“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. And he said to them, ‘Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.’ They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:34-42).
Historians regard Gamaliel as the most influential theologian of his day. A doctor of the Law, he studied in the school of Hillel, which embodied the liberal branch of the Pharisees, emphasizing tradition over the Law. He eventually presided over the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council. So esteemed was he that he was given the title “Rabban” (Our Teacher), a higher honor than “Rabbi” (My Teacher); that is, he was recognized as a teacher of teachers.
When the Sadducees brought the apostles into the Sanhedrin for questioning, the assembly nearly descended into a brawl. To calm the chaos, Gamaliel stood up, to indicate that he had something to say. He carried such respect that merely rising to his feet broke the hostilities and brought the house to silence. Ordering the apostles out of the room, possibly to maintain the peace, he spoke with a wisdom that captured the Council.
Gamaliel mentioned two cases that are now lost to history, but were well known at the time, involving two men: Theudas and Judas. Each man garnered a following that threatened the social, political, and religious order of the day. Both men died and their devotees disbanded, their causes amounting to nothing.
In light of common reason, he concluded that the same would be the outcome Jesus’ apostles: “if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” In the absence of any historical evidence that Gamaliel ever embraced Christ by faith, we can assume that he viewed the church as another rabble rising up only to be put down in time.
Yet, Gamaliel recognized that, if the gospel were of God, men could do nothing to stop it. Martin Luther said it this way: “God is not mocked, and it is not good policy to run against Him!” (Bondage of the Will, p. 178). Gamaliel’s test was to let the church run its course. If it produced anything of lasting value, that would indicate that God was in it, but if it fell apart, it would be exposed as a fraud.
It’s no surprise to Christ’s disciples that Gamaliel’s test has borne out over the millennia the fact that Jesus is Lord, the gospel is good news, and that Christ is building His church. Secular theories about the origin and nature of the universe have risen and fallen repeatedly. Secularists constantly tweak and reinvent their models wholesale, but the biblical record has stood unparalleled in its veracity, historicity, and theology.
Despite many attempts throughout history to counterfeit the gospel, Christ continues unabatedly to build His church. To borrow from Jesus’ parable, there are undoubtedly weeds in the field, but Christ is preparing His bride for His glory and nothing that anyone can do will ever thwart the Lord’s plan to bring His church home to bask in His eternal grace. What began with a handful of people following an itinerant Rabbi across the hills and plains of Israel has grown across every visible distinction of humanity to comprise the most brilliant display of God’s glory in the earth.