In Acts 4, a momentum shift can be felt as a swell of opposition to the Apostles and their message of the Gospel begins to build. After healing a lame man outside of the temple (Acts 3:1-10) and proclaiming the gospel on the inside (Acts 3:11-26), the religious leaders became greatly annoyed at their teaching and proclamation of Christ raising from the dead. Subsequently the apostles (Peter and John) were arrested and placed into custody. Upon being questioned on the nature of authority by which they were preaching, Peter responds that it is by means of the Holy Spirit and subsequently preaches the gospel of Jesus to them. The religious leaders took counsel and determined that in light of the miraculous healing, the better option would be to let them go with the understanding that they would no longer teach or preach in Jesus’ name. Naturally this is not an option for the apostles who are under the authority and commission of the Lord Jesus Christ, so their response is fitting when they say, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19-20 The leaders then release them, and the people continue praising the name of God. At the reunion of all the apostles, they remarkably pray for continued boldness in preaching the Word and that God would continue healing and performing signs and wonders.
This background is imperative for understanding how the threat of persecution continues to build in the latter part of chapter five before reaching its climax in chapter 7 with the stoning of Stephen. After the death of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit, the author of Acts provides a typical summary this time highlighting the signs and wonders that were being performed and the increase of believers that was taking place. With this, we once again find the religious leaders filled with jealousy and this time choose to arrest and imprison the apostles. Through a supernatural intervention, an angel of the Lord opens the prison doors and commissions the apostles to, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” Upon finding them released, the religious leaders observe that the apostles have returned to their preaching ministry at the temple and once again detain them. For a second time, they are detained and reminded of the command forbidding them to preach in the name of Christ. Again, Peter replies with boldness that they must obey God rather than men, which he follows with a proclamation of the gospel and a convicting word that the leaders were responsible for Jesus’ death by hanging Him on a tree. As would be expected, the leader’s jealousy turns to rage and overflows in desire to kill them. Before their rage has a chance to manifest itself in the murder of the apostles, following the pattern of their Lord, a well-known, well-respected leader of the Pharisees intercedes with some historical examples and applied wisdom. Gamaliel, stands up among them and reminds them of two men who had garnered a following, but led movements that ultimately failed.
First, he reminds them of a man named Theudas who, “rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.” Acts 5:36 There is some debate about who this historical figure is due to the presence of the name in the writings of Josephus. Given the context of Acts 5, it’s more likely that Gamaliel is making a historical argument from older to newer, which would place this Theudas well prior to Josephus’ record. That said, during the years prior to Christ and after Him there were many revolutionaries who rose up to lead a following, usually against the Roman Empire’s rule. It’s likely this Theudas fits this role as the argument from Gamaliel makes evident. The second example is Judas the Galilean of whom he says, “rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.” Acts 5:37 Of Judas there is more known as his revolution around the time of Christ’s birth involved a rebellion against Roman taxation. His followers became Jewish Zealots and were eventually accepted into political Jerusalem. For Gamaliel, the use of these two examples is to calm the present situation with the apostles by showing historically that false Messiah’s have arisen, but when they have been killed their movements have ended in failure. This failure gives evidence that they were not movements of God, rather of men. In applying this to the apostles, the idea is that with the death of Christ, the real Messiah, they ought to wait and see what would happen with his followers to avoid actually opposing the work of God.
Are there any lessons from this narrative that we can apply to our own day?
As per usual, the applications are numerous, but one particular application that I want to focus on concerns the nature of Messiah-like movements in our own day, particularly in that they take on revolutionary characteristics in seeking to oppose government reign or government rule. In keeping with our recent series on the nature of spiritual warfare and how it particularly involves false prophets and teachers, we would not expect movements or revolutions done contrary or absent the name of Christ to be confused with a work of Christ. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that our discernment ought to be engaged when we hear of movements or revolutions in the name of Christ. This is precisely what we see today. Several intertwining movements and potential revolutions have been shaping up for the last couple of years. I went over how these are typical in revolutionary times in the series on responses to the French Revolution (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Two that specifically deserve attention are Q/Anon and Christian Nationalism.
Both movements are rooted in conservative politics; both also claim to be “Christian” movements; both have strong elements of eschatology at the forefront of their belief systems, not too dissimilar from historic movements such as the Millerites, the early Jesuits, and 19th Century Dispensationalism. Similarly, both are ecumenical movements. Generally speaking, for the Q/anon movement, one could hold to any number of beliefs from New Age, mysticism, pantheism/panentheism, Wicca, and even genuine Christianity. In Christian Nationalism, the beliefs are much more unified within the bounds of orthodoxy, but there are a wide variety of backgrounds ranging from theonomy/theocracy to the familiar Christian Right which shares much in common with dispensationalism. Though the two are indeed separate movements, there is overlap particularly among those who emphasize dominionism and/or the New Apostolic Reformation.
With these brief generalities out of the way, I want to add that until now I have refrained from writing on either of these for the reasons that Gamaliel mentions in our passage from above. Initially, I wanted to see how both of these played out before forming a more reasoned opinion, but now it has become clear that both are wrought with problems. The videos below are further introduction to each of these wildly popular movements. Be cautious. Be discerning. Test the spirits (1 John 4:1).