After Gamaliel defends the apostles, Peter responds to the chief priests. His speech is a summary of all of his previous speeches given in Acts. First, Peter once again says he “must obey God rather than men.” Keener follows most commentators by hearing an allusion to the trial of Socrates (Keener, Acts, 2:1218). People throughout the Mediterranean world knew about the trial of Socrates and these famous words, analogous to most Americans knowing the phrase “give me liberty or give me death.” Peter boldly says he and John are obeying God rather than man, the human authority of the Sanhedrin.
This is how Peter and the disciples responded to the original order to be silent and not “preach in that name.” Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, since they have been given the Word of God, there is no way that they could be silent (Jer 20:9, for example). While there is no way to know for certain, these words remind me of the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-18. When confronted with certain death, the young men expressed faith in God to save them, but even if God did not save them, they still would not worship the idols of Babylon. So too, the brothers in 4 Maccabees who choose to die horrible deaths rather than compromise their Jewish faith and practice. There are quite a few examples in the literature of the Second Temple period where Jewish people choose death over disobeying God.
Second, Peter bluntly states that this group executed Jesus, but God has raised him from the dead. If these men killed an innocent man, then their lives would be required. They did kill Jesus. There is no question of that. But if God raised Jesus, then he was not just innocent. He was God’s messiah!
Third, not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he is exalted to the highest place possible. Once again, the ascension is considered an important part of the gospel story. He was not only crucified but also raised from the dead, raised to the highest place possible.
Fourth, as a result of this glorification, Jesus can give “repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” Repentance and forgiveness are offered to Israel. While this is not to take away from the death of Jesus as forgiveness for our sins, Peter connects the death and resurrection to forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What sin? The immediate context is killing an innocent man, Jesus. “They had indeed sinned in hanging Jesus on the cross, but there is forgiveness and salvation for Israel in him” (Polhill, Acts, 169).
Peter calls on two witnesses to his assertions: the apostles and the Holy Spirit. This is yet another example of the witness theme in the first part of the book of Acts. Peter’s final words are more important – the Holy Spirit has been given to those who obey God. The implication is clear: The disciples are obeying God rather than man and therefore have the Holy Spirit promised to come in the “last days,” as evidenced by miracles (healing and release from prison), and the Sanhedrin does not have the Holy Spirit.
The response of the Sanhedrin is anger – they want to put Peter to death! This is the same reaction that the Sanhedrin had toward Jesus when he claimed to be the fulfillment of Daniel 7:14. The Greek here literally means “to be sawn in two,” a metaphor for extreme rage. Therefore, the charge against Peter is blasphemy – accusing the elders of the people of not being obedient to God and killing the Messiah!
Peter and the other disciples are willing to die rather than be silent about Jesus. They boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel and make this proclamation in a way that is almost guaranteed to get them killed. The source of this boldness is the Holy Spirit empowering them to speak in a very powerful way to the people who have the power to torture and kill them. This model of Christian suffering challenges the reader to be ready to stand firm for their faith even though it costs their life.
There is a clear application here, but I suspect it is not the one usually drawn from this verse. I usually hear “Obeying God Rather Than Man” applied to so-called Christian civil disobedience, protesting a perceived governmental intrusion into our (American) religious liberties. But Peter is not protesting government healthcare initiatives here. He says he is ready to die rather than be silent about Jesus. It seems to me most Christians, usually in the West, are silent about who Jesus is and what he really was about, especially when they misapply this verse to their favorite political issue.