And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing:…
Broadly speaking, men divide themselves into three classes in relation to Christianity. First, there are the open enemies, who never miss an opportunity of offering unto it the most energetic and violent opposition. Secondly, there are the earnest advocates and the zealous propagators of Christianity. Thirdly, but coming midway between these two classes, there is another, which we might term the cautious, timid, and perhaps temporising, neutral class. Speech after speech was delivered in favour of physical violence. At length Gamaliel arose. His speech was what we might call a moderate speech. It counselled caution, "refrain," "take heed." "Do not lay rash and violent hands on these men." "Do not endeavour to stamp out this new religion or irreligion by rash and violent methods."
I. THE FAVOURABLE ASPECT OF THIS POLICY. Let us point out what there is that is commendable in this policy of awaiting the test of time.
1. Time certainly is a most searching and accurate test. It is very difficult to judge a movement that is in its infancy. By their fruits movements too are known. But then you must allow time for the fruit to appear and to mature.
2. Certainly this policy is opposed to that objectionable method of procedure which is characterised by "zeal without knowledge." There are those whose zeal in itself is really commendable; and they rush on rashly, never taking time to consider the bearing of present action on future events; they will run and risk their life to rescue a child in danger, but, perhaps, they will knock down half-a-dozen children on their way and do them serious harm. They will spend their best energies to advance a principle which they hold dear, but, perhaps, they will trample on many other principles which are equally true and Divine. "Zeal without knowledge." Their warm hearts are not under the direction of wise heads. Their action, while enthusiastic, is ill-directed. Well, Gamaliel and his friends are not guilty of this fault. They are never led into anything rash. If they err, they err on the safe side. They do not do much harm if they do no good. They will not hinder a good movement, though they may not help it. They will not further a bad cause, though they may do nothing to hinder it. Their policy is to refrain, to take heed, to take no action until time makes it quite clear whether the cause be human or Divine.
3. There is some amount of wise, cautious humility and devoutness also about this policy of Gamaliel and his friends. They greatly fear lest they should be found fighting against God, opposing His will and purpose. They knew that that would not only he fruitless, but sinful and blasphemous. It is a sad thing to find even a portion of one's life fruitless. Moral fruitlessness is a terrible calamity. To fight against God then is fruitless, for He must conquer in the end and our work come to nought. But it s also sinful, and even blasphemous. Blasphemy, properly so called, is speaking against God, but there is also a blasphemy which consists in acting against Him, in using those faculties with which He Himself has endowed us, to frustrate His will and purpose, and to further the ends and intents of the devil. Well, Gamaliel and his friends strove to steer clear of this evil. They are cautiously humble and devout. They would not for the world be found fighting against God. Hence their policy is to "take heed," to "refrain," to wait until time proves whether God be in the movement or not.
II. THE UNFAVOURABLE ASPECTS OF THIS POLICY.
1. It makes this mistake, it regards the external results of a movement as the unfailing test of its character. Or to put it in this way: It says, "this movement succeeds — it is Divine; this movement fails — it is human." Success or failure is taken as the test. But is it a true test? Some of the most successful movements have had the least of God in them, and some of the least successful have had the most of God in them. The followers of Buddha are more numerous than all other religionists. Is Buddhism more Divine because of that? It is evident then that external success is not an absolute test of the spirituality and Divinity of a religion, or of the character of a movement. Results I results! That is the great cry of the day. And it is almost thought that spiritual results can be got to order just like material results. You send your boy to the tailor for a suit of clothes; he gets it, you are satisfied. Do you send him in the same spirit to the master of the grammar school, saying, "I want a good education for my boy, so much time, so much money?" The master would reply, "Education is not to be had to order; there are other matters to be taken into consideration: has your son the ability, the application to learn? Without that I can do nothing with him." If it is so with intellectual results, how much more so with moral and spiritual results. We cannot get true conversions to order; we may get spurious ones. Nor is it possible to count true converts. Men can count heads; but it takes God Himself to count hearts. Therefore the test of external results is not an absolutely safe test. Are we, therefore, not to aim for success? By all means. All the success that we can get; as many hearers, as many converts, as many Christian workers as possible. Only do not rely on external results as furnishing an unfailing test of the character of any work. This the policy of Gamaliel is guilty of.
2. Moreover this policy is productive of culpable inactivity and moral cowardice. Now the most critical period of any movement, or of any new religion, is its infancy. Then does it bear the severest brunt of prejudice and hostility. The severest period in the history of Christianity was the apostolic age and the ages immediately following. We ought to thank God that there were men brave enough and strong enough to overcome the first opposition. After a while it makes itself felt in the world; it proves itself to be a power for good. Now Gamaliel and his friends will join it. "We are glad to see you even now, you Gamalielites; but you did not lend us a helping hand when the waves of opposition nearly swamped our ship; we and our cause would have perished for you; you looked out on us with timid, cautious, neutral eyes. But now that we have got to shore, and established our character and power, you seek to join our ranks. Come in; even at this hour we are glad to see you; only we must tell you that you have been guilty of culpable inactivity and of moral cowardice." Gamaliel and his friends will only join a successful cause, but a flagging interest they will refrain from touching. On the other hand, take a movement directly the reverse of that to which we have alluded, not only not Divine, but sinful and calculated to do a terrible amount of mischief. In its earlier years its destructive features are not written in large letters, still they are written in such letters as the keen observer can read. What do Gamaliel and his friends do? They refrain from taking any action. They allow the evil, the mischievous movement to grow, to establish itself. They might nip it in the bud, were they to take prompt, decisive action. "You cautiously timid, inactive Gamalielites, you are anxious not to be found fighting against God; wherefore are ye not equally desirous to fight for Him? You do not further His will when you allow evil to grow unchallenged and unopposed." There are many of whom it may be said, "They have done no evil." But what evil have they opposed, what good have they done? Nothing! Then is their poor, harmless inactivity culpable in the sight of God.
3. Then there is that further error in this policy of neutrality and delay, viz., that it presumes too much on Divine power and relies too little on human instrumentality. It says, "If that work or counsel be of God, He will make it successful; if it be sinful, then He will bring it to nought." Now, how does God promote His purposes? Through good men. How does He baffle and bring to nought evil doings? Through good men. The old excuse for inactivity is, "God will see to it." No! He will not, unless you place yourself humbly in His hand and say, "Send me, send me!" What was the excuse of our ancestors who were opposed to modern missions: "If God means to convert the world He will see to that." But He would never convert the world unless the men came forward and severally said, "Send me, send me!" We can never rely too much on Divine power; we can never rely too much on human co-operation. Are we allowing Him to use us for that grand purpose? Or are we endeavouring to cover our culpable inactivity by the old excuse: "The work is His, and He will see to it." What is the conclusion of the whole matter? Every movement, social, political, religious, let us try to understand. Let us bring to bear upon it the faculties which God has given us, without prejudice and with prayer. Should it remain a mystery, let us wait, not listlessly, but with faces wistfully upturned towards heaven, solicitous to know the will of God. When light is given from heaven let us act accordingly, whether in favour or in opposition, act sincerely, with heart and soul. By doing the will of God, as far as it is revealed, we shall know more of the doctrine.
(Henry Harries, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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: