Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul

The big issue that threatened to divide the early Church

Paul wrote to the Galatians to address a grievous error in their thinking. They were holding on to a belief that followers of Christ, even Gentiles, must continue to follow Jewish law. Though Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17:20-23), it was a rocky start for his fledgling following. They didn’t last 10 years without division!

To emphasize the gravity of the situation, Paul recalled to the Galatians a time when he opposed Cephas (Peter the Apostle, himself) “to his face” over the Jew and Gentile. (Gal. 2:11)

Consider this: Peter lived with Jesus for 3 years. He was one of the closest people to Jesus during his life. He was there when Jesus died, and he was one of the first people to see Jesus when he returned, risen from the dead.

Paul was never around back then. He despised Jesus and his followers! He held the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death, and he was hellbent on quashing the “rebellion” of the Jesus followers to the traditions of Judaism…

Then, Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul. Paul changed completely and became the boldest of proclaimers of the Gospel. Still, what gall to confront Peter of all people! Right?

First for a little back story. In my last post, I described Peter’s vision of animals on a great sheet and the encounter with the Roman Centurion that convinced him Gentiles can be saved from their sins, the same as Jews. It was no small revelation. It took quite the orchestration of visions, angels, voices and a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter to accept the fact that God wanted to share the Gospel with Gentiles.

Peter experienced his own change, though not as dramatic. He went from being concerned that he should be not associating with Gentiles to baptizing the Centurion and his entire household and welcoming them into the family of believers!

I also wrote about this story in relation to the theme of the unity of believers: Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius. The great shift from the following law to faith, was a change to beat all changes.

It took a nothing short of a divine appointment of Peter, the Apostle on which Jesus said he would establish the Church, orchestrated by God with all the bells and whistles to provide clear direction. We might think that this encounter settled the score for Peter, once for all, right?

Not so.

When Peter came to Antioch (where people were first called Christians), he associated with the Gentiles at first. He even broke bread with them. When “certain men came from James”, however, Peter changed his tune. He “drew back” and from the Gentiles. (Gal. 2:12)

James was the brother of Jesus. He became the leader of the church that remained in Jerusalem – the same James who wrote the letter that is now part of the New Testament.

There were no two men in all the world with more authority in all things Jesus than Peter and James, but that didn’t stop Paul from confronting them when he “saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel”. (Gal. 2:14)

Recall Peter’s eye-opening encounter with the Centurion. God made it to him, then, that God desired to save Gentiles. Yet the full ramifications of that encounter had not sunk in with Peter. And Paul called him on it.

Though Peter was the rock on which Jesus said he would build the church, no one but Paul, perhaps, was in a better position to set the record straight on God’s intentions to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, a Pharisee, educated by Gamaliel, the great Rabbi, and he proved his zeal for Judaism with a vengeance. (See Phil. 3:3-8 and Acts 22:3-5)

It’s probably very difficult for us to appreciate how resistant to the idea of welcoming the Gentiles into fellowship would have been for Peter and the Jews from Jerusalem. For many hundreds of years, the Hebrews were entrenched in a tradition that affirmed over and over again in the most dramatic of ways that they were chosen by God. They were beholden by covenant to keep God’s law.

For many centuries Jews painstakingly wrote down and preserved that Law. It was literally etched in stone for them. Scribes were trained for the sole purpose of preserving the Law with utmost care from generation to generation. They defended the Law against all comers.

Traditions like that don’t die easy!

God had chosen them out of all the people of the Earth. They were instructed from generation to generation to guard the relationship they had with their God against all outside influences, including foreign gods and cultures – the Gentiles. They, and their fathers, and their father’s fathers all the way back to Moses gave their lives for God and the Law entrusted to them.

This was no small issue on which Paul opposed Peter, the Apostle. It went to the heart of the Gospel, itself, which was (as God intended it to be) for the entire world – a blessing to all the nations. (I will address why in a follow blog post.)

In the meantime, these issues that divided the most prominent people in the early church, didn’t simply fade when Peter had a divine appointment and divine revelation in the Centurion’s house or when Paul confronted Peter in Antioch. The issue persisted and prompted the very first council of the Church, which took place in Jerusalem. (Acts 15)

When the key leaders of the early church finely go together over the issue, the ended up “in one accord”. After a great deal of discussion and Paul describing to “the assembly” how God performed the same signs and wonders for the Gentiles as He did for the Jews (15:12), Peter summarized the determination they made:

“God, who knows the heart, bore witness to [the Gentiles], by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Acts 15:8-9

James also came around, referring to Peter’s experience and quoting the Old Testament Prophet, Amos, for the proposition that God would “return and rebuild David’s fallen tent… that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name….” (Acts 15:13-17)

Not without a great deal of angst and disagreement, the early church found their way through it to unity. Perhaps no disagreement in history within the church was as fundamental or important is this one, and the early followers of Jesus worked their way through with the help of God moving by His Holy Spirit, through visions, angels, voices, signs, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, references to Scripture in which lay the seeds of these things to come and reason.

Without the fruits of the Holy Spirit in these men, which are patience, kindness, longsuffering, humility, grace, and self-control, among other things, I suspect no sign or wonders or divine appointments orchestrated by God could have prevailed. Our disagreements today pale in significance to the stakes resting on this early issue that threatened to undo the church from its moorings, and we can take guidance from the way the issue was resolved – by the leaders of the church coming together and seeking God’s direction in one accord.

6 thoughts on “Tension Leads to Accord: Peter, James & Paul

  1. Thanks for this great discussion. I gave a guest sermon to my Church last August about this very subject, and the whole issue of faith vs works. I used NT Wright’s fantastic book on the New Testament as a resource, but I wish I had this post, which gives what I think is a very insightful and historical sense to that time. I am surprised that this chapter of Acts, and the whole story of the first council, is not more widely discussed. Thank again, and blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

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