This leads into the report that “Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Why were they filled with jealousy? Was it the performance of miraculous signs and wonders? No. Was it the growing crowds and the people gathering from all over? Not directly. So what was it? It was the “high honor” being accorded to the disciples, which was evidenced by the behavior of the people. Public honor was a limited good. The growth of the honor of one necessarily led to the diminishing of the honor of another. Yes, they still had their power, but they were losing their honor. If enough honor slipped from their hands, their power would ultimately go with it.
Though it comes from John’s Gospel (composed after Acts), the eleventh chapter contains a story that sheds light on this way of thinking: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. If we allow Him to go on this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48) As seen in Acts, these are concerns about honor and power, and they are prefaced with mention of miraculous signs and a growing number of followers.
What was the response of the high priest and his cohorts in Acts? “They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail” (5:18). They attempted to shame and humiliate the apostles, doing so publicly in an attempt to diminish their public honor and increase their public shame. Consequently, the high priest would not suffer the further loss of honor. This backfires on the council, as the disciples are honored, with Luke indicating that the honoring is accomplished by the Creator God Himself (somewhat indirectly), as “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the Temple courts,’” the place that symbolized the public honor of those who had jailed them, “and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.’” (5:19-20). “This life” would have been the life of the way of the kingdom of the Creator God. “This life” would have the been the resurrected life of Jesus. “This life” would have been the promise of the general resurrection to come.
The response of the opposition is predictable. The disciples, who have done precisely what the angel has instructed them to do, are re-arrested and taken before the council. “When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, saying ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!’” (5:27-28) Proclaiming Jesus would be an indirect challenge to the high priest and associates, as they, having delivered up Jesus to the provincial government, were complicit in the execution of Jesus as a state criminal. Thus, via these continued challenges and the associated accusations that they had acted unjustly based upon the verdict of Israel’s God as indicated by the Resurrection and the reversal of that shaming, shame continues to come their way.
In response, Peter piles on, saying “We must obey God rather than people” (5:29a). This, in itself, is an interesting public-honor-diminishing statement, as the high priest was presumed to speak for the covenant God. Peter makes it clear that the high priest and the council do not in fact speak for Israel’s God, with the primary evidence of that fact being the stand that they had taken against Jesus (the personal revelation of their God). He continues: “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree” (5:30).