It’s a law in the spiritual realm just as sure as gravity in the physical realm: As soon as a ministry or church starts to become effective, the Enemy takes steps to hinder or destroy it. He hates God with every atom of his being, and he can’t stand to see the Lord’s work actually succeeding. Add on top of that the fact that he can’t reach the Lord himself in heaven, and you can see why the Adversary loves to stir up persecution of the saints. Keep in mind that every single believer in the world is a reminder of his ultimate defeat at Calvary.
So the religious leaders decided to round up the disciples, but the Lord miraculously intervened and released them from prison. And did the apostles go back and hide in an upper room like they did before? Of course not—That's what they did pre-Holy Spirit. Now as soon they found freedom, they used it to proclaim the Messiah in the temple courts and anywhere else there were people to listen. The gauntlet was unambiguously thrown down.
So they rounded up the apostles and confronted them again. The main issue on the leaders’ minds apparently was that the apostles’ teaching indicted them (the leaders) of the murder of Jesus. As if that was the main point of the apostles’ message. Peter wasn’t squeamish concerning the fact that the leaders were responsible (in a certain sense) for the death of the Savior (although really it was you and me who nailed him to the cross), but that wasn’t the focus of the Good News. But in the leaders’ minds, every time the apostles preached about Jesus, it was a public accusation squarely aimed at them.
The apostles’ response to the command/threat was predictable: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” In this answer to authority they had some wonderful precedents: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and a host of others whose names we’ll never hear this side of Glory. All of these men stood before kings and was forced to choose between man’s authority and God’s command. And for them, the choice was clear. I certainly hope that if it ever comes down to it, I’ll make the same one.
Now we get to a very interesting part of the story, at least to me. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I’m pretty pessimistic about fallen human nature. In this regard I try to have a strictly biblical view, which presents a pretty gloomy picture of the subject. Even with the Holy Spirit within us, we're still pretty selfish and rebellious at times. And I’ve always emphasized the fact that—in the end—there's no middle ground concerning Christ. Everyone who ever met him on earth either ended up worshiping him or calling for his death. Oh sure, there are plenty of “seekers” who are curious and who didn’t know exactly what to make of this new Teacher. And the Church should always welcome seekers today. But that doesn’t change the immutable fact: Eventually everyone confronted with the claims of Christ has to make a choice about him. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the one thing Jesus could not possibly be was a nice and good teacher whom you could respect. Either he’s a liar/fraud, a lunatic, or he’s Lord of all creation.
So what do we make of Gamaliel? He was the most noted Rabbi of his time. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, whom you might've heard of. He seemed to be somewhat open-minded concerning this new teaching, at least not willing to kill people over it. His reasoning seems perfectly sound, and it (and his prominence, no doubt) convinced the others to merely threaten the apostles and let them go. If this new teaching isn’t from God, it’ll come to nothing in the end. In case it is from God, then maybe we need to tread carefully. Was he a secret believer? No, there’s no indication of that. But he was a fair-minded man who cared more about truth than about politics or about his reputation before the people.
So how do we interpret his situation? He wasn’t saved, but he was what I call an “unexpected friend.” There are some other examples of this: the Pharaoh in Joseph’s time, and Darius in Daniel’s. Keep in mind, this changes nothing about the exclusive nature of the Good News. We just read it in the last chapter of Acts: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” But when God, in his mercy, decides to incline the heart of even a lost person towards our favor, that’s a good thing. And we should be thankful for whatever friends we can find in this dark and cruel world. In the most unexpected of times and most surprising of places, our Savior provides refreshing help for his Bride.
Lord Jesus, thank you for being so good to us. We recognize that when anyone in the world shows any true favor towards us at all, that’s from you.