Christians have received grace from God. This means we have been given a gift by God which is the very opposite of what we deserve. We deserve death; He has given us life. And this gift is hugely expensive: His Son had to become like us, take our sin and die, to grant us life.
At a church conference in Jerusalem (v6), Peter talks about his own experience of God’s grace. The question before the delegates concerns whether Gentiles Christians need to become culturally Jewish (v5). They may have trusted Jesus as saviour and king, and received the Holy Spirit – but were those just the first stages on a journey to become fully Israelite? After all, national, ancient Israel has been the heart of God’s plans for centuries! Surely Gentile Christians need to join it? Peter’s speech, however, tells of how God has changed the way his plans work.
After initial discussion, Peter speaks to prepare the ground for Paul and Barnabas to report on their journeys amongst Gentiles (v7,12). Looking back, Peter describes how the Lord chose him to preach to a God-fearing Gentile called Cornelius (Ac 10:22). Cornelius responded with a faith which God saw in his heart. Therefore, the Lord gave the Holy Spirit to him (v8; Ac 10:44). Such events were astonishing to Jews like Peter and yet the Lord did this (Ac 10:45)! God showed that he no longer made any distinction between Jews and Gentiles, so long as they had faith in His Son (v9). In the Jewish mind, Gentiles were unclean – no matter how kind, moral or God-fearing they were – because they did not keep the law of Moses and so were stained by the world. However, through faith God cleansed Cornelius’ heart and, as Jesus said, that meant the rest of him could be clean too (Mt 23:25-26): this Gentile who knew Jesus was as fitted for God as any Jew!
Peter’s description of God’s grace in this story has two lessons for us. Firstly, it shows us that salvation is all of the Lord. Peter’s drumbeat through the whole tale is how the Lord did it all. God chose him. God sent him. God knew the heart. God gave the Spirit. God cleansed Gentiles. It was all of God. We don’t find God; He finds us. We don’t save ourselves; He saves us. We can’t boast of making ourselves into Christians; we can only delight in the Lord converting us (Ep 2:8,9). That’s grace. And it leads to this second point: anyone can be saved. Peter, and others, could imagine Jews being saved but not Gentiles. God, however, showed that anyone can be saved, no matter where they come from or what they have been. Grace can reach any soul.
For Peter’s Jewish hearers, however, that truth has an important flip side. If we are saved by grace then that also tells us that we are hopelessly lost without it. Some in Israel have lost sight of that because of their pride in the Law. So Peter makes what is possibly the most shocking statement in his whole speech: that Jews, even with the Law, are just as lost as Gentiles (v10,11; Ro 3:9). He says this by describing the covenant and laws God gave through Moses as being like a ‘yoke’ – a device fitted to oxen so that they pull a plough. Israel’s covenant limited her freedom and set her on a particular course. God gave it to her because of her delinquency (Dt 32:5; Ga 3:23). Hence, it included not only a restraint upon evil like murder, but on many others aspects of life such as food and clothing. Israel, however, consistently failed to keep it (Je 31:32) and ended up in exile. That was why after Israel came home and Ezra restarted the Law (Ne 8:2,3), the Rabbis developed a large set of rules to make the Law achievable. But though in theory that sounds like a helpful idea, Jesus pointed out that the reality was far from that in his time (Mk 7:5-13). Peter knows this. He knows that many Jews have broken the law and that others have only ‘kept’ it via their own rules. The old covenant has, therefore, simply become a burden. Hence he pleads with his friends not to try to impose yoke of Judaism on converted Gentiles; they have a better way in Christ.
Our only hope of life is God’s grace. The Lord loves His people because He’s loving, not because we’re acceptable. When we go wrong, we can go back to him in sorrow for forgiveness. When the world harms us, we can ask him for healing. The Lord’s grace is our hope.