Irresponsible Indifference (Acts 5:31-40)

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In a sermon that he once preached on our text passage, Lloyd-Jones concluded with these words:

Poor Gamaliel! He never looked at the gospel message personally. If he had, he would not have just given his “great” advice. Do you know what he would have done? He would have said to the Sanhedrin, “We are all sinners. We are relying on the law. We think we can put ourselves right with God. I’ve been wrong, you are all wrong, these men are right.” He would have risked death in order to say that.1

Why did he not do this? The simple and fundamental answer is that he was just as blind as his more aggressive, vociferously violent counterparts in the Sanhedrin. He was certainly more polite and “reasonable.” He seems to have been a decent and respectable man. And yet, when all was said and done, he was actually no more spiritually astute than the rest of the Sanhedrin. He dismissed the spiritual revolution before his eyes as nothing more than another political schism.

Once you get below the surface of Gamaliel’s wager, his problem was the same as that of the rest of the Council: He was afraid of losing respectability and position. He did not want to lose relationships. He did not want to go against the status quo. He was fearful of the risks involved in actually examining the truth claims. In short, for all of his learning, Gamaliel was not really all that committed to knowing the truth. The truth of God did not matter to him as much as his position and comfort. His own opinion was more important than God’s truth. Ultimately, he had an authority problem: He did not take God’s authority seriously.

At the end of the day Gamaliel treated the truth claims of the apostles with indifference and indolence. He was not willing to apply the effort to find out if the phenomenon in Jerusalem was a work of God. For him, truth did not matter. Indeed, poor Gamaliel!

Sadly there are many in the church today who share the same irresponsible indifference and indolence toward truth claims. And the results are often disconcerting at best or divisive and destructive at worse. With such an approach believers and entire local churches embrace false teaching and unhealthy innovations in their church life. Further, because of this “Gamaliel wager,” the church at large often perpetuates illegitimate ministries, the fallout being a weakened church because of a watering down of the authority of God’s Word. And this can all be attributed to a failure of nerve. Poor Christians! Poor churches!

As we return to this passage, it is my goal to strengthen our resolve to test all truth claims (and ministry calls) by the infallible Word of God rather than by a fallible interpretation of providence.

Understanding the Text

Many people in the church throughout the centuries have embraced the “Gamaliel wager” as a means to discern the rightness or wrongness of a particular course of action. It seems noble, almost fool proof. And yet it is actually an irresponsible cop out; it is a passive, pragmatic and sometimes a politically correct evasion of responsibility. The fact of the matter, as we saw previously, is that Gamaliel’s gamble imperilled his soul and may even have solidified his eternal condemnation.

Gamaliel’s advice was simple: “Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” In other words, for Gamaliel, the ultimate test of orthodoxy was providence. God’s providence would not permit an unbiblical movement to continue, and a biblical one could not be stopped anyway. Therefore, instead of actively searching the Scriptures, it was best to simply let the apostles’ preaching stand the test of time.

It is a serious error to leave one’s decision when confronted with the truth up to a toss of the circumstantial dice. Gamaliel had the responsibility to search the Scriptures, if not on behalf of his own soul then on behalf of the souls of those for whom he was responsible: the people of Israel. But he forsook this responsibility and opted instead for a passive approach. No wonder Jesus lamented the state of Israel’s shepherds (Matthew 9:36-38)!

In fact, Jesus urged the apostles to pray for godlier shepherds, and they were in fact the answer to their own God directed prayers. If, with an open heart, Gamaliel would have opened his Bible and compared Scripture with Scripture, he would have come to the realisation that what Peter and the apostles were preaching was the truth! But, typical of all Israel’s spiritual leaders, he was unwilling to do so.

You will remember that Jesus issued precisely this challenge to the Pharisees during His earthly ministry. They claimed to be leading Israel spiritually, but when Messiah came—the very one for whom Israel had been praying for centuries—they rejected Him. They still claimed to be observing the law of Moses, but in fact they had spurned the very one of whom Moses wrote. And so Jesus said to them,

You do not have [God’s] word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. I do not receive honour from men. But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honour from one another, and do not seek the honour that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?

(John 5:38-47)

At the end of the day it seems that Gamaliel responded with indifference because he sought the honour of men. This was both irresponsible and imperilling to his soul.

Applying the Text

Having gained a brief understanding of the text before us, let’s apply the passage and principles learned from it to help us with regard to our own responsibility to know the truth. As believers, we want to know how to know the truth and to guard us against the misuse of the doctrine of providence. That may sound strange, but it is precisely what we have before us.

Defining Providence

Voddie Baucham once commented that “providence is not the Reformed Christian word for ‘luck.’” Unfortunately, that is how many Christians treat God’s providence. Let me illustrate.

Imagine for a moment that breaking news includes the account of a terrible and fatal plane crash. Imagine at the same time that it was a flight that you were scheduled to make, but for whatever reason you were prevented from boarding. You might be tempted to offer a testimony to this effect: “I was meant to be on that plane but, by God’s providence, I was not.”

Now, make no mistake: It certainly was God’s providence that you were not on the plane. But it would also have been God’s providence if you were on the plane and were killed in the crash. You see, God’s providence does not always protect us from harm; sometimes it places us directly in harm’s way.

In his systematic theology, Grudem offers the following definition of providence: “God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfil his purpose.”2

So, first of all, God “keeps” all created things “existing and maintaining the properties with which He created them.” This is the truth expressed by Paul in Colossians 1:17: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” We don’t go to bed human and wake up canine. We can count on things to more or less keep an ordinary course. God continues to give us breath, a heartbeat and brain activity.

Second, God’s providence “cooperates with created things in every action directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do.” Simply put, God is the power behind everything that happens. God, for example, directs the “laws of nature.” We assume that a loose apple will fall from the tree to the ground. Gravity is a “law” (or at least a “theory”) by which we live. But it did not just happen that way. God put the “laws of nature” into place.

Third, God “directs” all created things “to fulfil his purpose.” That is, God has a purpose for everything that happens; nothing happens contrary to His decretive will. We don’t always understand what God is doing, but we trust that He nevertheless is in control. When I was invited recently to preach a missions conference at another church, I contracted food poisoning right in the middle of the conference. I don’t know why God allowed that. But I knew even as I struggled with nausea and vomiting, and even as I had to preach while feeling terribly ill, that God was in control.

In summary, we might say that the doctrine of providence is the simple truth that God preserves creation according to His will. But since providence is God’s secret will, we have no business interpreting it. We have a better, clearer authority than that.

Abusing Providence

There is an ever-present danger that we will hide our indolence behind a misuse of providence. Listen to how Stott explained it:

We should not be too ready to credit Gamaliel with having uttered an invariable principle. To be sure, in the long run what is from God will triumph, and what is merely human (let alone diabolical) will not. Nevertheless, in the shorter run evil plans sometimes succeed, while good ones conceived in accordance with the will of God sometimes fail. So the Gamaliel principle is not a reliable index to what is from God and what is not.3

In other words, providence is not ours to interpret. Rather, we need to apply the Deuteronomy 29:29 principle—“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law”—and trust the Lord of providence rather than making an infallible law of providence.

Mark Chanski says makes the point clearly:

We must not make circumstances (providence) the decisive variable in decision-making. It’s not wise to read the favourable or unfavourable circumstances as necessarily the approval of disapproval of God. Providence is ambiguous, and is able to be interpreted in multiple ways.

We must not permit ourselves to be pushed around like passive-purple four-balls by the blows that events of providence bring our way. Instead, we should set a course based on the principles of Scripture, thoughtfully and prayerfully applied to the realities of daily living.4

Providence is not to be equated with reading tea leaves or as divine breadcrumbs to enable us to know the will of God. To do so is to fall into the trap of divination, which God clearly outlawed in His law.

Providence is not always affirmation; in fact, it is oftentimes a temptation. Of course, God’s design is never to lead us into sin (James 1:13). However, He does so order providence that we may get what we sinfully want. Consider the example of Jonah.

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

(Jonah 1:1-3)

Now, we know that, when Jonah eventually boarded the ship, he went below deck and fell asleep. Evidently, he had peace about his decision to go to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. How do we explain such indolence?

I suspect that the historian offers us a clue. In 2 Chronicles 9:21 we are told, “The king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Hiram. Once every three years the merchant ships came, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys.” Do you see that? The ship that Jonah boarded to go to Tarshish only came past the port of Joppa once every three years. What were the chances? Surely God’s providence must be directing Jonah to board that ship? I suppose that might be reading into the text, but it is certainly how an abuse of God’s providence generally works.

At the very least, we know that Jonah was largely untroubled about his decision to disobey God’s clearly spoken Word. He was able to sleep during a terrible storm while the professional sailors panicked on deck. Having “peace” about a particular course of action is not always the best way to determine whether or not it is God’s will.

One reason that we are tempted to hide behind providence is simply because we do not want to suffer. It would seem that this was Gamaliel’s motive. His counsel enabled him to avoid taking a stand. If he could but convince the rest of the council to leave the matter to the providence of God, he would not be forced to decide whether or not the apostles were right. And, consequently, he would not have to face potential suffering from his fellow council members if he ultimately discerned that the apostles were right.

How often do we do precisely the same? We are tempted frequently to read God’s providence into circumstances that end well for us. But let us remember that suffering is the revealed will of God for Christians (1 Peter 2:18-21; 3:14). Passivity may help you to avoid suffering but it will also hinder you from growing into the person you can be.

I am convinced that young men today need to heed this principle. Far too many young men seem to be sitting back passively and waiting for God’s providence to determine their course of action. They do not actively pursue marriage or employment because God’s providence does not appear to be making the way easy.

But, in fact, they have God’s clear Word on the matter. They know that God smiles on marriage. They know what God requires of a Christian marriage: a heterosexual, lifelong commitment between two believing partners who work together to glorify God, strengthen the church and raise a godly seed. But instead of actively pursuing the young woman of their interest—who fits the biblical description—they choose to wait passively on God’s providence. When they ought to be taking the initiative to contact her father and ask his permission for the marriage, they seem to sit back and wait for the father to call them!

Similarly, a young man may understand God’s revealed Word on employment. He knows that he has no right to eat if he will not work. He knows that he has a responsibility to work in order to provide for a family, and in order to have to give to those in need. He knows where his gifts lie and what he enjoys doing. But instead of actively scouring the job market he sits back and waits for God

Benjamin Franklin once noted, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good at anything else.” We make excuses for failure and mediocrity and get more of both.

Thomas Edison, another great innovator, observed, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Or, if you prefer Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

Alexander Graham Bell failed many times while attempting to transmit his voice over a wire until he finally succeeded. A quote attributed to Bell: “When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

So get out there and do something! It is time for Christians to stop being so passive and to take seriously the principles of God’s Word and to act on them.

Responding to Providence

Gamaliel at least offered one sound piece of advice: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men” (v. 35). He cautioned them against reacting. They needed to think more carefully before they took action. Sadly, the rest of his counsel was not as wise, but he at least started out well.

We would do well to heed this part of Gamaliel’s counsel. The teaching of the apostles threatened the Sanhedrin’s theological comfort zone and they were tempted to react. We are tempted to do the same when teaching strikes us as disconcerting, but we need to be careful.

There is a danger that we immediately reject as wrong a teaching that seems strange or different. But we have to consider the possibility that a teaching, while new to us, may in fact be true. Our church has undergone a number of significant theological shifts over the years—eschatological, soteriological, and ecclesiological. With each change there have been those who have reacted and have left the church. But, for the most part, the church has carefully weighed the teaching and embraced change where it has been necessary.

Of course, those who are grounded in the Word of God can easily and immediately dismiss certain teachings as wrong. There has been much debate in certain segments of Christianity recently over a statement made by a particular preacher that Mormonism is a cult. While he might have chosen his words a little more carefully, his conclusion was sound. According to 2 John 4-11, those who do not abide in the doctrine of Christ are false teachers. If Mormonism is not a cult, it is at least a false religion, and it is quite all right to say so!

But we must be careful to do our homework. We do not simply shoot from the theological hip. We cannot dismiss a teaching simply because Dr. So-and-So is against it. I remember when The Prayer of Jabez was all the rage just a few years ago. When it began gaining popularity, I was tempted to reject it out of hand. Instead, I took a more careful approach. I read the book, read the biblical text, and considered various opinions on the matter. I even prepared and preached a sermon on the matter. I reached some very definite conclusions, but they were not reactionary in nature.

But not reacting is not the same as not responding. We must not react; we must respond. We must take the time to search the Scriptures. Again, this is precisely where Gamaliel failed, and it was a very serious failure indeed.

Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin—unbelieving, religious Jews—failed to search the Scriptures. Thankfully, not all were of their ilk. Luke records a different group of unbelieving, religious Jews who responded in a very different way indeed to the apostolic gospel.

Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.

(Acts 17:10-12)

The Bereans were unbelievers who responded in a noble fashion. Believers have the same responsibility. “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). Again,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

(1 John 4:1-7)

Of course, a Berean response will require some boldness. “When the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds” (Acts 17:13). Embracing the truth will often lead to trouble, but we must nevertheless be willing to take a stand. Remember, when the apostles were rebuked for their commitment to the gospel, despite the instructions of the Sanhedrin to abstain from evangelism, they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v. 29). And they were willing to face persecution because of it.

Are you willing to swim upstream against the contemporary pop religious culture? You may face criticism, misrepresentation and ostracism, but this is what God’s faithful saints have faced throughout history.

In short, we must be biblical. Gamaliel was not. We must be.

As we refuse to react and choose instead to respond, we must have a clear resolve. And our resolve must be this: to use our mind as we submit to the authority of God’s Word.

We are never called to submit to God’s works as authoritative; rather, we are called to submit to His Word. God’s prescriptive will is our authority, not His providential work. Again, “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

When we seek to know the secret will of God then we end up behaving like pagans. We have no business trying to know the mind of God unless it has been revealed. We need to quit behaving like sanctified sorcerers with a crystal ball!

We are confronted on every side by those who claim amazing insight into God’s will, and by those who claim to be the benefactors of amazing providence. Much like Simon the sorcerer, such individuals seem to astonish people with their claims to greatness (Acts 8:9). They might not actually practice sorcery, as Simon did, but they come telling amazing tales of witnessing to people, or testifying of an amazing call to the mission field. Sadly, many of them do not carry out their ministry in a biblical manner, and yet so many Christians seem to embrace their amazing testimony without question.

Arno Gaebelein summarises it nicely:

Ever since up to the present time men have hidden themselves behind the wisdom of Gamaliel. If certain movements spring up which are doubtful and contain erroneous teachings contradicting the revelation of God, we hear people saying that they are content to wait the issue. If the movement is of God it will stand, if it is of man it will come to nought. . . . There is no need to follow this clever advice or the great Jewish teacher. We are in possession of the completed Word of God and must test everything by it.5

When we judge the rightness or the wrongness of a course of action based on “results” then we have in effect turned away from the authority of God’s Word. How many parents have heard this refrain from their children: “But, Dad, everybody is doing it and look how things are going for them!” Or how many have reasoned along these lines: “But my child’s soccer team made it to the finals. The Lord knew that the finals were on Sunday. He must be for it!”

How many have claimed that God has called them to the mission field or the pastorate despite the leadership of their local church saying otherwise? The biblical pattern, clear from Acts 13, is that God speaks to local church leadership about calls to ministry, and that the prospective minister should submit to the leading of his local church. He goes when his local church commissions him to go. But we have a plethora of ministries today that are carried out quite apart from the authority of the local church. Sadly, many Christians simply accept such situations as God’s leading because of the perceived fruitfulness of those ministries (God’s providence) instead of looking to the absolute standard of God’s Word.

Much more could be said about this matter; certainly this brief study has not been exhaustive. Much could be said about seeking collective wisdom from a multitude of counsellors, the place of prayer in decision making, etc. And yet I trust that this has been helpful.

Let us go forth with the conviction that truth does matter and therefore matters of truth will stand the testing of the matter.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Authentic Christianity: Studies in the Book of Acts, 6 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 3:208.
  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 315.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 118.
  4. Mark Chanski, Manly Dominion: In a Passive-Purple-Four-Ball World (Merrick: Calvary Press, 2004), 92.
  5. Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 113-14.