This is the fifteenth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This post examines the second arrest of the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): Arrested by the Council, Freed by an Angel (5:17-26):
17 Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18 arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20 "Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life." 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching. When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, 23 "We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside." 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. 25 Then someone arrived and announced, "Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!" 26 Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. (NRSV)
This section follows the signs and wonders performed by the Apostles on the Temple Mount in Acts 5:12-16, the third summary in Acts (the first being Acts 2:42-47 and the second being Acts 4:32-35). The transition from this summary is to the second arrest of the apostles which follows immediately after in Acts 5:17-18.
17 Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18 arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.
In the Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary 14 I cited T.E. Page who says that the summary of the Church’s activity in 5:12-16 was
introduced to explain the strong and decisive action of the high priest and rulers described in ver. 17
That this is the connection is clear from the use of the imperfect tens vv.12-16, contrasted with the dramatic anastas of v. 17 and subsequent aorists. The imperfects describe a state of things during a period of some duration; the aorists express the single action which resulted from that state of things.
The paragraph describes,
( 1) The miracles wrought by the Apostles.
( 2) The gathering of all believers in Solomon’s porch.
( 3) The fact that though none of the rest (i.e. the priests and rulers) dared to join them, yet the people magnified them.
( 4) The great increase of believers, naturally resulting (hôste) in a great public manifestation, viz. the placing of sick folk in the streets by the inhabitants of Jerusalem and even bringing them in great numbers from neighbouring cities.
It was this public manifestation which at last roused the ‘envy’ of the rulers. (Page, Acts, 112)
The summary in Acts 5:12-16 uses verbs in the Greek aorist tense, Page reminds us, a verb tense which reflects “the single action which resulted from that state of things.” In particular Luke uses anastas (“took action”) in Acts 5:17, which explains why the Temple officials took such vigorous action. They want to put an end to the apostles’ ongoing actions at the Temple, fomenting what they consider to be troublemaking.
The arrest, though, is only the beginning of the trouble for the Temple authorities not the early Christians. As Pervo says, “Official opposition had no chilling effect on evangelism” (Acts, 137). The reason for this is because God is with them and the immediate sign of God’s presence is seen with the coming of an angel to free them from prison.
This will not be the only prison break which angels undertake in Acts, but in Acts 12: 6-11 and 16:26-31 both Peter and Paul respectively will be freed from prison under the auspices of divine messengers. The Church is not guided by human beings but by God.
19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20 "Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life." 21 When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
The angels not only free them, but encourage them to carry on with their evangelistic task, saying “tell the people the whole message about this life” (Acts 5:20). “The people” (ho laos) are the whole people of Israel, though it need not exclude the clergy and leaders, and the message (panta ta rhêmata = “all the words”) seems to be the story of the life of Jesus. “This life” (tês zôês tautês), though, is a strange way to describe Jesus’ life and Page suggests it might mean “the salvation which Jesus came to give,” that is, the new life in Christ which the apostles themselves are living (Page, Acts, 113). Whatever the precise case, it means that the disciples need to keep preaching and that is what they continue to do.
The following verses describe a Keystone Cops type scene, in which incompetent jailers go to round up their prisoners who unknown to them have escaped:
“When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, ‘We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside’” (Acts 5:21b-23).
There are intended parallels here, too, with Jesus’ trials in front of Temple authorities, but also with the “empty tomb” and the “empty cell,” which has in fact been guarded all night. Where are the prisoners? The prisoners, though, have not left the scene of their escape (or the scene of their supposed crimes) but remain on the Temple Mount doing the same things that got them arrested to begin the story.
The captain of the temple, reintroduced from Acts 4:1, and the chief priests, however, have no idea of what is taking place right under their noses: the apostles are once again preaching on the Temple Mount. Instead the priests and the captain of the Temple “were perplexed” about the reports of their escape, “wondering what might be going on” (Acts 5:24).
At that point, “someone arrived and announced, ‘Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!’” (Acts 5:25). From the short description it seems that “the people” are pleased (or at least interested) to have the disciples back and preaching to them, offering us a parallel to Jesus’ own preaching to the people, which always attracted interest and crowds on the Temple and elsewhere.
There is, though, a job the captain and his temple police have to do and so they arrest the disciples. Luke stresses in his account, though, that “the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people” (Acts 5:26). Not only God it seems, but also the Jewish people are on the side of Jesus’ apostles.
Next entry, the disciples of Jesus are on trial again.
John W. Martens
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies
I encourage you to “Like” Biblejunkies on Facebook.
This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word
 Johnson, Acts, 97 notes a parallel to this (sort of) escape in Euripides’ play Bacchae.
 Although, as we will see shortly in Acts 5:26, the authorities (the captain and the Temple police) are frightened of being stoned by “the people” (ho laos), which might indeed indicate that Luke does understand “the people” as separate from the leaders.
 “Council” here is not synedrion or Sanhedrin, but the more common Greek word gerousia. Does it indicate the official body or an ad hoc gathering of officials? It might be a loosely used term here, but I suspect it is intended to indicate an official body (against Page, Acts, 114 who thinks it is a loose gathering of leaders and elders).