the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
READ for the first time, and looked at on the surface, Gamaliel's speech in the council of Jerusalem was both an able and a successful performance. The argument of the speech carried the consent of the whole council-not an easy thing to do-for Peter had just cut the whole council to the heart. But Gamaliel calmed the whole council; he reassured the most hesitating; and he all but satisfied the most bloodthirsty; till the whole Sanhedrim broke up that day with loud and universal congratulations pronounced upon the ability and the sagacity of Gamaliel's speech. But, in order to see what was the real and ultimate value of Gamaliel's speech; and, still more, in order to a true and ultimate estimate of Gamaliel himself, let us look with some closeness at the whole situation with which Gamaliel was called upon to deal that day.
Well, then, this was the situation. Gamaliel had brought forward Theudas, who had boasted that he was somebody; and Judas of Galilee, who had drawn away much people after him; and Gamaliel had made some good points in his speech by his references to those two dispersed men. But Jesus Christ was not a Theudas, nor a Judas of Galilee, nor a dispersed man. Jesus Christ was Jesus Christ. He was Himself, and not another. Jesus Christ had been promised in every page of the law and the prophets and the psalms, all of which were the daily text-books in Gamaliel's school. And Jesus Christ had come, and had fulfilled, and that a thousand times told, every jot and tittle of all that had been prophesied and promised concerning Him. And Gamaliel bad been set in his high seat by the God of Israel in order that he might watch for the coming Messiah, and might announce His advent to the people of Israel. But, for some reason or other, instead of recognising and announcing the true Christ of God when He came, as, for instance, John the Baptist did; instead of casting in his lot with Jesus of Nazareth; instead of dissolving his school and sending Saul of Tarsus and all his other scholars to follow the Lamb of God, Gamaliel, for some reason or other, still kept his seat in the Sanhedrim all through the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus Christ, and when Christ's disciples were on their trial for their lives this short speech contains all that Gamaliel has to say for them and for himself. We must, at all times, and to all men, do as we would be done by: and therefore it is that we seek again and again for some explanation, some excuse, some apology, for Gamaliel's remaining a member of the council that had tried and crucified Jesus Christ. But, with all our search, we can find nothing out of which to make a cloak for Gamaliel's case. Had Gamaliel been an ignorant and an unlearned man there might have been some excuse for him. But Gamaliel had not that cloak at any rate for his sin. So far as I can see it, the simple truth in Gamaliel's deplorable case was this. With all his learning, and with all his ability, and with all his address, Gamaliel had approached this whole case concerning Jesus Christ from the wrong side; he had taken hold of this whole business by the wrong handle. And we all make Gamaliel's tremendous and irreparable mistake when we approach Jesus Christ and His cause and His kingdom on the side of policy, and when we handle Him as a matter open to argument and debate. He is not a matter of argument and debate; He is an ambassador of reconciliation. We are simply not permitted to sit in judgment on Almighty God, and on His message of mercy to us. He who sends that message to us is our Maker and our Judge. And Gamaliel, with all his insight, and with all his lawyer-like ability, has turned all things completely upside down when he sits in judgment, and gives this carefully-balanced caution, concerning the Son of God.
Speaking philosophically and politically and ecclesiastically, Gamaliel was a liberal, and he has this to be said for him, that he was a liberal long before the time. He was all for toleration, and for a free church in a free state, in an intolerant and persecuting day. He was far in advance of his colleagues in observation, and in reading, and in breadth and openness of mind. He was tinctured with the Greek learning that so many of his class were now beginning innovatingly to taste. And we cannot but wonder whether, among all his stores of ancient instances, that of the Greek Socrates had come that day into his mind. "We ought to obey God rather than men," Peter had just said. "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you rather than unto Him, judge ye," he had also said. "Athenians," said Socrates, "I hold you in the highest reverence and love; but I will obey God rather than you. I cannot hold my peace, because that would be to disobey God." And Socrates continued so to obey God till his self-examining voice was put to silence in the hemlock-cup. And much more must Peter summon all Jerusalem to repentance in spite of the prison and the scourge and the cross. The Athenians, in their philosophical and political liberality, would have let Socrates alone, if he would have let them alone; but not for his life could he do that. And Peter was under a far surer and a far stronger constraint than Socrates. The one was the apostle of truth as it is in the reason, and in the conscience, and in the self-examined heart; while the other was the apostle of the truth as it is in all that, and in Jesus over and above all that. The French, with their keen, quick, caustic wit, have coined a nickname for those politicians who neglect principles and study the skies only to see how the wind is to blow. They call all such public men by the biting name of "opportunists." Now, Gamaliel was the opportunist of the council of Jerusalem in that day. He was a politician, but he was not a true churchman or statesman. He was held in repute by the people; but the people were blind, and they loved to be led by blind leaders. And Gamaliel was one of them. For, at this supreme crisis of his nation's history, when there was not another moment to lose, this smooth-tongued opportunist came forward full of wise saws and modern instances. But the flood was out, and the time was past, if ever there was a time for such fatal counsellors as Gamaliel. His own opportunity has of late been passing with lightning-speed: and, now, when God, in His long-suffering, has given Gamaliel his last opportunity, he deals with God and with his own soul as we here see.
Erasmus and the Reformation always rise before me when I read of Gamaliel and study his character. Erasmus, the fastidious, cautious, cool, almost cold scholar. Always stepping lightly over thin ice, always calculating consequences, and always missing the mark. Convinced of the truth, but a timid friend to the truth. Clear-eyed enough to see the truth, but built without a brow for it. Lavater thus analyses Holbein's portrait of Erasmus, and as we read the remarkable analysis we see in it a replica of Gamaliel's portrait.-"The face is expressive of the man. There is a pose of feature indicative of timidity, hesitancy, circumspection. There is in the eye the calm serenity of the acute observer who sees and takes in all things. The half-closed eye, of such a depth and shape, is surely such as always belongs to the subtle and clever schemer. That nose, according to all my observation, is assuredly that of a man of keen intellect and delicate sensibility. The furrows on the brow are usually no favourable token: they are almost invariably the sign of some weakness, some carelessness, some supineness, some laxness of character. We learn, however, from this portrait that they are to be found in some great men." Altogether a man of maxims and not of morals; a man, as he said of himself, who had no inclination to die for the truth: a man, as Luther said of him, in whose estimation human things stood higher than divine things: a man, two men, Gamaliel and Erasmus, a large class of men. "Speak not of them," said the master, "but look at them and pass them by."
Young men! with your life still before you, Gamaliel, the fluent and applauded opportunist, is here written with a special eye to your learning. Make your choice. It is an awful thing to say, but it is the simple truth; God and His Son, His church and His gospel, His cause and His kingdom, all stand before your door at this moment, waiting for your choice and your decision. Gamaliel decided, and his day is past, and he is in his own place. And now is your day of decision. Everlasting and irremediable issues for you and for others depend on this day's decision. Make up your minds. Take the step. Take sides with Peter and John. Take sides with Jesus Christ. And, as time goes on, having taken that side, that step will solve for you a thousand perplexities, and will deliver you from a thousand snares. You will be the children of the light and of the day: and you will walk in the light when other men all around you are stumbling in darkness, and know not whither they are going. Suppose that you had been Gamaliel, and act now as you so clearly see how he should have acted then.
This is our sacrament evening, and we have come to Gamaliel, and to his choice, and to his speech, not inopportunely, as I think, for our ensample on such an evening. For, what is a sacrament, and a sacrament day, and a sacrament evening? Well, Gamaliel may very well have seen the sacramental oath taken by the young soldiers under the walls of Jerusalem. At any rate, if he had ever been at Rome on a deputation, he would to a certainty have seen and heard the Sacramentum sworn to on the field of Mars. For the Sacramentum was the well-known military oath that the young soldier took when he entered on his place in the world-conquering legions of Rome. It was his sacramental oath when he lifted up his hand to heaven and swore that he would follow the eagles of Cæsar wherever they flew; to the swamps of Germany, to the snows of Caledonia, to the sands of Arabia, to the Jordan, to the Nile, to the Ganges, to the Thames, to the Clyde, to the Tay. And we, this day, old soldiers of the cross, and new recruits alike, have called upon God and man to see us that we will not flinch from the cross, but will follow it to heat and cold, to honour and shame, to gain and loss, to life and death. We have eagles to fight under, of which the angels desire to be the camp-followers. Only, let us all well understand, and without any possibility of mistake, just where our field of battle lies; just who and what is our enemy, just who is our Captain, just what is His whole armour, and just what hope He holds out to us of victory.
Well, then, lay this to heart, that your battlefield is not over the seas: it is at home. It is in the family, it is in the office, it is in the shop, it is in the workshop, it is at the breakfast and dinner-table, it is in the class-room, it is in the council-chamber. Your battlefield is just where you are. Your battle follows you about the world, and it is set just where you are set. And that is because your enemy, and the enemy of your Captain, is yourself. It is no paradox to say that; it is no hyperbole, no extravagance, no exaggeration. "The just understand it of their passions," says Pascal. That is to say, they understand that their only enemy is their own sensuality, their own bad temper, their own hot and hasty and unrecalled words, their own resentment of injuries, their own retaliation, their own revenge, their own implacable ill-will, their own envy of their dearest friend when he excels them in anything-and so on. What a sacramental oath that is, to swear to take no rest, and to give God no rest, till He has rooted all these, and all other enemies of His and ours, out of our heart! But, then, let us think of our Captain, and of our armour, and of our rations, as in this house this day, and of our battle-cry, and of our sure and certain victory. And, then, eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, the things that God hath prepared for him that overcometh. "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne."
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Gamaliel'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​g/gamaliel.html. 1901.