“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
I wrote this sermon back in the last week of February, so it could be recorded for the Main Street Living television program. If you want to compare, you can go to mainstreetliving.com This was before most of us knew much of anything about COVID-19, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, or essential and non-essential businesses and workers, so it is not particularly directed at our specific situation, although I think now because of current events it might be easier for each of us to imagine a scenario where this comes into play.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple of months ago, a fellow LCMS pastor, the Rev. Christopher Thoma, was invited to give the invocation at the Michigan State Senate. But as he negotiated the words of the prayer with a staff member, he was told that he could not “speak to things such as abortion, Natural Law, traditional marriage, and ultimately, religious liberty.” Neither should he “say anything that might offend other faiths or ideologies.” In his words, he was to “speak encouragement and praise for the body [of the Senate] while giving plenty of room for the impression and possibility that everyone’s truth—and the gods from which they come—are of equal value.” Pastor Thoma decided that he could not in good conscience agree to those demands, so he declined. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Fortunately, this story has a good ending—at least so far. When the Michigan Senate Majority Leader, Mike Shirkey, heard about this, he called Pastor Thoma, apologized for the situation, and invited him to come as his guest in the near future to offer the prayer as he had originally prepared it. Common sense and the religious freedoms set forth in the U.S. Constitution prevailed—this time. But the incident does suggest a future when we must also make the courageous choice that Pastor Thoma was prepared to make: “We must obey God rather than men.”
For most of our daily life, obeying other people isn’t really a problem, because we know God puts people in authority for our good and commands us to submit to them. Children are to obey their parents. Citizens are to obey their rulers. Drivers are to obey the traffic laws and those who enforce them. Students are to obey their teachers, and employees are supposed to obey their bosses. The list goes on. Hebrews 13:17 even adds that Christians are to obey what their pastors say—as long as their pastors are saying what God says.
And that’s an important “as long as.” Where people in authority don’t contradict God, we’re free to obey them. But where obeying man means disobeying God—where it’s one or the other, we must obey God rather then men. See, to obey men rather than God is to say, “I choose man to be my god.”
We find this dilemma in Scripture. Along with the rest of the nation, Daniel was commanded to worship only King Darius as a god—but only for thirty days, then he could get back to his usual worship. But that was thirty days of sin too many, and Daniel was willing to face the lion’s den rather than disobey the First Commandment. Likewise, as we were reminded in one of the readings in our Easter Vigil, Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—were commanded to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol; but they were willing to suffer the fiery furnace rather than deny the one true God.
Both of those stories have rather happy endings: those men were delivered miraculously. But it’s not always so in Scripture. Consider Jeremiah, Isaiah, Stephen, and James: for their faithfulness to God, they lost their lives, although now they are alive in Christ forever. The world was not worthy of them.
Little has changed in the world. Plenty of Christians today are given the choice of suffering imprisonment or death or denying their faith and bowing down to atheism or another false god. Many repeat the words of Peter in our text, “We must obey God rather than men,” and they suffer for their faith. It is why we pray for Christians who are being persecuted, that they may be delivered from persecution without falling from the faith.
It seems to be heading that way here, too. Current trends of political correctness put pressure on the Church as various groups declare that it is “hate speech” to warn sinners of their sin. Sooner or later, the time may come when it is illegal to say that immorality is immoral or that sin is sinful simply because it hurts feelings or offends, because people don’t want to hear with their ears what their consciences are already telling them, because sin never settles for toleration but eventually demands supremacy. If we reach the point where the state says we must stop speaking the truth of Scripture, then we will have to stand with Peter and say, “We must obey God rather than men,” come what may. If there are consequences imposed by men, so be it: we cling to Christ and the eternal freedom He gives, not man and manmade rules.
But don’t think this is just a hypothetical future situation. You’re confronted all the time. Think of the in-group at school that picks the outcast and says, “You can’t be her friend if you want to be with us,” while you know that Jesus commands us to love the lowly. Think of the friend who asks you to lie for them. Think of the lies held by popular society today, where you are pressured to accept the myth of evolution or the “right” to elective abortion, or same-sex marriage.
In situations like these, it is given you to say, “I must obey God rather than men.” After all, it is God—not man—who will sit on the judgment seat on the Last Day. It is God—not man—who has redeemed you from your sin. And, after all, all you are saying is that you desire to speak the truth. In fact, such times are always opportunities to confess the truth, to say what God says. For such times, we give thanks to God for the privilege of speaking His Word. And if we suffer, we give thanks that we are counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.
I don’t say this to scare you, for the only One we need to fear is the Lord. I say this to prepare you, to convict you, and to encourage you. Martin Luther wrote:
I must place the Word of God above everything else. To keep it and to stay with Christ, who is my highest Treasure in heaven and on earth, I must be willing to risk my body and life, the popularity of the world, my goods, my reputation, and all my happiness. For one of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation.[i]
That is certainly the situation of the apostles in our first lesson. They stand before the Council—the Sanhedrin—because they’d been arrested in the temple. The chief priests had thrown them in jail for a night, but an angel has released them and they’ve returned to the temple to teach some more. And what are they teaching? They’re telling the crowds Jesus has died for their sins and is risen from the dead; and by His authority, the apostles are forgiving sins and healing people.
The chief priests are furious. They have the apostles brought back and say, “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” (Acts 5:28). Talk about irony: The same men who led the mob in shouting, “Let His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25) now want nothing to do with Jesus’ death or blood. They’re just trying to get as far away from Jesus as they can. The sooner these apostles stop talking about Him, the better.
It is then that “Peter and the apostles , ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). This answer establishes a principle for all Christians for all time. What God’s Word commands, we must do, even when forbidden to do so by human authorities. What God’s Word prohibits we must not do, even when commanded to do so by human authorities. It is true that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). But when that authority exceeds its bounds by commanding people to break God’s law, Christians are bound to obey God rather than the authorities.
Peter goes on: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Why has God done this? “To give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Peter is exercising the Office of the Keys that we hear about in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said to His disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus sent His disciples to forgive sinners; and Peter is attempting to do exactly that. Peter is preaching the same message he had preached on Pentecost and ever since in the temple: “You killed Jesus. God raised Him from the dead. Repent! Receive God’s forgiveness, which is for all, including you.”
Once again, in the case of the Sanhedrin, the message falls on deaf ears and hard hearts. It makes them furious and murderous. They hear the Word of Life and want to silence the messengers forever. This is no surprise, because this is how unbelief reacts to the Gospel, especially when there is fear involved. The chief priests are afraid—they’re afraid that if too many follow the apostles and believe in Jesus, Rome will destroy them. Fear often makes for zero-tolerance policies.
Fortunately, Gamaliel saves the day. He notes previous failed rebellions. Then he says, “in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Gamaliel’s speech persuades the Sanhedrin not to kill the apostles, but it does not persuade them to treat the apostles fairly. The apostles suffer a terrible beating; yet they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. The apostles keep on doing what they had been called to do. They never stop teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
What does this mean for you and me today?
First, God grant that His Church never cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ even for a day. That is the news of salvation for all who believe, and salvation is found in no other name than Jesus. If we are forbidden from speaking it, we must obey God rather than men—the Good News is just too good of news to forsake, for it gives repentance, forgiveness and eternal life.
This is especially true when we speak to those who oppose the Christian faith. When others seek to harm, the natural reaction is to speak only harm in return and therefore deprive them of the Gospel or stop speaking the Gospel because it’s what got the trouble started in the first place. But we must remember: Those who oppose the Gospel are also those for whom Christ died. He desires that they be saved, and salvation is found only in Christ and Him crucified. So where we meet those who insist we cease proclaiming Christ, it is right for us to proclaim Christ even more—for their sake; not without Law and not to be stubborn, but in sincere, loving desire that they hear, believe, and receive forgiveness.
We pray for them, too. And we give thanks: we give thanks that, while we were born enemies of God, God has brought us to faith. And we give thanks that, for Jesus’ sake, He counts us worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
We must obey God rather than men. Better yet, we believe God rather than men. The God of our fathers is your heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake, because He raised Jesus from the dead, who was crucified for your sins. God has exalted His Son at His right hand as Leader, as Your Savior who leads you even through the shadow of death. He gives you repentance and the forgiveness of sins by the work of His Holy Spirit. That is the news that gives you salvation, and that is the news that God entrusts to His Church to declare so that others might have salvation, too.
Should you suffer for that proclamation, God grant you faith and strength to endure. God grant you joy, too: joy that He counts you worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. For this means that the world is not worthy of you, but that God declares you worthy to bear His name—because you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, p. 121). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.