Acts 5:38
And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought:
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(38) Refrain from these men.—The advice implies something like a suppressed conviction not bold enough to utter itself. Gamaliel takes his place in the class, at all times numerous, of waiters upon Providence, who are neutral till a cause is successful, and then come forward with a tardy sympathy, but who, above all, shrink from committing themselves while there seems any possibility of failure. In 1Thessalonians 2:13, St. Paul seems almost to contrast the readiness of his disciples in receiving his gospel, not as “of man,” but as “of God,” with the timid caution of his Master. As a prudential dilemma, the argument was forcible enough. Resistance was either needless or it was hopeless. If needless, it was a waste of energy; if hopeless, it involved a fatal risk besides that of mere failure. We may legitimately think of the fiery disciple as listening impatiently to this temporising counsel, and as stirred by it to greater vehemence.

It will come to nought.—Better, it will be overthrown, so as to preserve the emphasis of the repetition of the same verb in the next clause of the dilemma.



Acts 5:38 - Acts 5:39

The little that is known of Gamaliel seems to indicate just such a man as would be likely to have given the advice in the text. His was a character which, on its good side and by its admirers, would be described as prudent, wise, cautious and calm, tolerant, opposed to fanaticism and violence. His position as president of the Sanhedrin, his long experience, his Rabbinical training, his old age, and his knowledge that the national liberty depended on keeping things quiet, would be very likely to exaggerate such tendencies into what his enemies would describe as worldly shrewdness without a trace of enthusiasm, indifference to truth, and the like.

It is, of course, possible that he bases his counsel of letting the followers of Jesus alone, on the grounds which he adduces, because he knew that reasons more favourable to Christians would have had no weight with the Sanhedrin. Old Church traditions make him out to have been a Christian, and the earliest Christian romance, a very singular book, of which the main object was to blacken the Apostle Paul, roundly asserts that at the date of this advice he was ‘secretly our brother,’ and that he remained in the Sanhedrin to further Christian views. But there seems not the slightest reason to suppose that. He lived and died a Jew, spared the sight of the destruction of Jerusalem which, according to his own canon in the text, would have proved that the system to which he had given his life was not of God; and the only relic of his wisdom is a prayer against Christian heretics.

It is remarkable that he should have given this advice; but two things occur to account for it. Thus far Christianity had been very emphatically the preaching of the Resurrection, a truth which the Pharisees believed and held as especially theirs in opposition to the Sadducees, and Gamaliel was old and worldly-wise enough to count all as his friends who were the enemies of his enemies. He was not very particular where he looked for allies, and rather shrank from helping Sadducees to punish men whose crime was that they ‘preached through Jesus a resurrection from the dead.’

Then the Jewish rulers had a very ticklish part to play. They were afraid of any popular shout which might bring down the avalanche of Roman power on them, and they were nervously anxious to keep things quiet. So Gamaliel did not wish to have any fuss made about ‘these men,’ lest it should be supposed that another popular revolt was on foot; and he thought that to let them alone was the best way to reduce their importance. Perhaps, too, there was a secret hope in the old man’s mind, which he scarcely ventured to look at and dared not speak, that here might be the beginning of a rising which had more promise in it than that abortive one under Theudas. He could not venture to say this, but perhaps it made him chary of voting for repression. He had no objection to let these poor Galileans fling away their lives in storming against the barrier of Rome. If they fail, it is but one more failure. If they succeed, he and his like will say that they have done well. But while the enterprise is too perilous for him to approve or be mixed up in it, he would let it have its chance.

Note that Gamaliel regards the whole movement as the probable germ of an uprising against Rome, as is seen from the parallels that he quotes. It is not as a religious teaching which is true or false, but as a political agitation, that he looks at Christianity.

It is to his credit that he stood calm and curbed the howling of the fanatics round him, and that he was the first and only Jewish authority who counselled abstinence from persecution.

It is interesting to compare him with Gallio, who had a glimpse of the true relation of the civil magistrate to religious opinion. Gamaliel has a glimpse of the truth of the impotence of material force against truth, how it is of a quick and spiritual essence, which cannot be cleaved in pieces with a sword, but lives on in spite of all. But while all this may be true, the advice on the whole is a low and bad one. It rests on false principles; it takes a false view of a man’s duty; it is not wholly sincere; and it is one impossible to be carried out. It is singularly in accordance with many of the tendencies of this age, and with modes of thought and counsels of action which are in active operation amongst us to-day, and we may therefore criticise it now.

I. Here is disbelief professing to be ‘honest doubt.’

Gamaliel professes not to have materials for judging. ‘If-if’; was it a time for ‘ifs’? What was that Sanhedrin there for, but to try precisely such cases as these?

They had had the works of Christ; miracles which they had investigated and could not disprove; a life which was its own witness; prophecies fulfilled; His own presence before their bar; the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

I am not saying whether these facts were enough to have convinced them, nor even whether the alleged miracles were true. All that I am concerned with is that, so far as we know, neither Gamaliel nor any of his tribe had ever made the slightest attempt to inquire into them, but had, without examination, complacently treated them as lies. All that body of evidence had been absolutely ignored. And now he is, with his ‘ifs,’ posing as very calm and dispassionate.

So to-day it is fashionable to doubt, to hang up most of the Christian truths in the category of uncertainties.

{a} When that is the fashion, we need to be on our guard.

{b} If you doubt, have you ever taken the pains to examine?

{c} If you doubt, you are bound to go further, and either reach belief or rejection. Doubt is not the permanent condition for a man. The central truth of Christianity is either to be received or rejected.

II. Here is disbelief masquerading as suspension of judgment.

Gamaliel talked as if he did not know, or had not decided in his own mind, whether the disciples’ claims for their Master were just or not. But the attitude of impartiality and hesitation was the cover of rooted unbelief. He speaks as if the alternative was that either this ‘counsel and work’ was ‘of man’ or ‘of God.’ But he would have been nearer the truth if he had stated the antithesis-God or devil; a glorious truth or a hell-born lie. If Christ’s work was not a revelation from above, it was certainly an emanation from beneath.

We sometimes hear disbelief, in our own days, talking in much the same fashion. Have we never listened to teachers who first of all prove to their own satisfaction that Jesus is a myth, that all the gospel story is unreliable, and all the gospel message a dream, and then turn round and overflow in praise of Him and in admiration of it? Browning’s professor in Christmas Day first of all reduces ‘the pearl of price’ to dust and ashes, and then ‘Bids us, when we least expect it, Take back our faith-if it be not just whole, Yet a pearl indeed, as his tests affect it.’

And that is very much the tone of not a few very superior persons to-day. But let us have one thing or the other-a Christ who was what He claimed to be, the Incarnate Word of God, who died for our sins and rose again for our justification; or a Galilean peasant who was either a visionary or an impostor, like Judas of Galilee and Theudas.

III. Here is success turned into a criterion of truth.

It is such, no doubt, in the long run, but not till then, and so till the end it is utterly false to argue that a thing is true because multitudes think it to be so. The very opposite is more nearly true. It in usually minorities who have been right.

Gamaliel laid down an immoral principle, which is only too popular to-day, in relation to religion and to much else.

IV. Here is a selfish neutrality pretending to be judicial calmness.

Even if it were true that success is a criterion, we have to help God to ensure the success of His truth. No doubt, taking sides is very inconvenient to a cool, tolerant man of the world. And it is difficult to be in a party without becoming a partisan. We know all the beauty of mild, tolerant wisdom, and that truth is usually shared between combatants, but the dangers of extremes and exaggeration must be faced, and perhaps these are better than the cool indifference of the eclectic, sitting apart, holding no form of creed, but contemplating all. It is not good for a man to stand aloof when his brethren are fighting.

In every age some great causes which are God’s are pressing for decision. In many of them we may be disqualified for taking sides. But feel that you are bound to cast your influence on the side which conscience approves, and bound to settle which side that is, Deborah’s fierce curse against Meroz because its people came not up to the help of the Lord against the mighty was deserved.

But the region in which such judicial calmness, which shrinks from taking its side, is most fatal and sadly common, is in regard to our own individual relation to Jesus, and in regard to the establishment of His kingdom among men.

‘He that is not with Me is against Me.’ Neutrality is opposition. Not to gather with Him is to scatter. Not to choose Him is to reject Him.

Gamaliel had a strange notion of what constituted ‘refraining from these men and letting them alone,’ and he betrayed his real position and opposition by his final counsel to scourge them, before letting them go. That is what the world’s neutrality comes to.

How poor a figure this politic ecclesiastic, mostly anxious not to commit himself, ready to let whoever would risk a struggle with Rome, so that he kept out of the fray and survived to profit by it, cuts beside the disciples, who had chosen their side, had done with ‘ifs,’ and went away from the Council rejoicing ‘that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name’! Who would not rather be Peter or John with their bleeding backs than Gamaliel, sitting soft in his presidential chair, and too cautious to commit himself to an opinion whether the name of Jesus was that of a prophet or a pretender?

Acts 5:38-39. And now I say unto you — I, therefore, with regard to the present affair, give it as my most serious and deliberate advice; Refrain from these men, and let them alone — In a cause which is manifestly good, we should immediately join. In a cause, on the other hand, which is manifestly evil, we should immediately oppose. But in a sudden, new, doubtful occurrence, this advice of Gamaliel is proper and eminently useful. For if this counsel or this work — He seems to correct himself, as if it were some sudden work, rather than a counsel, or design. And so it was. For the apostles had no counsel, plan, or design of their own; but were mere instruments in the hand of God, working just as he led them from day to day. If it be of men — If it be a merely human contrivance, and matter of deceit; it will come to naught — It will soon sink, and come to nothing of itself; some incident will arise to discredit it, and the whole interest of this Jesus will moulder away, as that of Theudas and of Judas did, both which seem to have been much more strongly supported by human power. But if it be of God — If it be really his cause, which does not appear to me impossible, ye cannot overthrow it, whatever power or policy you use; for though even these particular instruments should be taken off, he will, undoubtedly, raise up others: lest haply ye be found even to fight against God — Against his almighty power, and infinitely wise and ever watchful providence; an undertaking which must prove dreadfully fatal to all who are so rash and unhappy as to engage in it.

5:34-42 The Lord still has all hearts in his hands, and sometimes directs the prudence of the worldly wise, so as to restrain the persecutors. Common sense tells us to be cautious, while experience and observation show that the success of frauds in matters of religion has been very short. Reproach for Christ is true preferment, as it makes us conformable to his pattern, and serviceable to his interest. They rejoiced in it. If we suffer ill for doing well, provided we suffer it well, and as we should, we ought to rejoice in that grace which enabled us so to do. The apostles did not preach themselves, but Christ. This was the preaching that most offended the priests. But it ought to be the constant business of gospel ministers to preach Christ: Christ, and him crucified; Christ, and him glorified; nothing beside this, but what has reference to it. And whatever is our station or rank in life, we should seek to make Him known, and to glorify his name.Refrain from these men - Cease to oppose them or to threaten them. The "reason" why he advised this he immediately adds, that if it were of human origin, it would come to nothing; if of God, they could not overthrow it.

This counsel or this work be of men - This plan or purpose. If the apostles had originated it for the purposes of imposture.

It will come to nought - Gamaliel "inferred" that from the two instances which he specified. They had been suppressed without the interference of the Sanhedrin; and he inferred that "this" would also die away if it was a human device. It will be remembered that this is the mere advice of Gamaliel, who was not inspired, and that this opinion should not be adduced to guide us, except as it was an instance of great shrewdness and prudence. It is doubtless right to oppose error in the proper way and with the proper temper, not with arms, or vituperation, or with the civil power, but with argument and kind entreaty. But the sentiment of Gamaliel is full of wisdom in regard to error. For:

(1) The very way to exalt error into notice, and to confirm people in it, is to oppose it in a harsh, authoritative, and unkind manner.

(2) Error, if left alone, will often die away itself. The interest of people in it will often cease as soon as it ceases to be opposed; and, having nothing to fan the flame, it will expire. It is not so with truth.

(3) in this respect the remark may be applied to the Christian religion. It has stood too long, and in too many circumstances of prosperity and adversity, to be of human origin. It has been subjected to all trials from its pretended friends and real foes; and it still lives as vigorous and flourishing as ever. Kingdoms have changed; empires have risen and fallen since Gamaliel spoke this; systems of opinion and belief have had their day, and expired; but the preservation of the Christian religion, unchanged through so many revolutions, and in so many fiery trials, shows that it is not of men, but of God. The argument for the divine origin of the Christian religion from its perpetuity is one that can be applied to no other system that has been, or that now exists. For Christianity has been opposed in every form. It confers no temporal conquests, and appeals to no base and strong native passions. The Muslim faith is supported by the sword and the state; paganism relies on the arm of the civil power and the terrors of superstition, and is sustained by all the corrupt passions of people; atheism and infidelity have been short-lived, varying in their forms, dying today, and tomorrow starting up in a new form; never organized, consolidated, or pure; and never tending to promote the peace or happiness of people. Christianity, without arms or human power, has lived, keeping on its steady and triumphant movement among people, regardless alike of the opposition of its foes, and of the treachery of its pretended friends. If the opinion of Gamaliel was just, it is from God; and the Jews particularly should regard as important an argument derived from the opinion of one of the wisest of their ancient rabbis.

38. if … of men, it will come to naught—This neutral policy was true wisdom, in the then temper of the council. But individual neutrality is hostility to Christ, as He Himself teaches (Lu 11:23). And now I say unto you; he undertakes to advise them what they should do in the present case.

Refrain from these men; have nothing to do with them, as Pilate’s wife advised him concerning our Saviour, Matthew 27:19. Gamaliel interposes, partly out of his moderate and mild disposition; partly out of fear, lest if they slew the apostles they might incense the Romans, who were very jealous of their authority, and had taken away the power of capital punishments from the Jews.

For if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; this argument, or dilemma, which Gamaliel uses for the sparing of the apostles, is of force either way; as that question our Saviour propounds concerning the baptism of John, Matthew 21:25. This first part is evident, for that building must needs fall which is built upon the sand, Matthew 7:27.

And now I say unto you,.... This is the sum of my advice upon the observation of these and other instances:

refrain from these men, and let them alone; keep your hands off of them, do not attempt to take away their lives, but dismiss them quietly, nor go about to hinder them, in what they are concerned:

for if this counsel, or this work be of men; if the doctrine these men preach is an human device; or this business they are engaged in is only an human affair, projected by men, and carried on upon selfish principles, and worldly views, seeking only themselves, and their secular interests, and not the glory of God:

it will come to nought; as did the designs of Theudas and Judas.

And now I say unto you, {n} Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of {o} men, it will come to nought:

(n) He dissuades his fellows from murdering the apostles, neither does he think it good to refer the matter to the Roman magistrate, for the Jews could endure nothing worse than to have the tyranny of the Romans confirmed.

(o) If it is counterfeit and devised.

Acts 5:38-40. Καί] is the simple copula of the train of thought; τὰ νῦν as in Acts 4:29.

ἐξ ἀνθρώπων] of human origin (comp. Matthew 21:25), not proceeding from the will and arrangement of God (not ἐκ Θεοῦ).

ἡ βουλὴ αὕτη ἢ τὸ ἔργ. τοῦτο] “Disjunctio non ad diversas res, sed ad diversa, quibus res appellatur, vocabula pertinet.” Fritzsche, ad Marc. p. 277. This project or (in order to denote the matter in question still more definitely) this work (as already in the act of being executed).

καταλυθήσεται] namely, without your interference. This conception results from the antithesis in the second clause: οὐ δύνασθε καταλῦσαι αὐτούς. For similar expressions from the Rabbins (Pirke Aboth, iv. 11, al.), see Schoettgen. Comp. Herod. ix. 16 : , τι δεῖ γενέσθαι ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἀμήχανον ἀποτρέψαι ἀνθρώπῳ. Eur. Hippol: 476. The reference of καταλύειν to persons (αὐτούς, see the critical remarks) who are overthrown, ruined, is also current in classical authors. Xen. Cyr. viii. 5. 24; Plat. Legg. iv. p. 714 C; Lucian. Gall. 23. Comp. κατάλυσις τοῦ τυράννου, Polyb. x. 25. 3, etc.

Notice, further, the difference in meaning of the two conditional clauses: ἐὰν ᾗ and εἰἐστιν (comp. Galatians 1:8-9; and see Winer, p. 277 f. [E. T. 369]; Stallb. ad Plat. Phaed. p. 93 B), according to which the second case put appeared to Gamaliel as the more probable.

μήποτε καὶ θεομάχοι εὑρεθῆτε] although grammatically to be explained by a σκεπτέου, προσέχετε ἑαυτοῖς (Luke 21:34), or some similar phrase floating before the mind, is an independent warning: that ye only be not found even fighters against God. See Hom. Il. i. 26, ii. 195; Matthew 25:9 (Elz.); Romans 11:21; Baeumlein, Partik. p. 283; Nägelsb. on the Iliad, p. 18, ed. 3. Valckenaer and Lachmann (after Pricaeus and Hammond) construe otherwise, referring μήποτε to ἐάσατε αὐτούς, and treating ὅτιαὐτούς as a parenthesis. A superfluous interruption, to which also the manifest reference of θεομάχοι to the directly preceding εἰ δὲ ἐκ Θεοῦ ἐστιν κ.τ.λ. is opposed.

καί] is to be explained elliptically: not only with men, but also further, in addition. See Hartung, Partikell. I. p. 134.

θεομάχοι] Symm. Proverbs 9:18; Proverbs 21:16; Job 26:5; Heraclid. Alleg. 1; Lucian. Jov. Tr. 45. On the thing itself, comp. Hom. Il. vi. 129: οὐκ ἂν ἔγωγε θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισι μαχοίμην.

ἐπείσθησαν] even if only in tantum; and yet how greatly to their self-conviction on account of their recent condemnation of Jesus!

δείραντες] The Sanhedrim would at least not expose themselves, as if they had instituted an examination wholly without result, and therefore they order the punishment of stripes, usual for very various kinds of crime (here: proved disobedience), but very ignominious (comp. Acts 16:37; Acts 16:22.).

Concerning the counsel of Gamaliel generally, the principle therein expressed is only right conditionally, for interference against a spiritual development must, in respect of its admissibility or necessity, be morally judged of according to the nature of the cases; nor is that counsel to be considered as an absolute maxim of Gamaliel, but as one which is here presented to him by the critical state of affairs, and is to be explained from his predominant opinion that a work of God may be at stake, as he himself indeed makes this opinion apparent by εἰἐστιν, Acts 5:39 (see above).

Acts 5:38. καὶ τὰ νῦν, cf. also in Acts 4:29, Acts 17:30, Acts 20:32, Acts 27:22. τὰ neuter accusative absolute—as respects the present, now, cf. 2Ma 15:8; thus in all parts of Acts, Vindiciœ Lucanœ, Klostermann, p. 53, so Zeller, Lekebusch, Friedrich. The expression is quite classical.—ἐάσατε: ἐάω characteristic of Luke, and is only used once elsewhere in the Gospels, Matthew 24:43 (also in 1 Corinthians 10:13), but twice in St. Luke’s Gospel, and seven times in Acts—ἀφίηιι occurs only thrice in Acts 8:22; Acts 14:17.—καταλυθήσεται, “will be overthrown,” R.V. evertere, Blass, so Rendall. This rendering gives the proper force of the word; it is not διαλύομαι as in Acts 5:36, which might be rendered “will be dissolved,” but κατά indicates subversion, cf. Romans 14:20, Acts 6:14, Galatians 2:18; cf. 2Ma 2:22, 4Ma 4:16, and frequently ibid., Vulgate, “dissolvetur”.

38. it will come to nought] As the verb is the same as that in the following verse it is better to render, it will be overthrown.

Acts 5:38. Λέγω ὑμῖν, I say unto you) This formula in this passage has in it something of a bland, rather than a severe character.—ἐάσατε, let them alone, allow them) viz. to do what they are doing. We ought to give our assent to a cause that is manifestly good: we ought to resist one that is manifestly bad. But in the case of a matter sudden, new, and doubtful, and in relation to adversaries inflamed with anger, the counsel of Gamaliel is a pre-eminently salutary one.—, or) He means to say by this word, that it should be rather termed a work than a counsel. At least the apostles were doing all things, not by their own, but by the Divine counsel.—καταλυθήσεται, it will be dissolved, or come to nought) It both can and will be dissolved, either by you or by others, or of itself.

Verse 38. - Be overthrown for come to nought, A.V. Acts 5:38Refrain (ἀπόστητε)

Lit., stand off.

Of men (ἐξ ἀνθρώπων)

Out of men, proceeding out of their devices.

It will come to naught (καταλυθήσεται)

Lit., be loosened down. Used of the dilapidation of the temple (Luke 21:6), and of the dissolution of the body under the figure of striking a tent (2 Corinthians 5:1). See on Mark 13:2.

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