The ministry of the apostles begins in the Come Follow Me curriculum this week (Acts 1-5), and they open their work with power and authority.
After being threatened and arrested by the Sanhedrin for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, Peter and John immediately continued and preached more.
Naturally, the council was infuriated by their blatant disregard and had them thrown in prison. An angel of God came and freed them, but rather than going into hiding, the apostles followed the direction of the angel and went to the temple and again preached the words of life.
The council again arrested the apostles and the high priest addressed them:
“Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.” (Acts 5:28-33)
The council esteemed themselves highly and were incensed with the brazenness of the apostles. I imagine they were livid when they realized killing Jesus had not stopped his disciples as they hoped.
In spite of the voices on the council that sought to kill the apostles of Jesus, a calm and wise voice was found from a Pharisee named Gamaliel:
Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; And said unto them, “Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5:34-39)
Gamaliel’s test was to let the apostles go, and if, as with other movements, it were a fad, it would pass in time. If, on the other hand, it were of God, then they should not place themselves in opposition to it. The council agreed this to be a wise approach and released the apostles, even though they could not resist beating them and threatening them further before their release.
Approximately two thousand years later, it is safe to say enough time has passed to analyze the results of Gamaliel’s test and draw a conclusion.
On one hand, the apostles of Jesus were all killed or banished, and the few congregations that had started in various parts of Asia and Europe were relegated to running themselves blindly. Corruption and confusion led uninspired men to make doctrinal decisions and even when persecution had ended, the authority to act in the name of God was lost, and some of the scriptures had been altered or disappeared. Secularists tend to look at Christianity as a trendy movement in which a teacher was posthumously elevated into a deity by some of his zealous followers, and the enlightenment has brought mankind away from the cult of Christ. They might argue Christianity has failed Gamaliel’s test.
On the other hand, those who clung to the teachings of Christ in spite of apostasy found motivation and inspiration. What scriptures were kept drove passionate reformation efforts, and encouraged men to reawaken faith. Men gave their lives so others could read the teachings of Christ in their own tongues, and understand in their own languages, just as on the day of Pentecost. Though authority was lost, Christian ethics provided critical frameworks for morality and law in western civilization. Even today, people all over the world believe Jesus Christ is the living Son of God. It is difficult to deny something more than the proverbs of a teacher has endured over two millennia.
As much as skeptics deride the idea of Jesus being the actual Son of God, or his message having contemporary value, perhaps the most convincing evidence that Christianity has passed Gamaliel’s test can be found in the experience of a young boy in New England in 1820. A tradition of faith in Christ had crossed oceans and become established in new continents. An English Bible, a book for which men had sacrificed their lives to produce, was available even to an impoverished farm boy. In spite of all the apostasy, the persecution, the deceptions, and the losses experienced by those ancient disciples of Christ, this boy came across a passage in his own Bible:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.James 1:5
As occurred on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God himself touched the heart. That boy would later describe the experience as follows:
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know…” (Joseph Smith – History 1:12)
The boy retired to a grove of trees near his home and offered a prayer. Centuries after the apostles proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, He again appeared with His Father.
Of course, the boy was Joseph Smith, who through his prophetic mantel, would help to restore that exact church Jesus himself founded anciently. Ultimately, it is safe to say the faith of Christ has not waned and faded as Theudas or Judas of Galilee; it is alive and well today. Rather than coming to nought, it has endured, and as Gamaliel suggested as a sign of divine providence, it could not be overthrown.
The prophet Joseph would later explain the correct conclusion to draw when applying Gamaliel’s test:
“…no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every county and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church 4:540)
Jesus is not gone. He lives. And He is coming to save us all.
“We Believe All That God Has Revealed” – Elder Boyd K. Packer, April 1974
“Joseph, the Seer” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell, October 1983
“Apostasy and Restoration” – Elder Dallin H. Oaks, April 1995