Peter arrived back in Jerusalem and right away he is criticised by a group who Luke calls ‘the circumcision party’ because he ate with uncircumcised Gentiles at the home of Cornelius. Who were this party? It is not sufficient to say that they were men who were circumcised because, at that time, all the males in the church would have been circumcised. Instead the circumcision party were those in the church who wanted everyone who belonged to it to practice the Jewish ceremonial law in a very strict sense. This was how they expressed their devotion to God and it was how they assumed everyone else should express their devotion to God. They could not imagine that it was possible for a church leader to behave differently, so they were surprised and disappointed with Peter.
Why did they have this view? One reason is that it had been handed down to them from their ancestors. Over time, a great number of rituals had been developed and we would call them by the name of tradition. Tradition is a very powerful thing and when kept in its place can be very helpful. But it can also be a hindrance.
There was another reason why they had this view and it was connected to the failure of the leaders to teach them the fullness of what Jesus had taught them when he had been on earth. Jesus had made it very clear to the apostles that the ceremonial law would be done away with and that his followers were not obligated to keep the traditions of their ancestors. But for one reason or another, the apostles had not yet done so. Although they had been commanded by Jesus in the Great Commission to take the gospel to the world, here they were still living in Jerusalem, and living like traditional Jews. And Jesus was going to do something about it from heaven.
I would suggest a third reason for their concern, which we can summarise under the term ‘tensions’. Imagine what life would be like for those Jews once a great number of Gentiles had joined the church without having adopted the forms of religious living that the Jews had practised for a long time. There would be tension, and we can read about some aspects of it in the New Testament letters. The believers who belonged to the circumcised party would be fully aware that difficulties would inevitably arise. Life would be a lot easier if Peter had told the Gentiles to adopt the Jewish traditions, but he had not.
I think we can see these three areas of concern are still present today. We all have traditions that we are comfortable with, we are aware that there are biblical teachings that we either ignore or have not thought through, and we have anticipated some tensions that may appear if people from other backgrounds and cultures become Christians through our evangelism.
In his providence, Jesus allows the circumcision party to ask their question of Peter. We might be surprised at his tolerance. Would it not be better if he silenced them? He is going to silence them, but he is going to do so by answering their question. Jesus here is saying that a church should take seriously all legitimate questions that are asked about its practices. This is how his church, wherever it is, should react to developments in his kingdom. Ask questions, not because one is argumentative, but because one wants increased knowledge of a situation. Accept questions, because it is one way that Jesus uses to bring legitimate change to his church. Answer questions, because that is one way by which the church goes forward.
So here is Peter and he had to answer the question of the circumcision party. How does he do it? We will think about his answer tomorrow.