RPM, Volume 17, Number 12, March 15 to March 21, 2015

To the End of the Earth (12): Leave These Men Alone!

Acts 5:33-42

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me, if you would, to The Acts of the Apostles, and the fifth chapter. Our reading this evening begins at the end of the chapter, beginning at verse 33. You will recall that the apostles have been imprisoned for the night, and during the course of the night an angel has opened the gates of the prison; and they have been bidden to go back to the very temple area, to Solomon's colonnade, there to preach and teach and testify to the Lord Jesus Christ once again.

In the morning, the authorities...the Sanhedrin in particular...when they go to the prison they find the prison doors shut, but the apostles are not there. And then it is reported to them, you remember, that the apostles are in fact preaching and teaching in the temple. They are brought before the Sanhedrin. And last week, you remember, we were looking at what in effect is Peter's gospel testimony in less than 35 words, when in verses 30-31 he says: "The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins."

And it's at this point now that we pick up the reading at verse 33. And before we do so, let's come before God in prayer. Let us pray.

O Lord our God, again we bow in the majesty of Your presence, conscious that the Scriptures that we're about to read are Your word, Your inerrant word, given by inspiration of God, by the out-breathing of God, and profitable for doctrine and reproof, and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Open up Your word to us, we pray, and this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear now, then, the word of God:

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 held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too 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, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God." So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Amen. And may God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

The counsel of Gamaliel—it's often cited with approval as a piece of received wisdom to apply in any and every circumstance. It is, in effect, "leave well alone; wait and see; if this thing is of men, it will perish; if it is of God, then nothing that you can do can disabuse it of its rightful place." It seems on the surface, doesn't it, to be a piece of wisdom, a useful stratagem to apply in a circumstance where there are problems and difficulties, where there's an impasse? At a meeting of some kind, in a discussion between elders or deacons, in a church meeting, in conversation about strategies with regard to the church—no matter what it is, it seems on the surface to be a useful piece of advice: to leave it alone; and if it is of God, then it will prosper; and if it is of men it will perish. It's do nothing, and wait and see.

It's interesting that in the twentieth century this piece of advice by Gamaliel was alluded to in a very famous sermon. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win? Of course he was not arguing for the fundamentalists; of course he was arguing for the liberal cause in the church, and he was saying in effect — applying the wisdom of Gamaliel — 'Leave liberalism alone. If it is of men it will perish, but if it is of God there's nothing that you can do about it. Leave it alone.' That's a kind of laissez faire approach to the church and to theology.

I want us to look at this piece of advice, and I want us to look at the author of this piece of advice, Rabbi (or Rabban) Gamaliel the Elder. He was a very famous person, and wise...a distinguished theologian and teacher. He was, of course, the principal teacher of Saul of Tarsus. Paul will refer to him in Acts 22. That should give you a little insight, as you read this particular passage, that Saul of Tarsus is probably here in Jerusalem as a student of this Rabbi Gamaliel. He's unconverted, of course: he's a "Pharisee of the Pharisees; of the tribe of Benjamin; as touching the law, blameless...." That's the Saul of Tarsus right now, and he's probably here in Jerusalem. He's probably witnessed some of the events that we've been looking at in these past few weeks. He's probably looking and making his discernment and drawing his judgments about what these apostles are doing, and perhaps he's having conversations with Rabbi Gamaliel.

Who is this Gamaliel? Gamaliel is the grandson of a very famous rabbi and teacher in the first century B.C., a man by the name of Hillel. Now there were two schools of thought and two schools of judicial opinion amongst the rabbis. There was the moderate party, called the school of Hillel, from which Gamaliel comes, and there was the strict party, the school of Schammai; and these two were often at loggerheads with one another.

Gamaliel is mentioned in the Talmud. The Talmud is the written account of what for years and years was the oral tradition of Israel's laws — laws dealing with case law, and precedents, and so on. And Gamaliel is mentioned, and he's mentioned and he's given a very specific title: Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. And the term Rabban is a term that distinguishes him from the other rabbis. In other words, he's the head of the Sanhedrin. That's why he's the one that speaks here, and that's why it appears that his word here in this private meeting of the Sanhedrin...and you may be wondering, how does Luke know what it was that Gamaliel said in what was a private meeting? The apostles, you remember, had been sent out, and the answer to that is probably because Saul of Tarsus heard it from Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus was a fellow missionary with Luke, and that's probably where Luke heard exactly the deliberations of what was going on here. He's mentioned, then, as the head of the Sanhedrin.

He's also mentioned in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is now, once again, the oral tradition of the Jews, and it appears that Gamaliel was something of an authority on conjugal rights. It was this Gamaliel who said that you only needed one witness to testify to the death of your husband or of your wife, and therefore be eligible for remarriage.

Well, he's an important figure. He's a well-known figure in Jerusalem. He was probably something of a notorious teacher, and perhaps even Bible scholar. There are some comparisons perhaps between Gamaliel and Nicodemus, the teacher of the law.

And it's before Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin, this austere, authoritative, somewhat intimidating Court of the Jews, that the apostles are now brought before. They had been imprisoned. They'd been released from prison by a miraculous intervention of an angel, and they've escaped. And they've been discovered preaching and teaching the very same gospel that got them into prison in the first place, back in Solomon's colonnade in the temple. And now they've been brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for their doings.

And you notice, Peter, having given that testimony to the gospel in less than 35 words, you notice in verse 33: "When they heard this, they were enraged." It's a very strong word. Their hearts were rent asunder by what they heard. They were inflamed. They became passionate. They were incensed by what Peter and John and the apostles were doing. And what were they doing? They were teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, and they had been forbidden to teach in the name of Jesus Christ.

"And when they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them."

Clearly the apostles and the Sanhedrin are on a collision course, and for the apostles it was a simple thing. It was a matter of obedience to God. What the Sanhedrin had demanded of them, they could not comply with. "We must obey God rather than men." It was an issue of conscience. This was something that God had told them to do, and woe betide them if they didn't do it! No matter what the consequences!

I. The violent opposition to Jesus Christ.

And I want us to see, first of all, the violent opposition to these men, and effectively, the violent opposition to Jesus Christ.

They wanted to kill the apostles. Isn't that astounding, when you think about it? What had these men done? Were they murderers? Were they child molesters? Were they guilty of some gross form of pornography? Had they embezzled funds from the Jewish authorities in some way? What had they done? What law had they broken? What evil, dastardly deed had they done that would bring about in the Sanhedrin a desire that they might be killed - that they might be judicially put to death? What had they done? Were they insurrectionists? Were they armed bandits? Were they calling on men and women in Jerusalem to arm themselves and form some kind of militia? The very mention of Jesus brings a note of violence into the hearts and minds of these Sanhedrin.

And what had they been doing? They'd been doing that one thing that they had been forbidden to do: teaching and preaching salvation in no other name but the name of Jesus Christ. Christianity is an intolerant religion: intolerant to other Gods; intolerant to any other way of salvation but faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; and it incensed them, incensed them to the point of violence.

The situation today perhaps is a little different. We live in a post-Modern society. It's fine for you to believe whatever you want to believe. You can believe the moon is made of green cheese, and that's fine, so long as you don't go about trying to proselytize and evangelize others into believing that the moon is made of green cheese.

We have the ghost of Schleimacher still with us. He's been dead for over a hundred years, but his ghost is still with us, that says that religion is a genus in which all other religions, all other faiths, are more or less developed — highly developed — species; that all roads, in the end, lead to God. Christianity is one way, Hinduism is another, and Islam is another, and Shintuism is another.

It's always fascinating to me that the media will give attention to almost anything, and will give pride of place on prime time television to almost anything, and show sympathy to almost anything, except Bible-believing Christianity.

It was interesting. I was reading an editorial in The Times newspaper, The London Times newspaper, yesterday, and I saw it coming. You can always guess what the next few words are going to be, as the leader was heading in a certain direction, and it was criticizing American society — no surprise to you, I'm sure! And I knew what the word was going to be: It was either going to be 'Calvinism' or it was going to be 'Fundamentalism' (and the author probably didn't know what Calvinism was, so he chose Fundamentalism). And all his cleverness and all his vilification...it was as though he had swallowed a thesaurus to find all the epithets he could find as a tirade against those who had the audacity to believe that faith in Jesus Christ alone is the only way to salvation. 'How dare you say such a thing!' And it's what's wrong with America, so the leader said. (Well, I wish it was!)

Now there's nothing new, of course, to the rejection of Christianity, but don't you get the impression here that there is something irrational about their response? I mean, these are men who are simply teaching and preaching that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, that He's the fulfillment of God's promise of a Savior.

Now, to be sure, perhaps they had heard of what Peter had done in the Garden of Gethsemane with a sword — you remember? And lopped off Malchus' ear? Perhaps they had heard that. Perhaps they had heard that one of the apostles was Simon the Zealot, a member of the Zealot party, a party within Judaism bent on bringing Roman domination to an end by the power of the sword...but Simon had put away the sword. Jesus had said, "They that live by the sword shall die by the sword." And Jesus had said to Peter, "Put away your sword." And don't you get the impression here that there is something utterly irrational about their response? There's something completely over the top about their response that they want to kill these apostles. Such is the hatred...and you get a sense here that there is more than just the hatred of the natural man, that there is something almost supernatural about this...that behind this of course lies the animosity and the hatred and the vilification of Satan himself, because what you see working itself out here is what Jesus had said at Caesarea Philippi: that "I build My church within sight of the very gates of hell." And here are the forces of darkness arrayed now against Christ and those who are Christ's. Something utterly irrational about it....

You remember what Bertrand Russell said? The famous philosopher of the early twentieth century? He was asked what he would say if after death he met God. (Of course, Bertrand Russell didn't believe in God.) And he was asked what he would say if after death he would meet God, and he said, "I would say to Him, 'You didn't give us enough evidence.'" You didn't give us enough evidence.

The modern world is prepared to believe almost anything. It's prepared to believe that nothing can produce everything; that the whole world, in all of its complexity, came out of absolutely nothing; that nothing is the cause of everything. And there's something utterly irrational about the opposition that it shows to the idea that everything came from God, a supreme all-powerful being who created the heavens and the earth. Now, I tell you — I ask you — this evening: Which is a more rational statement, that God created everything, or that everything came from nothing? And I think you see here in the response of these members of the Sanhedrin something that is utterly irrational, because unbelief is irrational. It's utterly irrational for you not to believe in Jesus Christ. It's utterly irrational for you to dismiss Christianity and to dismiss the Scriptures, and to dismiss the claims of Christ and of the apostles. "When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them."

II. The reasoned intervention of Gamaliel.

And the second thing that I want us to see is the reasoned intervention of Gamaliel. Now, there's a problem here that we need to look at, and we need to try and solve quickly. It's one of these red herrings that those who want to dismiss the Bible ad nauseum raise. It's the issue of Theudus and Judas the Galilean.

Now Luke tells us (it's Gamaliel who's speaking, of course) and Luke is recording Gamaliel's speech, and Gamaliel says two things. He says first of all that Judas the Galilean came after Theudus; and, secondly, he tells us that Judas arose in the time of the census.

Now, the only Theudus that we know of historically is a Theudus that is mentioned in the historical writings of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who was born in about 33 A.D. and died somewhere around 100 A.D. He is the most famous Jewish historian of the first century, and he mentions a Theudus. And he mentions a Theudus, a man who rose to arms and had a following, an insurrectionist who lived somewhere around 45 A.D.

Now you see the problem. If you don't see it, you're not thinking straight, so get up from your seat and think through that, because Gamaliel, you understand, is writing within six months of the resurrection. And let's put that in 30 A.D., say. In other words, Gamaliel is talking about something that's 15 years in the future! Gamaliel talks about Judas the Galilean in the days of the census, and there was a census of course in the Bible in the time of Quirenius, when he was governor; and there were two censuses that we know of. One was roughly between 4 and 6 B.C., and another one roughly between 6 and 9 A.D. What's the solution?

Well, the solution is very simple. The first possibility is that Josephus is wrong, and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Josephus was wrong about many things. Josephus is writing a history to try and promote a certain view of Judaism against the forces of Christianity. It was in his interest to distort history. It may very well be that Josephus was wrong. Of course, liberals have been saying for years that Luke is wrong, and that is a possibility that is completely and utterly ruled out, because we believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

The answer is that there were probably two people by the name of Theudus. Theudus is short for Theodotus, the Greek which is the Hebrew of Jonathan, which means given by God. Now in the first half of the first century there were scads of young boys called Jonathan, or Theodotus, or Theudus. Why? Because they were so named after Judas Maccabeus — Jonathan Maccabeus, the great Maccabean king who fought against the Seleucid kingdom, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus Epiphanes was the man who, 150 years before Christ, had slaughtered several hundred pigs in the Holy Place and caused an uproar. It was Judas Maccabeus who rose to defend Jewish honor and Jewish integrity, and he became a hero; and no end of people would name their sons after him — Judas, or Jonathan, or Theudus.

Now there is no problem here, so throw that problem out and let's get on with looking at the passage!

You notice several things about what Gamaliel does. You notice first of all the comparison that he draws. Why would Gamaliel draw comparison between the apostles on the one hand and two insurrectionists — or freedom fighters, or terrorists — on the other? Now, you understand one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and we have to appreciate that. That's not my point. There were two men, Theudus and Judas the Galilean, and they were terrorists. They were freedom fighters. They were those somewhat akin to the IRA; somewhat akin to ETA in Spain; somewhat akin to The Shining Path in Peru. They were native Jews rising up in violence and swords to put down the Roman Empire.

It's astonishing, isn't it, that Gamaliel would draw a comparison between the apostles on the one hand and what in effect are terrorists on the other? Is what Gamaliel says here political savvy on his part, or cowardice? Commentators are on both sides here. There are those who say that Gamaliel was a believer; there's tradition to suggest that Gamaliel did, in fact, become a Christian. He was baptized by Peter, together with his son Nicodemus. Now, Jewish history denies that lock, stock, and barrel! We absolutely have no reason to believe that Gamaliel was a believer here, or that he ever did become a believer.

There are those who say that what Gamaliel is doing is...he's in a tight corner, he's the head of the Sanhedrin. He's got all kinds of opinions to try and find some kind of compromise, and what he is saying here is political savvy: 'Leave it alone. If it's of man, it will perish; but if it is of God, you might find yourselves fighting against God.'

Here is a man, I would suggest to you, who is utterly untouched by the supernatural. He's not defending the apostles at all. He doesn't use his opportunity here to come to the defense of the message of the apostles. He doesn't speak on behalf of Jesus Christ. All of his sophistication and all of his learning in the end amount to nothing, because, my friends, the principle...the principle itself doesn't hold water.

Imagine if you're in the early 1930's — 1934, 1935 — in Europe with the rise of Nazism, when thousands upon thousands upon thousands of young men, young boys, are beginning to join organizations that eventually will lead to the full blown Nazism of Europe. And imagine if that's all the philosophy that you could apply to the situation: Leave it alone. If Churchill hadn't given his famous speech that it was time to take up arms and fight because an enemy was knocking at the door...I tell you, my friends, this principle doesn't hold water, because there are evil things in the world that God has allowed to prosper in the mystery of His providence; and there are good things in this world, wonderful things in this world, Spirit-induced things in this world, that God has allowed to fizzle and fade for purposes that are known unto Him.

And what does Gamaliel accede to in the end, together with the rest of the Sanhedrin? The flogging of these apostles...the flogging of these apostles. Thirty-nine lashes with whips and possibly bits of metal tied at the end of the whips, and bits of leather...exposing flesh and sometimes organs, and from which from time to time those who are inflicted with flogging would die. And all because they had preached in the name of Jesus.

III. The determined response of the apostles.

I want us to see, in the third place, the determined response of the apostles. It's quite breathtaking. It's quite astonishing. In verse 41, we read, after they had been charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, they let them go, and "...they left the presence of the Council"...and look at this! These men, their backs are bleeding...there's blood dropping on the floor...you could have followed them out into the streets of Jerusalem by simply following the trail of blood... "...rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name." For the name of Jesus. Worthy to suffer dishonor....

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his Gulag Archipelago, speaks of an individual by the name of Boris Kornfeld, a Jewish doctor who converts to Christianity. And one evening he's in a prison cell speaking to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and his last words were, "Bless you, prison, for having been my life." Those were his last words, and they took him out and clubbed him to death. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said it was one of the most moving things he'd ever heard: "Bless you, prison, for having been my life."

Some of you will remember Joseph Tson, a Romanian pastor who stood up to the repressions of Christianity in the 1980's in Rumania by Nicolai Ceausescu. Joseph Tson wrote:

Because of one of my writings, I was placed under house arrest for six months, during which time I was called in for interrogation almost daily. I was charged with propaganda endangering the security of the state. During that time I still had to preach every Friday night and on Sundays. People listened just to see what sort of subject I would tackle. One Sunday I preached on "Joy" with Nehemiah 8:10 as my text: "The joy of the Lord is your strength." Somebody told me, "Joseph, I thought I was going to see a wreck on Sunday, but here you were with a shining face, thundering about joy.

Thundering about joy...in the midst of all that repression.

My friends, our Christianity is far too comfortable. It's far too comfortable. We're far too concerned about our comfort, and woe betide somebody who disturbs our comfort zone. (Usually that means somebody who's taken our seat in church.) For these men, it was life or death. For these men it was 39 lashes on their backs, bleeding, sore, and they're rejoicing! They're rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the Name, the name of Jesus.

And look at what he says in verse 42: "And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."

You've got to smile. You just can't put these men down! You just can't stop these men! And what is it? What is it that drives the apostles to do something that they know will lead to beatings and imprisonment, and in a while, death? It's their love of Jesus. They're overwhelmed by the love of Jesus. Their hearts and souls are consumed by the love of Jesus. They've come to appreciate...they've come to understand that all their sins, though they be red like crimson, in Jesus Christ they're as white as snow. These men weren't concerned about this world any more. They knew that they had a city which is to come, whose Builder and Maker is God. These men knew that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That's the way they lived. That's the way they testified. You didn't need to teach these men to evangelize. You didn't need to give these men a system. Their love of Jesus drove them, in the temple and from house to house, to teach and to preach that Jesus is the Christ.

I tell you tonight, this is Christianity. This is Christianity. I'm sometimes not sure what it is that we do, but this is Christianity: whole-souled commitment to Christ. First, last, beginning and end and middle, they lived for Christ. They were prepared to die for Christ. Christ was everything to them.

What does Charles Wesley say?

Happy if, with my latest breath
I might but gasp His name;
Preach to all, and cry in death:
"Behold, behold, the Lamb."

May God give us a little glimpse of the passion that drove these early Christians to be out and out for Jesus Christ, and may it shake us from our comfort and our preoccupation with ourselves, and to see that the most important thing in all the world is making Christ known to others, to sinners, whoever they may be.

Lord, we bow in Your presence awed by men that we would honor as heroes, except that this is the way we're meant to be. We are ashamed at how little we love You in that way. And we pray tonight as we read the Scriptures and meditate over this narrative - own our whole heart, we pray. Take possession of all of us, and that we might live out and out for You, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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