I have taken some time to reflect on the unity for which Jesus prayed in relation to the story of Peter & Cornelius and the tension that continued in the early church over extending the Gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews). The tension that persisted at the heart of the early Church threatened to unmoor the Gospel from its footing.
In previous articles, I reflected on the deeply ingrained nature of the belief that the Jews were God’s people. They were entrusted with the Law of Moses, and they had protected the Law God gave them for well over a 1000 years, painstakingly preserving it, passing it down from generation to generation.
They were instructed by God Himself to drive out all the inhabitants in the land God promised them, to avoid intermarrying and being corrupted by the influence of “Gentiles” to worship their gods. Thus, Hebrew descendants of Abraham avoided association with others – Gentiles. Like the plague.
So intent on sticking to the script were Jews in the First Century, that they didn’t recognize God when He shed his deity and came to them as Jesus from Nazareth.
John says that God came to His own people, and they didn’t recognize Him. When the Word through whom the universe was created, the Word who “was with God” and “was God”, became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), “his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:12) “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:11) John continues:
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”John 1:12-13
“His own” were the Jews. The “all who did receive him, who believed in his name”, were Gentiles (and Jews) who believed in what Jesus said and trusted in him. They became children of God, not because they were born into it, nor because they or anyone else desired it, but because God Himself desired them to be His children.
But these things were far from clear to the early Church. Even Peter, who lived with Jesus and knew him intimately, had difficulty with the idea that the Gospel should be extended to Gentiles.
In the previous articles linked above, I summarized how God gave Peter a vision that occurred three times in a row for emphasis, an audible voice, and the voice of the Holy Spirit, directing him to go with men who appeared just then at the door to summon him. Peter’s experience was orchestrated with an angel that visited Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who was directed to send those men to “a man named Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:5) Then God poured out His Holy Spirit on the Centurion and his household to emphasize to Peter his intention to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles.
But the tradition of shunning the Gentiles would not die easy. Despite the obviously divine orchestration of events to drive home God’s intentions to Peter, Paul had to confront Peter publicly in Antioch over the issue when Jews from Jerusalem came to visit, and Peter disassociated himself from the Antiochian Gentiles. (See Galatians 2-3)
Paul encountered the same issue in Galatia where people were insisting that the Jews continue to follow the Mosaic law. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described his confrontation with Peter. More importantly, Paul explained why the Mosaic Law no longer applied to the people of God – who now included not just the Jews, but everyone!
The authority for his argument to the Galatians is found in the Hebrew Scripture and goes back to Abraham. God promised to Abraham to bless all the nations through him. (Gal. 3:8) Abraham was justified, not by keeping a law, but by faith. Thus, the sons of Abraham are those who accept the promise of God by faith. (Gal. 3:7-9)
Here’s the kicker: God’s promise to Abraham was given 430 years before Moses! (Gal. 3:17) Though over a thousand years had passed since the Law was given to Moses to the time of Jesus, the promise to Abraham came first.
It’s hard for us to imagine how hard it would have been for devout Jews in the first century to accept such a radical change from what their ancestors had passed down to them for over a millennium, but Paul’s argument was based on an idea that was even more sacred and older than the law of Moses.
So Paul explained to the Galatians: the promise to Abraham came first. That promise wasn’t superseded by the Law. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes….” (2 Cor. 1:20) God confirmed to Jeremiah, “I am watching over my word to perform it”. (Jer. 1:12) The intervening law God gave to Moses didn’t negate the earlier promise to Abraham, by which God said he would bless all the nations of the earth.
Thus, the Law could not be contrary to the promise God made to Abraham. (Gal. 3:21) God wouldn’t make a promise that he would later forget or negate.
Jesus was not changing anything. Jesus, himself, said that he didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it! (Matt. 5:17) Paul, like Jesus, wasn’t arguing that the Law was negated; rather, he was arguing that the purpose of the Law was now fulfilled. The Law had served its purpose, and that purpose was now revealed in Jesus.
Paul explained it this way: the Scripture was given to “imprison” everyone under sin “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe”. (Gal. 3:22) People were “held captive [held in custody] under the law until the coming faith would be revealed”. (Gal. 3:23) The law was a “guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith”. (Gal. 3:24)
This may be hard to grasp. So, let’s break it down a bit.
What Paul is saying is that no one is justified by keeping the Law, because no one is capable of keeping the Law. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)
The Law was necessary to reveal to us our inability to be right with God through our own efforts. To the Romans, Paul wrote: “[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7:7).
As CS Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.”
Thus, says Paul, “The very commandment that promised life [if only Paul could keep it] proved to be death to me.” (Rom. 7:10)
People learn by the Law (whether it be the Mosaic law, or the ethical code of a society in which they live or even by the law written on their own consciences) that they are incapable of keeping the Law – if they are honest about it.
Think about it: if we fail at keeping the law at any point, we are breakers of the law. Ray Comfort famously asks people on the street if they have ever lied or stolen anything. Inevitably people admit they have. Then he concludes, “Well, then, you are a lying thief! Right? You just told me that you are!”
If one man murders another, he is a murderer, right? If we are being consistent, such a man is a murder whether he is caught or convicted. If it is true of murder, it is also true of lying, cheating, stealing, etc. A person breaks the law is judged by it.
We often think Jesus was easy on sinners, but nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus said it isn’t enough simply to refrain from committing the act of adultery; if a person even looks at a woman with lustful intent, Jesus says, he has already committed adultery in his heart. (Matt. 5:27-28) Jesus says we are guilty of murder in their hearts when we hate our brothers, despise them and call them fools. (Matt. 21-22)
Jesus didn’t let people off the hook; he upped the ante. When the rich young ruler asked what he could do to be saved after keeping all the law, Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor. (Mark 10:17-23) He didn’t let anyone off the hook; he turned up the heat!
Because people are not capable of living up to the standard of God. We are incapable of making ourselves right with God. If we insist on trying to justify ourselves to God, we are missing the point. The point of the Law is to bring us to the realization that we don’t add up.
People cannot live up to any standard that would allow them to stand justified before God. We can’t even live up to the standards we set for ourselves.
We all know “good people”, but they are only good in comparison to other people. No one is truly and purely good. We have all been selfish, unkind, impatient, proud, ambitious, irritable, ungracious – and those things are just scratching the surface.
An evangelist in the 1980’s (I forget his name) would use the following illustration: if a group of people are standing on the coast of California as it began to sink into the sea, their only hope being to swim to Japan, the strong swimmers would make it further out into the ocean than the weaker swimmers. But, even the strongest swimmer is not going to make. Even if a person is able to swim a 1000 miles before drowning, that person still drowns – like everyone else.
That is what it’s like to try to live up to the standard of the Law. Only when we realize we can’t live up to God’s Law are we in the right position before God. No one is justified by keeping the Law. (Gal. 2:16; 3:11; Rom. 2:13; 3:20) We can only be justified by keeping the Law if we are perfect, and no one is perfect.
That is why Paul said, the Law was intended to imprison us. The purpose of the Law was to show us that we have no way out!
Because we aren’t justified by the Law; we are justified only by faith (trust) in God. (Gal. 2:24) Elsewhere, Paul says, “We are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. (Rom. 3:24) We are saved from this prison of sin by God’s grace, which we access through faith; “it is the gift of God, not by works, so that one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
It was in this context that Paul spoke these famous words:
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”Galatians 3:27-29
The promise to Abraham was righteousness (rightness with God) by faith. His faith was counted to him as righteousness, and it’s the same for the Gentiles, and the same for Jews – and the same for us! Faith is believing that God desires to reward those who seek Him. (Heb. 11:6)
“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:12-13) says Paul, quoting Joel 2:32.
In previous posts, I detailed the controversy that arose in the early church over the Gentiles and the Mosaic law. Even after Peter had a divine encounter with a Roman Centurion by which God revealed his intention to Peter – with the Holy Spirit pouring Himself out on the Centurion and his household – Peter still didn’t appreciate the fundamental importance of faith over the law, and the availability of God’s grace to everyone. Tension remained in the church that caused Paul to oppose Peter and James, the brother of Jesus.
The tension was resolved only after a gathering of all the early leaders of the church in Jerusalem after much discussion, argument, visions, angels, voices, signs and wonders performed among the Gentiles, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles and reference back to the Scriptures that foreshadowed God’s desire to bless all the nations – to save everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.
Nothing is more fundamental to the faith than the promise God gave to Abraham and the fact that all people are made right with God by God’s grace, alone, which is embraced by faith. This is the Gospel itself. This is the Good News – That Christ died for all men, ransoming himself, giving himself for us, that we might be saved by grace through faith – both Jew and Gentile.
The Hebrew insistence on keeping the Law that God gave to Moses threatened to undo the early church from its moorings, but God orchestrated events to ensure the Gospel held fast.