Summary: The earliest controversy in the church was over a critical matter: What does it mean in practical terms to be a member of God’s family? Also, coming to Christ is an act of self-denial. We are “under new management.”
Introduction: One thing we can all agree on: People rarely agree! Even in the early church there was conflict; and while we’d prefer unity among believers, disputes happen. In an awkward moment Peter and Paul were at odds. Paul confronted the head of the church to his face…because the Christian message for Jews and for Gentiles was at stake, and Paul wanted the church to be united in truth. The critical issue was this: What does it mean in practical terms to be a member of God’s family?
Peter’s relapse & Paul’s rebuke, verses 11-14 To give context to the clash, eating was a significant cultural event in Bible times, far from the casual dining of today. To show that they belonged to God as His chosen people, pious Jews would not defile themselves by eating with unclean Gentiles…this ethnic exclusion was also practiced by the Jewish followers of Jesus.
The conflict arose because the Apostles had agreed that Gentiles belonged in the church, yet traditionalists were exerting pressure to maintain the old customs. They were bringing their past with them, looking at Jesus through their experience with Moses. Our experience is not the standard for everyone. Insisting Gentiles live like Jews was wrong. Gentiles did not have to adhere to the Hebraic system to be part of the family of God. So how were Jews who had embraced Jesus as Messiah supposed to relate to Gentile-believers? By seeing them as people made in the image of God, accepted and beloved. The church needed to re-define the boundaries of fellowship.
Paul was not being unkind or harsh. This was no personality clash or power play. Peter was at fault and should’ve known better. He had received a vision in Acts 10 where God clearly stated that all foods are acceptable…and all people. We should show no partiality or discrimination towards anyone. Gentiles, who had been regarded as outsiders, were now insiders. We all may sit together at the same table. Peter had given in to pressure to segregate himself from Gentiles, which contradicted his convictions. He was “not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel.” He had wavered off course.
The struggle for Peter was how to live as a Christian Jew. Was the church a reformation of Judaism, or something new? Peter knew that non-Jews did not have to convert to Judaism or adopt Jewish customs to be members of the church. Belief in Jesus, with nothing added, was all that was necessary. There is one way for all, not two ways of salvation. Paul was rebuking the inconsistency of Peter’s conduct, and charged Peter to maintain the courage of his convictions. Sometimes Christian leaders need correction to get them back on track.
Paul’s rally cry, verses 15-17 At the heart of this conflict was the doctrine of Justification by faith. Justification was a legal term, used in courts of law. To be justified means to be proclaimed innocent--cleared of all charges. The record of our sins is wiped clean by the blood of Christ. We are justified by faith in Christ, and by the faithfulness of Christ. Keeping moral standards cannot save us, because we can never attain the perfect standard God demands. “When we are justified, it is by grace alone, and we contribute nothing except the sin from which we need to be redeemed” (Jonathan Edwards). We’ve been declared “not guilty” and can never be called guilty again. We’re saved by grace, not by performance-based religion. “Law says DO! Grace says DONE!” (Wiersbe).
However, when we take hold of Christ we are reborn; and as a result, we want to live lawfully. The indwelling Holy Spirit enables us to make progress. We are free to live for Christ. Jesus makes us acceptable and causes us to mature. We’re not saved by works; we’re saved to work. The good we do shows that we’re genuine believers. Those who’ve been justified live justly. Here’s the take-away: “Religion operates on the principle: ‘I obey, therefore I am accepted.’ The gospel operates on the principle: ‘I am accepted through Christ; therefore I obey’” (Tim Keller).
Paul says that no one can be justified by keeping the law of God, because no one can perfectly keep the law. “Those who understand the Law clearly know that only God’s grace can save them” (Walter Chantry). The law is like a mirror which shows us our imperfections, but it can’t remove them. God has done for me what the law could not. I’m a Gentile, a goy, but Jesus made me kosher!
Imputed righteousness, verses 18-21 When we put our faith in Christ, we are credited with Christ’s righteousness. We are made right with God by faith, not works. Paul saw the futility of trying to earn God’s favor. Instead of getting our “just deserts”, we get mercy and pardon. If keeping the Law could save, why bother turning to Jesus? The cross--plus nothing else--brings us into a right relationship with God.