“Word for Today” – Acts 5 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

September 25, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Antiochus IV Epiphanes 1In the second century BC, a Greek dictator named Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in the Seleucid Empire, one of the tracts of Alexander the Great’s empire that were doled out to various rulers after its collapse.  To put it mildly, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a ruthless tyrant.  He claimed divine epithets for himself as no other ruler had.  For example, he demanded that people called him theos epiphanes, or “god manifest.”  But his eccentric habits and insane actions led many of his contemporaries to call him Epimanes, a play of the name Epiphanes, meaning “mad one.”  And indeed he was.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes hated the Jews and did everything within his power to destroy them.  A story passed down to us in the book of 2 Maccabees, a history volume recounting Epiphanes’ reign, tells of seven Jewish brothers who Epiphanes gleefully tortured by flogging them with whips and forcing them to eat pig flesh, an animal declared unclean by Levitical law (cf. Leviticus 11:7).  When the brothers proclaimed their continuing fidelity to God in spite of their unjust tortures, Epiphanes became infuriated:

The king fell into a rage and gave order to have pans and caldrons heated.  These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on.  When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan.  (2 Maccabees 7:3-5)

What a pleasant picture, huh?  Following the first brother’s death, each of the remaining six brothers was martyred in the same way.  When the king reached the sixth brother, he defiantly warned Epiphanes:  “Do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God” (2 Maccabees 7:19).

Epiphanes tried to “fight against God.”  So said the sixth brother.  This phrase is only one word in Greek – theomachos.  Theos means “God” and machomai means “to fight.”  Epiphanes was a God-fighter.  And he lost.  He died suddenly of disease in 164 BC and the Jews reclaimed their theology.

In our reading for today from Acts 5, we meet some Jews who are once again being unjustly and heinously tortured.  Except that these Jews are not being persecuted at the hands of some mad Greek dictator, they are being tortured at the hands of their fellow Jews for proclaiming the good news of God’s Messiah, Jesus.  Like Antiochus, members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body, “were furious and wanted to put these ‘Jews for Jesus’ to death” (verse 33).  And they would have carried through their plans would it not have been for a religious leader named Gamaliel.

Gamaliel was the most famous and most respected Jewish teacher of that day.  Indeed, when Gamaliel died, one admirer wrote, “Since Rabbo Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time” (Mishnah Sotah 9:15).  Such was the respect that Gamaliel commanded.  Thus, when Gamaliel spoke, everyone listened.  And Gamaliel, in the presence of an angry Sanhedrin mob, speaks:

Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case 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. (verses 35-39)

“You will only find yourselves fighting against God.”  Theomachos.  Gamaliel was accusing his Jewish brothers of acting like Epiphanes.  And his accusation was sufficiently stinging:  “His speech persuaded them” (verse 40).  And these Jews for Jesus lived on to share the gospel.

Fighting against God, as Gamaliel reminds us, is futile.  Whether it is out of silly stubbornness, antipathetic anger, or dangerous depravity, you can never win a theomachos.  Pharaoh didn’t win when he defied God’s command to free the Israelites from their slavery.  Jonah didn’t win when he tried to shirk his preaching duties to Nineveh.  And we won’t win if we try to depravedly disregard God’s dictates.

Interestingly, when Luke opens his book of Acts, he begins with this dedication:  “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all the things that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2).  Theophilus.  A name which means not “God-fighter,” but “God-lover.”  Theos means “God” and phileo means “to love.”  Luke’s book is not for those who theomachus, but for those who theophilus, even as Christ commands:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).  May we theophilus today…and every day.  For God loves us.

Entry filed under: Word for Today.

“Word for Today” – Acts 4 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com “Word for Today” – Acts 6 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

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