh chapter of John. Surely, just as they had thought about Jesus and His preaching, they now thought about Peter and his preaching, saying “If we let him (Peter) go on like this, everyone will believe in Him (Jesus), and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48).
Now, why would Peter’s statement about Jesus as “Leader and Savior,” or “archegon kai sotera” cause such a reaction? It is because these were titles reserved in that day for Caesar. Caesar was the “archos.” He was the leader, master, ruler, and authority. Along with that, it was Ceasar that was referred to as “soter.” Caesar was the savior of mankind. It was Caesar that secured peace on earth. It was Caesar that set things right and established justice; and it was Caesar, through the kingdom and power of Rome, that was dragging the world out of darkness and barbarism. Now this was being said of Jesus, and that it was Him and His kingdom that was pre-eminent, and that it was Jesus, through His Kingdom, that was dragging the world out of its darkness, through the power of His Resurrection.
This was dangerous speech that must be controlled, which is the primary and fundamental reason why Peter had been ordered not to speak in such ways about Jesus. Rome, through its local governors, would not long tolerate such things, but would swiftly deal with such pretenders to rule and challenges to Ceasar’s absolute authority. If the movement behind a particular revolutionary became too large, and the people became overly pestilent, Rome would simply take steps to put down the whole group of people, regardless of who was or was not involved. They would come and take away both place and nation, thereby solving the problem permanently.
Previously, Peter had declared Jesus as the “cornerstone,” the source of “salvation,” and “that there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12). Peter spoke of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, together with everything implied by that title. One of the primary implications was that Jesus was the King of Israel, and by extension, King of all, making the claims of Him as “Leader and Savior” both counter-imperial and revolutionary. These imperial claims on behalf of Jesus were well-understood by Jesus’ disciples and those that came to believe in their word about Him, as we read about them lifting up their voices and saying, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against His Anointed” (Acts 4:25b-26).
Kings and rulers generally only set themselves against those that oppose their power. In their calling Him “Anointed,” and in referring to Him as “Leader and Savior,” they were affirming all that was to be true of Israel’s Messiah. This was the last thing with which the Jerusalem council thought they would be dealing, having made sure that Jesus had been put to death by the Romans, in a way, that being the cross, that was reserved for those who challenged the power of Caesar.
We are able to better understand the message of Jesus, and why it engendered such fear in the leaders of Israel and such persecution from both Israel and the Romans, when we place it in its proper context. Yes, there is a massive spiritual component to it, but there is a temporal component as well. Jesus declared Himself to be King, as did His followers. They declared Jesus as the ruler of the world, with all other powers and authorities in subjection to Him, even Caesar. So, are we correct in looking at these passages in Acts through this lens? Well, what follows Peter’s statements about Jesus here in the fifth chapter of Acts? “A Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher…held in honor by all the people, stood up” (5:34a). Having stood up, did he begin denouncing Peter’s claims?
Did he preach against Jesus? Did he defend the truth of Judaism? No, he did not. Rather, he spoke of revolution. He talked about “Theudas,” who “rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men…joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing” (5:36). He then went on to talk about “Judas the Galilean,” who “rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered” (5:37). Having said these things---having talked about men who were revolutionaries, who had risen up to overthrow Caesar and to throw off the pagan, Roman yoke---he suggested leaving these men (the followers of Jesus) alone, suggesting that if it was of man, it would fail and come to nothing, but that “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” and they “might even be found opposing God” (5:39).
Is it of God? From that day, “and every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42), and nor do we. He is, most assuredly, “Leader and Savior.”