God’s Word for You
Acts 5:29 We must obey God rather than men
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, November 25, 2019
For personal reasons I left off our series on Acts more than a month ago. Thank you to all those who have sent my wife and me your encouragement in these weeks. Circumstances may cause another such departure sometime in the future, but for the time being we return to the regular pattern of daily devotions, picking up where we left off.
29 But Peter and the apostles answered: “We must obey God rather than men.
The context of this rightly famous passage is an accusation from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. They judged the apostles and accused them of preaching about Christ when they had been told not to: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” To this Peter responded as we have the words here. The other apostles were all in agreement with him.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this is the most often quoted passage from Acts in the works of Martin Luther. In general, this verse is a guideline for us and an affirmation that whenever our parents or others in authority over us, including the government, order us to do something that conflicts with God’s divine law, we can quote Peter with confidence: “We must obey God rather than men.”
This needs to be understood as a directive to obey God’s will rather than a license to look for ways to disobey the government. We do not need to love the officials in our government in order to obey them. I might have a crook for a governor (I do not mean the current governor of Minnesota), but he is my God-given governor and I should give him honor and respect. The only exception is if he crosses the line of God’s will and commands me to disobey God. If my governor or government allows me to live a life of sin, I should obey God, but I do not need to attack every policy that is enacted for the secular government that goes beyond God’s word or stands contrary to God’s word. For example, if my state allows abortion and I believe with the word of God that abortion is murder and therefore a sin, that does not give me leave to do violence to those who perform abortions or the places where this takes place. Instead, I should teach my own children what God’s word says, and I might use my right to vote to express my stand. But if the government would come to a married couple and tell them that they would allow only a set number of children per family and then commanded them to get an abortion, that Christian couple would say that they must obey God rather than men. They would also accept whatever penalty that the government would impose upon them, as Peter and the apostles accepted the prison sentence handed to them.
We also need to be certain that what we are standing for is in fact the will of God. It is not our opinion, but the actual will of God that we must obey. Luther used a seemingly absurd argument to make this point that is well worth remembering: “If you could save the whole world by one sermon and yet have no call to preach, desist! For you would be breaking the true Sabbath, and it would not please God.”
If you bear a cross, it must not be self-imposed. If God has a cross for you to bear, he will give it. “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). So the person who wants to invoke Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men,” must first of all know that God’s commands truly are. He needs to understand the difference between the civil, ceremonial, and moral law in the Old Testament, and he must know what Jesus wants from us. It would be better to immerse oneself in what it means to obey God than ever to search for a way to apply the “rather than men” part of this verse. Obedience to God begins with faith in Christ. What comes from faith in obedience of various kinds, but let us first of all nurture our faith so that what comes from it is going to be right and true and acceptable to the God we obey.
Pastor Timothy Smith