GAMALIEL WAS WRONG. HE SAT AND watched as Peter and the other apostles were paraded before the Sanhedrin. He listened as his peers in the Council reproved them for continuing to proclaim the gospel, and he took notice when Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29–32).
That statement brought a quick response from many members of the Council, who condemned the apostles and intended to kill them. Sensing his colleagues’ murderous aims, Gamaliel, a respected teacher of the Law, rose to speak to his fellow Israelites. He said, “Consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (vv. 35–39).
Listening thoughtfully, the other members of the Council found the teacher’s advice persuasive, at least for the time being. They flogged the apostles, ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and turned them loose (v. 40). The apostles experienced a temporary reprieve as a result of Gamaliel’s counsel.
When the persecution of Christians resumed in earnest a short time later, it became apparent (at least to Paul) that Gamaliel was partly right. Battling against the church was actually battling against God (9:4–5). But the heart of Gamaliel’s advice was dead wrong. Wrongly assuming that God acts predictably, the teacher believed that the blessing of God could be measured by circumstances. Movements of God would be unstoppable and movements “of human origin”—those not favored by God—would inevitably fail.
On the surface his idea makes sense. After all, God can certainly be expected to accomplish His purposes. But the danger comes in assuming we can identify His purposes on the basis of signs and appearances.
Gamaliel probably used the same logic in his rejection of Jesus. After all, had not this pretender been crucified? Surely He was not of God! Perhaps Gamaliel was even one of those taunting from the foot of the cross. “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:42–43).
From where they stood, based on what they saw, the argument made sense.
Surely God would not allow this to happen to His own Son! (Ah, but He did.)
Surely He would have intervened with powerful signs! (Alas, He did not.)
Now the Cross stands forever against the idea that appearances are reliable measures of God’s blessing, for His hand does not always move so predictably.
Fifteen centuries later Martin Luther might have numbered Gamaliel among those he called “theologians of glory.” A theologian of glory, he said, is one “who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.” Looking for God in displays of strength, power, or success, they failed to see Him in the Cross. Luther argued that such persons do not deserve to be called theologians, because they do not know God. By contrast a theologian of the Cross “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”
Recognizing that God has made Himself known in the Cross, contrary to our expectations, Luther said we should not expect to know God through natural wisdom or measure His work by worldly standards.
For modern-day followers of Gamaliel the lesson should be clear. We can’t use outward displays of success or failure to measure divine blessing. Think of the Mormon Church, on the one hand, and the martyrs, on the other. Apparent success does not mean God is with us any more than apparent failure means He has abandoned us.
Appearances, because they are not final, and because God often acts contrary to our expectations, are simply inadequate signs of His presence.
The same lesson applies in a different way to those who struggle with disappointment and doubt. After all, the problem of evil is little more than a crisis of failed expectations. If God exists, it is argued, He can be expected to establish justice in the world. When injustice is rampant, it raises doubts about His presence, power, or concern. In precisely this fashion Israel’s enemies continually pushed them toward doubt by asking, “Where is your God now?” (Ps. 115:2). If He exists and is as strong as you say, why does He seem to have abandoned you?
Today we tend to ask the same questions. When God does not do what we expect, when His presence does not produce the effect we anticipated, we too may begin to wonder whether He is there at all. The theologians of glory—the sons and daughters of Gamaliel—continue to ask the question, “Where is your God now?” The psalmist offered an answer: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases Him” (v. 3). A theology of the Cross would add that, in suffering, God may be found precisely where He was on Good Friday: identifying with us in our suffering, acting to resolve that suffering in ways we may not see or imagine, and yet sovereign in the heavens, accomplishing His eternal purposes.
Looking for signs of God’s blessing in circumstances and appearances, Gamaliel was wrong in his assessment of Jesus, and he was wrong in his advice about the apostles. There is no evidence that the teacher ever changed his mind, but one of his students, en route to Damascus, learned firsthand that God’s power is manifested in weakness, that the Jesus of the Cross is indeed the exalted Christ. As in Paul’s day, the Cross offends those who look for signs, and it seems foolish to those who think themselves wise (1 Cor. 1:22–25). But to the humble, who know the difference between reality and appearances, it is the power of God.