3.15 Acts -- Revenge of the Law Abiding (Acts 15)
If we thought that the racial and spiritual tensions between Jews and Gentiles had been settled by Peter's description of his vision and Cornelius' conversion (Acts 11), we underestimate the power of tradition, prejudice, and "religion." The Church at Jerusalem had previously exercised oversight over the Gentiles at Antioch, by sending Barnabas to them and also the prophets (Acts 11:22-27). Apparently, while Paul and Barnabas were absent on their missionary trip, another group arrived from the mother church:
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).
So strong were the ties to Judaism! And so closed were their minds to the reality and meaning of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Again, a large party of former priests and Pharisees still wanted to subsume the work of Jesus to the Old Covenant system. Their motives were not bad -- like their priestly ancestors, they wanted to ensure that paganism did not corrupt the holy people of God. The influx of Gentiles, reborn in the Spirit but totally ignorant of the history of salvation, represented a threat of syncretism. But the conflict was not purely doctrinal -- there was a racial element too. So long as the church was based in and run from Jerusalem, it was essentially Jewish in nature and leadership. As more Gentiles joined the faith, they challenged the demographic makeup of the church. Two distinct and formerly antagonistic cultures were being melded together, and the hardline Jewish leaders were afraid of the loss of identity and control. What would happen if a Gentile Christian wanted to marry a Jewish Christian? Horrors -- this was what happened once you started sharing meals with them. It led to race-mixing, and the destruction of the Jewish family unit, some of which could be traced back many generations.
To prevent this lawlessness, the "circumcision party" wanted to impose a few minimal standards on Gentile converts. Paul and Barnabas were sent from Antioch to Jerusalem to help decide the matter. On the way, they told the churches in Phoencia, Samaria and Jerusalem how enthusiastic the Gentiles had been. But not everyone was happy:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5).
Peter again took the side of the pro-Gentile faction, siding with Paul and Barnabas. His opinion was both concise and precise -- he cut to the heart of the issue:
"Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 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. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15:8-11).
Peter shows the transition he has made in his thinking from the Old to the New Covenant. He starts by saying "some time ago." This is a reference to the controversy that arose over Cornelius' conversion, and it indicates that several years had passed since that event, and also that the issue of what to do with the Gentiles had not really been resolved since then (Acts, The Communicators Commentary, p.233). His speech has several key points:
a. God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, the same as to the Jews. For Peter, this was the decisive proof of their acceptance.
b. God made no distinction between Gentiles and Jews.
c. He purified the hearts of Gentiles by faith. It was by grace that both Jews and Gentiles were saved.
d. Obedience to the Law was a yoke that not even the Jews could bear.
Earlier, Peter had told the church that
"God does not show favoritism" (Acts 10:34),
using the Greek word "prosopoleptes." Here, he uses a different phrase with the same meaning,
"He made no distinction" (Acts 15:9).
"And put no difference between us and them" (KJV).
The Greek word here is "diakrino" -- to separate, make a distinction, discriminate. This is the second time Peter has uprooted the foundation of the Old Covenant, the distinction that God made between the seed of Abraham and the rest of humanity. This concise statement of the heart of the Christian Gospel was sometimes lost in later centuries as Europe encountered the rest of the world. The "gospel" of colonialism was one of rigid racial distinction, and the imposition of a yoke of servitude on subject nations. Even worse, the institution of slavery as instituted and maintained by "Christians" in North and South America was a betrayal of the Gospel of freedom and the declaration of "no distinction." None of this is supported in the New Testament. It is amazing that both Peter and Paul, raised in a highly segregated religious society, could not only declare there was "no distinction," but oppose the very beliefs they had grown up with and lived by for decades.