7th Sunday After Pentecost July 15, 2012
26, 423, 30, 53
[Gamaliel] said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, 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.” And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So [the apostles] departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who was bold and courageous on our behalf, dear fellow-redeemed:
I was preparing my address for today and was trying to remember whether I’d ever heard the expression “riding the fence,” used in a complementary way. I don’t think I ever have. To ride the fence means that a person is in the middle, he is undecided, he may go either way on a particular issue. Certainly, there is a proper time for prudence and caution, but in most areas, “riding the fence” is a very pejorative term. It is something bad, and the person who does it is seen as weak, vacillating, having no abiding values, being subject to every wind of change. It is certainly not an asset when it comes to political campaigns, as presidential candidates have discovered already. A candidate will go to almost any length to avoid being seen as one who rides the fence.
I think most people, as individuals, would like to think of themselves as confident and decisive. None of us would like to be characterized as a fence-rider. But there is one area in our life where riding the fence could be more than just a character flaw. It could be eternally fatal, and that is in the area of our spirituality and our faith. Today we will consider one of the premier fence-riders of all time, a man named Gamaliel. From his bad example of timidity and indecision, the Holy Spirit would direct us rather to a life of faith, one which engages in decisive action for Christ. Join me in considering the theme: In Matters of Faith THERE S NO RIDING THE FENCE. I. Faithless skeptics never cease to preach caution, and II. Faithful disciples never cease to preach Christ.
Gamaliel is an interesting character. He was a grandson of the great Jewish scholar Hillel. He was the teacher of Saul, by the way, before he became the Apostle Paul. He was one of the greatest scholars and most respected rabbis among the leaders of the Jews. He was one of the sect of the Pharisees, which meant that he put great emphasis on the strict outward keeping of Jewish ceremonial Law. When it came to this novel teaching going around about the prophet Jesus from Nazareth, Gamaliel was strongly skeptical, to say the least, and above all, he was a cautious man.
But that s only natural, for faithless skeptics never ceased to preach caution, and that is what Gamaliel did. In this case, several of the disciples had been arrested after preaching in the name of Christ and healing many sick people in the Lord’s name. The Sadducees, who often fought bitterly with the Pharisees, would likely have put the disciples to death, but Gamaliel intervened. He preached caution. He said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men.” [v.35]
Then he brought two examples from the recent history of Israel to show that his wait-and-see approach to the apostles was the correct one. Both men of whom he spoke, Theudas and Judas of Galilee, were leaders of fringe religious movements. Both men were quickly captured and killed, and their followers were scattered. Their movements died away, leaving no trace behind. These followers of this Jesus of Nazareth, Gamaliel speculated, might very well end up the same way. His advice was to wait and see. “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men…and they agreed with him.” [vv.35, 40]
The advice of Gamaliel was accepted by the Sanhedrin. He convinced them. Did he convince you? I have to admit that the first time I read this text, Gamaliel s advice sounded pretty logical to me. “If this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing” [v.39]—It seems to make sense. If a work or institution is of human origin, it will fail all by itself. You don’t have to help it along. Conversely, if a work or institution is from God, then clearly there is nothing you can do to combat it, struggle as you may. It seems very sensible advice. Indeed, it seems a model of tolerance and prudence. In fact, tolerance was the subject of a sermon on this very text, which I happened to run across on the internet. The preacher, a woman, used these words of Gamaliel to urge her hearers to be tolerant toward homosexuals in the church. We should find out whether it was from God or from men, she said, before passing judgment. The thought struck me that she could find out whether it was from God, immediately, just by turning to the first chapter of the book Romans.
Actually, Gamaliel’s advice isn’t as good as it sounds. You don’t have to dig very deeply before the logic of his argument begins to break down. Just because a religion or a movement has its origin in man, doesn’t mean that it will quickly die away as did Gamaliel’s two examples. Islam is an idolatrous religion that comes from man, not from God. But one-third of the earth’s population are adherents of Islam. It has lasted for centuries and appears as though it may endure for centuries more. The same could be said of Buddhism, or Taoism, the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They will all eventually come to nothing, as Gamaliel promised, but that may not happen until the Day of Judgment.
Even less logical is Gamaliel’s second statement. “If it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” [v.39] Which raises a logical absurdity: Who would want to fight against God? How silly for a religious leader to be urging his hearers not to fight against God! If what the disciples were doing—preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, spreading the good news of the kingdom—if what they were doing was of God, why wasn’t this leader of Israel urging his hearers to fight for God, to receive the Gospel, to believe the Good News, and be saved?! But faithless skeptics never cease to preach caution.
“Take heed to yourselves,” he told them. “Be cautious. Take care what you do. Let’s ride the fence for a while and find out what happens to these disciples of Jesus. When all the evidence is in, then we can make an informed decision.” It sounded like words of wisdom when, in fact, it was the height of folly.
In the beginning of the American Civil War, there were many people, particularly among the border states, who were conflicted. They had loyalties on both sides. A story is told about a man from Northern Virginia, who staunchly refused to take sides. It is said that he showed up at the Battle of Bull Run wearing a uniform that was half blue and half gray. It might have seemed like an expedient measure at the time. However, he soon realized the folly of his supposed solution, when he discovered that the Confederate soldiers were shooting at his blue jacket while the Union Army was shooting at his gray pants.
In matters of faith too, there is no riding the fence. In the words of the old phrase, “he who hesitates is lost.” Gamaliel hesitated. He preached caution. He refused to receive or believe the good news of a Savior from sin. Yes, Gamaliel hesitated, and as far as we know, was lost.
And what about you and me? We look at our lives and we have to admit that we have far too often been timid and hesitant when we should have been bold for Christ. Those opportunities are so precious and you never know when they ll come; but sadly we often fail to take advantage of them. Very often we have a chance at the office, at the club, or at a family gathering to speak a fit word—where the Gospel would have a chance to really do some good, and we’re timid. We’re cautious. We mumble something noncommittal, or keep silent altogether. We sit on the fence. We need to wake up and realize that, in matters of faith, there’s no riding the fence. All it takes to snap us back to reality is to be reminded of what God said to the lukewarm church at Laodicea. Remember them? They were spiritual fence- riders, and Jesus said to them, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).
To our shame, we have to admit that we have all too often been guilty of riding the fence in things spiritual. But before you get too discouraged, I’d like to remind you about someone who never rode the fence. Someone who made a right decision and stuck to it—someone who always fought the good fight and never vacillated. It is a man who, for your sake and mine, refused to preach caution and rather preached the good news of pardon and peace. Jesus Christ refused to ride the fence. “Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:23-24). Jesus, in His mission to bring you eternal salvation, was not paralyzed by fear and inaction. He didn’t take a wait-and-see attitude. He dove right in. Our Lord was undaunted by suffering and shame. “Look unto Jesus,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Yes, we are weak, but Jesus is strong. Jesus, for the joy of delivering you from eternal condemnation, went all the way to the cross. There on that cross, He atoned for all your sins and transgressions, all your weaknesses, all your failures, every dark misdeed of which you’ve been guilty, and every shameful stain that lies upon your record. When God raised Jesus from the dead at the third day, He put his seal on your forgiveness. He set his ironclad guarantee on your eternal salvation. As the Apostle Paul says, “Jesus was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
With this being the case, we might well ask, “what can I now do for my blessed Savior who has earned Heaven for me?” Our text doesn’t leave us in the dark there either. For while faithless skeptics never cease to preach caution, faithful disciples never cease to preach Christ.
“When they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” [vv.40-42]
Poor Gamaliel. In the end, the very thing happened to him of which he was most afraid. He was found fighting against God. He whipped and persecuted the servants of the True God, and charged them not to preach in the name of Christ. By the way, we glibly rattle off that phrase, “they beat them and let them go,” perhaps without understanding what was involved. The apostles were stripped to the waist, right there before the council, and whipped with 39 strokes. It was very public and very shameful. It was the fulfillment of Jesus’ previous warning to His disciples: “But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues” (Matthew 10:17).
But how do we see the apostles react? They rejoiced. They were actually proud to be so publicly shamed for the sake of their Lord. When it came to the Gospel, they did not equivocate, and they did not ride the fence. They never ceased to preach Christ. They joyfully redoubled their efforts to spread ever wider the influence of the saving Gospel.
Likewise, we have work to do here in our home towns. We may accomplish certain goals and milestones, but the real work—the work our Lord put us here on this earth to do—goes on. It’s more urgent now than ever before. Jesus’ words to His disciples are words for us as well: “But you shall receive power, after the Holy Ghost has come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8. KJV).
For you, it might not be the ends of the earth. For you it might be your next-door neighbor, or your co-worker, or your business partner. But in any case, never cease to preach Christ. Like those faithful disciples, never cease to tell others what great things God has done for you. You needn’t be eloquent. You needn’t stand on the street corner and force your attention on passers-by. Just be ready. Be ready to “give an answer to anyone who asks you, a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). As a friend of this congregation once encouraged us, be ready for those divine encounters. And never cease to preach Christ!
Riding the fence is an American idiom. In Germany they have an equally colorful idiom: zwischen zwei Stuehlen zu sitzen. It means, literally, “to sit between two stools,” to be caught between two positions, to be neither in one place nor the other. Clearly, it is not somewhere we want to be. It’s a place where we Christians will not be, for we understand that you can’t sit between two stools. In matters of faith, there simply is no riding the fence. To the end of the age, faithless skeptics will never cease to preach caution. God grant that we may be faithful disciples, who never cease to preach Christ! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked KJV are taken from the King James Version.