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The Grace of Gamaliel

We've had a few guest speakers recently, while our minister has been away, and they have kindly provided us with some of their notes. These are from the sermon preached by David Butcher on 26 May.


We know about Pharisees, the “Baddies” of the New Testament, who criticise Jesus at every turn and pressed for His death.

When the Jewish leaders were exiled and temple worship destroyed Jews were left dependent on the books of the Law of Moses, which needed Scribes to copy it and Rabbis to teach it. Pharisees emerged as a pressure group within Judaism (cp Momentum in the Labour Party).

They were not bad people; they strove to live by the Law of Moses, interpreting the Ten Commandments with 635 regulations. They taught and expected other people to do the same and acted like moral policemen.

This brought them into conflict with Jesus when He sought to act by the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

What you may not have been told was that there were two sorts or ‘schools’ of Pharisees.

Shammai The fundamentalists of Judaism, taking everything literally, checking on people breaking the law and even being hypocritical in their own actions. Jesus spoke most strongly about them: Matthew ch.23.

Hillel Named after their most important Rabbi, who taught a more liberal was of interpreting the Jewish faith e.g. “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men.”

In Acts ch. 5 vs. 33-42, the apostles are brought before the religious court (Sanhedrin) for the second time and ordered to stop preaching about Jesus. When they refuse to do so, tempers start to rise, until a calmer voice intervenes, that of GAMALIEL, grandson of Rabbi Hillel of the liberal school of Pharisees. “Honoured by all the people”, so says verse 34. “A kindly man with a far wider tolerance that his fellows”.

He pleads with his fellow Jews to wait and see whether the new teaching is from God or not; “If it is from God you will not be able to stop them…you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

His wise words and tolerant attitude prevailed.

Religion always offers the temptation to Pharisaism.

* Some Victorian Christians, including Baptists, and their attitudes to Sunday observance, mixing with non-Christians, dancing, alcohol etc.

* The subtle temptation of hypocrisy; outwardly righteous, inwardly deceitful.

* The dangers of Fundamentalism, having your faith all sewn up, dogmatic, sure of everything and critical of others.

* Thinking our way of worship and being the church is the only right way.

* Regarding ourselves as “good” and looking down on other people, especially non-Christians and people of other faiths.

* Having an unforgiving and unwelcoming attitude to people whose way of life we have already judged.

Remember: Jesus’ strongest words were not to “known sinners” but to respectable and good-living Pharisees.

There is only one other mention of Gamaliel in New Testament: Acts 22 v.3.

Paul himself was “trained in the school of Gamaliel”. Perhaps that surprises you – he can sound pretty dogmatic in his letters!

Maybe something of Gamaliel’s moderation prepared him for what happened on the Damascus road, when he found himself “fighting against God” (Acts 5 v.39) “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9 v.5).

Even more importantly, it may be Gamaliel’s influence that led Paul to preach the Gospel to Gentiles and baptise them as believers without them having to become Jewish adherents first and to write “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile …for Christ is in all”

(Galatians 3 v.28), which is critical for the world-wide message and all of us non-Jews!

Some issues to consider as we reflect on the grace of Gamaliel:

* The effects of “Fundamentalism” in the conflicts of our time.

* The relative popularity of Fundamentalist Christianity and the comparative decline of “liberal” Churches.

* The way we read, understand and apply the teachings of the Bible to our lives and issues of contemporary society.

* How the “Grace of Gamaliel” may influence our personal lives.

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