Gamaliel’s Test for Christianity

I recently led a Bible study doing a brief overview of the book of Acts. One character stood out to me who never had before. His one moment in the spotlight is brief but very significant. The Pharisee and teacher of the law, Gamaliel, makes a brief appearance in Acts 5. We also find out later that Paul was a student of his before converting to Christianity. In a time of great danger and upheaval for the early Christian church, we hear Gamaliel’s test for Christianity. His words told us what to look for in a way that many overlook.

What Did Gamaliel Say?

Acts chapter 5 tells of the apostles being arrested after performing many signs and wonders. When taken before the council of high priests, many of the enraged Pharisees wanted to see the apostles killed. They are only stopped when “a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while” (Acts 5:34 ESV).

From there, Gamaliel describes the history of Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Both men claimed to be some form of messiah and gained a following. Ultimately, both men died, and their followers scattered. With that in mind, Gamaliel advises the Jewish leaders, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God” (Acts 5:38-39 ESV)!

The Test is Given

This statement by Gamaliel is an interesting test. He advises the high priests to wait and see. If this new movement is false, it’ll die out like the others. If it is from God, nothing will be able to stop it. I love this message, especially coming so early in the book of Acts and the story of the Christian church. At least in hindsight, this feels like a reminder that from this point on, the world had its eye on Christianity. Are you just one among the countless other religions that sprung up and faded into history? You claim your central figure is God incarnate, the way, the truth, and the life. Let’s see what you can do.

The Test Fulfilled in Acts

This test sets the tone for the rest of the book’s narrative. By all accounts, Christianity should not still be here. This religion should have died out numerous times, and I shouldn’t still be here writing about it 2,000 years later. Much like the other men Gamaliel mentioned, Christianity should have died at the crucifixion of Jesus. Its leader and central figure killed, leaving his boldest followers hiding in their homes. Then they see the risen Jesus. That, along with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, emboldens them to preach the gospel of Jesus.

The story continues, though. The apostles and early church faced constant persecution and opposition. Peter was imprisoned, only to be freed by an angel. Paul was arrested, imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, nearly starved, bitten by a venomous snake, and more, but with God protecting him at every stage. Jewish and Roman persecution was just a fact of life for many early Christians. Logically, Christianity should have been stomped out a hundred different times. Yet even when men like Peter, Paul, or James ultimately died, the movement kept growing. Why won’t this movement die? Because Christianity passed Gamaliel’s test with flying colors.

The Test Through All of History

Voltaire

Gamaliel’s test didn’t end with the book of Acts. For the last 2,000 years, Christianity has continued to endure. Through councils, reformations, and crusades, we are still here today. It makes me think of Voltaire, the French philosopher who predicted that nobody would read the Bible in 100 years. Later his own home and printing press were used to make more Bibles—one of history’s great ironies.

Survival alone does not make Christianity true. Of course, some other religions and philosophies have endured just as long. Just because something persists does not necessarily mean it is from God. However, something from God will undoubtedly endure, especially in the manner that Christianity has. The way Christianity survived every trial could almost be described as artificial. It seems impossible, like someone messed with nature. I sympathize with skeptics who believe Christian history is made up or modified. It doesn’t really make sense unless there is a God behind it. But just like Gamaliel said, nobody has managed to overthrow it, not for lack of trying.

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