I find it interesting that, upon the expression of Jewish unbelief in Christ at the death of Stephen, immediately the Gospel went to the hated Samaritans, and they believed! Jesus had sowed seed there during his ministry, beginning in John 4 with the woman at the well. Philip, the Jewish Hellenist and now one of the Seven of Acts 6, preached Christ to those in Samaria, and they believed.
Evidently, this came as quite a surprise to the apostles, still dwelling in Jerusalem. The persecuted church was scattered and preached Christ everywhere they went. Philip contacted the apostles in Jerusalem, and Peter and John were sent, so it seems, to confirm this was true. When they saw the work of God through Philip, they then also preached Christ to the Samaritans as they returned to Jerusalem (Acts 8:25). Apparently, they weren’t certain the Samaritan’s conversion was authentic, until they reached Philip and saw for themselves.
We need to remember that Jesus told the disciples not to go to the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) but only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:6). It took awhile for them to realize that their ministry to the Jews alone was not the only valid ministry blessed by God. Later, God commissioned Stephen, then Philip and finally Paul and company. The apostolic church in Jerusalem was more conservative than the Hellenistic Jewish believers of the stock of Stephen and Phillip. These were not so bothered by the ceremonial uncleanness of those who weren’t Jews by birth. Peter and the apostles had a lot of cultural issues that had to be overcome. Up until this point, it was thought one had to become a Jew in order to be saved. After all, the Jewish faith was the only faith instituted by God. This was an undeniable fact of Scripture. To believe God would bless non-Jews where they were and accept them as they are was something unheard of up to this time, and, quite frankly, took quite a bit of faith to accept.
Certainly the Scriptures predicted God would reach out to the gentiles, but it had always been believed that those gentiles would become proselytes to the Jewish faith. This was a big step of faith for the apostles, and a big issue with the Jewish authorities. They did not appreciate Stephen’s Gospel, and tried to stomp it out before it was able to spread to others. Well, persecution only served to spread the faith, so that backfired.
I don’t think, however, many of us appreciate the position in which this put the apostles. They were sent to the Jews. They practiced similar ceremonial customs with regard to their faith, but they must have been a gazing stock for the authorities who waited for them to step out of line—like Stephen and those who preached his Gospel. They were between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they must have felt a strong kinship with the Hellenistic believers and certainly didn’t want to offend those who were persecuted for their faith in Jesus, but on the other hand they had to be careful not to overly offend those to whom they were sent by Jesus. This became an issue later, and Paul wrote of it in Galatians. I think Peter takes a bad rap for that. The whole matter could be summed up with “Who do I choose to offend?” Peter had to make a choice in Antioch. It made no difference with whom he chose to eat, because he would have offended someone when he did so. He chose not to offend those to whom he was sent, and Paul publicly confronted him and as much as called him a hypocrite! Now, there is much more to be said about Peter’s behavior with the greater sympathy going to Paul’s argument, but that won’t come until we reach Acts 15.
Many of us face similar issues today between the liberal and conservative ends of our faith, some even questioning the authenticity of the others faith in Christ. I think in reality we are more like the most ancient Christian churches than we realize. Some were conservative and some were liberal in the 1st century CE too, but Christ embraced both as his own and sent both out to reach the world. Wouldn’t it be nice, if we could accept the fact that Jesus receives all who embrace him as Savior—just the way we are?
May the Spirit of God calm our spirits and help us to see the loveliness of Jesus in each one of his people—liberal or conservative.