“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Reading this as someone who’s part of a twenty-first century American church, it’s hard to fully appreciate how the people listening to Jesus that day understood his words. He was speaking to a group of Jewish people who were trying to make their religion work in a world dominated by an oppressive Roman government and an overwhelmingly pagan Greek culture. How could they follow God’s Law in such an alien environment?

There were two schools of thought among their leaders. The one, identified with the name of Rabbi Shammai (110 BC-AD10), was that they should apply the traditional rules for living that set God’s people apart very literally, which would emphasize their differentness from the general population. The other approach, identified with the name of Rabbi Hillel (50 BC-AD 30), allowed more liberty and flexibility in how a Jewish person tried to adapt and fit into society. Both of these great leaders died when Jesus was a young man, so the debate between their philosophies was certainly familiar to him.

It would sound, on the surface, that Jesus was taking the stronger, more orthodox Shammai position in his call to “exceed” the religious leaders in following the letter of the Law. But the more people listened to his teaching, the more they realized he was calling on them to “exceed” in the sense of going beyond this literal obedience to a whole-person embrace of the Law as a spiritual, life-transforming new level of living for — and with — God. Actually, he went so far as to die and rise again to demonstrate this.

When the early believers started expressing their faith in liberated words and deeds, they quickly bumped into traditional patterns of following the Jewish religion. As Peter preached about Jesus as Savior, there was a furious clash:

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men.’ (Acts 5:33-35) 

Here’s an interesting thing: other historical sources tell us that this Rabbi Gamaliel was the grandson of the great Rabbi Hillel. Here he is, stopping the angry mob from killing the believers, in a sense saving the church. After reminding the crowd of some recent incidents that had ended with unnecessary violence and harm to the Jewish community, he urged them to slow down and put their trust in God:

“So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ (verses 38-39)

In this, he was being consistent with his grandfather Rabbi Hillel’s non-violent teaching, in contrast to the more confrontational approach of the Rabbi Shammai school. The crowd was calmed, and they released the Christians. Meanwhile, history proved that Gamaliel was a bit of a prophet: the movement was of God and couldn’t be overthrown.

Rabbi Gamaliel plays another role in the story of the early church. Saul (Paul), when he was a young rabbinic student, was influenced by him:

“I was brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God.” (Acts 22:3)

However, before his conversion to Jesus, Saul had rejected some of the non-violent teachings of Rabbi Gamaliel, for we read of his actions against the young church:

Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. (Acts 8:3)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.(Acts 9:1-2)

That’s the backstory to the miraculous salvation that transformed the snarling Saul of Acts 8 and 9 into the loving apostle Paul of his letters to the churches.

— Pastor George Van Alstine