Have you ever wondered why Christianity is still thriving today amidst so much persecution? Crowns and thrones have perished, kingdoms have risen and waned, but why is the Church of Christ ever-present? How can the activity or endeavour of men be so enduring?
Let us find the answers in the Acts of the Apostles: “34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a short time.
35 “Men of Israel,” he said, “consider carefully what you are about to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and drew away people after him. He too perished, and all his followers were scattered.
38 So in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone. Let them go! For if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God”(Acts 5:34-39).
The grave advice which Gamaliel, a leading man in the council, gave upon this occasion, the scope of which was to moderate the fury of these bigots, and check the violence of the prosecution. This Gamaliel is here said to be a Pharisee by his profession and sect, and by office a doctor of the law, one that studied the scriptures of the Old Testament, read lectures upon the sacred authors, and trained up pupils in the knowledge of them. Paul was brought up at his feet (ch. 22:3), and tradition says that so were Stephen and Barnabas. Some say he was the son of that Simeon that took up Christ in his arms, when he was presented in the temple, and grandson of the famous Hillel. He is here said to be in reputation among all the people for his wisdom and conduct, it appearing by this passage that he was a moderate man, and not apt to go in with furious measures. Men of temper and charity are justly had in reputation, for checking the incendiaries that otherwise would set the world on fire. Now observe here,
1. The necessary caution he gives to the council, with reference to the case before them: He commanded to put the apostles forth a little while, that he might speak the more freely, and be the more freely answered; and then put the house in mind of the importance of this matter, which in their heat they were not capable of considering as they ought: You men of Israel, says he, take heed to yourselves, consider what you do, or intend to do, as touching these men, v. 35. It is not a common case, and therefore should not be hastily determined. He calls them men of Israel, to enforce this caution: “You are men, that should be governed by reason and revelation, be not then as strangers and heathens, that have no regard to God and his word. Take heed to yourselves now that you are angry with these men, lest you meddle to your own hurt.” Note, The persecutors of God’s people had best look to themselves, lest they fall into the pit which they dig (cf. Prov 26:27; Psalm 7:15). We have need to be cautious whom we give trouble to, lest we be found making the hearts of the righteous sad (cf. Ezek 13:22).
2. The cases he cites, to pave the way to his opinion. Two instances he gives of factious seditious men (such as they would have the apostles thought to be), whose attempts came to nothing of themselves; whence he infers that if these men were indeed such as they represented them the cause would sink with its own weight, and Providence would infatuate and defeat them, and then they needed not persecute them.
(1.) There was one Theudas, that made a mighty noise for awhile, as one sent of God, boasting himself to be somebody, some great one (so the word is), either a teacher or a prince, with a divine commission to effect some great revolution in the church or in the state; and he observes here (v. 36) concerning him,
[1.] How far he prevailed: “A number of men, about four hundred in all, joined themselves to him, that knew not what to do with themselves, or hoped to better themselves; and they seemed then a formidable body.”
[2.] How soon his pretensions were all dashed: “When he was slain’ (probably in war) “there needed no more ado, all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and melted away like snow before the sun. Now compare that case with this. You have slain Jesus, the ringleader of this faction; you have taken him off. Now if he was, as you say he was, an impostor and pretender, his death, like that of Theudas, will be the death of his cause, and the final dispersion of his followers.’ From what has been we may infer what will be in a like case; the smiting of the shepherd will be the scattering of the sheep: and, if the God of peace had not brought again from the dead that great Shepherd, the dispersion of the sheep, at his death, had been total and final.
(2.) The case was the same with Judas of Galilee, v. 37. Observe,
[1.] Some think this Judas of Galilee was the same with Judas Gaulonites, whom Josephus speaks of, others not. It is probable that they were cases which lately happened, and were fresh in memory. This Judas drew away much people after him, who gave credit to his pretensions. But,
[2.] Here is the defeat of his attempt, and that without any interposal of the great sanhedrim, or any decree of theirs against him (it did not need it); he also perished, and all, even as many as obeyed him, or were persuaded by him, were dispersed. Many have foolishly thrown away their lives, and brought others into the same snares, by a jealousy for their liberties, in the days of the taxing, who had better have been content, when Providence had so determined, to serve the king of Babylon.
3. His opinion upon the whole matter.
(1.) That they should not persecute the apostles (v. 38): Now I say unto you, my advice is, “Refrain from these men; neither punish them for what they have done nor restrain them for the future. Connive at them; let them take their course; let not our hand be upon them.’ It is uncertain whether he spoke this out of policy, for fear of offending either the people or the Romans and making further mischief. The apostles did not attempt anything by outward force. The weapons of their warfare were not carnal; and therefore why should any outward force be used against them? Or, whether he was under any present convictions, at least of the probability of the truth of the Christian doctrine, and thought it deserved better treatment, at least a fair trial. Or, whether it was only the language of a mild quiet spirit, that was against persecution for conscience’ sake. Or, whether God put this word into his mouth beyond his own intention, for the deliverance of the apostles at this time. We are sure there was an overruling Providence in it, that the servants of Christ might not only come off, but come off honourably.
(2.) That they should refer this matter to Providence: “Wait the issue, and see what it will come to. If it be of men, it will come to nought of itself; if of God, it will stand, in spite of all your powers and policies.’ That which is apparently wicked and immoral must be suppressed, else the magistrate bears the sword in vain; but that which has a show of good, and it is doubtful whether it be of God or men, it is best to be left alone, and let it take its fate, not to use any external force for the suppressing of it. Christ rules by the power of truth, not of the sword. What Christ asked concerning John’s baptism, Was it from heaven or of men? was a question proper to be asked concerning the apostles’ doctrine and baptism, which followed Christ, as John Baptist’s went before him. Now they, having owned, concerning the former, that they could not tell whether it was from heaven or of men, ought not to be too confident concerning the latter. But, take it which way you will, it is a reason why they should not be persecuted.
[1.] “If this counsel, and this work, this forming of a society, and incorporating it in the name of Jesus, be of men, it will come to nothing. If it be the counsel and work of foolish crack-brained men that know not what they do, leave them alone awhile, and they will run themselves out of breath, and their folly will be manifest before all men, and they will make themselves ridiculous. If it be the counsel and work of politic and designing men, who under colour of religion are setting up a secular interest, leave them alone awhile, and they will throw off the mask, and their knavery will be manifest to all men, and they will make themselves odious; Providence will never countenance it. It will come to nothing in a little time; and, if so, your persecuting and opposing it is very needless; there is no occasion for giving yourselves so much trouble, and bringing such an odium upon yourselves, to kill that which, if you give it a little time, will die of itself. The unnecessary use of power is an abuse of it. But,
[2.] “If it should prove (and as wise men as you have been mistaken) that this counsel and this work is of God, that these preachers have their commissions and instructions from him, that they are as truly his messengers to the world as the Old-Testament prophets were, then what do you think of persecuting them, of this attempt of yours (v. 33) to slay them? You must conclude it to be,
First, “A fruitless attempt against them: If it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; for there is no wisdom nor counsel against the Lord; he that sits in heaven laughs at you.’ It may be the comfort of all who are sincerely on God’s side, who have a single eye to his will as their rule and his glory as their end, that whatsoever is of God cannot be overthrown totally and finally, though it may be very vigorously opposed; it may be run upon, but cannot be run down.
Secondly, “A dangerous attempt to yourselves. Pray leave it alone, lest you be found even to fight against God; and I need not tell you who will come off by the worse in that contest.’ Woe unto him that strives with his Maker; for he will not only be overcome as an impotent enemy, but severely reckoned with as a rebel and traitor against his rightful prince. Those that hate and abuse God’s faithful people, that restrain and silence his faithful ministers, fight against God, for he takes what is done against them as done against himself (cf. Acts 9:4-5).
Let us sing the song “Onward, Christian Soldiers”as we march towards Christ’s Kingdom.