Here is a sermon about the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, who was one of Paul’s teachers. His counsel of restraint is just as wise today as it was in the days of the Book of Acts.
The Wisdom of Gamaliel
A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Acts 5:27-42; 22 (sel. vss.)
Paul did not listen to the wisdom of his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, and he later came to regret it.
Paul was among those who were enraged by the witness and teachings of the apostles of Jesus. He thought Jesus’ followers were just plain wrong. They were dangerous. They were preaching lies. They were misinterpreting the scriptures, and they were dishonoring God.
Paul, then called by his Hebrew name Saul, threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of eliminating and erasing the church. It was he who stood by holding the coats while his colleagues pelted deacon Stephen to death. It was he who breathed threats and murder against the people of Jesus, dragging off to prison any he could lay his hands on. It was he who ravaged the church. Paul was enemy number one.
Or to use the imagery of today’s parable, Paul believed that the followers of Jesus were weeds in the field of true faith, and Paul himself was a self-appointed, industrial strength weedeater.
As we think about this, it’s important to remember that at that time, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church was born inside the Jewish faith. This was a family conflict.
It’s also important to note that the religious authorities and council members came from different groups within Judaism. Pharisees and Sadducees held differing viewpoints on some matters of faith, and sometimes there was friction between them. They tended to disagree vigorously.
It’s also important to remember that some among them were sympathetic to the church, and some, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were both Pharisees, even became followers of Jesus.
We don’t know whether Gamaliel, also a Pharisee, ever became a follower of Jesus or not. There’s not enough in the story to be able to tell, but the possibility is there. Some traditions say that he did. But there are a few things we can say with certainty about Gamaliel. He was well-respected then, and also down through the ages by both Jews and Christians.
Gamaliel did not think violence was the way. He didn’t think killing the apostles was the answer to the conflict. When he saw the rage in his fellow council members’ faces and heard them calling for the death penalty, he took the floor of the council meeting and called for an executive session. The apostles were taken out.
Then Gamaliel said, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. Remember what happened with those other men, Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had followings for a while. They both got killed and their movements fizzled out, and their followers scattered to the four winds.
“I’m telling you,” Gamaliel continued, “keep your hands off these men! Let them alone! If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, you won’t be able to stop it whatever you do. You might even find yourselves fighting against God himself!”
To put Gamaliel’s point succinctly: Be careful! You might be wrong!
Which is also one of the main points of Jesus’ parable about not trying to pull the weeds out of the wheat: You might be wrong!