It was a pretty bold move on Peter’s part, actually. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” he said. What made it bold was that he was speaking directly to the “human authority” at the time. He was taunting the lion while his head was in the lion’s mouth.
The apostles had been warned to NOT teach anyone about Jesus anymore in Jerusalem. And yet they had “filled Jerusalem” with “the whole message about his life.” And so, as the story in Acts 5 goes, they were again brought before the Jerusalem council to answer for their actions.
“We told you not to, but you went ahead and did!” the frustrated high priest says, sounding quite a bit like the parent of a toddler.
But this is no toddler. This is Peter, who used to be called Simon, back when he was a fisherman. But now he is the Rock, the guy Jesus said the church is going to be built on. And Peter looks right into the eyes of human authority and tells them that they don’t matter; he obeys another authority altogether.
Ironic, isn’t it? The authority that Peter is so boldly professing to follow is the very authority that the high priest himself is supposed to represent. So I’m sure that didn’t tick Caiaphas off or anything, did it? (Yeah, right.)
It’s even more radical, since the high priest of Jerusalem was in charge not only of the religious life of the people, but of their temporal life as well. He was the convener of the Sanhedrin, which held executive, legislative, and judicial authority. And he was installed by Rome, who didn’t really care who served, as long as they kept everything flowing toward Rome.
Peter may be looking at Caiaphas, but in a sense he is looking through Caiaphas directly into the face of Caesar himself.
It is a revolution in a sentence. We obey God, not you.
I seem to remember a little snippet of Paul’s … may have been the Letter to the Romans … perhaps chapter 13 of said letter … hmm … what did that say again?
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
Right, of course this passage is about rulers who are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Just do good things, says Paul, and you won’t have any need to fear. All of those laws you follow, he goes on to say, are really just expressions of one overall rule: Love one another. “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”
However you think about it, there seems to be a tension between what Peter said and what Paul wrote. And I think it is very, very important to note that tension, because it is precisely the kind of tension stirring in our nation these days. There is anger at the government, suspicion, distrust, and even threats of revolt. Duly elected representatives are threatened, spit on, and their offices are vandalized. Clearly this runs counter to what Romans 13 says.
On the other hand, those who are expressing this anger toward the government probably feel like Peter, standing up to an oppressive ruling class, at least in their perception. As far as I know, the people who seem to be the angriest see their anger as deeply patriotic and perfectly justified.
One of the big differences, of course, is that the government of the United States is nothing at all like the government of ancient Israel. Our transfer of power happens peacefully, every few years, when we go to the polls to vote. And we vote locally, as well as at the state and national levels. There is no foreign empire appointing puppet rulers to keep things under control.
At the same time, we should never forget that Pax Romana is not Shalom, and that means there will be a time for people of faith to stand against a government, acknowledging allegiance to a higher power. Along with that is the reality that we live in a global connection that calls us to be in solidarity with the poor who are routinely oppressed by ruthless governments, or at best totally ignored by inept or corrupt ones.
And so, there is the tension. Do we stand with Peter and obey God, or do we listen to Paul and obey earthly authority? As with so much of life, the answer really depends on the context, doesn’t it? It depends on what lies under the decision, our motivation, the “why” behind our action.
Is it for God’s sake? Is it for the sake of the Gospel? Is it for love? Truly? Real, grace-filled, unconditional, agape love? The kind of love that fulfills the law? If so, then whatever it is, you’ll probably be okay.