Welcome!

Hello!  My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister.  I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular.  My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons.  I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.

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Are you burdened? (2)

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… Acts 15:28

Burdens!

The first apostles declared that they didn’t want new converts to Christ to be unduly “burdened” when they joined the church.

Yes, burdens are bad. But they come in many shapes and sizes, even within the Christian community. Last time I suggested that there are two main types.

First, there are burdens of behaviour, where we are expected to act in certain ways which may or may not be part of God’s will (over and above obvious things like murder, lying, adultery and the rest).

Second, there are burdens of belief, where we are expected to toe a particular “party line”, depending on what denomination or movement we are attached to.

I wrote last time about burdens of behaviour; today let’s think about the second type: burdens of belief.

Just as there are certain types of behaviour which are simply wrong, and which every Christian would agree are wrong, likewise there are certain beliefs which every Christian accepts, beliefs without which you can’t in fact be a “Christian” at all.

All Christians believe there is a God; that Jesus Christ is his Son; that Jesus suffered, died and rose again to bring us forgiveness and salvation; that he has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us and make us new people; that one day he will return to this earth to wind up history, to usher in God’s final judgment, and to take his people to be eternally with him. There is more, of course; but that’s the heart of it.

But there are also beliefs which, like the “grey areas” in behaviour, are open to differing interpretations. And the problem is that people who hold strong views on these beliefs often try to squeeze the rest of us into their particular mould, as if to say, “You’re not a real, or ‘sound’, Christian if you don’t believe the way we do.” They try to strap us into a strait-jacket.

Baptism is an obvious example. Most Christian denominations believe in baptising – or “christening” – babies. But others insist that only those old enough to believe in Christ on their own account should be baptised. An honest difference of opinion: but if one group suggests that the other isn’t really Christian, that is something to worry about – a burden.

All Christians believe in the “atonement” – that is, that when Jesus died on the cross he was dealing with the sins of the human race, and thus making us “at one” (get it?) with God. But once you start asking how the atonement actually “works”, the Bible suggests various answers which all need to be blended to give a full picture. Christians who insist on only one understanding are putting a burden on the rest of us.

All Christians believe in the Holy Spirit. But who exactly is the Holy Spirit? When exactly do we receive the Holy Spirit? Is “speaking in tongues” a sign of having received the Holy Spirit? What is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”? Beware those who give over-dogmatic answers to such questions!

All Christians believe that one day Jesus is going to come back. But how will his return fit into the history of this world? At what point will it happen?

(If you like theological jargon, the question is: Are you a pre-millennialist, a post-millennialist, or an a-millenialist? If you haven’t got a clue what those terms mean I suggest you don’t worry! – but one day you may meet an earnest Christian who will try to convince you that you really should know. (Actually, I heard somebody once say that he was a “pan-millennialist” on the grounds that “everything will pan out (get it?) in the end”. A wise man, I think.))

I could go on. But you get the point.

All Christians believe that the Bible is, in some sense, the “word of God”. But it is a massively varied book. And the fact is that nobody – no, nobody at all, either living or dead – has got it all perfectly figured out. People who think they have are in danger of morphing into sects or cults.

A basic principle emerges: Christian, hold fast to the basics – and sit light to the rest. Our calling is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ; it is not to toe a particular party-line.

Anyone you meet who claims to love, trust and follow Jesus – and whose life backs up that claim – should be welcomed as a brother or sister. But anyone who is over-dogmatic on the non-essentials is to be treated – well, with love, of course. But also, I suggest, with considerable caution…

Lord God, thank you for the teaching of your word, the Bible. Please help me, by your Spirit, to grow in understanding day by day. But give me too the humility to recognise that others could be right and I wrong. Amen.

Are you burdened? (1)

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… Acts 15:28

“Burden” is almost always a negative word. It suggests a heavy weight that has to be carried. “I hate to be a burden to you,” we say, when we need somebody’s help. Or, “Yes, it’s a bit of a burden to us,” when we’re talking about a difficulty we’re facing. On the other hand, “That really is a weight off my mind!” when some trouble is solved. Burdens are bad!

In Acts 15 the early church is wrestling with a difficult question: how should new converts from the gentile (that is, the non-Jewish) world be received by the church? Must they become full-blown Jews, like the first followers of Jesus? Should full adherence to the Jewish law be required? Or should they be admitted to the church on easier terms?

Well, the debate became quite complicated. But the verse I have quoted sums up the essence of the solution that was arrived at: new converts should have as few burdens laid on them as possible. The church leaders said to them, in effect, “We want to welcome you just as you are! Yes, there are one or two things we would like you to agree to, but we’re not asking much – and we’re certainly not expecting you to become Jews like us. Just trust and follow Jesus.”

One of the main curses of “religion” of every kind is that it tends to pile burdens on people’s backs. It’s one of the things Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his day for: “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry…” (Luke 11:46). That’s “religion”!

Sadly, this can be a feature of Christianity. In fact, reading this, you might even find yourself saying, “Yes, I’m a sincere Christian, but I have to admit that sometimes I feel my faith is a burden to me rather than a help.” Yes?

I think that, broadly speaking, such burdens come in two forms: burdens of behaviour, and burdens of belief.

First, burdens of behaviour.

Certain types of behaviour are simply wrong: there can’t be any quibbling or dispute about them. Hatred, pride, envy, killing, sexual immorality, lying, stealing… that’s just a sample.

But there are other forms of behaviour which are what you might call “grey areas”, areas where equally committed Christians might disagree with one another.

It’s a long time since I became a Christian, way back in the 1960s, and a lot has changed since then. But there were certainly things that were frowned on…

It was pretty much assumed that if you were a Christian you wouldn’t drink or smoke or gamble; you wouldn’t go shopping on a Sunday – or go to the cinema or watch television on a Sunday. You would make sure to have a daily “quiet time” of a certain length, when you would read your Bible and pray. You were expected to dress in a certain way, especially for church.

Don’t get me wrong: many of these guidelines were good, and, as I look back, I’m glad I was introduced to them, because they helped me to lay a foundation for my life.

But unfortunately they didn’t always come across as “guidelines” – more like rules that had to be obeyed if you wanted to call yourself a Christian. They could easily become – yes, a burden, and they could suck the joy out of following Jesus because you were always wondering if you were measuring up.

As I said, a lot has changed since those far off days, and many of these burdens have been discarded by most Christians. But, even if in different ways, for many people Christianity smacks more of rule-keeping than of joyfully following Jesus. And that is not the way it is meant to be.

One of Jesus’ greatest words is his beautiful invitation to struggling men and women: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Praise God for that!

I said earlier that there are perhaps two kinds of burden which can plague religion: burdens of behaviour and burdens of belief. Well, I’ve run out of space, so I’ll come back to the second one next time.

But for the moment, here’s a question for all of us to think about: Is my Christianity a burden to me or a joy? Is it a matter of rule-keeping or of gladly following Jesus? Do I enjoy a personal relationship with God, or is my faith a balance sheet where I’m struggling to stay in credit?

The early church leader Augustine said, “Love God, and do what you like.” All right, that’s a snippet taken out of context, and could be open to misinterpretation! – but still, I think he was on to something, don’t you?

Lord Jesus, help me to follow you out of love and gratitude, not out of fear or mere tradition. Amen.

Confidence – a right and a wrong kind

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me….” Peter replied, “Even if everyone else falls away, I never will… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. Matthew 26:31-35

But, of course, they did.

Where were they in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed, after asking them to keep him company in his agony? Asleep.

Where were they at his trial before the Sanhedrin, being lied about, spat at and mocked? Who knows? All right, Peter was outside, but when challenged about his allegiance to Jesus he ended up cursing, swearing and dumping him like a sack of rubbish: “I don’t know the man!”

Where were they at the trial before Pontius Pilate? Don’t ask. Where were they as the nails were hammered home? Skulking, presumably, in some corner. Where were they at the burial? Again, who knows?

It’s easy to shake your head and despise them, isn’t it? All belt and no trousers! All hat and no cattle! All talk and no action. But of course it’s impossible to avoid the question, Where would I have been if I had been in their shoes? A question I personally would rather not ask…

So – an episode about over-confidence, indeed about arrogance. Is this a cap some of us need to wear?

One of the pluses of getting older is that (hopefully, at least) it drains the over-confidence out of you. I suspect that many of us go through a period when we (a) know just about everything there is to know, (b) are very happy to put everybody else right, and (c) are blissfully sure of our ability to face any situation. I know I did. I cringe now when I think of it.

And – let’s be brutally honest – some of us never entirely grow out of this mentality. There are some pretty arrogant oldies knocking around the place – perhaps I, and perhaps even you, among them.

It’s a great thing, even if also a painful one, to discover the truth about yourself. It means you can start at last to live the life you were intended for. Simon Peter certainly found this.

When the cock crowed, signalling his betrayal, he “went outside and wept bitterly”. But the moment of brokenness was the moment of healing: John tells us that it was in that very brokenness that he was restored by the risen Jesus (John 21:15-20). His life at that point was given a whole new start, and the pathetic wretch of the first Good Friday becomes, by God’s grace, the impressive figure of Pentecost and those wonderful following days.

Over-confidence is a weed that grows out of the soil of cast-iron certainty.

But this raises a question. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be certain?

Well, yes, of course. Certainly there is no room for any kind of fawning, foot-shuffling, hand-wringing humility – like the obnoxious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Indeed, the truly humble person never feels the need to claim humility: Francis de Sales (1567- 1622) said that “true humility makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” Who needs words of humility when it’s just, well, what you are?

But certainty about God, about Jesus, about his life, death and resurrection, certainty about the fact that I am a sinner saved by grace, certainty about eternal life and about a divine purpose for my life here on earth – certainty about all these things is a very different matter from certainty about my own knowledge, my own wisdom, my own strength and my own capabilities. A very different matter.

There can have been few figures in Christian history more certain about his faith than Paul. Yet he frankly reveals in his letters that there were times when his confidence was low. When he warned the Corinthian Christians “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12) I think he knew what he was talking about. Indeed, his slightly puzzling admission in 1 Corinthians 9:27 is, to me, very revealing about his inner insecurities: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after having preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”. (Interesting…!)

The essential point is simple: as Christians “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And wherever faith – believing where we cannot see – is key, there is bound to be also the possibility of doubt. Even those cast-iron certainties about God will sometimes seem somewhat less than certain.

I started this little reflection with over-confidence and have somehow worked my way to humility and faith. (Rather like Simon Peter, in fact.) I didn’t plan it that way, but perhaps it’s not a bad journey to have made, a journey that leads naturally to prayer…

Lord, empty me of all arrogance and over-confidence, and fill me with love, faith and genuine humility. Teach me to trust solidly in you – but only very cautiously in myself. Amen.

A beautiful fragrance

And when he [the Lamb] had taken it [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. Revelation 5:8

Only very rarely have I attended a church service where incense is used. It doesn’t mean anything very much to me; in fact, to be completely honest, I rather dislike it, beautiful though it is. Is that because I don’t have a very good sense of smell? Or because, being a died-in-the-wool evangelical protestant, I’m instinctively suspicious of anything that smacks of Roman Catholic ritual?

Never mind! Let’s just say that it really isn’t my thing.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that incense played an important part in the worship of Israel in Bible times.

That worship, when you stop and think about it, must have been a seriously smelly affair. I’ve never been in an abattoir, but there must have been a similarity – with animals slaughtered, their blood shed, and their bodies burned. The fragrance of incense must have been a welcome counterpoint to this.

We never read in the New Testament of incense being used by the early Christians. But it certainly has a place in John’s description of the worship of heaven. Here it is in Revelation 5:8: the “twenty-four elders” (whoever they might be) “were holding golden bowls full of incense…”

The Book of Revelation is full of colourful, poetic and dramatic imagery: angels, dragons, thrones, scrolls, seals, trumpets, you name it. It isn’t always easy to say what these things represent – that even applies to the “four living creatures” and the “twenty-four elders” in our verse.

But when it comes to the bowls of incense, the writer John very helpfully spells it out for us: “which are the prayers of God’s people”. Ah! – that incense is our prayers!

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Way back in the Old Testament the psalmist asks God that his prayers “may be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2). There is, it seems, a thread running through the Bible.

How can this image speak to us today?

I suggest two simple applications.

First, it reminds us that our prayers are precious to God.

Incense is a sweet, beautiful fragrance, and probably very costly. And in the same way, God values and delights in the prayers we offer.

You might think, “But, hang on, my prayers are really pretty feeble! Often I’m praying more out of duty than joy. The other day I actually nodded off while I was praying! I find it hard to believe that God is that interested in my praying.”

But wait a minute! All that God wants of us is that our prayers should be  sincere and from the heart. Who knows? – perhaps he values more highly the prayers that we struggle to pray than the ones that trip lightly off our tongues.

Let’s get it into our heads: God loves to hear us pray! We are his precious children, and just as an earthly father or mother is thrilled with their child’s attempts at speech, so God is thrilled with our prayers.

Second, it suggests that our prayers are in safe hands.

As I said, we can’t be absolutely sure who the twenty-four elders represent. But they are obviously significant figures in God’s heavenly court. Their task – at this point, at least – is to present the prayers of God’s people at his throne. And just as not a drop of incense will be spilled (I don’t think the words “Oops, silly me!” will ever be heard in heaven), so we can be confident that not a single prayer of ours will go to waste.

The very idea of our prayers gathered up in a bowl suggests to me that they ascend to God not just in dribs and drabs, but as a united voice from his people.

We pray a prayer and then very possibly forget that we ever prayed it. Or perhaps we sometimes give up praying for a particular person or a particular situation. And so we are tempted to think that that prayer might just as well not have been offered.

But no! Who knows when that prayer might be gathered up, so to speak, and poured out before God? Things are going on in heaven – things are going on in the very mind of God – which we couldn’t even begin to guess at. Again, who knows? – you might receive tomorrow the answer to a prayer you prayed five years ago – and then forgot about.

So, Christian, however ordinary, fumbling and inadequate your prayers may seem to be, keep that fragrance rising to God! He values it, even if you don’t.

Loving Father, please help me to keep those golden bowls well filled! Amen.

Something to be ambitious about

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord… That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither… Psalm 1:1-3

Psalm 1 is a little gem. If you haven’t read it recently I encourage you to do so. It contains, among other things, a portrait of the “righteous” or godly person.

What makes it so beautiful? Well, it’s very short – just six verses – and very simple. It compares the godly person to a fruit-bearing tree standing beside a stream. That simple comparison conjures up for us the beauty of the countryside on a fine day – it gives a sense of peace, quietness and rich fertility. You can almost smell the country smells, see and hear the cattle grazing.

What I like in particular is that the emphasis is not on what a person achieves, but on what a person is like. It’s about character rather than about success.

We badly need this emphasis today. I’m not saying that what we achieve in our lives is unimportant – of course not. But we live in a world where it sometimes seems as if it’s the only thing that matters.

How much do you earn? How many qualifications do you have? How hard do you work? How successful are you in your particular walk of life? What sort of home do you live in? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday?

Without even thinking about it, these are the kind of questions we instinctively ask about people.

Whereas what really matters is – How honest am I? How kind? Do I have a generous spirit? A forgiving heart? Do I care for those in need and trouble? Am I good-natured and happy to enjoy the success of others?

The fact is that it’s people like that who make our world a bearable place to be. Just imagine if everyone was a driven, go-getting type, intent on climbing up that greasy pole of personal ambition and not too bothered whose faces they tread on on the way.

The Bible contains various other passages which you could call companion pieces to Psalm 1. Here are three – they form a trail.

First, Jesus’ “beatitudes” in Matthew 5:3-10.

Jesus honours those who are “poor in spirit” – humble and unpretentious. He honours “the meek”, and those who have an insatiable appetite for “righteousness”. He honours the “merciful” and the “peace-makers”. Above all, to my mind at least, he honours “the pure in heart”.

I find that last little phrase massively challenging, especially when I look into the murky depths of my own heart. Purity of heart implies a single-mindedness about being and doing what is right – about bearing a resemblance to the all-holy and perfect God.

I belong to a small poetry-reading group. We meet every fortnight to share poems on some chosen theme. I can’t remember what the theme was a few weeks weeks ago, but it seemed appropriate to read the Beatitudes (stretching the word “poetry” a touch, perhaps!). It took just a matter of seconds to read those few verses, but when I had finished one of the others in the group simply said, “That’s so beautiful I feel I want to cry.” I think that says it all.

Second, Paul’s great analysis of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Christians of Corinth were high-achievers in spiritual terms, no doubt about that. They had all the “gifts of the Spirit” anyone could want – tongues, healing, prophecy, miracle-working, you name it. But they lacked the one thing that really mattered: a God-like love.

And what is that love like? Well, not surprisingly it bears a strong resemblance to what we’ve just seen in the beatitudes. Patient… kind… refusing to be envious… humble… selfless rather than selfish… calm under provocation… never harbouring grudges… transparently honest.

Paul doesn’t add “like a tree standing beside a stream”, but I think he could have, don’t you?

Third, Paul’s list of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatian 5:22-23.

These words are so powerful and so radiant that I think it’s best to simply let them speak for themselves: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”

Is that you? Is it me?

Are you looking for something to aim at in your life? My suggestion is this: you really couldn’t do better than start with Psalm 1 and follow the Bible trail I have suggested.

It’s important to read slowly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. But if you do, be warned – you will never be the same person again!

Lord Jesus, make me like that tree planted by streams of water, bearing day by day the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.

Words – and deeds

The twelve apostles gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables…” Acts 6:2

The church has just been born. It’s growing day by day – people coming to faith in Jesus as the twelve apostles preach and teach in his name. The momentous coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is still vivid in people’s memories.

Great days! – exciting, perhaps even slightly frightening, but truly wonderful.

But then… a major problem. (Yes, even that wonderful early church had its difficulties.)

What went wrong?

In essence, there was a split among these new followers of Jesus. On the one hand there were “Hebraic” Jews – that is, Jews who were deeply immersed in their ancestral culture and who spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew, the language of their forefathers.

On the other hand there were “Hellenistic” Jews – that is, Jews who were more at home in the dominant Greek culture of the wider Mediterranean world, speaking the Greek language and adopting Greek customs.

Where the difficulty flared up was over the very practical matter of food for the poor. The Greek Jews  felt that their widows were not being treated on a par with the “Hebraic” Jews. So, feeling hard done by, they complained.

The apostles realised that something needed to be done. But what? Should they divert their energy and time from the business of preaching the gospel and teaching the new-born believers, and devote more of it to sorting out this problem?

Luke spells out their solution very clearly in the verse at the top. No! they said. Our business is to stay focussed on “the ministry of the word of God”, and let someone else “wait on tables”. Which is exactly what happened.

Were the apostles a bit self-important? Did they regard it as beneath their dignity to do a menial task such as “waiting on tables”?

No, not at all. They attached great importance to this new ministry – indeed, they insisted that the men appointed to do it should be of the very highest quality, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” no less than themselves. (Just look at Stephen, one of them, in the next chapter or two. Let no-one then say these first “deacons” were just (just!?) practical men fit only for menial tasks!)

But… the fact is that the apostles were the ones who had been with Jesus in his earthly life. They were the ones who had been witnesses of his resurrection. They were the ones who, having sat at Jesus’ feet, had the best understanding of what the good news was all about. So it was right that all their energy should be poured into the ministry of God’s word.

This story could, I think, have been written for us in the twenty-first century.

Our world is full of need, both “physical” and “spiritual”. Millions of people have hungry bodies and, following the example of Jesus, it is right that the church should help to meet that need.

But millions more have hungry souls. They know nothing of the living God, nothing of how Jesus died for their sins and rose again to give them eternal life. They know nothing of how forgiveness of sins is offered to all who put their trust in Jesus.

And who is to tell them these great things if not – the church? And who within the church is best equipped to do this but the successors of the apostles – the evangelists, the pastors, the teachers?

There have been times in history when the church has stressed so much the “spiritual” side of things that it has neglected some of the more “practical” aspects – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, housing the homeless, you name it. And that isn’t good.

But is there a danger that we swing too much the other way too? Food-banks, luncheon clubs, debt-counselling services, youth work, medical missionaries… thank God for all these things.

But let’s not overlook the “ministry of the word”!

Let’s not be ashamed of the fact that we have a message to proclaim, a story to tell, good news to pass on of Jesus crucified, risen, ascended and one day coming back. We have words to speak to explain our actions.

Jesus said: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Do we really believe that?

And Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to bring salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Do we really believe that?

Demonstrate to people the practical love of Jesus. Of course. Of course! But tell the story too. How else will people understand?

Lord God, thank you for the power of your gospel to change lives. May I never be embarrassed or ashamed to make it known. Amen.

A man worthy of honour

The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest… When they [the Sanhedrin] heard the apostles, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up… Acts 5:27, 33-34

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are like two children in the playground as they fling their infantile and inflammatory insults at one another across the world. (“Little rocket man”, for goodness’ sake!) Only difference: incredibly, these are two world leaders, and their spat could result in destruction and horror such as you’d rather not think about. (How unutterably stupid can you get?)

Which brings me to Gamaliel…

Gamaliel? Who was he?

Well, please read the story for yourself in Acts 5:17-42. I can only say that I have always had a soft spot for him, even though he pops up just twice in the New Testament. The other place is Acts 22:3, where Paul, under arrest, says that he “studied under Gamaliel”. He was a well-known and much respected Jewish teacher.

(Interestingly, a Jewish document from about this time tells us a little more about him: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died there has been no more reverence for the Law, and purity and abstinence died out at the same time” (The Mishnah, a written version of Jewish traditions. “Rabban” means “Our teacher”, a higher title than “Rabbi, “My teacher”.))

The story in Acts 5 can be summed up like this.

The apostles of Jesus are in trouble with the Jewish leaders. They are hauled up before the Sanhedrin, or Council, and told never again to preach about Jesus. They refuse to agree: “We must obey God rather than men!” Whereupon the religious leaders “were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

A nasty situation. And this is where Gamaliel steps in. He calms the atmosphere, pointing out that the apostles aren’t the first and won’t be the last to be trouble-makers. His speech finishes with these splendid words: “…I advise you, leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Luke adds: “His speech persuaded them.” (Perhaps he could also have added “and everyone breathed a sigh of relief”.)

Reports spread later that Gamaliel eventually became a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence for this. But undoubtedly his intervention at this key point saved the church from what could have proved a major crisis. Thank God for unbelievers even today who speak up for God’s people!

Gamaliel stands for us as a model of wisdom and calm. He is a pourer of oil on troubled waters – not of petrol on flames. He reminds me of that lovely little Old Testament saying: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Indeed, he reminds me of Jesus himself, standing mute before his accusers before he was crucified. He reminds me of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Angry confrontation is a sad feature of our modern world – and not just among world leaders who should know better. Footballers square up to one another on the pitch. Politicians sling vitriol at one another. On-line trolls post vile messages about people they have taken a dislike to for no particular reason.

And, of course, it can happen in church life. I heard of a church where an ambulance had to be called to a meeting because one man had been “decked” by another (yes, really). It can happen in family life, where a build-up of tensions at last explodes in hurtful words and bitter recriminations. It can happen in the work-place. It can happen… oh, it can happen anywhere.

The question is: have we trained ourselves to be Gamaliels in such situations?

Even if Gamaliel never did become a Christian, he certainly spoke more than he knew at the time. He said, in effect, that in the end truth simply cannot be suppressed: if the message of the apostles is true, he said, “you will not be able to stop” it. Indeed, “you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

You were absolutely right there, Gamaliel, absolutely right!

Let that be an encouragement to us as we survey a world of troubling political instability and a seemingly struggling and weak church. One day every knee will bow at the name of Jesus!

He is the truth. How then can he not prevail?

Lord God, help me to be a peace-maker, never a trouble-maker. Help me to show love instead of hate. Help me too to have faith in the power of the truth – that in the end it will prevail. Amen.