Of Man Or Of God

Of Man Or Of God


As the Jewish leaders worry about the rapidly growing movement in the name of Jesus, they meet in order to decide what to do with the apostles.  A Pharisee named Gamaliel recalls a pair of previous uprisings which “came to nothing” after their leaders (Theudas and Judas the Galilean) perished.  Gamaliel then concludes, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’” (Acts 5:38-39a).

Gamaliel’s reasoning is pretty clear, and we want to carefully apply it.  How many of us have excitedly joined and followed so-called spiritual leaders in our lives – maybe an older family member or a role model in the church?  But what happens to us and to the rest of the followers when THAT person leaves or THAT leader dies?  What happens to the colony once the queen bee has been taken down?  How many families completely crumble and fall apart?  How many disperse and scatter, heading for the doors and leaving the church where that leader once inspired?

Gamaliel makes it pretty clear about the reason why this phenomenon takes place.  It is basically this: “If a plan or an undertaking is of man, it will fail.”  With regard to a leader-follower model, this can happen in obviously two places.  If the LEADER is not appointed or directed by God, then the plan will fail, OR if the FOLLOWER is not truly following God, then the undertaking will fail.  For the follower, “not following God” can show up in at least two different ways.  It can take place when the follower improperly places his/her faith in the earthly leader instead of in God Himself (this is a big mistake).  It can also happen when there is no genuine faith within the followers at all.  This is a situation in which the leader’s presence is just barely holding everything together.

The period of the judges during the Old Testament is a perfect example of this.  The Lord would raise up a judge – a leader – who would save the people from their self-imposed trouble, and all would be good.  However, consider the words of Judges 2:19: “But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them.  They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.”  Does this describe your faith?  Is it fake?  Is it a facade?  Are you just pretending to hold on – just going through the motions – only because of the presence of some leadership figure in your life?  What happens when that one person is removed?  Will it all come crashing down? 

Back in our main text, Gamaliel continues, “But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”  One of the great apologetic arguments in defense of Jesus as the Son of God is based on this quote.  In the years following His death, Jesus’s disciples do not disperse nor scatter but instead congregate and grow and do even greater works than Him, implying that this movement is not manmade but rather God-inspired.    One describes it this way: “If the leader dies, then the followers scatter.  Then why did Jesus’s followers not permanently do the same after His death?  Because Jesus – their leader – died and rose again!  The leader kept on and keeps on living!  And, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, He never left them nor does He leave us!!!”

Stepping back for a moment though, we get this impression from Gamaliel’s speech that a possible sign that a group or community is “of God” is if it endures together and stays together when bad things happen.  The Lord’s authenticity stamp can sometimes be seen in this unity in the midst of adversity.  When viewed through this filter, Jesus’s famous words have added meaning: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Consider also that Jesus, in what might be considered His parting prayer before His death, prays for the oneness of all of those who will believe in Him (John 17:21).  If it all just falls apart after Jesus is gone, then is Jesus really all that different than random “movement starters” Theudas or Judas the Galilean?!?!

Concluding Thoughts

1.  If a Christian family or community just falls apart after the departure of one man or woman, then what does that say about how much Christ was in that community?

2.  One of the greatest desires of a Christian leader who “goes on ahead” is the enduring unity of the ones left behind.  Leaders who want and encourage chaos, conflict, and division after their departures do not embody Christ.

3.  Finally, remember the very fitting words of this hymn: “Our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’s blood and righteousness…On Christ, the Solid Rock I’ll stand – all other ground is sinking sand.”

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