by Pastor David Groendyk
The first half of Acts 11, verses 1–18, puts a bow on the previous story of Peter and Cornelius. When Peter goes back to the home church in Jerusalem to report about what had happened in Caesarea, certain Jewish Christians were critical. These Jews, named the ‘circumcision party’, pop up in a few places in the New Testament. These Jews do not simply allow Gentiles like Cornelius to believe in Jesus and be saved. Rather, any non-Jew who wishes to come to Christ must also conform to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, including being circumcised and performing several ritual cleansings. Peter, however, quickly shuts down this criticism and defends his work. What is his reasoning? God spoke to him clearly (v. 12), and the Holy Spirit showed up (v. 15). Discussion over. Cornelius (and every other Gentile from here on out) did not need to conform to Jewish laws before being accepted in the church as a true follower of Christ. We in the 21st century take that for granted, but it would’ve been a stunning realization for Jewish Christians in the 1st century.
Peter was intent on obeying God and staying true to Scripture. Over the course of Acts 8–11, one certain Greek word has appeared a few times. First, in Acts 8:36, when the Ethiopian eunuch was converted by Philip, he said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Then, in Acts 10:47, after the Holy Spirit comes upon many Gentile converts, Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Now, in Acts 11:17, Peter gives a summary message to the critics and doubters, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” It’s the same Greek word, roughly meaning ‘to hinder’, every single time. The point is becoming clear: the gospel message should not be hindered for any reason in going out to the world. The circumcision party would have denied these Gentiles entrance to the church community solely because they hadn’t been circumcised. It was ridiculous, Pharisaical, and unbiblical!
This surely must cause us to ask the question of ourselves, “In what ways might I be hindering the gospel from being preached to an unbeliever?” Is there some way that you feel a non-Christian must conform to certain standards before you’re willing to share Christ with them? If a non-Christian is converted and wants to follow Christ, what extrabiblical standards are you tempted to impose upon them before accepting them? Are there certain kinds of Christians that you view as second-tier in the church? These are uncomfortable questions to ask, meditate on, and answer, but it is serious business when so-called Christians add requirements to the gospel that God doesn’t. For instance, if you’ve been involved in one of TCPC’s small groups, you’ve been studying through the book of Galatians where Paul calls the doctrines of the circumcision party a false gospel that leads to apostasy and eternal damnation (Gal. 1:6–9; 2:12). Paul and Peter sound the message together, loud and clear: God’s good news must not be tampered with. And thank God that his gospel is so freely given! If it were not so free, none of us would ever be able to earn it. We are saved by God’s grace alone. May he give each one of us a renewed sense of his grace and power, and give each one of us a heart like his own to go out to the lost.