By Pastor David M. Choi
The circumcision party was a group of Jewish Christians who believed it was necessary for Christians to adopt Jewish laws and practices. And by the time Peter reaches Jerusalem, we see they had already received word of him fraternizing with the uncircumcised, or those the Jewish law considered outside of God’s covenant. They are waiting for Peter, with criticisms and rebukes for his actions: “How dare you eat with the Gentiles!” However, it’s important not to misinterpret their critiques as being xenophobic or ethnocentric. In many ways, we can actually sympathize with their concerns. Think about it. What delineates a group from other groups, if not a clear sense of boundaries? We know who we are by the beliefs and practices that define us. And so, if those beliefs and practices were to be compromised, then so would our identity as a people. Their concern is well founded; it is for the preservation of their identity as God’s people. The circumcision party is protecting what they believe to be true. The real issue, therefore, is that they have yet to understand how Israel’s identity is now being reworked through Jesus Christ, allowing for non-Jews to inhabit the same sacred space they occupy.
Responding to their concerns, Peter recounts all that has happened. He gives a testimony of his experience, of all that he’s seen and heard. The Holy Spirit has done the unexpected. He has fallen upon the Gentiles. Thus, Peter gives witness to God’s action in and amongst the Gentiles, and he warns them that if God so chooses to bless the Gentiles then it is not for them to stand in God’s way. Hearing this, the party of the circumcision accepts Peter’s powerful and undeniable testimony. They respond, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). If this passage seems redundant, it’s not. Peter is not merely repeating what has happened. Rather, by recounting these things to his kin, it’s important for us to understand what the Spirit is doing through Peter’s testimony. The Spirit is now breaking open the enclosed life of Israel. The gate is being opened up for any and all who believe and call upon Christ’s name to enter in.
But the concern remains. If any and all are now able to enter in, what is left to define us as a people? Will we not lose our identity in the process? In fact, wasn’t this the reason why God, in the Old Testament, told the Israelites to not intermarry or congregate with the Canaanites, lest they corrupt Israel and lead them away from Yahweh? Yes. But here, we see God taking the old commands and now wedding them to the new. New wine belongs in new wineskins (Matt. 9:17). Jesus Christ has come – and this changes everything. Israel’s identity will no longer be hinged upon the law but solely upon the person of Jesus Christ, in whom all are now saved. The circumcision party accepts Peter’s testimony; nonetheless, making sense of its deeper implications will require some time. Through Peter, the Spirit has revealed that what truly unites us is no longer circumcision or ritual sacrifice. It is no longer tied to any one ethnicity, culture, custom, outlook, or way of doing things. What unites us is Christ, who makes true diversity possible. We are no longer threatened by our differences, for God’s glory is now coming to us from the outside, in the unexpected.
How might the Spirit use you to bring all those on the outside and inside of your life together in Christ? To answer this, it may be helpful to take a step back. In the Bible, the answer is really woven into the question itself. Peter cannot know what it means for Christ to unite all things without first seeking Christ in all the things that are being united under him. This means Peter, and we along with him, must seek the Lord in both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, in the expected and unexpected. For him, Peter heard the Lord speaking through the Gentiles. How unexpected! Likewise, we should expect our God to move in and through the unexpected. Make this today’s spiritual exercise. Try listening for God’s voice in the places you’d least expect. What is the Lord telling you?