The Motives of Religious People


Acts 5:12-42

Text Comment




v.12

The section begins with a statement summarizing the situation and telling us what was happening (as at 2:43-47; 4:32-35). Luke has neither time nor space to give a full account of events. But it is enough to indicate the measure of excitement in Jerusalem and that the enthusiasm of the population was, far from receding, continuing to build.


v.14

The Church was growing and had now reached a size that represented, so it was thought, an acute threat to the sovereignty of the Sanhedrin in Jewish and Jerusalem life.


V. 13 is capable of several interpretations but most think that it refers to the dread and fear that fell upon the people because of the Ananias and Sapphira incident. One didn’t want to join the church with half a heart if that is what happened to half-hearted Christians. [This is certainly a timely rebuke to the contemporary church. We wouldn’t have so much half-heartedness if the church forbad it and required people to keep the commitments they made when they entered the church. Fewer people would make those commitments knowing that they would have to pay for them later. It is our experience that few people, even sincere folk, really reckon with the commitments they make, the vows they take, because there is lacking in the church as a whole a serious and obvious necessity of fulfilling those vows or else!] It does not make it easier to be faithful by being more lenient!


v.16

You also see here, again, as is the great theme of the book of Acts, the significance of the resurrection. If you compare Acts 5:15-16 with Mark 1:32-34 you will be struck by the similarity between Jesus’ early ministry and that of his apostles. Christ is at work in both cases — in the former he is in the flesh and in the latter in the Spirit.


Now follows the remarkable account of the second appearance of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. They had paid no attention to the orders of that body the first time (The state has a purpose and a place, but compared to the Kingdom of God it is owed little allegiance. There is nothing like modern patriotism in the Bible!), and had simply peacefully gone about their ministry of evangelism and healing.



v.24

Only the apostles knew about the angel. Ordinarily in the Bible only believers see angels, it is a privilege not generally accorded to unbelievers. And the apostles make no mention of the angel in their interrogation. To the Sanhedrin it must have seemed that the influence of the new sect extended further than they had supposed — even into the temple guard.


v.32

The confidence and the insubordination of the apostles was galling, especially their repetition of the charge that they had murdered Jesus.


v.33

That is "a lynching" as would eventually be the fate of Stephen. They probably did not think they could get them back into jail because of their popularity with the crowds (v. 26). Here again, the strength of religious feeling, though how much religion had to do with this, we will consider shortly.


v.34

Gamaliel was a leading teacher of the Pharisaic school with many outstanding disciples (including, of course, Saul of Tarsus). He belonged to the more moderate party founded by rabbi Hillel and was renown for his piety. He asks for and gets an executive session of the Sanhedrin. (What happens in such closed sessions often, as experience teaches us, becomes public all too quickly, and, in any case, many priests were becoming Christians and some of them may well have been in this meeting themselves. Was Paul there?


v.36

Who this Theudas is is not known, but there were many messianic pretenders in those days.


v.37

This Judas and his rebellion are known from other sources. His rebellion began when the Romans took over the direct rule of Judea in A.D. 6.


These form, by the way, an important historical argument for the resurrection. History shows us what happens to messianic pretenders who cannot deliver on their claims and what happens is not anything like what happened in the aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!



v.39

Good Pharisaic advice! Remember, these were the Jews with the high view of God and his sovereignty. Now, take care: Gamaliel is no convert. He is a devout Jew and, informed as he was, in many ways, by the teaching of Holy Scripture and the history of God’s dealings with Israel to this point, there was much religious truth in his system of thought. He was primarily wrong at but two points: the nature of human sin and divine grace, which, in turn, blinded him to the deity of Jesus Christ and his being the Messiah. He believed in the sovereignty and holiness of Almighty God, in the authority of the Bible, etc.


We are reminded in this of the great danger that lies in an ecumenical spirit. It takes but one mistake in doctrine to bridge the gap between sainthood and anathema! Christ’s words of woe for the Pharisees were addressed to that religious group, outside his own disciples, with which he had most in common in Palestine.


This is, by the way, not at all the advice God himself gives regarding the rising of an unbelieving movement in God’s church — let things take their course and see what comes of it. Gamaliel’s pupil, Saul, was closer to the biblical course of action when he sought to root out the new faith. However, it is certainly possible that God used Gamaliel’s advice to make some of the clerics more open-minded to the new faith (cf. 6:7).


What we have before us in this text is a case study in motive and a demonstration of why the motives are always the real key and the real meaning of a person’s life and his or her actions.


Jesus, you know, was always going to the bottom of things, to the motives. Men alone, of God’s the creatures on earth, have motives, have moral motions and reasons that lie beneath their words and deeds. And that is why he taught that a work was good and right only if the motive from which it sprang was good and right. This is one of the key emphases of his sermon on the mount, but he often taught, following the wisdom of the ancient Scriptures that the heart — that collection of motives lying deep within us, reasons that can be judged morally, attitudes that have a moral cast to them — is the wellspring of life and that the life issues from the heart by an inexorable law. If the tree is good the fruit will be good also and vice versa.


Abraham Kuyper called the heart "the mystic root of our existence, that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided" that is, it hasn’t yet broken down into words, deeds, postures, etc. And, of course, God looks on the heart because that is the true life of any person, that is what that person genuinely is, what he is in his heart.


Now, people themselves are often blind to their truest selves. As C.S. Lewis put it in one of his Letters to an American Lady [p. 97]:


"Humans are very seldom either totally sincere or totally hypocritical. Their moods change, their motives are mixed, and they are often themselves quite mistaken as to what their motives are."


I have learned in the observation of my own heart and the behavior of people in the years of my ministry that few of us really face squarely the truth about our motives. We all want to believe that we are altruistic not selfish, that we are motivated by kindness and not envy or hatred, that we are thinking of others and not only of ourselves, in other words, that we really are suing for the sake of justice and don’t really care about the millions we are asking the court to award us.


But, finally, our lives reduce to our motives and they determine what we do and how we do it. They are the true measure of our actions. And so the Lord says through Jeremiah (17:10):


"I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve."


Do you see? You can’t measure the conduct, the deeds, without searching the heart and examining the mind. It is there, deep in there, that the true meaning of any deed is to be found. And that point is made powerfully and beautifully in the narrative we have read.


And we see it in respect to three separate groups of people.




  1. First, and briefly, we see it in those whose concern for their own security kept them from aligning themselves with the new faith, even when everything else — the teaching, the miracles, the lives of the Christians — confirmed the truth of this new faith to their minds and hearts. They believed — after a fashion, that their belief was swallowed up by other motives.


We read of these folk in v. 13 and they are the ancestors of a great multitude of descendants who remained at arms length from the gospel for fear of some loss that they might incur should they embrace Jesus Christ in public. There have been those who would have become Christians but for the fact that it would cost them money, others feared the loss of power or prestige, others feared the loss of their lives. But, in every case, down in the heart, was a motive as simple as that. But, you can be sure, it was not usually acknowledged. Oh, no! There was always a better reason put forward than the love of money or safety or the opinion of others. Indeed, it is usually only after a man or woman becomes a Christian that there is an honest reckoning with what sort of considerations kept them from the faith for so long.


You remember that memorable conversion account given us by the Scottish lay evangelist of the last century, Brownlow North. He had been an unconcerned, uninterested young rich man, pursuing his pleasures and not the Lord and not the truth about life and death. And then he fell ill and for those hours he thought he was going to die. And all of the great questions came home to his conscience. He knew the gospel, he knew he had not embraced it, he feared the judgments of God. He knew he should get out of his bed, down on his knees, and plead for salvation before it was too late, but there was a servant woman in his room tending to the fire and she made slow work of it. And he couldn’t get out of bed and down to his knees for fear of what she would think. Here is a nobleman risking what he knew would be for him everlasting damnation itself for fear of what a servant might think of him.


Such was the case in the Lord’s own day. John tells us, at the end of his chapter 12, that a number, even among the leaders of the Jews believed in Jesus — that is, they accepted that he was the Messiah — but would not confess their faith in him for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue. As John explains: "for they loved praise from men more than praise from God." That was their true motive — though they would never have admitted it to you and probably not to themselves.


Such are the motives of the heart and such are their power to shape our lives.




  1. Second, we see the measure of deeds in the motives that produce them in the case of those who actively opposed the new faith out of envy.


We are told this in v. 17 that it was jealousy of the disciples’ reputation with the crowds, of their power to heal, of the adulation they were receiving from others that motivated the Jewish religious leadership more than anything else. Now, none of them would have admitted this, you can be sure of that! But it was so. And, it had long been so.


This is a theme that the Gospel writers emphasize. Mark tells us, in his account of the crucifixion of the Lord, that even Pilate could tell that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. All those three years his popularity with the crowds had galled them. Never once had they admitted that to others, probably never to themselves. Oh no; it was doctrinal purity that motivated them; a pastoral concern for the religious life of God’s people; a commitment to undertake their solemn charge as the spiritual guardians of the church — these were their motives if you asked them. But down below in that place where all actions begin there was a raging jealousy of Jesus’ popularity and power and goodness. Yes, that is what envy can do — it can make us hate the good if the good contributes to someone else’s reputation more than to ours.


All of this interrogation, all of this supposed religious interest, was nothing but the overflow of a raging jealousy. Stephen will die for the same sordid reason. But, remember, these men would never have admitted this to you. But God searches and knows the heart and knows what deeds really mean, because he connects them to the motives from which they spring.





  1. And, then, finally, we see the measure of deeds in the motives of these Christians who faced threats of torture and death out of so great a devotion to Christ that they regarded suffering for him as the highest conceivable privilege.


What was the result of all of these threats, of this interrogation? The believers left the Sanhedrin rejoicing "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." That is how powerful a motive is. A base and selfish motive can make a man shrink from what he knows is true and right; and a pure motive can make another man embrace with joy the very thing that caused the first man to turn away. The threat of persecution can make one man motivated by self-love a coward, no matter his convictions, and another man a perfect hero who does not give a second thought to his heroism, so natural does it seem to him to be true to his convictions. What a powerful thing such motives are.


Here is G.K. Chesterton on St. Francis of Assisi.


"It was the whole calculation…of that innocent cunning, that the world was to be outflanked and outwitted by him, and be embarrassed about what to do with him. You could not threaten to starve a man who was ever striving to fast. You could not ruin him and reduce him to beggary, for he was already a beggar. There was a very lukewarm satisfaction even in beating him with a stick, when he only indulged in little leaps and cries of joy because indignity was his only dignity. You could not put his head in a halter without the risk of putting it in a halo." [Saint Francis, pp. 1-3-104]


That is what motives make of a man who has Christian motives and has made it his chief business to see that his actions are ruled by them.


Now what are we to do with this passage that shows us motives either creeping to the surface of human lives or gloriously shooting to the surface?


Well, surely we are to be reminded that motives are the key, not only because God knows them and sees them — whether or not other human beings can spy them out — but because, finally, ultimately, they will have their say in our conduct; they will lead us to do and to say, finally, what is consistent with them — even if, we can pretend and others with us that our motives are higher and purer than they are. They will shape our lives and, at the critical points, surface in our actions — whether they make us persecute believers or rejoice in that persecution.


And reminded of that, what are we to do but attend always and first to our motives. "Make the tree good," the Savior said, "if you would have the fruit be good." And then he goes on [Mt. 34-35]:


"…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him."


Now, of course, only the Holy Spirit can make a heart good. But once he has renewed a heart, it is the business of that heart to continue that renewal and continue it there — in the heart. Our tendency is always to return — like a dog to its vomit — to the inspection and governance of our behavior, our outer life, and leave the inner to continue as it will. No! Our work should be primarily within — on our hearts, on our motives — inspecting, condemning, correcting, putting on holiness there — and if we do that our behavior will take care of itself!


When in Zech. 7:10 the Lord says "In your hearts do not think evil of each other" he is not saying that you can do what you please in your outward behavior if only you think well in your private thoughts. He is saying, rather, fix the motives and intentions and thoughts of the heart, and you will have fixed everything, for out of the heart the mouth speaks. But, if you do what we are all inclined to do so much of the time — fix the behavior so as to make it acceptable to the eyes of men, you leave the behavior fundamentally unchanged as far as God is concerned, for he judges our acts, our deeds, by our motives.


If you would be a serious Christian, then the place to spend your time and effort in pursuing sanctification is in your heart, where your thoughts and attitudes are. Make them pure, make them Christ-like, purify them with the theology and doctrine of the Bible, make them to conform to the new creation, and you will be holy in heart and in life. You think this is a truism? Try it. The hardest, most demanding, most humbling work in the world. No, I can’t think that if it comes from self! Why so few do it and so many Christians stop doing it after some years being Christians.


It is because motives are the real measure of human beings that we can be so often so mistaken about men and women and even about ourselves. But, it is also because motives are the real measure of a man or woman that the radical consecration of our motives to Christ and our seeking his help daily to make them pure and true can actually lead to a situation in which even persecution brings joy. For a man who wants what pleases God will find that pleasure and so his own fulfillment in the strangest places!