The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 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. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 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. 37 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. 38 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; 39 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, 40 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. 41 Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
Very little of Acts 5 is in the three-year Lectionary.
More’s the pity, because this chapter reveals much about the Church in infancy, as these events happened shortly after Pentecost.
The end of Acts 4 mentions a godly convert:
36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Acts 5 opened with the stories of deceitful husband and wife Ananias and Sapphira, who attempted to imitate Joseph’s example by pledging money from a property sale. However, they decided to keep a share of the proceeds for themselves. Peter accused them of deceiving God and the Holy Spirit. They were so convicted that God took their lives, first Ananias, then Sapphira.
After their deaths, the Church’s purity was restored. The Apostles, particularly St Peter, attracted more converts with their healing miracles, performed through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Even the high priest and the Sadducees could not contain the Twelve. An angel of the Lord released our holy men from prison. Following the angel’s instructions, they returned to Solomon’s Portico — or Porch — to continue preaching and healing.
When the temple captain and prison officers brought them back for a hearing, they went peaceably. Once before the council, they were charged with disobedience. This is the only part of Acts 5 that is in the Lectionary:
29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
The council members heard Peter and were furious. They wanted to kill the Apostles (verse 33). They were angry that he was telling them the truth, one they preferred to forget.
Matthew Henry explains the unrelenting dynamic that was going on in their minds (emphases mine):
instead of yielding to it, they raged against it, and were filled, 1. With indignation at what the apostles said: They were cut to the heart, angry to see their own sin set in order before them; stark mad to find that the gospel of Christ had so much to say for itself, and consequently was likely to get ground. When a sermon was preached to the people to this purport, they were pricked to the heart, in remorse and godly sorrow, Acts 2:37. These here were cut to the heart with rage and indignation. Thus the same gospel is to some a savour of life unto life, to others of death unto death. The enemies of the gospel not only deprive themselves of its comforts, but fill themselves with terrors, and are their own tormentors. 2. With malice against the apostles themselves. Since they see they cannot stop their mouths any other way than by stopping their breath, they take counsel to slay them, hoping that so they shall cause the work to cease. While the apostles went on in the service of Christ, with a holy security and serenity of mind, perfectly composed, and in a sweet enjoyment of themselves, their persecutors went on in their opposition to Christ, with a constant perplexity and perturbation of mind, and vexation to themselves.
John MacArthur says the same thing of the Gospel truth:
It’s a sword and it rips men open. Convicts them. And they just couldn’t stand it. The word “deperianto” means violently agitated. Cut to the heart. They were just torn up inside. You say, “What got them all messed up?” The persistent preaching of these Christians.
A highly learned Pharisee, Gamaliel, stepped up and asked that the Apostles be removed from the area (verse 34). (Incidentally, there is only one famous person I can think of who had this name: Warren Gamaliel Harding, US president from 1921-1923. He was a Baptist who died in office. His administration was scandal-ridden.)
Who was the Gamaliel from Acts 5?
Henry tells us:
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 (Acts 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.
Henry saw the value of moderation in all things, especially in making decisions. MacArthur says that Gamaliel was working on the wrong premise. More about that later in this post.
MacArthur has more on Gamaliel:
Now he’s an eminent man. It says he was a teacher of the law and in the Talmud, which is the rabbinical writings of the Judaism[;] the Talmud calls him Gamaliel, the Elder, and the word rabban is a word that it’s not like Rabbi, it’s saved for only seven men, the seven most eminent teachers of Israel. He was the first one who ever got that title, so he’s a pretty sharp guy. He was the greatest teacher of his day. He was the grandson of Hillel. There were two great Rabbis. Any Jew will tell you the two great Rabbis Hillel and Chaim, those two Rabbis founded the two branches of Phariseeism one a little more conservative than the other. Hillel was the little more liberal wing. He was the grandson of Hillel. His heritage was good; he was a sharp guy. The old writing[s] tell us he had great earning, he was noble, he studied Greek literature, he was culturally so far advanced from the other Rabbis they weren’t even in the same ballpark with him. He was called the Beauty of the Law. He died 18 years before the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and in the Mishna it says, “Since Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and abstinence died out at the same time.” So he was a very dominating guy. They felt that when he died everything went with him.
Interestingly enough in Acts 22:3, it says that the apostle Paul studied at his feet. So Paul had the best teacher of Judaism that was alive at that time, maybe one of the greatest that ever lived.
MacArthur also gives us valuable information about the organisational set up of the temple:
Now Gamaliel was a Pharisee and you’ll remember that the Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin was the 70-member counsel that ruled Jerusalem. But within the framework of the 70-member counsel there were Pharisees, it was just that the Sadducees had the rule, had the money, they were the political collaborationists. They were the ones that had sided with Rome. They were the ones that you might say were the theological liberals. They were concerned with social customs, they were concerned with getting along with Rome, they were very liberal in theology, they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and they didn’t believe in angels and that’s why God made sure that the Apostles preached the resurrection and got let out of prison by an angel because He was defying their theology.
But nonetheless, they were the theological liberals; they were the political liberals, whereas the Pharisees were the traditionalists. They were purists as regarding the law; they were nationalists as regarding Israel. They believed that Israel should exist apart from any connection with Rome. They were the ones who would have joined in any rebellion to get Rome off their necks because they were isolationists, nationalistic, whereas the Sadducees were political collaborators with Rome and they were theological liberals and they look at it from an economic standpoint, prestige standpoint, etc. etc. Very much like the dichotomy today between evangelicals and liberals.
So they were poles apart religiously and they were poles apart politically, which made for an interesting kind of dialogue within the framework of the Sanhedrin. Now the Sadducees were very influential with the Sanhedrin and very influential with Rome, but very uninfluential with the people. The people’s group were the Pharisees. They were the ones that really swayed the people. Now this is very important because it adds a little bit of kind of undercurrent by play to this thing that’s going to happen in a second.
Josephus says, and Josephus was a non-Christian historian about the time of Christ, who commented on a lot of things that were going on then, and Josephus says that because of the popularity of the Pharisees with the people, the Sadducees would always acquiesce to their demands.
In short, the Sadducees listened to Gamaliel, not only because of his wisdom, but also because he had his finger on the public pulse.
Gamaliel warned straightaway that careful consideration must be given in the handling of the Apostles (verse 35). Henry has this analysis:
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, be not then as the horse and the mule that have no understanding; you are men of Israel, that should be governed by revelation, be not then as strangers and heathens, that have no regard to God and his word.
MacArthur disagrees. Of Gamaliel, he says:
although he comes across theological, I think in the back of his brain is a political thought because if this is the best he can come up with in theology he’s hurting.
Gamaliel asked the council to remember two political and religious radicals of their lifetime: Theudas and Judas the Galilean (not the betrayer).
Theudas, he reminded them, claimed to be someone important and was able to assemble 400 men to do his bidding. He was then killed — possibly by the authorities — and his movement stopped (verse 36).
Around the time of Theudas, Judas the Galilean started an uprising in the days of the census and unfair taxation. He, too, met his death and so did his movement (verse 37).
What was Gamaliel talking about? Henry fills us in on events that took place around the time when Jesus was born, so, 30+ years before. However, Henry also points out there were another politically motivated men by these names, which makes the timeline tricky to place:
Observe, [1.] The attempt he made. It is said to be after this, which some read, besides this, or, Let me mention, after this,–supposing that Judas’s insurrection was long before that of Theudas; for it was in the time of the taxation, namely, that at our Saviour’s birth (Luke 2:1), and that of Theudas, whom Josephus speaks of, that mutinied, in the time of Cuspius Fadus; but this was in the days of Claudius Cæsar, some years after Gamaliel spoke this, and therefore could not be the same. It is not easy to determine particularly when these events happened, nor whether this taxing was the same with that at our Saviour’s birth or one of a later date. 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.
MacArthur gives us his version of historical events:
There are too many guys named Theudas to remember who this is. We don’t have any idea. Josephus talks about a later Theudas who had a rebellion, but his rebellion was so different from the characteristics here and it came so many years later that we know it’s not the same guy …
“After this man rose up Judas of Galilee,” and this one we do know a little bit about. This fellow led a revolt about 6 A. D. You remember that Herod the Great died in 4 A. D., I guess, 4 B. C. I can’t remember which, and after he died there about ten thousand robbers that popped up. They popped up all over everywhere. It just came to be a common thing see. 4 B. C. he died. It was kind of a common thing and they were just running around in the country.
A lot of times these little groups of robbers would get together and they’d find a leader and they’d crown him a king and they’d start a little revolution. Well one of these guys was Judas and in 6 A. D. he led a rebellion during the time of the census or the taxation under Quirinius, which just gives you a historical footnote. But his position was this: he said God is king; therefore to pay taxes to Rome is blaspheming God. None of us shall pay taxes anymore and he started spreading this around. Well this was a big threat to Rome so immediately the Roman IRS got activated and came down and stomped all over Judas and his people. And it’s interesting that verse 37 says, “In the days of those in the registration he drew away many people after him. He also perished and all even as many as obeyed him were dispersed.”
MacArthur says that after the Judas of 6 AD:
out of that movement came a group of people known as the Zealots. Did you ever read about the Zealots in the Bible? The Zealots were the super super nationalistic people, really believed in the purity and the isolation of Israel. And they grew out of Judas’ rebellion. So it wasn’t just as ineffective as [Gamaliel] said.
Gamaliel told the council to leave the Apostles alone and see if their following and their message peters out (yes, pun). If it is a temporal movement, he said, it will die out of its own accord (verse 38).
However, he added, if this is a movement borne of God, then it is better to leave the Apostles alone rather than to experience divine wrath (verse 39).
MacArthur does not like that reasoning at all:
That is one of the dumbest messed up principles I’ve ever read. Parts of it are true and that’s what’s so insidious. That’s the way all the cults are, you know. They’re right just enough to mess you up. They’re like a clock that doesn’t work. They’re right on twice a day. And so his advice is let them alone and it’ll all work out.
You know what principle being interpreted is? Listen. Whatever succeeds is of God; whatever fails is not. That’s what he’s saying isn’t it? When you put 38 and 39 together he says if it’s of God it’ll succeed, if it isn’t it won’t. So whatever succeeds is of God, whatever fails is not. That is a dumb principle. If you live by that principle you will be a mess. I’ll say this. It’s true in an ultimate sense, right? At the coming of Christ whatever is of God will remain, whatever isn’t will be wiped out. But it’s only true in an ultimate sense. That’s sure no way to evaluate something that’s going on in that moment. I mean there are kinds of successful [movements] that God hates. Illustration number one: the Sanhedrin. I mean if that principle is true, none of them would even be there. They say if it’s of God it’ll remain. They’re looking at each other here we all remain. They didn’t even know God. If we applied that principle that meeting couldn’t have taken place.
MacArthur went to mention bad religious and political movements that are a century, sometimes more than a millennia old, which are definitely not borne of God.
Henry’s assessment is a more charitable:
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 any thing 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.
I see merit in both, but agree more with Henry’s regarding providential intervention.
In any event, the Sanhedrin heeded Gamaliel’s advice (verse 39).
So, what happened to Gamaliel? Henry tells us:
The tradition of the Jewish writers is that, for all this, he lived and died an inveterate enemy to Christ and his gospel; and though (now at least) he was not for persecuting the followers of Christ, yet he was the man who composed that prayer which the Jews use to this day for the extirpating of Christians and Christianity. On the contrary, the tradition of the Papists is that he turned Christian, and became an eminent patron of Christianity and a follower of Paul, who had formerly sat at his feet. If it had been so, it is very probable that we should have heard of him somewhere in the Acts or Epistles.
Although Gamaliel presented a reasonable approach, the rage of the council was such that they themselves were not about to let the Apostles go off lightly. So, in addition to ordering them not to speak of Jesus any more, they had the Twelve scourged (verse 40). MacArthur describes this horrific punishment, which Jesus Himself endured before the Crucifixion:
Deuteronomy 25 tells about it. It’s a sad thing.
The Mishna says a guy would take the hands of the person and strap him to two posts like this. He would strip his shirt off. The stone was set behind the man or in front of the man on which the guy stood and he had to swing with all his might, the Mishna said. He wrapped the leather around his hand, two big long wide broad pieces of leather from the navel to the ground, that long, and they gave him one-third of the stripes on the front and two-thirds on the back and he did it to every one of those believers there. Then that brought us to the third and final reaction and we’ll close with this.
The Apostles must have been in unimaginable, unbearable pain afterwards.
However, as they left the council, bleeding, they rejoiced! They were so happy that their tormentors considered them worthy enough to suffer in the name of Jesus (verse 41). Henry expands on this:
(1.) They reckoned it an honour, looked upon it that they were counted worthy to suffer shame, katexiothesan atimasthenai–that they were honoured to be dishonoured for Christ. Reproach for Christ is true preferment, as it makes us conformable to his pattern and serviceable to his interest. (2.) They rejoiced in it, remembering what their Master had said to them at their first setting out (Matthew 5:11,12): When men shall revile you, and persecute you, rejoice and be exceedingly glad. They rejoiced, not only though they suffered shame (their troubles did not diminish their joy), but that they suffered shame; their troubles increased their joy, and added to it. If we suffer ill for doing well, provided we suffer it well, and as we should, we ought to rejoice in that grace which enables us so to do.
They duly returned to their ministry in Jerusalem, not only speaking in the temple but also going from house to house (verse 42). Henry explains:
Though in the temple they were more exposed, and under the eye of their enemies, yet they did not confine themselves to their little oratories in their own houses, but ventured into the post of danger; and though they had the liberty of the temple, a consecrated place, yet they made no difficulty of preaching in houses, in every house, even the poorest cottage. They visited the families of those that were under their charge, and gave particular instructions to them according as their case required, even to the children and servants.
They did not preach themselves, but Christ, as faithful friends to the bridegroom, making it their business to advance his interest. This was the preaching that gave most offence to the priests, who were willing they should preach any thing but Christ; but they would not alter their subject to please them.
Henry has this reminder:
It ought to be the constant business of gospel ministers to preach Christ; Christ, and him crucified; Christ, and him glorified; nothing besides this but what is reducible to it.
MacArthur has a good analogy, comparing a robust Church to the effervescence of a fizzy drink:
We went somewhere the other day for lunch and somebody said, “I’d like to have a Coke.” Well I’m sorry the carbonation machine doesn’t work and the Coke is flat.” And I kept thinking, “Oh that is just about how I often feel about the church.” What happened to the fizz? I mean there’s no effect. So much of our Christianity is in the walls, isn’t it? And where’s the influence?
This is what the early church had was influence. Everywhere they went the world shook because their step was so heavy and it shook for God. You remember they said of them, “These who turned the world upside down have come to our city also.” See! Influence. They became the issue. Boy, when Christianity gets to be the issue that’s exciting.
Clergy really do need to remember this. Forget the soft platitudes. Give us meat.
And, we laypeople can draw a lesson from this too, whether we teach, work with young people or are parents or guardians. Make Christianity come alive for children. Start them off early with Bible stories and explain their importance. Explain the life of Christ in the way the Apostles did and they will not stray from a love for our Saviour, our only Mediator and Advocate.
Next week, we will read of another great preacher of Jesus: Stephen — possibly one of Gamaliel’s students — who ended up being the first martyr.
Next time: Acts 7:2b-8