But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. [Acts 5:29 (NLT)]
Following Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostles met regularly at the Temple where they boldly preached and healed the sick. Alarmed at this turn of events, the high priest and his officials had the Apostles put in jail. The following day, the men had miraculously disappeared from their locked cells and were again teaching in the Temple.
When the seventy members of the high council met that morning, they were furious. Not only had the Apostles escaped but they were still preaching! The Sanhedrin ordered them to be arrested again; they wanted to kill the Apostles to put an end to their evangelism once and for all. It was Gamaliel who cautioned the Council to do nothing. A well-known authority on Jewish law (he’d been Paul’s teacher), Gamaliel reminded the council of two historical figures: Judas of Galilee and Theudas.
Around 6 A.D., Judas of Galilee was a leader of the Zealots, a radical and revolutionary sect. Protesting the taxation census, he led a revolt against the Romans. He and his supporters are said to have perished in that revolt. Theudas claimed to be the promised messiah. He vowed to duplicate Joshua’s miracle of dividing the waters of the Jordan and lead his disciples across the river. The Romans sent the cavalry against them and, unfortunately for Theudas and his followers, the Jordan didn’t stop flowing for the false messiah. Many were slain and Theudas’ decapitated head was carried into Jerusalem as a trophy of victory.
Gamaliel found what seemed to be a politically acceptable solution to the Council’s problem. Given enough rope, the Christians (like Theudas and Judas of Galilee) would hang themselves. The movement would run out of steam and, given enough time, it would fail of its own accord. If the Apostles actually were acting with God’s blessing, cautioned Gamaliel, there was nothing they could do to stop them. In fact, he added, by killing the Christians, the Pharisees might bring the wrath of God down upon themselves.
Because of the learned rabbi’s advice, the High Council did not kill the Apostles. Instead, the men were flogged and ordered to never again speak in the name of Jesus. If Gamaliel was thinking the Christian movement would run its course and diminish in time, he was sadly mistaken. The Apostles were not to be silenced and continued to preach the gospel message. Gamaliel was correct, however, in thinking that nothing was going to stop the work of God.