Gamaliel, an Unlikely “Good Guy”

It’s time to smash the stereotype that believers are good people and unbelievers are bad people. Simply put, God’s people are not always good and those who reject God don’t always do bad.

Ananias and Sapphira were God’s people (I think they’re probably in heaven), but they were hypocrites when they stood before the Apostle Peter and lied about selling their land and giving all the money to care for the poor. God struck them both dead for that deceit. Decades later, Peter may be have been thinking of Ananias and Sapphira when he wrote, “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).

On the other hand, Cyrus, first king of the Medo-Persian empire, treated the captive Jews in Babylon favorably. He stopped the cruel policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians and encouraged the Jews to go home and build their temple. He even returned many of the valuable items which had been stolen from the temple. Isaiah wrote that the Lord called Cyrus “his anointed,” a messianic term (Isaiah 45:1).

The prophet was clear that the pagan king didn’t acknowledge the Lord, yet God summoned Cyrus by name and bestowed on him a title of honor. The unbelieving ruler accomplished God’s purpose of releasing captive Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

Cyrus was an unbeliever, but he did a very good thing under the providence of the Lord.

In the New Testament, right after the story of Ananias and Sappira in Acts chapter 5, another unbeliever did good to God’s people. Rabbi Gamaliel, a famous Jewish teacher of the first century, saved Peter and the other apostles from an almost certain death at the hands of an angry and frustrated Sanhedrin.

The early church was enjoying tremendous growth, to the dismay of the Pharisees and the temple leaders, the Sanhedrin. The jealous Jewish leaders refused to recognize the resurrection of Jesus and repeatedly warned the apostles to stop preaching. They even had them arrested and thrown into jail.

An angel from God released them in the middle of the night. The apostles returned to the temple courts and resumed their preaching. The Jewish leaders were furious and wanted to kill them. It probably would have happened, too, except for an unbeliever in their midst by the name of Gamaliel. He convinced the Sanhedrin from history and logic to let them go.

Gamaliel concluded, “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).

The speech illustrates what Howard Hendricks used to describe as “the law of spiritual thermodynamics.” The greater the heat, the greater the growth. It worked. The apostles were flogged and released. They returned to their ministry, rejoicing that they were considered worthy of suffering for Jesus.

Gamaliel, an unlikely good guy, had saved the lives of the apostles in the providence of God.

Two questions to consider:

  1. Do we rejoice when people oppose Jesus and we suffer for it? Or do we whine and complain about injustice instead?
  2.  Could we help others believe in Jesus because we refuse to stoop to criticism and judgment when we are mistreated in the providence of God?