Reading through the New Testament, we find a controversy that seemed to plague the first Christians. It centered around whether a Gentile (someone who was not a Jew) could be a Christian and also how they became a Christian. The Jews took great pride in the covenant they had with God, represented by circumcision – they often referred to everyone else as the “uncircumcised” – and wanted to require Gentiles to be circumcised before being baptized. Although this might be difficult for those of us living 2,000 years later to comprehend, it is important to see how this impacted these first Christians.
Jesus stated quite clearly that the gospel was for everyone. He told his followers: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16 ESV).
Although this statement is very definitive, it was around ten years before the Jewish Christians began to tell non-Jews about Jesus. Peter had to be convinced through a vision that it was proper for him to not only go into a Gentile’s home but to teach and baptize them (see Acts 10-11). Paul and Barnabas worked in Antioch for several years teaching both Jews and Gentiles the good news of Jesus (see Acts 11).
But all was not well. Jewish Christians began to question whether or not accepting Gentiles as Christians was correct. So Paul and Barnabas made a trip to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles.
“But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people) – those influential leaders added nothing to my message. On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do” (Galatians 2:6-10 NET).
That should have settled it: Paul and Barnabas were recognized as not only teaching the right message but that they should go to the Gentiles while Peter would concentrate on the Jews.
Yet very soon after this, the problem came in full force to the Christians in Antioch. Peter was visiting and had full fellowship with all the Christians there. But when some of the Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem “he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (Galatians 2:12). This even led other Jewish Christians to also separate from the non-Jewish Christians to the extent that “even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:13).
What was Paul to do? “But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:14).
What is the lesson for us? The gospel is for everyone!
There are always some in our society who are excluded because they are different. They are often ignored or even shunned – and sometimes by those who are Christians. It matters not the color of our skin, our ethnic background, or what country people are from – everyone needs to hear the good news of Jesus.
This is the mission Jesus has given us: to tell everyone about him. May we be faithful to our commission.
Readings for next week:
30 October – Mark 14:32-72
31 October – Mark 15:1-20
1 November – Mark 15:21-47
2 November – Mark 16
3 November – Galatians 1-2