“Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” — Acts 11:1-3
The Jerusalem church received an incredible report: the Gentiles embraced the gospel with open arms. The gospel ship landed on the Gentile shores of pigs and pagans. The sweet sound of salvation in Jesus’ name echoed from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 4:12; 10:1). The promises Jesus made about His gospel reaching the nations were being fulfilled (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
The only right response is, “To God be the glory, great things He hath done!” But strikingly, that is not the way the church in Jerusalem responded. Instead, they scorned Peter, saying, “What have you done?”
They were appalled that Peter made friends with the Gentiles, glossing over the awesome reality that the Gentiles became friends of God. They criticized Peter for socializing with Gentiles, slighting the fact that Peter evangelized the Gentiles. They reprimanded him for welcoming Gentiles with a hand of fellowship, disregarding that God had welcomed Gentiles into His kingdom by His righteous right hand.
Genuine believers like Andrew, James, and John criticized Peter for doing good—taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Of course, they were stirred up by the devout Jews of the “circumcision party,” but isn’t this bizarre? How could true believers be so frustrated by a trivial issue such as eating with Gentiles? And why were they hesitant to welcome the Gentile believers into the church?
On the one hand, you have to cut them a break. They did not yet understand what God was doing by expanding His kingdom beyond Jerusalem. We have the books of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews to explain the union of Jew and Gentile into one body; they did not. Additionally, the Lord had only spoken to Peter in a vision about including Gentiles in His saving plan (Acts 10:9-16).
On the other hand, this was a grave error. Because of their fixation on circumcision and the Law of Moses, they instinctually required Gentiles to do more than embrace Christ as Savior and Lord—they also had to embrace Judaism. Thankfully, they later understood their error and addressed the issue as a congregation (Acts 11:18; 15:1-35). But at this point, their high regard for circumcision and law-keeping was a barrier to unity and a roadblock to evangelization. Their imposition of criteria and conditions that had no saving value were a clenched fist to communion and a locked door to fellowship.
We should be careful in pointing fingers at these Jewish Christians for their subtle favoritism, however, because the Lord points His finger at us for precisely the same sin. Sometimes, we tend to focus on trivial issues that have no saving value. Whether we realize it or not, we sometimes erect artificial barriers that disrupt unity and discourage evangelism. This is what we refer to as legalism, when we knowingly or unknowingly bind others to observe man-made rules.
This may sound shocking, but sometimes what hinders evangelism of unbelievers and fellowship with fellow believers is not cultural differences, geographical distance, or even Satan—it is us. And believe me, I want to shout, “Say it ain’t so!” But if believers were totally immune to such partiality, Paul would have saved his ink in Romans 14 where he wrote, “Don’t quarrel over opinions” (v. 1), “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10), and “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (v. 13).
Every true believer should be enthusiastically offered the hand of fellowship, regardless of whether they vote differently, look differently, or hold contrary opinions. External and superficial matters like these do not matter to the Lord who sees the heart—what matters is that one’s heart has been changed by the Lord.
Furthermore, the gospel message should be fervently carried to every unbeliever, regardless of whether they are alcoholics, addicted to drugs, immersed in false religion, stubborn to the things of God, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, black or white, or pro- or anti-vaccine.
All those guilty of such partiality will give an account to the Lord for standing in the way of the saving gospel and sanctifying fellowship. Such a discriminatory spirit is anti-gospel, satanic, and should be immediately repented of when found in the heart. Don’t let inconsequential things get in the way of fellowship or evangelism. Every believer should be embraced. Every unbeliever should be evangelized.