Great Themes From Acts: Integration of Jew and Gentile
Ft. Worth, Texas
Racial hatred and prejudices have been around for centuries. It is true, not only of American society, but has been a part of the fabric of nations and peoples since mankind lost its sense of commonality as lineal descendants of Adam and Eve. Doubtless, the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel contributed to a situation that is exacerbated today by colors of skin, economic alignments, religion, taste and tradition. But no prejudice has been as pervasive and precise as that separation between Jew and Gentile. However true it was that God established the original separation of Abraham's descendants from those of the rest of humanity, this isolation generated a life of its own through wars, maltreatment in both directions, accumulated years of traditions independent of revealed religion, and simple hate and distrust. The end result was segregation that amounted to quarantine. As Peter said to Cornelius, "Ye yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or come unto one of another nation" (Acts 10:28). Modern neo-Nazi groups attest to the perpetuation of this polarization which is reciprocated by those who remember "The Holocaust." Accusations of "Christ-killer" still echo against Jews while they marshal resources to establish a modern state protective of Jewish citizens. As I say, the original separation of nations has taken on a life of its own beyond any spiritual benefit.
The Purpose of the Jewish Nation
The Bible reveals that all men (before there was a Jew or Gentile) gave up the knowledge of God (Rom. 1), turning to idols and immorality. The consequence of this was universal damnation (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), with no innate ability to save. However, the grace of God (Eph. 2:8,9) intervened and a Savior was planned. Through divine wisdom, the Savior would take upon himself human form (Jn. 1:1-4, 14) and, through sacrifice to himself, provide atonement for sin. Immanuel ("God with us") would be born the seed of a virgin (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:22-23), a descendant of Abraham who was chosen for this very purpose. Abraham was "called out" (Gen. 12:1-3; Heb. 11:8), initiating the separation of his descendants from all other people. In fact, "Gentile" is from ethnos (Gk.), from which we derive "ethnic" or race. Simply put, all who are not of Abraham's lineage are of the "multitudes." "Jews" (2 Kgs. 16:6; Esth. 2:5) are so named as also being descendants of Judah, the tribe which contained Jerusalem, the capital of the Promised Land. A combination of events (the call of Abraham, his descendants being sequestered into a distinct land area, and formation of a theocracy founded upon the Law of Moses) effectively segregated Jews from the rest of the world in preparation for the Advent (Gal. 4:4,5).
This original segregation of Jews by God was beneficial and providential; its evolution into racial strife and hatred became malevolent and spiteful. Gentiles became "dogs" (Matt. 15:21-27), unclean and unholy; they were not permitted into the temple area on pain of death. Jews were considered beneath contempt to Hellenistic people (Acts 18:12-16). Scattered throughout the world, the Jews nevertheless maintained their separateness; in their own land, they chaffed under the hand of Gentile conquerors, the Romans. Such were the events when Christ was born.
"Of the Two, One New Man"
As the gospel accounts of the life of Christ were written, the status quo reflected this deep-seated animosity. Amazingly, when the epistles were written, Jew and Gentile could sit down together in the church of Christ, enjoying fellowship around the Lord's table and embracing each other in a brotherhood that superseded and replaced the hatred of a few years past. It is another of the great themes of Acts that tells us how this marvelous transformation came about. Without Luke's narrative, we would be forever curious but ignorant of the divine prerogative which has so changed the course of history that it remains changed to this day. In our time, congregations are reflective of America's melting pot of assimilation. Take a survey of lineage anywhere among Christians and it will reflect traces of blood lines from all over the world. Before our eyes, the promise of Abraham has come true in that "all families of the earth" are blessed in Christ. The vision of Isaiah of "all nations flowing into" the mountain of Jehovah's house (Isa. 2:1-4) is reality, as well as the kingdom vision of Daniel 2 and the "Spirit upon all flesh" of Joel 2. That which was "far off" (Gentile nations) is now "one new man" with the "commonwealth of Israel" so that the "enmity" is abolished, creating a new household of God in which all are fellow citizens, a holy temple for God's habitation (Eph. 2:11-22). World shaking events, indeed, and only Luke tells us of it in the book of Acts.
"What God Has Cleansed"
The gospel was preached only to Jews for a number of years after Acts 2. It was not until the events recorded in Acts 10, 11 and 15 that, with the conversion of Cornelius, the door to the kingdom was opened to Gentiles.
As one faithful to the Law of Moses, Peter was reluctant to eat any of the "fourfooted beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven" (10: 12) of his vision until God said three times, "What God hath cleansed, make not thou common" (vs. 15). A good case for necessary inference could be made in that Peter understood the vision later while in the household of Cornelius when he said, "God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (10:28).
Luke records that Peter took some Jewish brethren with him when he left Joppa for Caesarea (10:23). No doubt, this was providential in that these six brethren (11:12) became witnesses to the divine will when brethren in Jerusalem heard that Peter had preached to Gentiles (11:1) and became contentious. Peter's attitude was "how could I withstand God" (11:17) when he saw that God had given the Holy Spirit to them "as on us at the beginning" (v. 15) and realized that "to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life" (vv. 15-18).
But the allegiance to Jewish separatism was not so easily overcome and one of the greatest threats to the first century church erupted over the acceptance of Gentiles. Luke revealed that some Judaizing teachers came from Judea to Antioch with their heresy and Paul and Barnabas "had no small dissension and questioning" with them (11:2). The debate finally moved into Jerusalem where the apostles and elders heard the charge that Gentiles "must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses" (v. 5). After the apostles had spoken, James acknowledged that God was visiting the Gentiles "to take out of them a people for his name" (v. 13), as the prophets had foretold. The "whole church" (v. 22) accepted the truth and letters were sent to other churches with the good news. A new era had opened and only Luke recorded the momentous events that changed the face of church so that "there can be neither Jew nor Greek for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 2:28).
Prejudice Still Alive Today
Even today there are those reluctant to acknowledge the brotherhood of believers. Racial tensions yet remain and some brethren do not seem to fear to "withstand God." Old habits, long engrained, are hard to break, even as Peter learned when he failed to uphold the truth that he knew. At Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14), he "dissembled" (played the hypocrite) and would not eat with Gentiles in the presence of the Jerusalem Jews, even leading Barnabas into his error. You see, it is one thing to know a truth (as Peter surely knew it, having been the instrument of integration) and another entirely to practice it. Fortunately, Paul "withstood him to the face because he stood condemned" (v. 11) and refused to allow Titus to be circumcised so that the gospel to the Gentiles might continue (2:3-5).
We are Gentiles, most of us (though spiritual children of Abraham, Gal. 3:26-29). By God's grace, we do not have to take the place of second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. Let us learn, therefore, not to erect barriers to fellow-Gentiles who, because of a color of skin or dialect of speech are different from us. The wonder of our own integration into the family of God is too marvelous for us to disparage it by treating other Gentiles like Peter did when he stood condemned. Let us be "one new man" in truth and in deed.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 9, pp. 264-265