The Jews were by law separatists. You are likely familiar with many passages of Scripture where Jews had no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9) or were forbidden to enter the house of a Gentile (Matthew 8:8, John 18:28) so these events in the life of Peter are best understood when we understand the culture of Peter’s day. There was sometimes a volatile religious mix that required strong leaders like Peter and Paul to break down barriers. God blessed them with strength, faith, revelation, and lots of grace–because sorting out the truth among so many competing beliefs would usually lead to some mistakes and misjudgments. Peter, well familiar with all sorts of social missteps, would play a key role.
A Course Correction: Acts 10:1-11:18 (Primarily Acts 10:1-19, 44-48)
Peter will later be known as the apostle to the Jews, while Paul will become famous as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7). But it’s through Peter that God first chooses to swing open the door of salvation to the Gentiles. This vision on a rooftop is a radical departure for the early church and gives it a straight path to reaching Greeks and Romans with the gospel.
Cornelius was a man of considerable means, power, and authority. As a centurion, he was in charge of a fighting force of one hundred Roman soldiers. He was also what the Jews call a God-fearer, a Gentile who had accepted the Jewish God and faith but stopped short of adopting the practices, like circumcision and dietary laws, necessary to become an authentic Jew.
God gave Cornelius and Peter complementary visions. He told Cornelius to send men to bring Peter to his house, and he showed Peter that keeping one’s distance from Gentiles for dietary and other reasons is no longer necessary. Salvation is for the Gentiles too, and the church will generate a few gatherings where Jews and Gentiles fellowship together, work alongside each other, and eat together. They can’t do this while thinking a fellow believer is unclean. No walls should separate Jews and Gentiles, slave or free, male or female. The body of Christ should be a united whole.
At Cornelius’s house, Peter explained the gospel, and as he was speaking, the Spirit fell on everyone there. I see this as evidence that God is making no distinction between Jew and Gentile, and the only reasonable response is praise.
- How would you respond if God told you to do something that would violate one of your long-held personal values?
- If the Spirit dramatically manifested himself among people who had never been to church or read the Bible, would you be more likely to feel jealous or praise God? Why?
A Council Convened: Acts 15:1-35 (Primarily Acts 15:4-21)
Some Pharisees who had become Christians were finding the Gentile mission very difficult to accept. It was clear in the Law that circumcision was to be a sign God’s people (Exodus 12:48-49; Leviticus 12:3). Actually, all of the laws of God were to be a sign that set his people apart from the rest of the world. It isn’t possible for the Spirit to contradict himself, so, Gentiles who accept the Jewish Messiah should be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses.
But salvation is by grace through faith alone, and neither circumcision nor any other work is a prerequisite of God’s grace, which was hard for the Jews to understand. So a council of church leaders convened in Jerusalem to settle the issue. Jew and Gentile believers, apostles, and elders offered their views. And then after much discussion, Peter stood up and laid out his simple, evidence-based argument: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). In other words, if the Spirit isn’t keeping his distance from uncircumcised Gentiles, why should we?
In the end, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, spoke up declaring new believers need not become Jewish before they come to Christ. He then added that the council strongly urges Gentiles to reject the rituals of paganism, like eating meat sacrificed to idols and rites of sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). Basically, the Holy Spirit will conform Gentile believers into the image of Christ and the character of God. This new freedom is not a license to sin, but the liberty to believe, worship and be filled with the Holy Spirit apart from Jewish rites becomes official church policy.
- How difficult do you think it was for Peter to advocate for Gentiles among his Jewish brothers?
- How difficult do you think it might have been for him to endorse the ministry of Paul, who was once an enemy of the disciples?
- How well do you think Christians today affirm ministries that employ unfamiliar methods? Why?
A Confrontation Commences: Galatians 2:1-21 (Primarily Galatians 2:11-21)
Peter’s conviction on the issue of accepting Gentile believers had wavered since the Jerusalem council. He had been accepting invitations to dine with Greek friends in Antioch, but when some disciples of James come to visit, he began to distance himself from the Gentile believers in order to appease the Jewish believers (Galatians 2:12).
The change in Peter’s behavior was noticeable; he had suddenly allowed the pressure of Jewish guests to intimidate him. Even Barnabas, Paul’s companion, joined in this “hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:13). Since it had become a public issue, Paul confronted Peter publicly. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Peter ever rejected the criticism. I suppose in his maturity, he had become correctable.
- How do we know where to draw the line between the absolutes of our faith and the freedom we’re given in Christ?
- When is it right to confront others who may be abusing their freedom in Christ?
- Paul was adamant that Peter shouldn’t avoid eating with Gentiles just to appease Jewish believers. However, he also taught that we shouldn’t use our freedom to offend others (Romans 14:19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33). Why do you think Paul was less concerned about offending strict Jewish Christians in this particular case?
Think About It:
Suppose you grew up in a very conservative Christian area that discouraged all forms of interaction with the secular world except the most unavoidable. But new people within your community had recently begun preaching a new interpretation of the group’s principles, saying that the only way to impact the world is to mix and mingle with it (to get involved in secular organizations and to try to understand secular culture, including its media and entertainment and ideologies). Needless to say, there’s quite a conflict between the traditional faction and the contemporary one. Your concept of holiness is being stretched beyond your comfort level.
- Why is change, especially in matters of faith, so controversial and contested?
- How is it possible to know when a new direction is initiated by God and when it isn’t?
- How do we balance our faithfulness to long-held values with our willingness to be moved by God’s Spirit?
- What was Paul’s answer to this tension between old and new perspectives? What was Peter’s?