When we come to Acts 5 we find the Church of God between a rock and a hard place, or nestled between the hidden enemy within (Ananias & “the others”) and the formidable enemy from without (Annas & the Jewish rulers). God struck down Ananias and Sapphira, giving “the others” pause to think over what they were planning to do. However, Annas struck out at the Apostles and imprisoned them, intending to have them slain (Acts 5:17-18, cp. v.33). Nevertheless, the power of God was with them, and no one could harm them for their time had not yet come (cp. John 7:30; 8:20; 21:18-19).
We are told that we must obey the authorities whom God has set over us in every nation (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1). The Apostles were among the Jews of Judea and were commanded by the Lord to obey all that they, i.e. the Jewish authorities, said (Matthew 23:1-3). However, it is ludicrous to believe that the higher authorities have supreme power over those subject to them. For example, a general in the military who was caught committing a crime by the military police need only call them to attention and walk away, if authority is supreme without responsibility. The same is true for the Apostles who were arrested for preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:28), and charged with conspiracy to topple the Jewish governing body. The Apostles were being called “to attention” by Annas and the Sadducees, but Peter would have none of this, but claimed to be acting out of the authority of God (v.29). Peter reminded them that **they**, i.e. the rulers before whom he spoke, had taken Jesus and slew him on a tree, but God overruled their illegal act by raising Jesus from the dead, of which **they**, i.e. the Twelve, were witnesses, as is the Holy Spirit who had been acting through the Twelve in all the miracles that had been doing (vv.29-32).
Were Peter and the other Apostles rebelling against the authorities at large? Are believers permitted to rebel against any government that is opposed to their obeying the commands of Christ? No, of course not! The Twelve were accused of conspiracy against the ruling body, but the Apostles were merely confronting the authorities’ own irresponsibility toward the believers’ witness of Jesus’ resurrection and the ruling body’s rebellion against their Lord—Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God. The Apostles were still willing to subject their lives to the judgment of the Jewish ruling body without any attempt on their part to seize power, but they were simply unwilling to obey that ruling body instead of Jesus, the Lord. We are all called to confront the wrongdoing of those who hold high offices of authority, but we are never called to take private action against such authority.
Annas and the Sadducees wanted to slay the Apostles then and there, but again God intervened. Gamaliel was a leading Pharisee who shared the authority of the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:34). He was a doctor of the Law, i.e. a rabbi or teacher; and he was one who was honored by the people. This man stood up in the assembly, had the Apostles taken to another room, and spoke privately to the members of the council. Why would this man stand up to defend the Apostles?
There is a tradition in so-called Christian literature that Gamaliel had embraced Christianity secretly in order to retain his office as a Jewish ruler and help protect his brethren, but this is a ludicrous presumption made in what is termed Christian “romance” literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, because we are all called to publically testify of our faith in Christ. So, if he wasn’t Christian, why would Gamaliel try to keep the council from killing the Apostles? I believe the answer lies in the fact that a) the people supported the Apostles (cp. Acts 5:26) and b) the people held Gamaliel in high esteem (Acts 5:34). How would the people regard Gamaliel if he had voted with the council to slay the Apostles? The Sadducees’ power was supported by Rome, but people like Gamaliel found power in the support of the people. If he lost his support among them, how could he be effective in matters he opposed as it pertained to his discipline as a Pharisee? Nothing is said of this same Gamaliel when Stephen was stoned in Acts 7, but then the people were stirred up against Stephen. Neither is anything said of him opposing the persecution against the Hellenist Messianic believers of Acts 8 & 9, nor against the slaying of James the brother of John in Acts 12. Only here in Acts 5 do we find something recorded of this man defending those who believed in Jesus as Lord.
Did Gamaliel truly believe that the Sanhedrin might be fighting God by killing the Apostles (Acts 5:39), or did he simply believe the sect would end up as any other work of man that claimed to have divine authority, that it would simply fizzle out, and no one would hear of it again (vv. 36-38)? The text is silent as far as Gamaliel’s intentions are concerned, but later trouble within the body of believers would come from Pharisees that claimed to embrace Jesus as Lord, as long as everyone associated with Jesus was circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5).
Some questions simply cannot be adequately answered with certainty. Nevertheless, the power of God is sure. We may depend upon him to save us from the enemy from within (Acts 5:1-10, 13), which may be hidden from our view, and save us from the formidable enemy from without (Acts 5:17, 33) who brazenly seeks to destroy the work of God among his people. God has brought us through the centuries, not unscathed by such foes, but he **has** brought us through. As for the Apostles, they were beaten by the authorities and released, but they were in the Temple and homes of the believers daily preaching and teaching Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 5:40-42).