Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
– Acts 5:19-32, New International Version
Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to empower the disciples to be witnesses. Thus, we are not surprised to learn that they proceeded to witness in great power. However, their witnessing did not go unnoticed or unopposed. It led to great controversy. Luke provides considerable detail about both the witness and the opposition. In order to understand Peter’s declaration in Acts 5:29-32, we need to briefly review Acts 3:1-5:28.
Luke tells the story of the healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1-11). He then records the sermon preached by Peter (Acts 3:11-26). This sermon exalts Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the healer. Jesus, said Peter, is the prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22). Peter and John were arrested and were questioned by the rulers and elders (Acts 4:1-12). The rulers and elders ordered them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Peter and John answered:
But Peter and John answered and said to them, Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;
for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.
– Acts 4:19
The rulers and elders threatened them and then released them. Next, Peter and John met with the disciples and had a powerful prayer meeting (Acts 4:23-31). They prayed for confidence to witness in the face of adversity. They were all filled with the Spirit and spoke the Word of God with boldness.
The congregation of believers began sharing with each other (Acts 4:32-36). Barnabas was an example of one who sold a piece of land and shared the proceeds (Acts 4:36-37). Then, the unfortunate event of Ananias and Sapphira took place (Acts 5:1-11). They sought to deceive the congregation about the price of land they sold. The growth of the church did not stop. Luke records the great results that were taking place in the church (Acts 5:12-16). Many were saved and healed.
Next, the high priest rose up, along with his associates (the Sadducees) against the apostles and put them in public jail (Acts 5:17-27). An angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison during the night and released the apostles with this charge, ‘”Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life,”‘ (Acts 5:20). The apostles entered into the temple about daybreak and began to preach. The high priest called all the Council together, sent to the prison for the apostles, and found that they were gone. Someone came and reported that the apostles were in the temple preaching. Thereupon, the captain of the temple guard went to bring them back without violence to the Council.
Obey God Rather than Men
The high priest questioned the apostles, saying, ‘“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,”’ (Acts 5:28). Responding to this challenge, Peter and the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29).
Given the context of Acts 3:1-5:28, it is clear that men were telling the apostles not to speak and teach in the name of Jesus. The apostles had been ordered and empowered to be witnesses. The apostles were not challenging the authority of the rulers in a general sense. They were law-abiding citizens. Rather, they faced the question of who had the authority to tell them whether or not to witness. They did not lightly go against the Council or the government, but this was a matter of conflict between the command of God and the orders of men. They had to obey God.
Once again the apostles gave a powerful witness. They exalted Jesus Christ. This was the very message they had been ordered not to preach. They said to the Council:
“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.”
– Acts 5:30-31
Peter then said, “We are witnesses of these things,” (Acts 5:32). The apostles to the very core of their being were witnesses. Not only were the apostles witnesses, but also the Holy Spirit was a witness also. The Spirit witnessed through the apostles whom He empowered. The Holy Spirit lifts up and exalts Jesus.
Peter declares that the Holy Spirit is the one whom God has given to those obeying Him (Acts 5:32). As elsewhere in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is regarded as a gift. Why does Peter mention the gift of the Holy Spirit? What meaning would his remark have had for his audience?
The answers lies, in part at least, in the concerns of the Council. The Council was concerned about its authority and power. They implied that the apostles did not have the authority to preach and teach as they did. Peter addressed these concerns by referring to the gift of the Spirit. This was a fitting response to the inquiry.
To the Hebrew mind the presence of the Spirit was a seal of approval. There was no higher credential than for the Spirit to come upon a man. God authenticated His prophets and His judges when He poured out His Spirit upon them. This authentication included the authority to act and approval. Peter was saying to the high priest, “See these men who have been teaching in the name of Jesus? Even though you commanded them not to do so, they have the authority of God and His approval. How do I know? God has given the Spirit to them,” (Acts 5:32; Paraphrased).
Also, for the Hebrews, the Spirit represented power. When the Spirit came upon the judges, they performed great deeds. We often read the divine conjunction and in connection with the Spirit. The Spirit came upon someone and that person was able to do God bidding. So it is in the New Testament. The theme of Acts is, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth,” (1:8).
Views of Obey Him
According to Peter, God has given the Spirit those who obey him. What obeying Him means has been the subject of much discussion. Briefly, we will present and evaluate several views.
First, one view is that obedience is a condition for reception of the Spirit. We are exhorted to be holy, then to receive the Spirit. Our view, however, is that this is not Peter’s concern in this declaration. He is concerned about witnessing in obedience to Christ’s command. Moreover, we know many people whom God has filled with the Spirit without meeting our criteria of holiness. Holiness is difficult to establish as a condition for being filled with the Spirit. Nevertheless, we recognize that as the Spirit sanctifies us, our capacity for His influence is increased.
Second, a common view now is that obey means here the obedience of faith. People who have accepted Christ by faith are the obedient ones. They are the ones to whom God has given the Spirit. It is true that faith is prior to reception of the Spirit, but the obedience spoke of here is not primarily that of coming to faith (Gal. 4:6). Faith in Christ is prerequisite to being filled with the Spirit, but the obedience Peter has in mind is witnessing.
Third, others hold that obedience is the result of receiving the gift of the Spirit, not the condition of it. To some this means that those to whom God has given the Spirit will lead sanctified lives. However, sanctification is not the main issue in focus here. To be empowered to witness is more in harmony with the context.
Dunn rejects the first view of Acts 5:32. Then, he writes, “Either the obedience is the obedience (hupekouon) to the faith=conversion of 6:7 (cf. Rom. 1:5; 10:16; 16:26; 2Th 1:8); or else the obedience is the sort described in 5:29 (peitharchein) and the gift of the Spirit spoken of is the filling of the Spirit for bold witness,” (Baptism p. 60; 4:8, 31; Transliteration mine). In my view, even though obedience to the faith is foundational, the obedience Peter has in mind is witnessing. The total context of Acts 3:1-5:28 clearly supports this.
The Greek verb edoken (has given) is in the aorist tense. “Obey” is a translation of peitharchousin, which is a present participle. The literal translation is obeying. According to Robertson the obeying can come before, at the same time, or after the act of giving (Grammar, pp. 891-892). It can even refer to past action still in progress. Obviously, much depends on the context.
Several possibilities are allowed by the grammar. Surely, being filled with the Spirit will result in our being witnesses. This is abundantly evident from Acts 1:8. Just as surely, when we are going about the task of world evangelism, we are confronted with situations where we need the Spirit. When we obey God, the Spirit is given to us to meet the need. In addition the Spirit is given to us while we are obeying. Thus, the Spirit is given before, during, and after our obeying.
The main point of Peter’s declaration in Acts 5:32 is that the Holy Spirit is the source of the authority and power of the apostles. As believers, they had been obedient to the faith, but the issue here is their ongoing proclamation. Even though ordered by the Council not to witness, the apostles are obeying God by faithfully witnessing. God filled them with the Spirit to authenticate and empower them.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield Gospel Publishing House, 1981.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Acts of the Apostles Minneapolis Augsburg Publishing House, 1961.
Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando Creation House, 1998.
Robertson, A.T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville Broadman Press, 1934.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Williams, J. Rodman. The Pentecostal Reality. Plainfield Logos International, 1972.
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