Students of God’s word are familiar with this Bible quotation, which is found in Acts 5. Do you recall who said those words and the circumstances under which they were spoken? Understanding their background will help us appreciate them more.
The Jewish Sanhedrin had arrested Jesus’ apostles, but an angel of God opened the prison doors and helped them escape. The angel then charged them, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). When the Sanhedrin learned that the apostles were preaching once more in the temple, they again sent to have them captured. The high priest told the twelve, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!” In response to the high priest’s statement, “Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).
So, it is clear: instead of obeying men, Jesus’ followers should obey God. In the apostles’ case, recorded in Acts 5, there was a specific question over which “sparks flew.” Would it be acceptable to preach the gospel (preach in the name of Jesus)? The Jewish leaders’ answer was “No,” but the Lord’s answer was “Yes.” The Sanhedrin commanded the apostles not to do it (Acts 5:28), while the Master commanded them to do it (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). The high priest and the other members of the Sanhedrin were voices of authority, but Jesus has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). To which voice of authority should, and would, the apostles submit: to men’s decree, or to God’s? Their answer was plain: they ought to obey God. In fact, that is exactly what they did. Even after the Sanhedrin both threatened and beat them, the apostles privately and publicly continued to proclaim Jesus as the Christ on a daily basis (Acts 5:40-42). The apostles of our Lord not only gave the correct answer with their mouths; they lived that answer in the choices that they made!
Acts 5:29 is a principle that each one of us needs to learn well (and not just be able to quote the words, but actually apply them in our lives). If we want to please God, then we will seek to obey Him in every instance, despite what any human(s) say. “But, what if humans try to prevent us from doing something that God wants us to do?” We should obey God. “But, what if humans try to get us to do something that God forbids us to do?” We ought to obey God. God’s “rules” rank higher than men’s do!
“But there could be unpleasant circumstances if we choose to disregard what other people want and instead obey what God’s word tells us to do.” That is correct. If we doubt that, we should go back and look again at what happened to the apostles. They were threatened and beaten for their commitment to living for and preaching the words of our Lord. The suffering of the early saints later escalated beyond threats and beatings, as Stephen (Acts 7) and the apostle James were killed (Acts 12). The challenge, brothers and sisters, is to have the faith and courage to do what is right in God’s sight, regardless of what consequences we might have to face for deciding “to obey God rather than men.” Those words are not simply a fancy formula that we memorize in order to impress others. No, “We ought to obey God rather than men” is the mindset or heart-felt “motto” of every faithful servant of the Christ.
Long before there were Christians, in the Old Testament era some of God’s people faced the choice either to submit to the Lord’s will or to men’s. Through the prophet Samuel, God commanded King Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites, charging him, “Now therefore heed the voice of the words of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:1). Saul later admitted that he “feared the people and obeyed their voice” (15:24). Wrong choice. The proper voice to obey was God’s, not the people’s.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon once ordered all the inhabitants of his empire to bow down and worship a golden idol. When Azariah, Mishael, and Hananiah, three Israelite men, refused to do so, they were thrown into a fiery furnace. In the end, by God’s power and mercy they were not harmed by the fire, and their lives were spared (Daniel 3:1-24). But, let us not miss this point: even if they had lost their physical lives in that furnace, they made the correct decision. They were forewarned about the punishment that they would receive if they did not submit to the king’s decree, yet they chose “to obey God rather than men.” Right choice.
God blesses those who boldly choose to do His will, despite the unpleasantries that they might have to endure. May He help us to be that kind of people.
— Roger D. Campbell