If Jesus came to build God’s kingdom (Lk 4:43) and bring people into unity (Co 3:11), why have Christians formed so many different types of churches? Has something gone wrong? Our verses provide part of the answer, as they give insights into the times when Christians disagree.
In the previous chapter, Peter preached the gospel to Gentiles and Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit (Ac 10:44-44); Peter then stayed with the new believers (Ac 10:48). However, news has reached the Jewish church of this development (v1) and it is causing disquiet. Hence, on his return to the capital, Peter faces some questions about his mixing with Gentiles (v2). Some who highly value Jewish laws, like circumcision, cannot accept him eating with Gentiles who are unclean / unfit for God (v3). But Peter makes a strong defence (v4). He explains the vision which God gave to him of a banquet of animals (v5,6). In it he was commanded to eat (v7) but would not do so because of the cleanliness laws (v8; Le 11). But the voice told him that God – in Christ (Mk 7:19) – has now given all foods to believers (v9). Three times this thought was driven home to Peter (v10) until he was clear that he need no longer separate from that which previously he would not touch: by faith in Christ Peter is clean and no food can change that. This led Peter to see that he could visit Cornelius’ home without worry, as the Holy Spirit confirmed both to him and his host (v11-14). And once there, he saw this cleansing given also to Gentile believers, as the Lord baptised them in the Spirit just as he had done with the Jewish believers (v15,16). Peter saw Jesus bring together Jews and Gentiles in his kingdom – which is why he baptised them in water (Ac 10:47).
This unity of Christ’s kingdom is its glory (Ep 1:13-22). Human beings have long dreamed of bringing together people of every type and place as a single community. Many mechanisms have been tried to achieve this, both good and evil. Yet the dream remains out of our reach. Tension, anger, pride, hatred and war constantly rise up to spoil our attempts. But why is it so hard to make us one? Jesus’ analysis is this: the vandalised state of the human heart (Mk 7:20-23). From our foulest extremes of wickedness to our everyday abuses of others, we break the bonds between us. But Jesus insists that his kingdom is not so limited because it is not built upon human ability but, rather, the power of God changing us from the heart outwards (Ez 36:25-27; Jo 3:5). Yet, has Jesus really managed to do this? Aren’t his people just as pulled apart, disunited, as other groups? How can that be explained? We can see three reasons from our passage.
Firstly, there is the loss of the gospel. Peter preached a definite message to Cornelius: the good news of Jesus which saves (Ac 10:36). This gospel is foundational to Jesus’ kindom. But when a church gives it up, replaces it with another message or adapts it with extras, it ceases to be a church of Jesus Christ any longer (Ga 1:9), even if it still uses the name. That sad situation is the first reason why we see some ‘churches’ separated from others.
But genuine Christians also break from one another, so what explains that? Well, sometimes it’s due to sin. Time and hard work are needed to learn to live Jesus’ good way (Ga 5:24-6:9), and we never attain perfection in this life – so Christians misbehave towards on another. But that doesn’t show Jesus to have failed; rather it proves his point about our need of him. Schisms, therefore, should always cause us to examine ourselves to root out any sin which may have caused it.
Alongside sin, however, is also immaturity. Jesus said that it takes time to learn from him (Jo 16: 12-14). Indeed, as seen in the Gospels and in Acts, it takes a real wrestling with the truth. That’s visible in our passage. People are concerned about Peter, even though he’s an apostle. In reply he gives a careful defence of his actions (v17), calling upon facts and witnesses. His fellow believers listen and then respond well (v18). That type of lively and thoughtful discussion is vital for the maturing of Jesus’ kingdom. Our differences are a part of our growing up into Christ. We should talk about them keenly but lovingly (Co 3:8-14), as we look forward to the day of final agreement.