For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves…
Who Theudas was I do not know, and have carefully refrained from inquiring. Biographical details are of small importance when we are in search of substantial principles. The point of this passage lies in the fact that Theudas was a wholly insignificant person, just like a thousand other men who have made a noise in their day, drawn the gaze of the world for a few hours and then passed into silence and oblivion. The apostles are summoned before the council which has already resolved on their death. Then stands up Gamaliel — the teacher of Paul, a man "had in reputation among all the people" — and reads the excited Sanhedrin a lesson out of their own national history. He says in substance: "This alarm, this hurrying to and fro, this calling for the scourge and the dungeon, this breathless haste, is all the result of narrow vision and small outlook. Our own time is not the first to witness startling movements. 'Before these days rose up Theudas,' and drew four hundred men after him. Yet that uprising which seemed so terrible has been almost forgotten. Wider horizon would make us calm. Learn the lesson of your past. God's great plan moves through the ages to its sure accomplishment. If this new teaching be not of Him, it will be like all the rest — a mere noise followed by a great silence. But if God is behind this teaching — beware lest haply ye be found to fight against God." These words may imply that Gamaliel was almost ready to embrace Christianity, or they may indicate only that he was a broad and tolerant Jew. In either case the application to our restless, eager, disputatious age is very clear. Old formulae are recast, until many souls more timid than wise, loving quiet more than truth, cry, "Alas I what shall we do?" The true answer cannot be given either by intense partisanship or by cynical indifference. The true answer is to be found in the unfaltering faith which sees God behind the shifting panorama of human thought and action, and knows that whatever lights may cross our firmament — whether glowing planet, shooting meteor, or steady star — He calleth them all by name in the greatness of His power.
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.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
WEB: For before these days Theudas rose up, making himself out to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed, and came to nothing.