The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
22 But when the officers came, 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 greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
Today’s passage is a continuation of last week’s, wherein an angel of the Lord released the Apostles from prison for preaching and healing in Christ’s name. The angel told the Twelve to return to Solomon’s Portico — Solomon’s Porch — at the temple (Acts 5:20):
20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.”
This is the first of the miraculous prison stories of Acts. An angel freed Peter again in Acts 12. An earthquake freed Paul and Silas from prison in Acts 16. God wanted the Church to expand. Prison was not going to stop the divine plan.
Acts 5:21 tells us that the high priest and the religious leaders around him sent for the Twelve to be brought from prison before them.
The prison officers went to the cell, but did not find them (verse 22). John MacArthur calls this:
the great escape.
Matthew Henry surmises the Apostles’ absence was all the more confusing because:
It is probable that they found the common prisoners there.
No doubt the officers were fearful that the religious leaders would accuse them of being lax, so they quickly said that everything was secure, yet there was ‘no one inside’ (verse 23). Having no more information available, we do not know whether Henry’s assumption is correct or whether all the prisoners escaped. It seems unlikely that the angel would have also released common criminals. Perhaps by ‘no one inside’, the officers meant the Twelve. It is impossible to know for certain.
Hearing this, the religious leaders were ‘perplexed’ (verse 24). That is probably an understatement. Henry explores the permutations going through their minds. First, they were they figuring out how the Apostles escaped imprisonment. Secondly, they also wondered what the impact of this meant long-term (emphases mine):
They were extremely perplexed, were at their wits’ end, having never been so disappointed in all their lives of any thing they were so sure of. It occasioned various speculations, some suggesting that they were conjured out of the prison, and made their escape by magic arts; others that the keepers had played tricks with them, knowing how many friends these prisoners had, that were so much the darlings of the people. Some feared that, having made such a wonderful escape, they would be the more followed; others that, though perhaps they had frightened them from Jerusalem, they should hear of them again in some part or other of the country, where they would do yet more mischief, and it would be yet more out of their power to stop the spreading of the infection; and now they begin to fear that instead of curing the ill they have made it worse. Note, Those often distress and embarrass themselves that think to distress and embarrass the cause of Christ.
Worse came when someone told the leaders that the men were back preaching and healing in the temple (verse 25). Think of it, these men — released — have not sought shelter elsewhere as ordinary ex-prisoners often do. They are right back where they were arrested: in plain view. Henry says:
Now this confounded them more than any thing.
It scared them, too. MacArthur says:
They were scared to death and they couldn’t stop this thing and they knew they couldn’t stop it. And they knew that their authority was being disregarded, heresy was being preached. God was opposing them by miracles.
Nonetheless, they wanted to get to the bottom of this, so the captain of the temple and the officers went to bring the Twelve in. However, they did it peaceably (verse 26). This was because they feared the wrath of the people, especially that of the new converts.
The Apostles did not mind going with them, because they knew that whatever might happen, God was watching over them and would protect them, just as He had sent the angel to free them.
MacArthur has a good analysis:
… I mean just think of the thrill of going through a jail cell when it was locked. Not too many have that opportunity for several reasons. They don’t usually get in, hopefully, but nevertheless there was no resistance. They could have resisted at that point very easily, but they went so willingly. And probably on the way Peter is plotting out his sermon outline because he knows that the Lord is going to give him a second, this is the second service that they’ll be holding in the Sanhedrin. He’s probably getting it all outlined, of course, and figuring out the order of worship, or whatever.
The story continues next week.
Next time: Acts 5:27-28