But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites,consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also 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; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’
They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
Today’s Devotion narrative text from Acts continues on from last Saturday’s, where Peter and other Apostles are before the council of priests. Like in any court of law, there comes a point in proceedings when those responsible for making the decisions are in closed session away from the ‘accused’ to discuss, evaluate and decide. The events in today’s passage are very similar to this.
Gamaliel is an unlikely, unsung hero of New Testament times: a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish Law, but as we see in today’s text, a man of an open mind. He had clearly seen a number of false Messiahs or false saviours: he mentions two of them, Theudas and Judas, and how their movements died out.
Gamaliel had the wisdom to leave the door open for God. He knew that any religious movement not of God would die out, but if God were in the movement, then there would be nothing humankind could do to defeat God’s purpose. In Gamaliel’s words: “…if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:39)
Looking at the decreasing size and number of congregations, it can sometimes be disheartening. URC attendance in 1980 was 138,300; in 2016, just 33,100 ( Source: www.faithsurvey.co.uk ) Even at its peak in the 1920s, UK church attendance was around 30% ( Source: www.brin.ac.uk ); in 2015, that figure was around 3%.
Despite the Romans’ brutal suppression of Christianity, the faith survived and grew, and it became a world-wide faith. Almost 2000 years have passed since Jesus’ historically documented time on earth, and globally, 1 in 3 people identify as Christian. Weighing the history and the statistical evidence against Gamaliel’s declaration, clearly it is of God.
500 years ago, the Reformation began, bringing about massive changes to all Christian churches. In the Statement Concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC, we read: “Faith alive and active: gift of an eternal source, renewed for every generation.”
Let us ask ourselves the question: what are we doing to cooperate as God seeks to renew the Church?
O Loving God, You are the Living God, the only God, ever to be praised. We give thanks to You for Your grace. Help us to respond to the prompting of your Word. Send Your Holy Spirit on us, That we might be renewed for this and every generation. Source, Guide and Goal of all that is: to You be eternal glory. Amen.
Walt Johnson is a member and elder of Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC, Chorlton, Manchester.