In Holy Scripture, credit is given where credit is due. There is a prominent person in Jewish history, a doctor of the law named Gamaliel, who shows up in the New Testament. His name means God is my reward. His fame lives today among the Jews (especially the Orthodox), because he, the grandson of the famous Hillel, was named a Rabban, which is a rabbinic title given to the Nasi (head), of the Sanhedrin. In the Jewish religion, this is a high honor. (1) We Christians are compelled to honor him for several reasons also. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus, before Saul became Paul the apostle. As a matter of fact Gamaliel was Paul’s teacher in the law. In
God had just brought about an amazing miracle in the lives of the apostles of Christ which had the Jewish high priests, and rulers beside themselves. They were coming to the conclusion that the only remedy was to kill the apostles, as Jesus Christ was killed. Their major problem was that Jesus didn’t stay dead, and the apostles didn’t stay in the common prison! Allow me to summarize what happened in Acts chapter five without reading the entire chapter, up to verse 20.
- Ananias and Sapphira had been killed by the Lord in a spectacular way for lying to the Holy Ghost (verses1-10).
- “Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things” (Acts
- Many signs and wonders were done by the apostles. (See
). Acts 5:12-13
- “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts
5. Many were healed as they gathered around the temple, some evidently by the mere shadow of the apostle Peter passing by. Our Lord had said His disciples would do greater works than even He did, and here it was happening. (See
- A multitude came from nearby towns and cities that were sick or demon possessed, and they were all healed. (See
). Acts 5:16
You can see where this is going, can you not? The rulers of the Jews were already angry, upset and out for blood, and these miracles brought this response: “Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is of the sect of the Sadducees), and were filled with indignation” (Acts
We can only imagine the turmoil. They thought putting Jesus and Stephen to death was going to solve their problems of this “new religion”, but now things were many times worse for the Jewish leaders. Multitudes of their own people, over which they formerly had religious control, were being converted, healed and listening to these “raving maniacs” preaching that Jesus was alive. So :“( they) laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors,
and brought them forth and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (Acts
When released early the next morning, the apostles did as the angel told them. While they were teaching in the temple, the high priest sent for them, thinking they were still in jail. He was gathering the council of the Sanhedrin together, and all the senate of the children of
The high priest was told: “The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we opened, we found no man within” (Acts
Then –“The high priest asked them, Saying, Did we not straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? (Jesus) And behold you have filled
This is another powerful witness by Simon Peter with the other apostles firmly standing with him. All the more remarkable considering those whom they addressed had the power to put them to death! So bold is Peter here, as he was on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), it is hard to believe this was the same disciple that denied Christ three times! He was a changed, Spirit filled man. I love to teach and preach from these verses, and hope to again, but I must move on. You really must read this wonderful chapter of Acts for yourself.
We are now beginning to look at the passages that contain the message I want to convey to you. “When they heard that (Peter’s reply), they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. Then stood up one in the council, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought” (Acts 5:33-36).
Let us look a minute at this event. I already told you that Gamaliel was probably the most powerful Jew in all of occupied
1. He thought he was somebody, and boasted so. He had no lack of “self esteem”, as so many who exalt themselves. Remember when Jesse Jackson was telling his followers to say aloud “I am somebody”? Scripture teaches the opposite. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that Thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:4) We are all nobody until God makes somebody out of us.
2. He had four hundred followers, not a small number in those days. We understand from history he had them deceived, much like the more recent Jim Jones, or David Khoresh. This man, Theudas, wound up coming to a bad end. He was slain. His followers were scattered. His whole movement was brought to nought (nothing). You can’t get much lower than that!
Then Gamaliel goes on: “After this man rose up Judas of
1. He rose up in the taxing, around the time of Jesus’ birth.
2. He was against the government of
3. He had many followers. The Jews hated the Roman rule and wanted to break the yoke. Many of them believed that the Messiah would be a warrior to bring them to victory. That is one of the reasons many of them rejected Christ.
4. He also was killed and his movement was destroyed.
5. This Judas was not Iscariot
Then we come to the most remarkable statement from Gamaliel: “And now I say unto you, refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it: lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39). I say the statement is remarkable for several reasons:
First: I have to wonder why Gamaliel didn’t raise his voice this way when Jesus was given over to the Romans to be crucified. He is a leader of the Sanhedrin; he was involved in it all and could have stopped the crucifixion.
Second: Why didn’t he raise his voice about Stephen, who was killed a short time after this? I really don’t know how involved he was in the martyr’s death, but his disciple, Saul, was there holding the coats while Stephen was stoned (see
Third: “Honored as a great rabbi, Gamaliel cannot be accounted in any way as sympathetic with
the followers of Jesus.”(3) However, this is not historically the only viewpoint on Gamaliel. The Roman Catholics canonized him as a saint. The bible itself does not say he became a Christian, but
it is possible, just as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea and other prominent Jews were converted. There is a paragraph on this point of view in the Wikipedia article previously cited (4).
Was it really all wisdom on Gamaliel’s part, or was there an ulterior motive? The rulers were divided between Sadducees (who do not believe in the resurrection, or angels, or miracles), and the Pharisees who do believe in these supernatural things. Remember Gamaliel was a Pharisee. This was perhaps a way to keep the Sadducees in check, since they were the ones clamoring the most for the apostles’ death.
William Arnot (1808-1875) gives us a perspective on this: “As the Sadducees gave their influence against the apostles because they preached through Jesus the resurrection of the dead, it was natural that the Pharisees should draw back when they discovered that by joining in the persecution they were in effect strengthening their rivals. Gamaliel, accustomed to lead his party, seems to have discovered as the case advanced that the Pharisees had glided unawares into a false position”. (5)
Whatever Gamaliel’s purpose was, he certainly was used as a vessel of God for His higher purpose. God may use anyone He chooses as it pleases Him. Over all else is the purpose of the Sovereign of Heaven,
who had more plans yet for these apostles. As has been well said by someone, “Man is invincible until God’s purpose has been fulfilled.”
Gamaliel’s position prevailed: “And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” (Acts 5:40-42).Of course, these men empowered by the Holy Spirit were not going to go away, instead they rejoiced in their suffering for Christ, and continued to preach and teach in His name, even in the temple!
What Gamaliel was really seeing before his eyes that day was the church. Remember the church is not a building, but it is the Body of Christ. Peter and the apostles, and all true saints, are in the body, including us. Jesus had already declared in
We might add that just like Theudas, Judas of Galilee, David Khoresh, Jim Jones, and the Clonaid flying saucer cult (which claimed to have cloned a human being); all these quacks and nuts came to nothing! Also, David Brown and his DaVinci Code, the Gospel of Judas book, and all the other silly lies men can tell, will come to nothing! But Christ, the Great Shepherd, and His sheep go on, and will never perish!
(1) From an article in Wikipedia quoting The Jewish Encyclopedia. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamaliel .
(2) Adapted from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words: MacDonald Publishers,
(3) William J.Fallis, Studies in Acts; Broadman Press,
Copyright 1949; page 36.
(4) See Wikipedia; op.cit. (use link)
(5) William Arnot, Studies in Acts; the Church in the Home; Kregel,
(The Wisdom of Gamaliel originally published: