Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.
I. INNOCENCE AN OBJECT OF HATE TO THE UNJUST. No wound is more deadly than that inflicted by words of truth upon false hearts. If the heart will not receive the truth, the truth will pierce through it. And murderous counsels show that truth has been denied in the heart. Instead of answering the witnesses with reason for reason, the Sanhedrim seek to stop their mouth with earth and put them to death. A cause is lost when it can be no longer argued in the court of reason, when its only argument is the sword, or the stake, or the rod, or the prison-cell.
II. SUGGESTIONS OF NEUTRALITY. Gamaliel is the type of common sense undisturbed by zeal - of clear judgment unbiased by prejudice. It is pretty evident that he did not sympathize with the apostles; still less, probably, did he sympathize with the fears or the fanaticism of his colleagues. He is perhaps "old and cold." Seldom do men of strong reflective habit feel much interest in novelties in religion. Seldom do the observers of life, the students of human history, expect much from sudden popular movements or popular teaching. Such was Gamaliel's character. But where so little is said there is much room for difference of opinion as to what that character really was, how far really inclined to Christ's doctrine, possibly believing in his mission, or a disciple in secret. In the absence of further knowledge of the man, we may consider his counsel, and draw the following lesson : -
1. Prudence and caution are ever seasonable and especially so where there is a temptation to violence and repression of others' freedom. We should never act without a clear call to do so. The alternation of inaction is best in doubtful cases.
2. Experience shows that movements which have no vitality in them come to an end if left alone. They die for want of fuel, while persecution supplies that fuel on which they live. Such had been the case with the insurrection of Judas and that of Theudas.
3. Time is required that the true nature of a movement be clearly seen. Many a seed springs up that cannot live; many a threatened man lives long. A new force cannot be judged by the first appearances and manifestations.
4. There is always a danger in repression. The force you seem to have quelled for the moment only bursts forth in a new direction. You may, while you think to be putting down your enemy, be rousing up a more formidable one, or exposing yourself to attack in some unguarded quarter. Above all, you may be contending against Divine power and will, and inviting its vengeance.
5. Faith in truth, utter contempt for falsehood and imposture, is our safest temper. This gives calmness under every emergency. The truth can never harm us if we are on its side, nor can it be defeated by any power on the other side. After all, this true attitude was Gamaliel's. He was a man who understood and believed in the moral laws. Well would it have been had the Sanhedrim shared his intelligence and honesty. And had his advice been followed at similar crises of religious history, much bloodshed and retardation of the good cause would have been avoided. In private life, how many an occasion when there is a restless desire to act, to fetter the free action of others, to stop the course of moral laws, when the simple question is pertinent! - "Can you not - let it alone?"
III. WEAK VIOLENCE. Threats - prison - rods; to this the Sanhedrim in its might resorts against helpless and unarmed men. Rods are for the backs of those who are not amenable to reason. The chastisement which is appropriate to the fool is absurdly applied to the man who acts from deliberate counsel and proved determination. Blows are no match for prayers. The martyr is never in the tyrant's power. He clings to God's skirts, and malice cannot touch his soul.
IV. THE MARTYR'S JOY. Joy of the purest quality and most triumphal power starts from the very seed-bed of pain. Pain may be to the soul the expression of God's displeasure or of his love. If it is incurred in obedience to him, the soul wears it as a testimonial of his goodness. The honor of suffering for God's sake is one of peculiar worth. There is a natural feeling that any great suffering entitles the patient to some respect. The consciousness of being selected for suffering in the noblest cause ennobles the soul. It feels crowned and throned. Our capacity is enlarged both for thought and feeling and for joy by such an experience. It is strengthened, and every fresh trial, faithfully endured, prepares for new effort, goads to perseverance, and so defeats the persecutor by the very means of his own weapons. - J.
Before these days rose up Theudas.
I. GOD'S KINGDOM ON EARTH IS NOT A NOVELTY. The first thing for us to remember is that the kingdom of God on earth is not a novelty, Christianity is not an experiment, and that "before these days" ten thousand similar dangers have been triumphantly surmounted. The man who is not in league with the past cannot face the future. We need to see things in large perspective, to stand off from our little immediate task, as the painter stands away from his canvas, that he may return to it with surer touch. Even in the common responsibilities of daily life some knowledge of history is quite as important as acquaintance with the multiplication table. Let the man who despairs of our political leaders to-day read the story of the attacks made on Washington in the darkest days of the Revolution. Let the man who is bewildered by the sudden influx of new knowledge, and cannot adjust himself at once to the fresh truth poured into his mind, remember the great shock given to humanity — a shock which seemed to dislocate all systems of science and all hymns of the faith — when Copernicus proclaimed that this earth, instead of being the centre of the universe, for the sake of which sun and stars were created, around which the ordered sky revolved, was but a mote floating in the boundless void, an insignificant star sending its tiny ray into the infinite darkness. The present generation is specially deficient in historical perspective. Our life has been so swift, so wholly modern, that we are intensely individual, delighting often in segregation from the past. Thus, having small background for present endeavour, we grow restless and are easily tossed by conflicting winds. History says, too, as Nature to Emerson: "Why so hot, my little man?" The history of the Christian Church is a splendid armoury for faith. The future of Christianity does not depend on what is won or lost this morning. The success of God's kingdom in the earth is not staked on the success of my little scheme any more than the coming of spring depends on the success of the pansy bed in my garden. That kingdom was before we came into being, it will endure when we are gone — it is the work of Him who was, and is, and is to be, the Almighty. Behind all the men that come and go, the theories that rise and fall, stands "God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own."
II. A BACKGROUND OF TRIUMPHANT HISTORY. We are writing now, but never before, "1892" on all our letters, notes, deeds. These figures are vastly more than a conventional argument. They are eloquent with strong assurance. They are like a flag brought home from battle, smoke-begrimed, blood-stained, bullet-torn, but bright with its original splendid colour, and vocal with great inspiring speech. We have no right to live as did the Church of the first century, when much was tentative and experimental. We have a background of triumphant history. Steadily is the kingdom of Christ spreading from the river unto the ends of the earth. Witty and keen have been the attacks on the faith — sometimes they have purged it from excrescences, oftener they have glanced off and rebounded. The opponents of Christianity are remembered because of the grandeur of what they attacked. In this Christian land we do not accept Christian faith to see whether it is true; we accept it as we accept the earth beneath our hurrying feet and the untroubled sky that overarches all. Hence we see the place and purpose of the Old Testament, whose peculiar function is to show us that God is behind and within human history, and that all history culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ. God's primary revelation is not through the speech, but through events. The Old Testament precedes the New to show us God behind and within the nation's life, and when we once see and believe that, a historical Saviour becomes not only credible but inevitable.
III. USE OF THE HISTORICAL IN SCRIPTURE. A noble Christian man recently told me that in his private reading of the Psalms he always used an expurgated edition, from which all imprecatory and otherwise objectionable passages had been expunged. Surely this is the acme of religious prudery, and the fastidiousness of one who is totally devoid of the historical sense. If we expurgate the Songs of David, why not expurgate his life also? Surely his deeds of vengeance are worse than his revengeful prayers. Then having struck out from his life all that offends our purism, and having made him the man he ought to have been but was not, we shall be ready to remodel the entire history of Israel — very much as Cibber proposed to remodel Shakespeare, making King Lear to be at last rewarded for his suffering, and making the tragedy of Hamlet to end with the death of the king and queen and the happiness of Ophelia. When we have been through the Bible and struck out the great black record of human sin, we shall have banished the shining story of redemption also. The imprecatory Psalms are as truly the expression of a certain stage in Israel's life, and so part of the story of redemption, as the paintings of the early Byzantine school are part of the history of Christian art. What if the faces limned by those first Christian painters are hard and wooden? They are to us the priceless expression of a great endeavour which has made Iraphael and Da Vinci possible. To lift the Psalter to the level of the Sermon on the Mount is to spoil them both. But the most practical thing is still unsaid. When a man has attained the historical point of view, when his Bible is no longer a fiat surface like a Chinese picture, but a tong vista of historical persons and events, and the great story of God's love for man is seen slowly unfolding through the millenniums, when a man keeps himself familiar with God's working "before these days," he will possess a spiritual poise and central peace which nothing can disturb. It is a great thing to believe in a God who watches over my life and cares for me. It is a grander thing to rest in a God whose purposes are larger and longer than any concerns of mine possibly can be. I could not admire the Hudson River if I thought its only purpose was to fill my drinking cup. I could not wonder greatly at the sun if I thought its only purpose was to shine in at my window. I need a God greater than my need. I want a Saviour far beyond my private personal lack. If I do not believe in a God who has some grander work to do than to make me happy, I shall soon cease to believe at all. I shall soon find that God does not always make me happy, and then I shall lose faith. Through all ages runs His purpose. From everlasting to everlasting His great thoughts realise themselves in the ceaseless unfolding of creation, and our highest glory is not to bend His purpose but to bend our lives into harmony with it. Has any man come here in a state of tumult and alarm, perplexed by the problems of the time, and confronted by movements he cannot fathom? I bid you think of the God who before these days has guided His Church and ever will guide. Is any man here saying: "God has forgotten me; my plan does not prosper"? Is your plan, then, the first thing in your desire, or God's plan? Is it the building of your nest or the achievement of the world's redemption? He is the Alpha and Omega — we are to fit in somewhere in His Divine alphabet and spell out His eternal thought.
(W. H. P. Faunce, D. D.)I. THE FALSE.
1. Rises up of his own accord as Theudas and Judas.
2. Boasts himself to be somebody.
3. Draws away the people after him.
4. Falls from heaven as a wandering star. Theudas and Judas perished, and their followers were dispersed.
II. THE TRUE.
1. Is raised up by God.
2. Does not boast of himself, but gives glory to God.
3. Leads souls to the Lord.
4. Will shine as stars for ever and ever.
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