And as they spoke to the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came on them,…
I. THEIR APPREHENSION. Its causes.
1. The jealousy of those in ecclesiastical power. Caste, privilege, and established professions are ever jealous of popular influence. It is ill for learning and for religion when they come to be identified with the interests of a class. But neither can be shut up to the few. Light and truth are the common property of all, as there is no function higher than that of the genuine teacher of religion, so there is none which attracts more suspicion and jealousy. The essence of bigotry is exemplified by the Sadducees. Not believing in the Resurrection, they would put down any teaching of it by force. The force of persecution never comes from love of truth, but ever from some form of interest. The temper of the truth-lover is ever for free speech and free thought. He knows that the truth, being a beam of God, cannot be quenched, and is reflected with all the more glory from the mists of error. Often men mean by "the truth" their own opinions and prejudices. History shows, and passion constantly ignores, that to put down opinions is impossible. The spirit of man acquires force both in good and evil by resistance. Let what you consider false be either ignored, or, far better, honestly examined and discussed. But, in fact, no absolute falsehood can live an hour; and when desire is shown for suppression of free utterance, fear of the truth, not love of it, is betrayed.
2. Another cause was the popular acceptance of the gospel. The thousands may be despised as individuals, but their collective feeling commands respect. When the multitude wait on a preacher, and their lives are changed by his influence, we may be certain that there is a deeper agency at work than appears. The very extravagances which attend popular religious movements are in their way evidences that men are being acted upon by unwonted spiritual power.
II. THEIR EXAMINATION. They stood in the presence of the Sanhedrim - the great ecclesiastical court and ruling body of the nation. It is a sublime contrast between the power that is and the power that is not of the world. The parts of the prisoners and the judges are really reversed. Sincerity is ever the judge; appearances go for nothing in the spiritual sphere.
1. The question. The fact is not disputed; the question is - How is it to be accounted for. What power, whose Name, had been at work here? The surging up of a new power in Church or state is a formidable thing. What is its nature? how must we deal with it? is the care of the powers that be.
2. The answer. First, a good thing has been admittedly done. Out of prostration and weakness a sufferer has been restored to health and freedom. Facts are stubborn things. Our acts speak louder than words, and tell for us or against us irresistibly. So let us live that the facts of our life may plead for us trumpet-tongued. Second, the interpretation of the fact. The name and power of Jesus are behind it. Thus does spiritual force rise up and react against those who idly fought against it. Here was the crucified One darting a ray of his glory upon suffering. The Resurrection: it was no fancy; it stood illustrated in the person of the restored man in the presence of the court. What else was or could be the meaning of the fact? No other explanation is attempted. Accusers and accused stand beneath the shadow of a power of which the one are feeble foes, the others mighty agents. Life is full of these contrasts, these coincidences of extreme opposites; power dwindling into impotence, feebleness lifted into power. The stone cast aside on the highway proves to be the comer-stone of a new building. The rejected of men, who could not save himself, becomes revealed the Elect of God, and sole Source of salvation. Contempt of goodness is avenged by the manifested contempt of God.
III. THE EMOTION OF THE COURT. The judges are overcome in spite of themselves by the extraordinary contrast before them. It is rare that the learned do not feel a deep secret contempt for the ignorant and unlettered. An overvaluation of words and logic blinds to realities. But here the calm eloquence of those simple men breaks out like the ray of a pure gem hidden in some rough matrix, and dazzles the intelligence. Memory is stimulated, and Peter and John are identified as disciples of Jesus. There was a combination of evidences which fairly reduced the judges to stupefied silence. There stood the well-known figure of the paralytic; side by side his confessed healers; the clear statement of the Divine agency in the case has been boldly and impressively given by them; finally their former connection with Jesus is recognized. The whole chain of antecedents and consequents hangs firmly together. The logical recess in fact and thought is complete Infinitely better the silence which bows before irresistible reasons than the silence which is gained by force. Here again extremes meet. Mute are the lips of the unjust, who have evoked eloquence from the innocent; the silencers have reduced themselves to dumbness. 'Tis ever so. When violence seems to have made the truth to retire for a time, it has really sent it on a larger are of travel, from which it will surely return to smite the propelling lie.
IV. THE CONSULTATION. Policy is consulted when conscience is absent. It is dubious, and flies to compromises. There were three courses open: to punish the apostles - this, in the state of popular feeling, could not be ventured on; to approve their conduct - this was conscience' dictate, but conscience was here stifled by a powerful conspiracy of interest; the miserable compromise remained - to discharge the prisoners for fear of the multitude, to warn them against further teaching in fear for themselves. There is danger in all societies and committees of men for the conscience. They are more timid than in isolation, and timidity is mean and treacherous to the noblest instincts of the heart. Men will back one another up in doing things or refraining from doing things, when they would have been more true if left to themselves. 'Tis a moral trial in these respects to act with others. Shelter for our cowardice, stimulus to our active passions, is found in the fellowship of close interests.
V. THE PROHIBITION AND RELEASE. The apostles were no more to "speak in this Name," which had proved so mighty a spell to loose. More definitely utterance of, and teaching in, the Name are forbidden. The Name stands as usual for all that lies behind it - the whole contents of Christian truth.
1. The prohibition aimed at an impossibility. The mind cannot be chained; the spontaneous movements of the spirit cannot be checked by force; the Word of God cannot be bound. Force can only act within the laws of nature; it enters not the kingdom of spirit.
2. The martyr's alternative. Shall he obey God or man? The tyrant must tremble when he hears the question put. Physical necessity is on his side; moral necessity, revealed in the conscience, on the other. The one says to the witness - You shall not; the other replies from his breast - cannot but. Obedience to God gives confidence and security. The tyrant and his victim change places when it is seen that the latter has placed himself against the rock of eternal right.
3. The martyr's decision. He will not obey man rather than God. He has one clear principle only - to obey the voice in his soul. Immediate consequences form no element of calculation. They may he favorable to him, as now in the physical sense, for the many may be for the moment on his side; or they may be fatal. With eye far fixed on eternity, and ear attent upon the Divine voice, he goes forward. He trusts God and is not afraid. His being is only safe in devotion to duty. - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them,