If you had eyes to see spiritual beings, you would see angels around you as you read these words. Elisha’s admonition to his frightened servant is still God’s word to us: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). After the prophet prayed that the Lord would opened the servant’s eyes, “he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). Those horses and chariots are still real today.
If you will serve God faithfully, you can count on angels to protect and serve you. Already you have likely experienced their help in ways you could not see and did not recognize. When we are with the Father in heaven, perhaps he will give us opportunity to look back over our lives and rejoice in all the ways his angels cared for us.
Obey God rather than men (Acts 5:25-32)
Next we come to one of the clearest proofs of genuine transformation in all the apostolic record. Remember that only John had even the courage to appear at Jesus’ crucifixion; Peter had cowered before a serving girl on the night of his Lord’s arrest; the disciples before Pentecost met behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).
Now their worst fears have come to reality. The Sanhedrin knows each of them by name, has already arrested them, and plans to bring them to punishment and probable execution. They are on the nation’s “most wanted” list, with no legal options. They have one more chance to retreat from danger, with the likely result that the Jerusalem officials would allow their safety in obscurity.
If you were in their circumstances today, what would you do? Would you return to the scene of the crime, the headquarters of your adversaries, and continue the very activity which led to your arrest? The apostles did. The Spirit who empowered them at Pentecost changed them forever. Frightened fishermen had become emboldened prophets. And world history would never be the same.
We should pray for such courage: “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). The apostolic witness was consistent and powerful, centering always in the risen Christ and the opportunity for forgiveness he alone provides. Their message should be ours every time you teach and I preach. Those who hear us may never have another chance to come to the One we proclaim. And God will always protect and empower those who glorify his Son.
The text nowhere claims that the apostles performed their ministry without fear. A common spiritual mistake is to confuse the presence of fear with the lack of faith. Genuine faith is not the absence of fear, but the decision to obey God no matter how afraid we are. If we’re not afraid, we need little faith.
Return to that place in your life where you are afraid to serve the Lord. Name that fear. Trust it to God in faith. Follow your Lord even though you are afraid. Only when you step out of the boat can you walk on the water.
The old axiom is still true: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. And there was no one there.”
Expect divine help from unlikely sources (Acts 5:33-39)
We have already seen how God will use his angels to protect his people. Now our story shows us that God can use humans as well as spiritual beings to advance his Kingdom. We expect him to employ the apostles to his Great Commission purpose, but not the greatest scholar among their Jewish opponents. “Straight licks with crooked sticks” is a proverb and a fact of spiritual life.
Gamaliel was the finest scholar in Israel. A Pharisee and legal expert, he may have been the grandson of Hillel, one of the two most prominent teachers in Jewish history. The school founded by Hillel typically interpreted Scripture in a moderate and practical manner, in contrast to Shammai’s more literal and demanding approach. And so Hillel’s school came to prominence and popularity in first-century Judaism.
Gamaliel was at least the recognized leader of this movement, a kind of “denominational” official and key advisor in Israel. Saul of Tarsus’s resume featured the fact that he had once been a protégé of this great scholar: “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts 22:3). Saul’s subsequent persecution of the Christian movement showed that Gamaliel’s teachings could easily lead to the severest rejection of Jesus’ teachings and followers.
Now this respected spiritual leader, a kind of Billy Graham to his people, stood to speak. A word from him would likely lead to the execution of the leadership team of apostolic Christianity, and the direst consequences to their movement.
Gamaliel cited the revolutionary movement of the otherwise-unknown Theudas (not the one mentioned later by Josephus), and its dispersion. He also mentioned Judas the Galilean, whose revolt against paying taxes to Caesar was described by the Jewish historian Josephus. His rebellion likewise came to nothing (vs. 36-37). His point was simple: “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” (vs. 38-39). He was more right than he knew.
And “His speech persuaded them” (v. 40). God used a man none would have counted a friend of the Christian movement, to help preserve its leaders and maintain its growth. If our Lord could use such an adversary to become an unlikely ally of his people, know that he can use any person and source to further his Kingdom.
No one is beyond the redemptive grace of God. And no situation is beyond his redemptive power. If your fear to serve God has its source in a Gamaliel, know that your Father is more powerful than any adversary. The bumper sticker speaks truth: “God + 1 = majority.” Always.