As I blog this week (Thursday afternoon) the presidential election is still hanging in the balance. With a near completely divided electoral vote and popular vote, we stand at another moment of great division in our nation. I think within the body of Christ we have a chance to speak into the darkness for the Lord Jesus Christ. We have been studying over the last several months the Holy Spirit of God working to bring about new people of faith and to overcome the prejudices and divisions that were found in the early church. We have seen how Peter went into the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, to share the gospel and how the Holy Spirit moved and worked in Peter’s obedience to go someplace where he never had been before. When I think of the great divisions before us, I am reminded that all of us who compose the body of Christ need to be one in unity and care for one another and for the world around us. Peter had to overcome his prejudice and hatred against Gentiles to be all that God had called him to be. But once Peter begins that process, and it was a process, he still struggled with the tendency to fall back into separating people in accordance with race and nationality.
The clearest example of this is found in the book of Galatians where Paul writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not a Jew, how is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal.2:11-14 NIV). When Peter first came to Antioch, he found the Jewish and Gentiles Christians fellowshipping (eating) together. Peter felt free to eat with the Gentiles and did so on a regular basis. I’m sure that the eating here refers to eating an un-biblical diet, the same foods God had dropped down before Peter four times in Acts 10. But when some of the church leadership from Jerusalem arrived, this group which leaned towards legalism and putting the Gentiles under the law, caused Peter to draw back from fellowshipping and eating with the Gentiles. The word “drawback” in Greek is a strategic military term which indicates a gradual withdrawal. Perhaps Peter withdrew from one meal and another meal and then he appeared to be ashamed of fellowshipping with the Gentile believers there in Antioch.
I don’t believe this was for theological reasons, but for the reason of popularity within his peer group. Scripture says, “The fear of man will prove to be a snare”, (Proverbs 29:25). However, Paul was not going to allow Peter’s hypocrisy to go unchecked. Paul did not go to other leaders or write letters to the churches telling them not to follow Peter’s example, instead, he opposed Peter face-to-face and publicly. Sometimes sincere Christians, even Christian leaders, make mistakes. And when that happens other sincere Christians must be willing to step up and confront any hypocrisy. I think a lot of Christians today think that confronting people in their sin is considered being intolerant. Yet leaving people in their hypocrisy is one of the worst things that we could do, especially as it relates to the damage that can be done within the church by unaddressed sin. If you are convinced that a brother or sister is sinning and causing harm to themselves or to the church, you should follow Paul’s model of the direct approach. If that approach is rejected, Jesus’ instruction from Matthew 18:15-20 should be followed.
I think true to life, Peter’s actions mirror our own lives. Before we criticize Peter, let us be careful to examine our own lives to make sure that we’re not practicing double standards and hypocrisy with what we teach and how we actually live. Fear of peer disapproval led to Peter’s hypocrisy, which resulted in the break of his fellowship with his Gentile brothers and sisters. Peter became very conscious of his image and in trying to protect his image, before his legalistic brethren, his actions threatened the health and welfare of the body of Christ.
Last week Deb and I were vacationing in Williamsburg. One day we spent some time in Jamestown where they have a section in their museum dedicated to the development of slavery in America. One of the difficult portions that we viewed was how the Africans that had been kidnapped into slavery were forced to convert to Catholicism before they were sold to those who were taking them across the sea. This always breaks my heart when I consider the hypocrisy of these actions. I know that the sin of slavery in our nation was one of the greatest acts of hypocrisy for which we are still paying. When the Revolutionary war was being fought and won for our freedom many of the states in the north, including New Jersey, did away with owning slaves, because these colonies saw the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom while keeping other people enslaved. Unfortunately, that was not the attitude of the southern colonies, and we are still paying for the original sin of slavery in our nation. As a Christian person, it is hard for me to understand how any Christian can reconcile their beliefs in the freedom and liberty that Jesus Christ has provided for us with the idea of owning another human being. Next week we will consider further Paul’s confrontation with Peter and the spiritual application that he brings to light regarding Peter’s actions. Until then please be in prayer for God’s touch and care and protection over our nation and over our church family, and hopefully, by then we will know who our next president is going to be.
In Christ’s love,