Gamiel: Good Example of Restraint?
In Acts 5 the apostles were arrested because of their preaching of the resurrection of Jesus. That night an angel of God released them from prison and early the next morning they resumed the proclamation of the life found in Jesus Christ. The captain of the temple guard then took some officers, arrested them again, and brought them before the council. At that point, things became quite heated (Acts 5:17-26).
The high priest, who not long before this was perfectly willing to bear responsibility for the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:20-25), now attacks the apostles for putting the guilt on him and the other leaders. “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us” (Acts 5:28).
Despite the obvious anger of the high priest and the danger they were in, these disciples who had once fled in fear now boldly spoke the words of truth. “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘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).
At this point the members of the council were furious and plotted to kill the apostles, but a member of the council, a rabbi called Gamaliel, had the apostles taken outside so that he could reason with his fellow-members of the Sanhedrin. This famous teacher of the law cited a couple of historical examples of rebel leaders who had once drawn large crowds, only to quickly fade from the scene. He then gave his advice to the group: “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 even be found to fight against God (Acts 5:38, 39).” The council agreed not to kill the apostles, though they did beat them and waste their breath in charging them not do any more teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:40-42).
Gamaliel was Paul’s childhood teacher (Acts 22:3), held in high esteem by first-century Jews and, in regard to this incident, Every Man’s Bible by Tyndale House Publishers praises him for showing restraint and avoiding hastiness. While there is no doubt but that Gamaliel’s counsel benefited the apostles for the moment, was it really sound advice? Should we view his conduct that day as a guide for us today? No one should even question the fact that the Scriptures teach us to avoid hasty and unfair judgments, and the warnings against speaking too quickly are numerous, but I am convinced that the esteemed rabbi erred in his advice to the council.
First, not everything “of men” will quickly come to nothing. Of course God will judge all in the last day, but idolatry, a work of men, has been around for thousands of years. The same could be said of divorce and polygamy, two corruptions of the Lord’s original plan for marriage. While Gamaliel was correct about the short-lived success of both Theudas and Judas of Galilee, his generalization about the works of men does not always hold true. We cannot count on the works of men quickly fading away.
Second, as an esteemed student and teacher of Moses’ Law, Gamaliel should have known that the Lord did not expect His people to take a wait-and-see attitude toward false teachers. Deuteronomy 13 and 18 told Israel how to determine if one was a false prophet and then commanded that those found to be false were to be put to death. Yes, God warned against rash judgment and demanded truth be established by “two or three witnesses,” but He also expected His people to “put away the evil from [their] midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5).
The truth is that Gamaliel should have proposed an honest, unbiased examination of the facts. The apostles had been making a case for the resurrection of Jesus based on fulfilled prophecy, eyewitness testimony, and God’s endorsement through the miracles they performed. Caution was needed in not rushing to put the apostles to death without an examination of the evidence, but Gamaliel never said a word about giving a fair consideration to the facts of the case and in that he failed to follow the Law of Moses, but even more importantly, he never gave the saving gospel a chance (Romans 1:16).
Gamaliel may serve as a good reminder to us that we should be careful not to judge too quickly or in an unfair way without having all the facts (Matthew 7:1-5; John 8:24; James 2:12, 13), but remember that the Lord has provided us with an objective standard by which to measure men, their teachings, and their practices and He expects us to use that standard. Let’s learn to study, examine carefully, and then reject false doctrine (Revelation 2:2, 14-16, 20).
Should we imitate Gamaliel or his student Paul and other inspired writers when men today pervert the gospel of Christ?
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them….” Acts 15:1, 2
“As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”Galatians 1:9
“Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” 2 John 9-11
“Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jude 3, 4
All quotations from the New King James Versions, copyright 1994, Nelson Publishing Co.