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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

07 July 2005

What Pharisee Said, “Let the Christians Alone”?

Q: I’m trying to find the passage where someone asked a wise Pharisee about Jesus and the Pharisee said, “If he is not of God, don’t worry; it will pass and they will all go away. But if he is of God we can’t stop him.” Can you help me find this passage?

A: The man you’re thinking of was Gamaliel. His speech came following the arrest of the apostles in Acts 5:17-42. He said, “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! (vv. 38-39)”

Later in Acts, when Paul was establishing his credentials in Jerusalem, he listed Gamaliel of Jerusalem as his mentor (Acts 22:3). One tradition has it that he was grandson of another great teacher, Hillel. Gamaliel was so well regarded among the Jews that he became known not as Rabbi (“my teacher”) but Rabban (“our teacher”). The Mishnah claimed that “reverence for the Law, and purity and abstinence died” with Rabban Gamaliel (Sota ix.15).

We know that “this undertaking” did not fail: Christianity has spread across the globe. As John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

However, the words of Gamaliel, although recorded in infallible Scripture, are those of a fallible human being. Many undertakings of man have prospered since Christ founded His Church. Islam and Mormonism are but two examples of explosive growth of philosophies contrary to the Gospel. These and other man-founded religions claim millions of adherents around the world and show no sign of failure — at least not in human terms for the foreseeable future.

Even within Christendom, many human innovations and teachings grow up and continue. Large portions of the Church deny the efficacy of Baptism or its necessity for infants. Millions of Christians belong to bodies which deny the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Meanwhile, hundreds of preachers promote some form of success-and-wealth “gospel” — which is no Gospel — and find thousands of takers for their schemes.

No, as wise as he was, I’m firmly convinced that Gamaliel was wrong on this count. There have been many occasions when false teachings prospered while Christianity sat almost completely unconsidered and abandoned. Yet this has always been the way of God’s Word: It accomplishes His purposes, but the accomplishments are often unseen or ignored by the world.

Thus, we cannot judge doctrine by results. If so, Christians should abandon Trinitarian belief, deny Christ’s virgin birth, true divinity, and united substance with the Father, forsake the way of the cross, and become Mohammedans or Mormons. We must continue to let a Christ-centered understanding of Scripture and history guide us, that we may not follow each booming fad nor become discouraged when it seems that God’s way is slow, inefficient, and impractical. After all, Christ calls us to take up the cross, not the crown, while we live our earthly lives (cf. Mt 16:24).

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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