When the religious leaders in Israel began plotting to kill the twelve apostles (5:33), a doctor calmed them down (v. 34, 35). His willingness to oppose this murderous mob of powerful men shows that Pharisees weren’t all bad, as did Nicodemus (Jo. 3:1-3), who later got saved (Jo. 19:38-40).
Gamaliel was a doctor “of the law,” i.e., a lawyer. In Israel, that meant he was a doctor of the law of Moses. Moses’ law wasn’t just Israel’s religious law, it was their civil law, as the constitution is ours. There were lots of lawyers (Lu. 2:46,47).
Gamaliel was “had of reputation,” and reputations aren’t built quickly. So he was probably one of the lawyers the Lord offered to heal a few years earlier (Lu. 5:17), but who refused Him. Don’t ever feel sorry for those Pharisees and lawyers, thinking that they never had a chance to be saved. But if Gamaliel didn’t get saved that day, why’d he stick up for the apostles? Well, for one thing, he was a Pharisee, and the ones opposing the apostles were Sadducees (Acts 5:17,18). That made Gamaliel friendly toward the enemy of his enemies. We’ll see more reasons he defended them later.
But if his name sounds familiar, it’s because Acts 22:3 says that he trained Paul before he was saved. He must have been a big shot in Israel to have “commanded” (Acts 5:34) these rulers not to harm the apostles. And as all good lawyers do, he cited some legal precedents to help make his case.
Theudas (5:36) is only mentioned here, but if you’re going to boast yourself to be somebody in Israel, it was probably messiah. Everyone knew messiah would be the son of David (Mt. 22:41,42), and 400 men joined themselves to David too (I Sam. 22:1,2 cf. Acts 5:36). Israel’s rulers probably didn’t know what do with Theudas when he got popular, but Gamaliel pointed out they didn’t have to do anything. He got himself killed and his followers scattered—and so will the apostles, is what Gamaliel was suggesting. It was illegal for them to kill anyone (cf. Jo. 18:31), so killing the twelve might have gotten them killed. Gamaliel knew those “men of Israel” (Acts 5:35) would know the principle of Zechariah 13:7.
Like most lawyers, Gamaliel cited more than one precedent. This “Judas” (5:37) wasn’t Iscariot. “Judas” was the Greek version of the popular Hebrew name Judah, father of one of the 12 tribes. There were even two men named Judas among the apostles (Lu. 6:13-16). But Iscariot is the Greek form of “Kerioth” (Josh. 15:25), a city in Moab, or a city in southern Judah, and this Judas was from northern Galilee (Acts 5:37). Besides, he died in the “taxing” (5:37 cf. Lu. 2:1-5), 30 years before Judas even became an apostle. The reason Gamaliel mentioned “much people” followed him is that the leaders were worried that much people were following the twelve. But Judas too died and his followers were scattered.
So far, Gamaliel has been warning those leaders about what Rome would do if they killed the apostles. Next he warns them about what God might do (Acts 5:38,39). Here he’s probably citing a Jewish legal precedent that he knew those men of Israel would be familiar with (Jeremiah 26:18,19).
Gamaliel was a type of Antichrist. You say, “Won’t Antichrist try to kill followers of Jesus, not stick up for them?” Not at first. He starts out as a peacemaker, probably telling the Jews to leave the followers of Jesus alone, as Gamaliel did. By the way, Antichrist will rise in the day of taxing (Dn. 11:20,21). He’ll talk smooth like Gamaliel with war in his heart (Ps. 55:21), war that will come out later when he persecutes the Jews he’ll stick up for initially—like Gamaliel did. Gamaliel later authorized Saul to slay the followers of Christ.
All doctrines are either of men or of God (Acts 5:38 cf. Mark 11:30). But will all doctrines of men come to naught as Gamaliel said? It doesn’t seem that way, but Paul said it was so (II Tim. 3:8,9). But he meant in eternity to come! That’s when “all men” will see the folly of the doctrines of men. Until then, don’t let the success of false doctrines get you down. Focus on things you can’t see instead (II Cor. 4:16,18).
For religious leaders to tell men of God not to preach what God said is nothing new (Isa. 30:9,10; Amos 2:12; Micah 2:6), but the apostles remembered what the Lord said (Mt. 5:11,12) and rejoiced and continued to preach Christ.