This fall at ACC, we are studying the New Testament book of Galatians. In Galatians 2:11-21, the Apostle Paul discusses his response to something heart-breaking that took place in the early church.
As the gospel spread throughout the world, it moved from its original monocultural context in Jerusalem into more multicultural settings in the Greek-speaking world. As this happened, the early Christians rejoiced to discover that God’s free offer of salvation in Christ was available to Gentiles in the same way that it had been available to Jews. Salvation was a gift received through faith. Therefore, people from non-Jewish backgrounds could become Christians without having to embrace cultural practices of the Jews.
This discovery led to an amazing experience of multicultural fellowship in the early church. For generations, Jewish culture had considered it improper for Jews to eat or socialize with Gentiles. This conviction arose from their fear of consuming any food that would make them ceremonially impure according to Mosaic Law. When the gospel came along, however, the obligation to obey Mosaic dietary laws was suspended. Jews and Gentiles alike could now be accepted by God through faith in what Christ accomplished on the cross. Gentiles were, therefore, no longer excluded from the covenant community because of ceremonial impurity, and Jews were no longer pressured to prove their spiritual worthiness by their fastidious rule-keeping. Thus, the gospel brought freedom and joy to both Jew and Gentile alike, and the love expressed among Christians from differing cultural backgrounds demonstrated the power of the gospel to the watching world.
Then, tragedy happened. A movement of false teachers (sometimes called “Judaizers”) arose in the church. They taught that Gentile converts to Christianity, to be fully acceptable to God, needed to follow traditional Jewish practices such as circumcision and kosher dietary laws. Jewish believers were pressured to stop eating with Gentile believers unless they complied with these rules. The unity and joy that the gospel had brought to the early church was under attack.
The leaders of the church knew that this teaching was false, and, to their credit, they stood firm on their doctrinal convictions. The problem was, pressured by these false teachers, they began to live in ways that were not consistent with their beliefs.
This hypocrisy began with the Apostle Peter. Previously he had been eating and fellowshipping with Gentile Christians, even though he himself was from a Jewish background. But, afraid of what the Judaizers would think, he now began to refrain from table fellowship with his Gentile brothers and sisters. Other leaders in the church, influenced by Peter’s example, began to act the same way.
Peter’s decision to stop eating with Gentile believers was certainly unloving and probably hurt a lot of people’s feelings. But his wrongful actions were far more serious than mere rudeness or even racism. His actions were a denial of the truth of the gospel. By acting as if some believers were unacceptable, he was denying what it is that makes all believers unacceptable – the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
It took the brave words and actions of the Apostle Paul to call Peter and the rest of the church back from their hypocritical actions. Interestingly, in confronting this wrong behavior, Paul didn’t scold people for being racists or bigots. He merely pointed out to them that they were not living in line with the gospel. He reminded them of how they had been saved by God’s grace and challenged them to live in the light of that truth.
It is easy for any of us to slip into hypocrisy. All Christians struggle, at times, to live out the implications of the gospel they believe. When this happens, we need someone to lovingly call us back to the gospel and to challenge us to live in ways that are consistent with its truth.
Join us on Sunday, September 24 to hear more about this passage in Galatians. And then, visit a Community Group next week so you can discuss it and pray about it with others.