Gamaliel’s Wager: When you Risk Making God your Enemy

A Startling Realization

Several years ago, I read the passage below and was startled by what it said. I had not considered the implications of it because I had not seen them before. I’ll explain more as we go. But first let me set the stage for what is going on.

The story begins with the arrest of the apostles for teaching and preaching the Gospel in the public square and in the Temple. There is the added wrinkle of the jealousy of the Pharisees because the disciples were performing signs and wonders, and many people were being healed (Acts 5:17). The Pharisees were no longer the cool kids. Their influence was shrinking. And they did not like that at all.

In an attempt to silence the apostles, the high priest had them all arrested and put in prison. But, during the night, an angel of God came and freed them, and instructed them to go back to the Temple and continue teaching and preaching.

Imagine the surprise of the high priest and the council when they could not find the apostles in the prison!

As they were trying to figure out what was going on, word got back to the council. The apostles were back at the Temple doing what got them arrested in the first place.

So, the guards went to go get them, but with great care. These simple soldiers knew something was different about these men. No need to stir things up with the people either.

Gamaliel’s Wager

It is into this context we find the speech given by one of the members of the council. A Pharisee name Gamaliel. Who, not uninterestingly, may have very well been the Apostle Paul’s teacher in the rabbinic tradition.

Luke records what was said for us in Acts 5.

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas 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. 37 After him Judas the Galilean 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. 38 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; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

Acts 5:33-40

The sentence that caught my attention was at the end of verse 39: You might even be found opposing God!

I was floored by the both the wisdom and challenge of what Gamaliel said. As human beings, we are limited in our abilities to see beyond the moment. We have to be careful not to suppose we know more than we do.

Gamaliel was calling for a deeper wisdom. A wisdom grounded in humility rather than pride. We could all benefit from listening to his words.

But there is also a challenge. It is what I have called Gamaliel’s Wager.

A wager is a gambling term. It describes the risk a person takes in the hopes of gaining more than what is at stake.

If you have watched any casino movie in your life, you have probably heard some version of these statements. “Don’t bet against the house.” Or, “the house always wins.” Why? Because in the long run, the casino has also made a wager, that you, in all your cunning, will not be able to outlast the house’s patience in winning their money back.

The reason the house has this confidence is because they understand one thing about people. People, given enough time, will get greedy. They will think they are invincible and try to continue maximizing their returns.

The problem is the game is rigged. This is how you get reeled in. You are enticed by small gains so you are tempted to bet everything you have. Not realizing that by this time it’s too late. You have become the victim of your own hubris.

Refrain from Speaking for God

What does this have to do with making God our enemy? It’s this. The wager the high priest and the Pharisees made put them on the opposite side of God!

What’s worse is they thought they WERE on God’s side. They are not unique in making this mistake. We are capable of doing the exact same thing.

Let me give you a little secret: The one thing we should avoid more than anything in this world is to bet against God!

We don’t always know what God is up to, so we should be extremely careful when we start saying where God is working or is not working. Who God is using and who he is not using. That is a bet we should never take.

To make the kind of declaration the Pharisees were making is to assume access to information not available to any of us. To many of us think ourselves counselors to God and capable of predicting his actions. But we are mistaken to ever take that position.

This is the wager the Pharisees were making by how they were treating the apostles. They were the religious leaders. They were the ones trained and educated. They were the ones who were responsible for knowing what God was doing.

It just did not make sense to them that those silly apostles of Jesus could ever be a part of God’s plan.

And that is the wrong bet. That is the wrong wager. And that is exactly what Gamaliel was warning against.

Because, what if God, in his sovereign wisdom, WAS using people we would not normally consider “worthy” of the honor? Or doing something we had never seen God do before? What then?

Well, at that moment, we will be found “opposing God!”

We will have put ourselves on the wrong side of the battle line.

And like in any good casino movie, we will lose because the house always wins!

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