“And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, N.K.J.V.)
The words of our text passage were spoken by Gamaliel, the most well respected Jewish rabbi of Christ’s day. Not only was he a member of the Sanhedrin (the powerful ruling Council that held sway over Jewish life), he was also the man under whom Paul (who was then known as Saul of Tarsus) learned the ways of Judaism (Acts 22:3). To say that Gamaliel’s opinion carried weight is a definite understatement.
Following the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:1-11) and the Holy Spirit coming to indwell Jesus’ followers (Acts 2:1-13), the Christian movement spread like wildfire throughout Jerusalem. The apostles were preaching Jesus in the streets and performing miracles, thousands of Jews were getting saved and baptized, and the church in Jerusalem was becoming a force with which the Jewish religious leaders had to reckon. In the eyes of those leaders, this “Jesus thing” was getting completely out of hand.
It was along about then that Peter and John were arrested at the Jewish temple after performing a healing on a lame man, a healing that was followed with a sermon by Peter (Acts 4:1-26; 5:1-4). The Jewish religious group known as the Sadducees were responsible for having the two arrested. The next day the entire Sanhedrin council convened to try the case against Peter and John (Acts 4:5-12). However, after hearing Peter’s powerful defense and after being forced to admit that the once lame man was now clearly healed, the Sanhedrin decided to release Peter and John under the condition that the two would stop preaching the name of Jesus (Acts 4:13-18). Peter and John, of course, ignored that warning and went right back to doing what they’d been doing (Acts 4:19-31).
Not long afterward, the Sadducees again flexed their muscle by having all the apostles arrested and thrown into Jerusalem’s common prison (Acts 5:17-18). But that same night God sent an angel to open the prison doors and help the apostles escape (Acts 5:19). The angel told the apostles to go to the temple the next morning and preach, and they obeyed (Acts 5:20-21). So there the apostles were, at the temple preaching, while the Sadducees and the other Jewish religious leaders assumed they were still in prison.
Once it was discovered that the apostles weren’t in prison but were, instead, preaching at the temple, the Sanhedrin had them peacefully brought before the council one more time (Acts 5:21-27). The question the members of the council should have asked was, “How did you men escape from prison last night?” Apparently, though, the members didn’t want to know that answer. What they did ask was, “Didn’t we command you not to teach in this (Jesus’) name?” They also added in the comment, “You have filled Jerusalem with this doctrine, and intend to bring Jesus’ blood on us!” (Acts 5:28).
And how did the apostles, Peter being their spokesman, respond to that? They answered:
….”We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him. (Acts 5:29-32, N.K.J.V.)
That’s not exactly backing down, is it? Now the Sanhedrin members had to decide what to do about the situation. The conclusion the majority of them reached was that all the apostles should be killed (Acts 5:33). Remember, these council members were the same murderous bunch who had worked together with the Romans to get Jesus killed.
Gamaliel, however, took a different view as to how to handle the problem. After having the apostles removed from the meeting room, he noted that previous such threats to Judaism had come to nothing. A man named Theudas had raised an army of about 400 soldiers and had proclaimed himself as the Messiah, but his movement had ended when he had been killed (Acts 5:36). Likewise, Judas of Galilee had once built a movement around himself, but he had died and so had his movement (Acts 5:37). Based upon these past examples, Gamaliel deduced that time was the true test of whether or not a movement was of God. If God wasn’t in it, it would come to nothing, but if He was in it, nothing the Sanhedrin could do would stop it anyway.
Of course, what Gamaliel should have added was, “Men, when Jesus died, his movement was supposed to die with him, but it didn’t. That makes him different than Theudas and Judas of Galilee. So maybe we should start at least considering the possibility that we were wrong about him. Could it be that what these apostles of his are saying about him is true?” Gamaliel, however, didn’t go that far. Perhaps even he was afraid to venture out into those uncharted seas.
But what spiritual help can we Christians today glean from Gamaliel’s advice? We can appreciate the advice as being spiritually astute and apply it to any situation we face in which something that isn’t of God is thriving while something that is of Him is just puttering along. Just as those movements begun by Theudas and Judas of Galilee seemed so impressive for a while, many earthly situations that don’t bear God’s stamp of approval can come to the front and rule the day for a certain amount of time before crashing. Conversely, many situations that do bear His stamp can start out quite unimpressive and build momentum like a slow burn.
The fact is that earthly situations can be like fun-house mirrors in the way they can distort reality for a time. Just as you can’t trust what you are seeing as long as you are standing in front of one of those mirrors, you can’t always trust what a situation looks like for the moment. So, if you are reading this and you know that God is in what you are doing, but things really aren’t going well right now, let me encourage you to hang in there. Take Gamaliel’s advice by giving your situation some more time. It just might be that God is delaying His manifested blessing upon your situation because He wants to build trust and perseverance into you. And if that’s the case, you’d be wise to stay your course and let Him work.