Acts 5:33-42 Echoes of Gamaliel’s advice and how we will know when Messiah comes
Gamaliel is a fascinating historical figure and the insight he offers in this famous discourse opens up the question ‘how will you recognise Messiah when He comes?’ In his era there were two noteworthy schools of interpretation, the school of Shammai which was stricter and more legalistic, and the school of Hillel which was more ‘liberal’ though well within the parameters of Orthodox Judaism.
Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel and he was one of the few Rabbis of his time permitting students to read Greek literature[i]. He even allowed his disciples to greet pagans on their feast days[ii] and today his influence opens up a bridge for meaningful dialogue. He is mentioned in Acts 5, 22 and in the Talmud. In ‘My Jewish Learning’ both of the Acts references are cited.[iii] In Early Church writings, The Clementine Recognitions (1:65) state that he was a secret believer[iv] (possibly akin to Nicodemus), though there isn’t sufficient evidence to substantiate that claim. His name means ‘reward of God’.[v] His father might have been the Simeon that took our Lord in his arms[vi] and it is likely that he would have known Nicodemus.
In this passage it is clearly evident that he is greatly respected by the Sanhedrin and the majority of them would have been Sadducees who denied the resurrection of the dead, angels and only esteemed the Torah, not the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament). Gamaliel was also revered by others; Onkelos, the author of the Targum is said to have given 70 pounds of perfume in his honour at his funeral.[vii] That speaks of what Gamaliel meant to him and how he valued his life. He was the most noted Rabbi of his time and he died eighteen years before the temple was destroyed. It was said that when he died the glory of the law ceased, and purity and abstinence died.[viii]
He was the first to be called ‘Rabban’ (our master, our great one) which is a greater title than the usual designation ‘Rabbi’, meaning (my great one).[ix] Today, the great works of Jewish commentators are considered such as Rambam, Ramban, Ralbag and Rashi. These names are prefixed with R for Rabbi and are acronyms for the likes for Maimondies, Nachmanides, Levi Ben Gershon and Solomon Ben Isaac. One Messianic Scholar asked the question, “what about Raybad?” By that he meant Rabbi Yeshua Ben David. So Gamaliel was not only around at the time but is a helpful connecting point to consider Yeshua (Jesus).
The apostle Paul described himself as being raised at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). In Acts 5:33-42 Gamaliel intervenes preventing the apostles from being killed. Of course almost all those apostles would have been Jewish though that is hugely significant in terms of Jewish-Christian relations especially when Matthew 27:25 is misused as a blanket designation and examined out of the immediate context and has been misappropriated and used insidiously against Jewish people from all walks of life for two millennia. If Gamaliel had considered his student’s claim further, he might have become another Paul.
The Council Meeting
Picture the scene. The apostles have been imprisoned for preaching and have been freed by an angel and have returned only to preach in the temple again. Hence the council were furious and plotted for them to be killed. In contrast Gamaliel wisely counsels them to put the apostles outside for a while. This is the group equivalent of counting to ten before taking hasty action that might be regrettable soon afterwards. We are now privy to the Sanhedrin; Gamaliel stands up and has their undivided attention.
Gamaliel recalls that notable leaders claiming to be Messiah or who led insurrections had been around previously. He cites two examples. Firstly, Theudas-not the one mentioned in Josephus[x] although there are similarities.[xi] The one Josephus mentioned also thought he was a great prophet, desired to part the Jordan River and was executed.[xii] Secondly there was Judas of Galilee. He is mentioned in Josephus and his account agrees with Luke’s account.
It is at this point that we are introduced to the Gamaliel principle. Leave them alone. If this movement is from men, it will come to nothing but if it is of God be wary lest you find yourself trying to inadvertently fight God! If we were present it would be tempting to heap generous praise and give a standing ovation though let’s assess the situation more thoughtfully. This isn’t necessarily an opinion sympathetic with the apostles cause though it demonstrates an awareness and trust in the sovereignty of God.[xiii]
We could say the argument is an apologetic though the logic isn’t watertight. Other religions, movements and cults have grown and flourished but through violent and questionable means and that certainly isn’t evidence of the Lord’s blessing. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection whilst the Sadducees didn’t; thus in Acts 23 when the Sanhedrin was divided over the resurrection, the Sadducees argued in Paul’s favour. Gamaliel might have had Psalm 2 in mind in the context of the futility of fighting against the Lord and His anointed.[xiv]
Other Messianic Claims
There has been a track record of people claiming to be Messiah throughout the ages convincing many. For the sake of brevity only a few of the more well- known ones will be mentioned here. During the Bar Kochba revolt in AD 132-135, Rabbi Akiva believed Simon Bar Kochba to be the Messiah. This caused great controversy and division between Jews, Jewish Messianics and Gentile Christians. Tragically at the same time Justin Martyr wrote his dialogue with Trypho the Jew which caused incalculable damage.
Many others claimed to be the Messiah over the centuries. Fast forward one and a half millennia to the time of Shabbatai Zevi who had a following. Nathan ‘the prophet’ convinced him that he was the Messiah and he under duress even eventually converted to Islam[xv]. He was born in Smyrna, Turkey and this occured shortly after the Cossacks butchered 300,000 Jewish people in Ukraine.[xvi] Needless to say it should be noted they were desperate to be delivered from their awful plight and persecution.
In the last century some believed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to be the Messiah. He was born in Russia, lived much of his life in New York and passed away in 1994. Some hoped that he would be resurrected. There was an interesting article about his influence in the December issue of Israel Today. He was the 7th leader of the Lubavites and is still considered one of the most phenomenal Jewish personalities of our era.[xvii]
Asking meaningful questions
Sometimes questions are more useful and thought- provoking than detailed responses. Consider the following… Zevi was born in Turkey and Schneerson in Russia but where does the Scriptures say Messiah will be born? How will we know when Messiah comes? You will know…How do we know that and what prophesies can help us know for certain? What will Messiah do? Messiah will bring peace. How will Messiah bring peace? How will we recognise Messiah apart from the others who have claimed to have been Messiah?
Why is asking questions so useful and answering questions with another question? Asking questions forces people to think rather than regurgitating their own opinions. In the gospels, our Lord asked questions in a masterful way and at times responded to a question with another question.
How will you know when Messiah comes? Doesn’t the Bible state that he will be born in Bethlehem, from the tribe of Judah and the line of David? Won’t Messiah speak in parables, perform miracles and make atonement? Could Yeshua (Jesus), be the Messiah? Won’t Messiah fulfil prophesy and be like Moses?
For those who deny the resurrection of the body and a literal Messiah, though look forward to a Messianic Age, how can there be a time of peace on earth without the Peacemaker? How can you have a kingdom without a king?
Despite the fact that the Sanhedrin consented to Gamaliel’s verdict, they still beat the apostles and tried to silence them. Amazingly, they rejoiced that they were worthy to suffer and taught and preached daily in the temple and houses. Similarly today, Messianic believers still face persecution and misunderstanding from all sides although others are much more supportive of them when they recognise God’s plan for Israel and the nations.
Gamaliel spoke in the Sanhedrin, the apostles made it known that they were
witnesses. After they were beaten and warned, they still witnessed. We must be
witnesses also and salt and light in this world. At Passover and in recognition
of Gamaliel’s advice, mention is made of the Passover sacrifice, bitter herbs
and the unleavened bread.[xviii]
Not only does this remind us of the bitter lives and the Lord’s mighty
deliverance and redemption at Pesach; it more gloriously points to Yeshua, the
sinless Lamb of God who through His sacrifice made atonement for our sins.
Messiah has already come and is coming again.
Are you ready for when He comes and are you trusting in Him?
[i] Phillips Brooks https://biblehub.com/sermons/auth/brooks/gamaliel.htm
[iii] Rabbi Louis Jacobs https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rabban-gamaliel/
[iv] Merrill F. Unger Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Moody Press, Chicago; 1985), p388
[v] Ibid, p388
[viii] J. Anderson Acts What the Bible Teaches (John Ritchie Ltd, Kilmarnock, 2003), p72-73
[ix] David Stern Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc, Clarksville; 1992), p237
[x] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, Nashville; 2005), p1445
[xi] John Walvord & Roy Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Victor, USA; 1983), p366
[xii] The New Complete Works of Josephus Translated by William Whiston & Commentary by Paul L Maier (Kregel, Grand Rapids; 1999), p648
[xiii] Walvord & Zuck, p366
[xiv] Anderson, p73
[xv] Matt Plen Who was Shabbetia Zevi? https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbetai-zevi/
[xvi] Ibid, Plen
[xvii] Israel Today (December 2018, No.228), p4-5
[xviii] Ceil & Moishe Rosen Christ in the Passover (Moody Publishers, Chicago; 2006), p62