At the present moment in American Christianity, much is being said about ethnic differences and backgrounds. And, for certain, there are many people who have personally been the victims of ill-treatment from others based solely on their nationality, skin color, or accent.
How should the church deal with people who come to Christ from differing backgrounds? How does the church deal with people who come from groups who are at odds, groups who have oppressed one another or who are still oppressing one another? What extra requirements does the Lord have for those who come to faith from a privileged group?
In Acts 10, we have a situation that could certainly speak to our modern moment. Peter is a Jew, an oppressed people under the government of Rome. Peter is a Christian, following a risen Savior who was executed by a corrupt Roman official. Peter had lived his entire life knowing that his people were hated or at least looked down upon by the Romans. And Peter knew that the Romans who had some knowledge of Christianity were certainly not apt to treat him with kindness.
But then God sent a message to Peter. It came in the form of an initial vision involving unclean animals. The Lord told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Though Peter did not know how to handle that vision at first, it became plain that this was going to be the Lord moving Peter to take the gospel to gentiles.
Later, as you probably know, the Lord brought Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Roman. But Cornelius was not just any Roman, he was a centurion, a Roman military leader. This man was one of the men living under Roman privilege, empowered to have success and unfair advantages over people like Peter.
What then would Peter conclude about the Lord sending him to Cornelius’ home? What would be the outcome of the meeting?
Acts 10:34-35 — 34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Peter is amazed by the working of God in this situation. He realizes that, as it comes to the gospel and the church, there is no such thing as allowable partiality. Neither the Romans nor the Jews have the right to treat the other group as somehow second-class. Peter speaks nothing of the Romans needing to take extra steps to make up to the Jewish Christians for their oppressive treatment. Instead, Peter simply points out that God shows no partiality.
Then, when Peter finishes talking about the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God does something glorious.
Acts 10:44-48 – 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
Peter sees that God saved the Romans. And Peter immediately commands that the new believers in Christ be treated, not as Romans who have to make up for their Roman-ness, but as brothers and sisters in Christ who are saved by the grace of God and sealed by the Spirit of God.
Later, in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem counsel, the early church had to deal with the gentile problem. The determination among the leaders of the church was that no special obligation was to be placed upon the gentiles. They were simply to be treated as Christians. They were merely to act like all believers were to act. As James said, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”
Dear Christians, may we be a people who acknowledge that God shows no partiality regarding ethnicity. May we stand strongly opposed to all forms of racism. But that stand must include a stand against favoring oppressor or oppressed, strong or weak, formerly guilty or formerly innocent. In Christ, we are one body, one people, one holy race. God did not favor the Jew or the Roman in this story. God did not favor the put-upon or the one in power. God simply saved people and then showed that they are all one family. Let’s work hard to be that family.