I still remember the fear I felt, passing within inches of those huge weapons.
This happened in Belfast, Ireland, during a ceasefire between the Irish Republican Army and Great Britain—the IRA intent on independence for Northern Ireland.
Everywhere, British soldiers patrolled the capitol city. I’m just over five and a half feet tall and their weapons felt that big. I held my breath each time I passed one. It was frightening.
That’s probably how Jerusalem is in the New Testament: Roman soldiers carrying dangerous weapons as they patrol the streets; Israelites fearful and resentful of a foreign country occupying their homeland. Each day a revolt in the making.
And it comes.
In 66 A.D., the Jews overwhelm Roman troops and seize Jerusalem. They hold it until 70 A.D.
When Rome recaptures Jerusalem, it’s a bloodbath, the enemy destroying everything including their sacred temple. All that remains now is one wall, known as the Wailing Wall.
The backdrop of the New Testament is important. The Romans represent danger, but there’s also fear within the church. Great fear. In fact, Jesus’ brother so unnerves both Peter and Paul that they crumble. It’s truly unbelievable, but it’s in Scripture. Here’s what happened.
Jews believed salvation was rooted in the ancient law: circumcision, ways of eating, whom you can associate with. The first Christians were Jews and the Jerusalem church apparently had a powerful group of men called the “circumcision party" who meant to uphold the law. They bred fear.
But God gave Peter a vision meant to clarify what He wanted. It happens at Joppa. Peter is upstairs praying at a believer’s house when he sees a sheet descending with all sorts of beasts and hears God telling him to eat.
Peter is disgusted, saying he's never eaten anything unclean, but God tells Peter not to consider unclean what God has made clean.
As Peter ponders this, he hears men outside the gate calling his name. An angel tells Peter to go with them.
The men are from Cornelius, a high-ranking Roman officer in another city. Some of the brethren travel with Peter, and they’re important as witnesses to what happens.
Peter realizes the vision isn’t about food. “God has shown me I should not call anyone impure or unclean,” Peter tells the group Cornelius has assembled.
Peter preaches about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit falls on the gathering. Unbelievably, the Gentiles begin speaking in tongues as at Pentecost! (Acts 10)
The circumcision party is angry when they hear of Peter associating with Gentiles. But then the Jerusalem Christians rejoice upon hearing all that happened. (Acts 11:1-18)
Now Gentiles are allowed in the church. However, when Peter is in Antioch in present-day Turkey far north of Jerusalem, James sends the circumcision party there. Peter, who’d been enjoying fellowship with the Gentile believers, withdraws from eating with them. Scripture says he’s afraid. (Galatians 2:11-12)
Remember, Peter was jailed and beaten by the Jews for preaching Jesus, and nothing stopped him. But this fear inside the church shakes Peter. He forgets the vision from God and the presence of the Holy Spirit with Cornelius. (Acts 4:1-31, Galatians 2:12-13)
Paul is furious.
“I confronted Peter to his face,” Paul says, condemning Peter’s heresy of returning to the law. (Galatians 2:11-14)
But Paul will also fall victim.
Around 58 A.D., Paul goes to Jerusalem and finds himself in trouble for the same reason—breaking Jewish law. He’s accused of teaching Jews that salvation doesn’t come from circumcision. Like Peter, Paul doesn’t confront the circumcision party. Instead, he agrees to James’ recommendations to please them. (Acts 21:17-26)
Paul will later write we’re saved by faith alone. The man who wrote Galatians and Ephesians is older, wiser, and perhaps braver than the man who chose not to confront the law in Jerusalem that day. (Galatians 2:15-16, Ephesians 2:8-9)
Peter, Paul, and James made mistakes. They aren’t equal to Jesus—Scripture shows us they fail.
Today, as then, speaking against long held beliefs is dangerous. You can lose your friends, church, reputation, even work if you say the church is wrong.
But the church is wrong.
Priests should marry—Peter and Paul were married. Women should preach—Deborah, Huldah, and Mary Magdalene are three of many women God chose to speak for Him. A wife is not inferior but to be held just as precious as Christ's love for the church. (Ephesians 5:25)
If you uphold old beliefs that are wrong, you’ll find yourself fighting against God.
Copyright © 2019 R.A. Mathews