The Apostles Arrested and Freed Continued
33 When they [the council] heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them [the apostles]. 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.
Observations and Reflections
The apostles, having no regard for the council’s instructions to not preach about Jesus, now find themselves before the council once again. This time they are facing a sentence that might be more severe than being imprisoned. Luckily, they were saved by the logic and reasoning of Gamaliel, a very influential rabbi known as Gamaliel the Elder. He was the son of another highly regarded rabbi, Hillel. In the Jewish Talmud he is described as the “President” of the Sanhedrin. He was so influential that even Paul evoked his name to gain favor with the crowds in Jerusalem after he was arrested.
1 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
2 When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.
He is known by many today as one of the last great teachers of Jewish thinking and law. Needless to say, if the apostles could have selected someone to gain favor with, it would have been Gamaliel, and his reasoning before the council was perfect. The general logic was that if the apostles were sent by God then they cannot be stopped and that the council would be fighting against God, not the apostles. His proof relies on the two previous movements that many would compare to Jesus’ movement; Thadeus & Judas the Galilean.
It is believed that the Thadeus referred to by Gamaliel was a self-professed prophet, circa 44 CE. This Thadeus was described by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (20:97-99). He lead a few hundred people in a revolt that was going to begin by joining him at the Jordan river, which he told people would again be parted by God. However, the Romans caught wind of his plans, went down to the river, and beheaded Thadeus. The problem with this story is that it all went down in about 44 CE, which was 10-14 years or more later than then events of Acts 5. It is quite possible that there were more than 1 Thadeus that lead a large movement against Rome. It is also possible that either Luke or Josephus got the dates wrong. Lastly, it’s also possible that Thadeus was a 2nd name or nickname for another leader in the early first century. There were many revolts and prophetic leaders in the early first century. A prime showcase is Gamaliel’s second example, Judas the Galilean.
Judas the Galilean was a well known leader of the Zealots, who were so powerful that Josephus named them the 4th branch of Judaism, alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. He arose during the “time of the census” according to Gamaliel, which is referring to the census of Quirinius, about 6 CE. It is this census that many people believe was responsible for the travels of Joseph and Mary in Luke 3. During this time period, Judas the Galilean he amassed followers of all social levels, even priests, and mounted an armed revolt against Rome, claiming Judea to be a Jewish state and separate from Roman imperial rule. This resistance to Roman rule and their taxes grew for some years and eventually lead to a full-scale war which was likely the reason why Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Rome. But Judas and his closest followers were killed and the remainder were scattered or went into hiding.
After the death of Judas, his son founded a movement that was known as the Sicarii, and were known to resist Roman occupation through guerrilla war tactics like stabbing people in crowds secretly and murdering Roman sympathizers. They were men of cloaks and daggers so-to-speak. However, this group would be in it’s beginning stages at the time of Acts 5.
After Gamaliel finishes his delivery, the council concedes that he is correct and allows the apostles to go free. But as before, they were warned not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. And once again, the promptly ignored that warning.
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. (Acts 5:42)
The amount of courage mounted by the apostles in the face of danger should be awe-inspiring to every Christian today.
The man that stood up to speak was both influential and held a high position among the religious leaders. He brings up examples of those who attempted to rise to power and failed do to so because eventually, every one runs out of resources and means to carry on. Here is implying that perhaps Peter and the apostles will too run out of energy and will either fail or just give up.
It is interesting to note that this man, however misguided, did not deny that if it is truly God’s power working in their lives, then they will not fail and the power that the religious rulers thought they had, would not be able to overthrow them. He even went as far to say that they might even be opposing God.
Now, this advice that was given was not done out of an actual reverence and love for God. It was done out of fear of what might happen if they do indeed attempt to go against Him and His people. If they had truly believed that it could possibly be God’s hand at work, they would not have responded by beating them and threatening them not to once again, speak on the name of Jesus Christ.
Their hearts were still hardened against the message of the Gospel and Jesus Christ. They had no vested interest in actually sparing the lives of the Apostles on the account that they could continue to preach the Gospel and live their lives. It was on a condition that they would take their threats seriously and stop preaching.
The hearts of the Apostles were not driven by fear or discouragement. Instead they left feeling empowered by the Holy Spirit and continued to still preach knowing that there would be consequences. They did not fear man or the threats that came with them. Their number one priority was their love and obedience towards God in preaching the Gospel and spreading it to the world.
Encouragement can be found in reading this passage because we too have the same access to God and the help of His Holy Spirit. Fear is not part of the Christian vocabulary because God’s word promises His everlasting peace despite how bad our circumstances are. Trust comes with knowing that yes the result might be difficult but God is still able to sustain us and walk is through the hard times.
Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913); the Hebrew caption above the miniature “רבן גמליﭏ” means “Rabbi Gamliel” (the leftmost letter is an aleph-lamed ligature). The image was taken from a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah.