Acts (Part 17) - The Gentiles?...Really?
Acts chapter 11 begins by telling us that news of the gospel going to the Gentiles spread throughout the area so that the Jews of Judea—even Jerusalem—had heard of it. When Peter returned from Caesarea to Jerusalem, the Christian Jews confront him about what they had heard. Notice that the text calls them “the circumcision party” (11:2). This does not imply that some Christian Jews had already formed an organized group under the focal doctrine that all Gentiles coming to Christ must be circumcised. Certainly as time goes on and the idea of Christian Gentiles is discussed, such beliefs emerged. But at this very beginning news of Gentile conversion, no such organized party existed. The appellation of “circumcision party” is the same name Luke gives to the six Christian Jews that went with Peter to Cornelius. At this point, Luke is merely pointing out that the conflict erupting was that Peter took the gospel to those who did not have the mark or sign of covenant relationship with God. And Peter’s asked to explain himself. Peter details much of what we read in chapter 10. And his description appears to satisfy the questioning Jews; they end up convinced that God has included Gentiles in this covenant of life (11:18).
Going back to verse 2, it is interesting to note exactly about what the Jerusalem Christians confronted Peter. They had heard news of Peter going to the house of a Gentile and delivering the gospel. They didn’t come to Peter asking how the Gentiles received it or what Peter’s thoughts were concerning this and the furtherance of the kingdom. No, their focus was much more limited. They were upset because Peter had gone to unclean Gentiles and had eaten with them.
Entering a Gentile’s home was not technically against the Old Testament law of God. We won’t find it in anything that Moses wrote. However, it was one of those extra-biblical traditions that had been set up as a fence to keep the Jew some distance away from ever breaking a Mosaic law. But that tradition had come to be regarded as law. So, the Christian Jews are offended that Peter has broken this law…this tradition…this sign of spirituality that the Pharisees had established. Grasp this situation well. People had come to Christ. They had embraced relationship with God, accepting Christ’s sacrifice that redeemed them unto God. But all this glory was overlooked so that these Christian Jews demanded only why Peter had transgressed a tradition. They were so consumed with the avoidance of what appeared to be inappropriate that they couldn’t get past that thought in order to rejoice in God’s salvation.
That attitude did not die out in the apostolic period. It is alive and well even 2000 years later. Consider the following example. A pastor of a local Bible-believing church has a friend/acquaintance who is unsaved. This unsaved man is also gay. The man seems open to the gospel and invites the pastor to talk with him. And so the pastor does. But the meeting place is in a bar…a gay bar. The pastor sits down with the man, and right there leads him to the Lord. News of this flashes throughout the Christian community of that town. But what do you think is foremost on the minds of the people? It is that the pastor acted inappropriately in accepting this venue for their talk. The glory of a person coming to Christ is lost somewhere amid the Christian community’s focus on the avoidance of sin.
Christians—even today—seem to have an inordinate concern about avoiding sin. This is not to say that sin is not important or that we shouldn’t care about avoiding sin. But we treat sin as if its avoidance is of primary importance. It is not. Primary importance is growth in relationship with God. Not only does sin hinder that, but our concentration on sin also hinders that.
Say for example that a room is our world. There’s an elephant in the room. That elephant is sin. We walk about the room trying to avoid glancing at the elephant—glancing at sin. We don’t want to be involved with sin, so we’ve decided even glancing over at the elephant may be too tempting, so we avoid looking. And we determine that anybody who glances over is doing wrong. We spend our time trying ourselves to avoid looking at the elephant, and we keep watching others to make sure they don’t glance at the elephant, or, if they do, we offer our rebuke to the point of shunning them if they don’t follow our spiritual guideline.
This seems to be the way many Christians (angry legalists) conduct their kingdom living—with a primary focus on avoiding sin and watching out to make sure others follow their example in avoiding sin. But this is not true kingdom living. Kingdom living is embracing Christ, not focusing on sin.
But the angry legalist is not the only wrong perspective to have. There are two basic approaches to God. Christians know that they sin, and that their past sin drove the wedge between them and God. They hate the thought of this sin—their sin—having put Christ on the cross. They appreciate so much the salvation won—redemption accomplished. In humility those Christians may drop to their knees as they turn to God. They may fall to their face in their approach to God. And then, there are other Christians who confidently draw near to God—boldly approaching the throne of grace. Is either approach wrong?
The bold approach that we read of in Hebrews 4 certainly does not imply a lack of concern over sin. Sure that confident Christian will sin and, in doing so, will ask forgiveness, quite possibly in tears. Surely passages we read in God’s Word or songs of the cross will cause tears to well up as we remember God’s sacrifice for us. Christ, in fact, gave us the Lord’s Supper (communion) for the very purpose of remembering how we came into covenant relationship. But our normal approach to God should not be crawling in tears. God created for relationship. We were redeemed for relationship. And relationship does not grow when we go to church or worship or think our every thought of God from the perspective of our worminess in contrast to God’s worthiness.
Imagine, for example, a 7-year old girl having done something wrong—some bad deed in violation of her parents’ wishes. Her parent corrects her, disciplines her, tells her why the deed was wrong and emphasizes that she not do it again. The girl, in genuine penitence, apologizes and, weeping, begs forgiveness, which the parent is happy to give. A little later the child comes back to her parent, again crying, and again offering apology for her disappointing deed. The parent now tries to assure the girl that everything now is okay. She was sorry; she was forgiven; the hurt is over. But later that evening, again the child weeps over her sin and the anguish it caused her parent. The parent again tries to calm the girl, telling her again she has been forgiven. What if every time afterward that the girl comes to her parent, she bursts into renewed tears over the past wrong she did, needing the comfort of her parent. The tragedy there is that although there is no animosity at all between the two, true relationship will never grow because they can’t move past the initial repair of the damage caused by the disobedience.
It is the same way with God. Sure, at times our remembrance of sin and the cross and the sacrifice bring renewed tears. But if every time we turn in our thoughts to God or if every time we corporately worship, we approach the same way—crawling in sorrow for sin, we never progress in relationship. We must understand that we have been forgiven. We must understand that Christ’s righteousness now rests on us so that we can joy with God. We can unite with Christ. We do not, as we read in Paul and Hebrews, need to remain in the milk of the Word—that beginning of relationship. We are not to live our Christian lives focusing on sin or sin avoidance.
Do you know why for the past 2000 years worship services have generally been formal, solemn affairs? Much of it has come from the Roman Catholic control for 1500 of those years. The lofty cathedrals and the services themselves were all designed to magnify the thought that we are low, sinful creatures and God is far above, infinitely pure in transcendence. The fact that God is infinitely pure is certainly true, and solemnity is the proper response in viewing sin before God. But that solemnity falsely emphasizes a relationship that is still focused on sin. We who are in Christ are forgiven. Sin has been removed. We walk through the veil. The solemn, traditional, formal worship style is out of sync with the unity in relationship to which Christ calls us.
Some proponents of the traditional argue that we can’t simply worship as we want. We must worship as God wants to be worshipped. But they then attempt to prove what God wants with support from the OT Law. The solemnity of OT worship in sacrifice and in recognition of clean and unclean was for the purpose of pointing out sin. So, yes, the formal and solemn were in proper place. The purpose for the Law was to point out our sinfulness and how we could not overcome it. The Law was to drive us to Christ. Now that we have Christ, we do not take that old system as God’s ideal for New Covenant worship. If we must go to the OT, look at David. He committed terrible sins for which he came to God in tears and repentance. But David was a man after God’s own heart because he recognized that God forgave him. And when he then went to worship, his heart sang—he danced before the Lord in joy.
We must remember that we were created and redeemed for relationship. Everything—everything—we now do in kingdom living should be focused on increasing relationship. The point here is that we Christians cannot have a focus on sin and sin avoidance in our approach to kingdom living. We seem to think that if we are successful in avoiding sin, we are successful in our Christian lives. But that’s not true. We are successful in our Christian lives as our relationship with Christ grows.
There are three Great Ideas in Christianity. (These are ideas within Christianity—not meant as ideas that make Christianity unique among religions.) These three ideas are Evangelism, Kingdom Living, and Relationship Among God’s Covenant People. But each of these has problems of perspective within Christendom at large. Evangelism (whose root means message) has been reduced to simply getting someone saved—and that, usually, by emphasizing a rather selfish motive of avoiding hell. Evangelism ought to encompass more in our thoughts. It should be about the message of redemption to relationship with God. Of the glories of our virtuous God and our lives in his story. But we consider only partial truth here and thus hinder our relationship.
As discussed, we tend to define success in Kingdom Living as avoiding sin. Yet, again, sin avoidance is only partial truth. It should not be at the center point of our focus in our Christian lives.
The third Great Idea is Relationship Among God’s Covenant People. Here too we fail to give a proper definition of success. So concerned we are about doing what is proper, we have consciously or subconsciously created a hierarchy of spiritual authority that we depend on to tell us how to live and interact.
True success in Christ is in the growth of relationship with him. Therefore, success in Evangelism must relate to that relationship. Evangelism is the message from God, so success in Evangelism is growth in knowledge. Success in Kingdom Living is growth in wisdom—the assent to and application of the knowledge. And success in Relationship Among God’s Covenant People is growth in the expression of that knowledge and wisdom to others around us.
This fits in well with our understanding of imaging God. As God’s image we reflect him in conceptual intelligence (truth), conscious morality (goodness), perceptive aesthetics (beauty), spiritual wisdom (recognition of God’s revelation/enlightenment), volitional faith (assent [or rejection] of God’s enlightenment), and relational love. These six imaging concepts can be grouped in alignment with the three Great Ideas of Christianity.
Apprehension (understanding of righteousness)
Approbation (approval/commendation of apprehended righteousness)
Articulation (clear expression of apprehended and approbated righteousness)
If a focus on sin avoidance is not how we should approach our kingdom living, one may wonder, how then do we avoid sin? A good analogy is in examining romantic love. Two people having fallen in love are passionate about their relationship. Each could do things (selfish things) that could harm the relationship. But to avoid these, these two don’t focus on avoiding the harmful acts. If they come to mind they are immediately dismissed because of the passion of concentration on the relationship. Just so, in our passionate pursuit of Christ, sin is more naturally rejected. Sin increases as our passion decreases. Focusing on sin does not avoid sin as much as we want to think. And it certainly hurts relationship growth. But in passionately pursuing relationship, sin may be more easily avoided. Relationship grows through the gaining of knowledge. That’s part of the passion of romantic love—wanting to know all about the one whom you love. The wonderful thing about God is that he is infinite. Unless we limit it, our passion for knowing God more can never be satiated.
Sin avoidance is a hindrance as well to relationship among the people of God. We develop pharisaical, extra-biblical rules to help us avoid sin. For example, the Bible tells us not to get drunk, so we determine that it would help not to drink at all to ensure never getting drunk. While this could be fine as a matter of personal commitment, it is absolutely wrong to impose that extra-biblical standard on others, determining that they are spiritually deficient if they don’t follow your rules.
A much more important example is in the God-imaging concept of relational love. Christ told us that the greatest commandment was to love God. A second, Christ said, was like it. It is to love our neighbor as ourselves. This second commandment—this growth in love relationship—we have severely limited based on our fears and our focus on sin avoidance. Can a married woman have a close, Godly, loving, caring, encouraging relationship with a single man? Could a married man have that kind of relationship with a married woman (not his wife)? NO! we think. There’s too much temptation. We separate ourselves into mens’ groups and womens’ groups to soothe our fears of sexual tension. WE MUST AVOID SIN. But remember the focus on sin is not what keeps us from it. Rather, the focus on Christ helps us in this regard. And how can we believe we are focusing on Christ when we limit the commandment he gave us to love one another because of our focus on sin?
We need to put off avoidance of sin as the focus of our Christianity and really get into kingdom living. Be passionate about God and passionate about his virtues in all our relationships. We’ll interpret Scripture better; we’ll live and love better; and we’ll even avoid sin better.