Travels in Acts: Gamaliel's Wisdom

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Travels in Acts

Gamaliel's Wisdom

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Can a man dead for 2000 years serve as a mentor? I think so.

I have a group of people who form my “brain trust”—those who serve as mentors to me in both my personal and professional life. Through the years I have included those with wisdom and experience who have a personal interest in me and with whom I share many common matters.

In recent years I have added people to this list that I do not personally know—authors and teachers whose work has stood the test of time. I even have a couple of men in my group who have been dead for many centuries. One man has been dead nearly 2000 years. But his words, brief as they are, still provide me with good counsel. 

His name is Gamaliel, a renowned Jewish teacher and scholar of the first century. He lived in Jerusalem during the time of Christ and the early church. He is named twice in the book of Acts. Once by the apostle Paul when he reveals he was trained in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3 Acts 22:3I am truly a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.
American King James Version×
). The other reference is in Acts 5:33-39 Acts 5:33-39 33 When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. 34 Then stood there 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; 35 And said to them, You men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men. 36 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 nothing. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: 39 But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God.
American King James Version×
where we see Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people” is among the Jewish elders who interrogate the disciples and attempt to dissuade them from preaching in the name of Jesus. Gamaliel, based on his advice, does not seem to be as agitated as some. His words are good advice then and now. They speak to taking a long view of history and having patience to judge people and events very carefully.

Here is what Gamaliel says to his fellow elders. “Men of Israel, be very careful of what action you intend to take against these men! Remember that some time ago a man called Theudas made himself conspicuous by claiming to be someone or other, and he had a following of four hundred men. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and the movement came to nothing. Then later, in the days of the census, that man Judas from Galilee appeared and enticed many of the people to follow him. But he too died and his whole following melted away. My advice to you now therefore is to let these men alone; leave them to themselves. For if this teaching or movement is merely human it will collapse of its own accord. But if it should be from God you cannot defeat them, and you might actually find yourselves to be fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35-39 Acts 5:35-39 35 And said to them, You men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men. 36 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 nothing. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: 39 But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God.
American King James Version×
, Philips Translation).

What can we take from this short, straight-forward account of a private meeting among men who felt threatened by the growing movement of Christianity?

Learn a little history. Gamaliel studied the stories of failed movements within recent Jewish experience. He knew why they failed. He walked his friends through two incidents, reminding them of the failures. Gamaliel knew his history. So should we.

Be patient and let the fruits speak for themselves. Gamaliel knew the growing Church was popular among the people. I think he must have seen something in their teaching his fellow elders missed. I wonder if Gamaliel had carefully examined their teaching and saw a glimmer of truth? It’s pure speculation of course, but you wonder.

If God is not behind it, it will fail. When it comes to spiritual works, God must be in the foundation and He must build the structure. Take God as a partner and don’t try to do it yourself when it comes to the things of the Spirit.

Above all, be sure you are not found fighting against God. Gamaliel was wise enough to leave a margin for God. It just may be, you could imagine him thinking, that God is behind those rough men from Galilee. At least he was not going to rule it out. Nor should we. This advice has kept me from making overly harsh judgments when I did not have the facts. Time and fruits have a way of sorting things through to the truth.

I suggest you add Gamaliel to your list of wise counselors. His wisdom rings true today.