ACTS11v1to18: PETER ANSWERS HIS CRITICS
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
Many Christians do not like controversy - particularly on matters of doctrine. Preachers shy away from dealing with Peter's attempts to justify eating with Gentiles. This seems such a distant dispute it is hardly likely to be of much interest today. Yet, controversy has never been absent from the church and, however much we may regret it, shows no sign of ending. Lessons can be learned from studying how Peter dealt with his critics.
Who were Peter's critics.
The NIV describes Peter's critics: as the circumcised believers. v2. I do not think this is a very helpful rendering because all Jewish Christians were circumcised believers. The AV gets closer to the truth when it calls the apostle's opponents: they that were of the circumcision. This suggests they were a faction amongst the Jewish Christians who believed that it was important to retain Jewish customs and traditions - especially circumcision and the dietary regulations. The group is defined by the nature of their accusation: "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." v3.
This is a pathetic intervention. Peter is not criticised for preaching to the Gentiles. He isn't questioned on the conversion of Cornelius and his friends and their subsequent baptism. All this ultra-orthodox Jewish group were concerned about was that Peter ate with Gentiles. There was no prohibition in the Law of Moses against eating with non-Jews. Many Jews would not do it in case they ate something unclean. This is to some extent understandable. During my trip to Japan I ate many strange foods - raw fermented squid, fried eel, salted plums and seaweed. It would have been impolite to refuse what was prepared for us. This is the sort of thing the 'circumcision party' were fearful of.
The conservative Judaisers were a great threat to Christianity. Many former Pharisees belonged to this wing of the church. It was they who later caused trouble in Antioch and Galatia. They believed that it was essential for Christian Jews to preserve their Jewish ness and for Gentile believers to become Jews by adopting the rite of circumcision. They were legalistic in their outlook.
Legalists abound in the 21st century. Salvation is made dependent upon the sacraments or a certain view of the Bible or assent to a set of man-made doctrines or the church attended. When the Philippi jailer cried out in despair, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" he received the all sufficient answer: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - ". Acts16v30and31.
(C) Peter's response.
Peter had anticipated opposition and brought with him to Jerusalem six witnesses to the events at Caesarea. He refers to them in his defence: "These six brothers went with me ...." v11. It is a great weakness to be without allies. I have occasionally been embroiled in controversy - but never with allies. Consequently I have rarely carried the day! I was very interested to listen to a talk given by Maurice Wade on the battle the Grace Baptist Church at Highbury, London, had to demolish its old chapel and redevelop the site. They had to recruit powerful and influential allies to impress the planning inspector and win their case. Yet and yet.... I cannot help thinking of the Lord Jesus Christ standing alone before Pilate without a friend in sight. I often recall the words of Paul when writing to Timothy: At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength..... 2Tim4v16and17.
Peter did not behave much like the first Pope. He did not speak as the infallible leader of the church. There was nothing autocratic about Peter. He wasn't a law unto himself; Peter realised that he was accountable to the Jerusalem fellowship and gave the church an explanation of why he acted as he did.
A lot of trouble can be avoided if people are willing to explain their actions and are given the opportunity to do so. There is a lot to be said for transparent government. It is dangerous for the inner councils of any religious body to make decisions that enter the public domain without giving the reasons for those decisions. It is not enough to say, "Trust us." If a missionary organisation, for example, decides it can no longer support a worker in the field this is a public matter and reasons for the decision should be given.
Peter told his critics what happened. God had given him a powerful testimony that could be corroborated by the 6 Jewish observers. Peter spoke of a heavenly vision, an angelic visitation, a remarkable coincidence of events and the Holy Spirit - poured out upon the Gentiles. We see the importance of tangible signs accompanying the baptism of the Spirit. Peter and his companions heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Acts10v46. Peter was able to say with absolute certainty: So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God. v17.
There is very little as powerful as a personal testimony - even today. It makes a huge impact and cannot be gainsaid. After Peter had spoken, his critics had no further objections and praised God. On Remembrance Sunday 2003 I heard an old man speak on Songs of Praise about his experience as a very inexperienced naval surgeon during the Second World War. His ship was hit and the bridge collapsed resulting in many casualties. After the injured had been retrieved the young naval surgeon found the task of operating on the wounded daunting. He gathered his assistants round him for a short time of prayer. Before the impromptu prayer meeting finished the Second Lieutenant had died. The Christian doctor was very disillusioned and could not continue. He was angry with God. He went to his cabin and in desperation opened his Bible. It opened at Luke's account of the Great Storm. The doctor read: "Fear not, Paul, ..... God hath given thee all them that sail with thee." Acts27v24. AV. This put new heart into the surgeon. He was able to operate on the seriously injured and stabilise their condition. All of them eventually recovered. The old man concluded his testimony by saying, with a hint of triumph in his voice, "It was a pivotal moment in my life. I never doubted God again. I knew he would help me in all eventualities." His words stirred my heart.
(D) What Peter remembered.
The words of Jesus that Peter remembered and thought worth passing on to his critics were: "John baptised with water but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit." v16.
There are other sayings of Jesus that might seem more relevant to the situation: "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed from death to life." John5v24. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Mt28v19. So why did Peter quote the statement of Jesus he did?
John's baptism was two sided. The persons being baptised were showing that they repented and were beginning a new life. John, the one doing the baptism, was indicating that he accepted those he baptised as disciples. God showed by baptising with the Spirit that he accepted those upon whom it was poured out as genuine followers of his Son. Peter asks: "Who was I to think that I could oppose God?" v17. The Gentile believers had to be accepted as brothers.
Do we welcome all those whom God accepts in Christ as our brothers? Paul organises a drop in at his inner city London church. He told me that some of his smart West Indian Christian ladies are quite prejudiced against smelly, poor whites. I noticed at the evening meal that it was my brother's wife, Ruth, who went and sat amongst the scruffy, inadequate, white men. We can be very biased against those we don't like. Some of our fellow Christians rub us up the wrong way. We may start avoiding them! On a recent visit to my brother I met one of his congregation who was opinionated, obsessive and resistant to discipline. He has given my brother a very hard time over many years. So far Paul has found God's grace just sufficient to bear with his thorn in the flesh! I was certainly not welcomed many years ago at the Union for Baptist students in London because I was a Strict and Particular Baptist! This was little short of bigotry. Every single one of us is inclined to like best those who like us. We are well disposed to those who revere, respect or are nice to us. We should behave in a brotherly way to those who are not numbered amongst our admirers.
Was there a satisfactory ending?
Peter's critics praised God. That's good. But what exactly did they say: "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." v18. The Judaisers sound surprised at God's grace. They should not have been surprised. Jesus said: "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." John12v32.
There is the hint of a superiority complex in the phrase, 'even the Gentiles...' It is like Protestants saying, during a time of revival, "Even Roman Catholic churches are being blessed."
It is significant that archconservatives in the Jerusalem church speak in terms of repentance unto life instead of acknowledging that Jesus gives eternal life to all who believe in him. This suggests that some of the Jewish supremacists were former disciples of John the Baptist. I think that the legacy of John's ministry was mixed. Why didn't John abandon his ministry and become one of Jesus' disciples? For a time the two men worked in parallel and a spirit of rivalry existed between John's and Jesus' followers. John's old disciples were always likely to emphasise works rather than grace. It is possible for converts to Christianity to bring the baggage of previous convictions with them.
The Judaisers in the church at Jerusalem may have been persuaded that Gentiles had become Christians but it was not long before they were agitating for Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish practices like circumcision and the dietary restrictions. This highlights the limitations of personal testimony. The mistake that Peter made, and later even Paul and Barnabas made at the Council of Jerusalem, was not to make absolutely clear what Jesus taught.
For example, Jesus said, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean', but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'." After the disciples came and protested: "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" Jesus responded by saying: "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." Mt15v10to14. Wonderful stuff! The Judaisers needed to be confronted by the teaching of Christ. They should have been given a choice: either accept what Jesus taught or leave the church.
It remains necessary to confront men and women with the words of Jesus. If anyone professing to be a Christian teaches what is irreconcilable with the words of Jesus they, too, should be challenged straight away. Men and women must accept the authority of Jesus or leave the church. The early church was willing to compromise with the Judaisers. The apostles were apparently afraid to really sort them out. It caused endless trouble. It is always the same when church leaders do not place paramount importance on the authority of Jesus. God said: "This is my beloved Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" Mt17v5.