A few years ago we were somewhat shocked as we looked upon a picture of the attendees of are particular lectureship of brethren in America. There were over one hundred preachers and church leaders pictured in this annual preacher’s lectureship. We looked closely at the picture. We look at every face. The picture was in one of the “brotherhood” newspapers of the church, but what we saw took our minds back to the apartheid years in Jerusalem. Everyone who was pictured in the newspaper were African-Americans. No other cultural group was represented in the picture.
After the “apartheid” function among the Christians in Jerusalem was revealed through the lack of administration of food to the Grecian widows, we might assume that the problem of discrimination among the Christians that was based on cultural barriers, was overcome. In reference to the distribution among the Grecian Jewish Christians, the problem was immediately solved. But this may not have been the end of discrimination among the members of the body. When Christians started to reach out evangelistically to cultures beyond Jerusalem, there were still some cultural differences that lingered. Jesus’ mandate that the gospel go beyond the city limits of Jerusalem ran into some cultural obstacles as it did in Jerusalem.
When Peter went to the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, the cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles was revealed in the actions of those to whom he returned when he came home to Jerusalem.
A. Apartheid in Jerusalem:
It took a special vision from God to convince Peter, an ardent Jew by culture, to get out of his cultural cocoon (At 10). In the special vision that was sent to him by God about ten years after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem, he even complained when asked in the vision to eat those things that Jews were not, according to the Sinai law, allowed to eat. So he complained, “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (At 10:14).
Peter was an obedient Jew in reference to the Sinai law. Though that law was dead, and God had subsequently declared all meats to be clean, Peter still refrained from eating certain meats. What Peter and other Jews had difficulty practicing was the fact that what was unlawful to eat under the Sinai law had now become only the customs of the Jews. Nevertheless, Paul excused himself of any Jewish food restrictions with the statement, “I [Paul] know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself. But to him [Peter] who regards anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Rm 14:14). So we will excuse Peter for the moment for not considering all foods clean. But he and all Jews had to understand that what was once law when they were under the Sinai law, was no longer law in reference to foods. Eating of all meats was simply determined by the custom one might feel in reference to eating certain foods.
Now when the Holy Spirit eventually came upon the household of Cornelius, God signalled to Peter and the Jews who had accompanied Peter to the house of Cornelius, that the gospel must go to the Gentiles. When the household of Cornelius was empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in other languages, they realized that God was signalling that the Gentiles must hear the gospel (At 10:44-48). And if the gospel must be preached to the Gentiles in order that they obey the gospel, then the unity of the gospel must do away with any cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles.
Because of his experience with the Holy Spirit coming upon the household of Cornelius, Peter finally understood the teaching of the vision. He thus stated to Cornelius and all those who were present, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation he who fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (At 10:34,35). Hold this thought.
After Cornelius and his household were baptized, Peter and company returned to Jerusalem. But when he reached the city limits, “those who were of the circumcision disputed with him, saying, ‘You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (At 11:2,3). We would assume that those of the “circumcision” were fellow Jewish brethren. At least this is a good assumption. If they were, then the cultural barrier between Jews and Gentiles in the city of Jerusalem reached into the fellowship of the church. This was probably the case since the culture of Jerusalem was strictly Jewish. This was later revealed when Paul came to the city many years later and the elders of the church encouraged him to observe some Jewish customs in reference to the temple (See At 21:17-25).
If indeed these were fellow Jews and fellow Christians who came out to contend with Peter, then the Christians in Jerusalem continued to be intimidated by the apartheid of the Jews in Jerusalem in reference to the Gentiles. The apartheid (separateness) between Jews and Gentiles may have greatly influenced the behavior of Jewish Christians in the early years of the church. This may have been the source of the “neglect problem” that led to the oversight of the Grecian widows. Because it took a special vision of God to one of the Christ-sent apostles, cultural barriers continued to hinder the missions of the Jerusalem church until about ten years after the beginning of the church in Acts 2. (We assume that Peter’s trip to the house of Cornelius was approximately ten years after the Pentecost of Acts 2.)
B. Apartheid in Antioch:
“After fourteen years [from Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem when he returned from Arabia], I [Paul] went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me” (Gl 2:1). Titus was a Greek. But when the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem confronted him about not being circumcised, Paul identified those who confronted Titus as “false brethren” (Gl 2:4). From this identification, therefore, we would assume that if someone would make a cultural practice a matter of salvation, then he or she is a false brother (See At 15:1). But this was not the end of the story in reference to apartheid in the church of Jerusalem. These false brethren sought to take their “Jewish cultural Christianity” far beyond the city limits of Jerusalem.
Paul later wrote in the letter to the Galatians, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned” (Gl 2:11). After reading this statement, we wonder what Peter, the apostle whom God sent to the house of Cornelius, did to bring himself into a state of condemnation. This was the same Peter to whom were given the “keys of the kingdom” (Mt 16:18,19). Peter certainly preached the truth according to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit did not force him to conform to the truth of the gospel that he preached. And because any direct control of his behavior was not a work of the Spirit, Peter stood condemned because he was responsible for his behavior on this occasion.
While in Antioch, and before the arrival of the Jewish delegation from Jerusalem, Peter “ate with the Gentiles,” just as he had done with the household of Cornelius (Gl 2:12). However, when “certain men” came from Jerusalem, “he withdrew and separated [apartheid] himself [from the Gentile brethren]” (Gl 2:12). But it was not Peter alone who practiced this apartheid behavior in the fellowship of the disciples. Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians in Antioch also withdrew themselves from the Gentile brethren (Gl 2:12,13). If a picture were taken after the arrival of the Jerusalem brethren, it would probably have been a picture of Jews only.
What Peter, Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians did was place themselves in a state of condemnation because “they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gl 2:14). Their behavior was contrary to the gospel of Jesus who gave up His cultural environment of heaven with God in order to be transformed into the flesh of man (See Ph 2:5-8). It is often difficult for people to understand that they must never allow any cultural barriers to stand between them and the preaching of the gospel.
Many suggestions have been made as to why Peter allowed himself to be intimidated into living contrary to the gospel in Antioch. We would assume that the Jewish culture was still so strong in him and in Jerusalem that those who were still in the bondage of such, followed the preaching of the gospel to other areas. In this case, the cultural bondage made its way even to the church in the Gentile city of Antioch.
We must never underestimate the bondage of cultural religiosity. When Christians believe that certain rites of their culture are necessary in order to be saved, then they seek to bring the brethren under the bondage of such behavior. Sometimes the intimidation of those who teach “cultural Christianity” was so strong in the first century that even a Christ-sent apostle succumbed to those who preached such bondage. We must never forget what Paul wrote in order to encourage the Galatian Christians never to succumb to “cultural Christianity: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1).
And just in case his readers did not understand the seriousness of this matter, in the context of the “circumcision Christianity” that some Jewish brethren were teaching, Paul wrote, “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised [in order to be saved], Christ will profit you nothing” (Gl 5:2; see At 15:1).