But Peter and John replied,Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.Acts 4:19-20
The inconsistency of these Jewish rulers led to what was basically an illegal act. They were the representatives of God to this nation and as such they were ostensibly committed to doing the will of God. Yet here, in spite of the evidence they had received of what God wanted done, they directly opposed the will and word of God, and forbade these apostles to speak in the name of Jesus. The disciples, very wisely and courteously, declined to obey this command. They pointed out that they had no choice, they
cannot help speaking about the things they have seen and heard. The message they declared was so challenging, so transforming in its implications, both to the nation and to the world, that they cannot be silent and still be true to their relationship to God. It was a message desperately needed, so powerful in its implications and its effect that they cannot, out of sheer humanity, maintain silence. They thus respectfully declined to obey what these rulers commanded.
At this point the whole question of civil disobedience comes into view. These apostles were forbidden by the properly constituted authorities to preach in the name of Jesus. The apostles told them to their faces that they would not obey the rule. This incident had been used through the centuries to justify many activities such as racial strife, draft evasion, violent demonstration, boycotts, strikes, etc. We cannot read this account without the question being raised, and quite properly: Is it right for a Christian to disobey a law because of a conscientious scruple? The clear answer of this account is,
Yes! There are times when it is necessary, when it is right to disobey properly constituted authority. The establishment can be wrong as well as right.
The Scriptures are clear that governments are given by God. Paul says that government authorities are the servants of God (Romans 13:1-7). The emperor on the throne when Paul wrote those words was none other than Nero, a wicked, vile, and godless man. Yet Paul could write that the governing authorities were the servants of God and those who resist them resist what God has ordained. He acknowledges that governments have certain powers, derived not from the people but from God — the power to tax, the power to keep law and order, the power to punish evildoing, even to the point of death. The Scriptures make perfectly clear that all this is right and ordained of God, and believers are exhorted to obey the authorities.
But there is a place for civil disobedience. Notice that it occurs here only because the conscience of these men rested directly on the word of God which contradicted the human law. The issue is so clear that Peter even calls on the rulers to be the judges of what the apostles should do. He says,
Which is right in God's eyes? You are religious men. You know which is the higher authority. Who should we obey, God or man? The matter was so clear that these authorities cannot say a word. All they can do is threaten and bluster and try to maintain control by the threat of force. They feared the people who were convinced that this was a remarkable sign from God.
Preserve me, Father, from misguided zeal. Reveal to me the underlying turmoil in society that is the result of your Spirit at work among men, and to line up with you; to take my stand with these men and women of old.
Are we dutifully and earnestly seeking God's wisdom in the issue of civil disobedience? Jesus calls us to be salt and light, both desperately needed in our rapidly decaying culture. Are we both prayerful and obedient?