When (the temple police) had brought (Peter and the apostles), they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" They were convinced by him. ~ Acts 5:27-39
According to Wikipedia, Gamaliel was thought by some (not all) Jewish traditions to be one of the greatest teachers in Judaism. Here we have some of his wisdom.
Peter and the apostles at this point have been getting quite a following. Peter is so idolized that some folks try even just to get in his shadow for healing!
So, the council orders them not to teach in Jesus' name, which goes about as you'd expect. Off the prison the apostles go.
And that also goes as you'd expect. An angel of the Lord frees them, and they go right back to the temple to teach some more.
Now I've heard the argument Peter makes come from others in my own lifetime - that they obey God's authority rather than human authority.
The problem with that has often been, however, that who gets to determine if it is God's authority? In history, there have been some awful actions attributed to God: the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, sexism, racism, and more.
So it is right sometimes to question whether something is of God's authority or not. And good to have some criteria for it.
For many that criteria includes: is it loving? Is it Christ-centered? Is it grace-filled?
Gamaliel, living in a time when Messiah's came by "the sackful" (to quote Jesus Christ Superstar), had a different approach.
If Peter and the apostles were working under human authority, they, like all the other false Messiahs' followers, would fail.
If they acted on God's authority, they would not.
2000 years later, we only remember one of those Messiahs. Gamaliel was probably on to something. Something that the apostles bore out in a loving, Christ-centered, grace-filled way.
Can we always tell if something is "of God?" Well, sometimes it is admittedly hard. And sometimes things that aren't of God, take an awfully long time to fail. Too long often for those being oppressed.
Yet God's authority does have this way of winning out even if we aren't around to see it. Even if we question it. Even if we're surprised by it. Even if we disagree with it.
And we can count on this through hope and faith.
Lord, help me to discern your authority and to make my decisions with love and grace and in Christ. Amen.