A pastor was driving down the highway quite fast and somewhat recklessly one evening, when a state trooper pulled him over. When the trooper walked up to the vehicle, he recognized the pastor and said “Good evening, pastor. How are you this evening?” The pastor replied “I’m fffine, shank you.” Noticing the slight slur in his his speech, the trooper asked, “Um, sir? Have you been drinking this evening?” The pastor said that he had only been drinking from this bottle of water, sitting here next to him. The trooper took the bottle, smelled it, and said “Sir, this is wine!” To which the pastor replied, “Oh!!! What do you know!? Jesus did it again!!!”
The pastor in this story attempts to use his faith or religion to get out of trouble with the trooper. Have you ever done something like this? I don’t mean drinking and driving – hopefully we all know that drinking and driving is wrong, both in the eyes of the law and in God’s eyes. So hopefully no one would use Jesus as an excuse to do something like that in real life. But have you ever found that there’s a conflict between your faith and what the law says you have to do? I can’t say that I have. But in our passage today, the apostles find themselves in a position to do just that. They have to decide whether to obey God, or to obey human rules and regulations.
To catch you up (if you haven’t been following the last few days), the apostles Peter and John were arrested for preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. The Sanhedrin (Jewish leaders) demanded them to stop doing this, and made many threats. The Sanhedrin pretty much laid down the law at that time in that area, so when they said to stop doing something, if you chose to disobey, you could be punished by them. Peter and John did not obey, though, saying to them “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). After being released, they joined the other apostles and continued to teach and preach boldly the message of Christ. They are again arrested, but this time an angel breaks them out of prison and commands them to return to the temple and to continue to spread the gospel. They do so, and end up being taken again in front of the Sanhedrin. This is where we pick up in Acts 5:27-32:
Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “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.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
At this point, after having been arrested and threatened to stop preaching the gospel, the apostles had little choice – they either had to continue preaching and teaching Jesus as they believed God had commanded them to do, or they had to obey the laws of man. Thankfully, they chose to obey God.
Most of the time (99.9999%), I believe that obeying the laws of the land is right. In fact, Paul taught that we should obey the law:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
Peter, who was the one who had said in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men!” also taught to obey human law:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
But when it comes down to it, there really is a hierarchy of obedience. First and foremost, we must obey God. Secondly, we should obey the governmental authority that both God has placed in power, and that we voted into power. The only time we disobey the government is when it is in direct conflict with obeying God. Thankfully, this rarely happens to us in America, since much of our law was built around the Old Testament Law in the Bible. But that’s not to say that it is impossible or will never happen. If it does, I hope that I have the boldness to obey God over all else, forsaking anyone and anything for Him. I can’t say that I would for sure, but I do hope that I would.
What about you? Where do think you stand in this hierarchy?