Sometimes we are completely unaware of the pressures we are under and how this translates into our walk with Christ. I think this was the issue that faced the believing community in this next phase of Luke’s work of recording the progress of the nascent Church of God. The first phase, remember, dealt with the believing community being the Body of Christ or the Temple of God. That is, the Temple that Jesus was building was not stationary but mobile, and it, therefore, did not reside only in Jerusalem but existed wherever believers in Jesus were found!
Luke’s second and third offerings to the Book of Acts involve the theme of circumcision. Up until Act 10 when Peter preached to Cornelius and company and brought them into the believing community, the only believers in Christ had been Jews and, perhaps, gentiles who had become Jewish proselytes. While the new theme begins in Acts 10, Acts 11 forces circumcision to the foreground and is addressed, albeit with some trepidation. The Church or believers in Christ had largely been up to this time a Jewish movement, and that meant a national movement. With the influx of gentiles, what would this mean? How could it remain a Jewish movement with gentiles retaining their nationality and cultural habits? Circumcision had always defined Judaism. It told the world who the Jews were and what God they worshiped. Nevertheless, if gentiles became believers in Christ, but retained their national identities, what would this mean for the Church? How were we to be identified? By what means would believers in Christ be separate from the world? This was the question that needed to be addressed with the coming of Cornelius, and Luke tells us not only how the Church hammered it out in theory but also how it got resolved in practice. This new theme comprises Acts 10 through Acts 16:5 or approximately 11 to 12 years.
When we recall that the Lord is calling us out of the world, we need to consider what we may be bringing with us in the process. Not everything that we valued before we embraced Christ was good. Sometimes differentiating good and evil can be difficult, especially when we highly valued a thing before meeting or embracing Christ. I believe this was a problem with the early church. Stephen and company, or the Hellenized believers, were persecuted for their outspoken Gospel. Stephen made it very clear that the Body of Christ and not Jerusalem was the Temple of God. It was mobile, and we were to carry his presence to the nations (or gentiles), mingling with and perhaps eating with them. This was considered blasphemy and resulted in the expulsion of the Hellenist believers in Christ from Jerusalem and their persecution by the Jerusalem authorities.
Just before Stephen’s death, a disagreement occurred among the believers in Jerusalem (see Acts 6), whereby the Hellenist believers became a separate but a related body of worshipers with the Judean born believers. With this separation came an increase of the believing community, largely from the ranks of the priesthood and Pharisaical ranks (cp. Acts 6:7; 15:1, 5and 21:20). It seems as though these brethren had some scruples concerning worshiping with Hellenist believers who may or may not have practiced kosher laws. Circumcision involved the keeping of these laws. It helped identify a Jew in a world of gentiles. When one removes these things, one seems to be blurring the line between the clean and the unclean—the good and the evil. Such things are a matter of debate even today. What defines a good Christian? Is it whether or not one drinks alcohol, or is it dressing a certain way, or could it be the day upon which one attends worship service that defines a good Christian? Some even seem to think it is the political party that defines what a good Christ follower is like!
As we remove ourselves from the world, we need to carefully consider what we bring with us that influences our definition of good. God is good, and our behavior usually is not. This was so even among the most fastidious of believing communities of Christ followers. While seeking to be very scrupulous in maintaining their Jewish character (something most believers assumed was commanded by God), they neglected the love of God that needs to be expressed to the unbelieving and ignorant (of God) community that the Lord wishes to influence and draw to himself. This, in essence, is what Acts 10 through 16:5 is all about. The question for us today might be: what are we scrupulously maintaining in an effort to retain our Christian character that, in the end, actually repels unbelievers, rather than drawing them to Christ?