"Respect the Authorities": Scriptural Framework #4 ~ Respond Prayerfully
So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
'Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.'
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:24-31)
Here Luke depicts the response of the righteous when the God-appointed authorities set out to play God. The context is one that goes well beyond background antagonism--it is one of outright opposition and persecution. The Sanhedrin "called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard'" (Acts 4:18-20). Again, as in Acts 5:29, God's authority is ultimate, man's authority is subordinate, and the church is now facing a human civil and religious authority that is requiring her to disobey God.
In the verses that follow we see the response of the church as a church, the people of God gathered together in a particular place. It may be that some of them in this place were converted priests, perhaps Roman soldiers or officials, members of Herod's or Caesar's households, or women with extensive circles of contacts or the wives of men with particular influence. There may have been some or many who might have had personal opportunities to do good in the circumstances. Doubtless such sincere believers, given the chance in the days following, might have used whatever legitimate influence they had or whatever means lay lawfully at their disposal to protect the apostles or to divert the march of persecution. But notice what the saints do as a church: They do not begin to organize and orchestrate a plan of civic resistance. They do not plan marches and establish alliances and coalitions and institutes to carry their voices to the upper echelons of society. They do not reach out to other oppressed and concerned parties to establish campaigns of co-belligerency. They do not make contact with lobbyists nor print leaflets and redesign their websites, working up a more effective advertising campaign. They do not draw up petitions, design banners with catchy titles, print T-shirts with telling slogans, and work up posters with vivid images. They do not conclude that they need to engage the world on the world's terms. They do not seek to obtain a voice on the political and cultural stage. They do not pursue larger numbers, greater prominence, cutting-edge websites, pithier sound bites, all the while whipping up publicity campaigns to sweep the floor with the opposition. None of that is remotely what you find in Jerusalem (allowing for a little modernization).
Rather, they get on their faces before God Most High and pour out their hearts to the One who governs, appoints, ordains, and judges--the Lord to whom all in heaven and earth are ultimately accountable. They raise their voices not to men but to God. This is most assuredly not mere mindless quiescence or fawning, grovelling submission to human authorities. If you read their prayer, you will see that they first recognized the divine authority and government, ascribing honor to God as the King enthroned over all, the Creator of all things, the Governor of all things, and the Revealer of Himself to men. They also reckoned with the human opposition as it really was, fierce and united against the Christ and all those who named His name. Natural enemies found a common cause in opposing Christ and His kingdom. Like Hezekiah reading Sennacherib's letter (Isa. 37:14-20), they spread the whole matter out before the Lord. Therefore, faced with such a challenge, they requested divine equipment from God's hands. But note the specific requests. They do not pray against the government, but rather for the gospel. They do not ask to be made able to avoid the threat, but rather to be given grace to meet it as true and steadfast believers: "In the face of opposition, make us yet more distinctive as those who live for and proclaim Jesus the Christ. Take away our fear, and give us courage to declare the truth." And so they received specific answers to their prayers, being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking the word of God with boldness.
The church's response to the assaults made on her is not a rallying cry to civic resistance or even civic engagement, but to get on her knees before the living Lord and to seek His face, crying for heavenly power to declare divine truth faithfully and fruitfully even in the face of opposition and persecution.