God Shows No Partiality

If you are paying attention to our culture, you will know that the topic of intersectionality and critical theory has become a significant part of the national conversation. This is sadly true inside the walls of the church as well as outside. Believers today in certain circles are focusing a great deal of interest on divisions between people in the church. People are particularly drawing lines of division based on skin color or gender. And these same folks are seeking to silence the voices of the privileged, those who do not belong to previously oppressed groups, in order to allow the formerly oppressed (or perhaps those still oppressed) to present their own narrative.

My goal here is not to weigh in on the theories themselves. Nor is my goal to pretend that there has not ben a great deal of harm done in many a society based on ethnicity, injustice, or cruelty. Rather, my goal is to highlight a simple statement from Scripture that I came across in my quiet time that should call believers to be very careful not to allow ourselves to set up new walls of division based on anything beyond the word of God, including walls based on our pasts.

In Acts 10, Peter has finally come to the home of Cornelius, a gentile centurion. This man was faithful to worship the Lord as best he could based on Old Testament law. HE was a God-fearer. But, since Cornelius was a gentile, there was a division between him and the people of Israel. After all, for a person of gentile birth to be a part of the nation of Israel would require a great deal.

There was a question that God was settling in Acts 10 that we need to pay attention to. What would God do? The gentiles had oppressed the Jews. Rome was certainly oppressing Israel. Cornelius was a privileged man, operating from a position of power whether he wanted to or not. Now Peter arrives and brings the gospel to the home of this man. What happens here will do a great deal to set the tone for Jew and gentile relations in the church going forward. And what happens should set the tone for how the church deals with how people often divide over ethnicity or social lines.

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.”

Notice what Peter brings to the forefront and what he does not say. Peter was uncomfortable going to Cornelius’ home. But, when he was there, Peter realized that God had called him to bring the gospel to the gentiles. And Peter admits a thing that he had not previously understood. All are welcome in the family of God. Regardless of ethnicity and regardless of past, all are welcome. And peter is absolutely clear here and in the verses that follow that no walls of division are to exist.

There are no new requirements for Cornelius and his family. HE is not required to stop being a gentile. HE is not required to let go of his privileged status as a centurion. He is not required to do something extra to be allowed to be a part of the church, to be thought of as a brother. There is nothing that would give us any indication that Cornelius was supposed to just be quiet and let the more oppressed Jewish believers be in charge while he relegates himself to a lower position. There was no indication that Cornelius was being asked to do something to atone for being Roman or a part of the military.

No, what happened here was that, once Cornelius believed, once the Spirit of God came upon him and his household as happens in a few verses, he was baptized and welcomed into the church. All former walls of division were done away with. There was no place for them. Cornelius was as much a part of the church as was Peter. There was no call for Peter to stop being an apostle simply because he had been privileged to be Jewish and to have the gospel first. Nor was there any move to make Cornelius humble himself before Peter because Cornelius was a part of the Roman empire. These men were welcomed by God into his family without any distinction. Or, as Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Christians, let’s be very careful never to embrace any social philosophy that undermines what Peter has said. WE must not pretend that God shows partiality. WE must never assume that one people group is more acceptable to God because of their high position or their low position in any society. Once a person is a believer in the Lord Jesus, that person is a part of the church. We are called to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. WE are called to love one another and sacrifice our rights for one another’s good. We are called to shock the world by not buying into their lines of division, but to let the world know that we are Christ’s disciples as we love one another.

Am I pretending that all this is easy? Of course not. Nor am I suggesting that we do not have to listen and speak and think carefully as we deal with each other’s pains and pasts. But we must start with the understanding that God is not about to allow for us to divide his church based on skin color or social status. God will not show partiality. He does not set high the rich or the poor. HE does not elevate those who have had it easy or those who have been treated unfairly. God makes a new people out of formerly divided people. WE must not give the lie to that beautiful truth by developing divisions where the Lord sees none.

A House of Prayer for All Nations-Not a Divided Body

How concerned should a Christian be with his or her particular people group? Is it required that we look deeply into who are our ancestors? Is the color of our skin or the sins of our long-dead forefathers important to who we are in the church today? Is there a call for the church to divide people based on past wrongs or perceived social advantages in the present?

I wish such questions were merely theoretical, but if you pay attention to the things being said in the church in America today, you will see that the move toward an embrace of social justice causes has begun to bring about division in the body. People are now beginning to put descriptor words in front of the word Christian to say what they are. There is a focus, on the part of some, on identifying as white Christians, black Christians, Hispanic Christians, etc. We would love to think that the church would remember that ethnic divisions and social stigmas have no place in the church, but such is not the case today.

Surprisingly, I thought of this issue in my read through Isaiah, a place I was not expecting to bring it to mind.

Isaiah 56:3-8

3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8 The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”

Do you recall when Jesus cleansed the temple by turning over the tables of the money-changers? The Savior quoted from this passage of Isaiah. He reminded the religious leadership that his Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations. People from all people groups were to be able to come to that place and find a pure experience of the worship of God. And the religious leaders were causing divisions, erecting barricades. When the Jews charged exorbitant amounts for people to exchange their currency for temple currency, were they not discriminating against the foreigner even more than the Israelite? Jesus saw that the religious leaders were doing things, not to unite a people of God, but to heighten animosity between people groups.

Interestingly, in the context of the passage that Jesus quoted as he drove out the animal-sellers, the Lord says that the foreigner is not to say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people.” Even during the days of national Israel, where there was a difference between Jew and gentile, God made it plain that there will not ultimately be a separation. The foreigner who comes to the Lord in faithful worship is not to feel separated. The foreigner is to stop identifying as foreign, outcast, different and simply identify as a worshipper of God. As we see in verses 7-8, “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

If the Lord tells the foreigner not to think of himself as foreign anymore, if the Lord says that his house is a house of prayer for all peoples, are we not undermining the very fabric of the grace of God when we strive to reintroduce to the people of God division based on ethnicity? Of course we want to be honest about our past and admit that true evil has been done in the sin of racism. However, to then move forward and call upon people to continually walk in shame based on their ancestors’ sins or to tell another group they should separate and seek out theology only from those whose skin color matches their own, that is exactly the opposite of what this passage is about. The word of God points to a people of God, a single people of God, a people who are not defined as foreigners and insiders. We are just one people.

And this is exactly what the New Testament is telling us. When we see that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28; , Col. 3:11), we see that God has no interest in our bringing about any sort of division in the church based on skin color, national history, birthplace, language, social class, advantage or disadvantage, or anything else. . One beauty of the gospel is that God brings together for himself a multitude from every nation. And when that multitude is together, we have no hint in Scripture that the church is to take time to ask people to apologize for their nation of origin. The New Testament does not include stories of Romans apologizing to Jews for the cruelty of the emperors. The New Testament does not include stories of men apologizing to women in the church for the way that the society at large has treated them. Instead, the New Testament is clear that, once we are gathered together into the body of Christ, our divisions are taken off and we look at one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our identity is not national anymore. Our identity is not our past. Our identity is the name of Jesus, the blood of Jesus, the imputed righteousness of Jesus.

Dear church, may we fulfill the word of God. We are being built together—all people, all colors, all pasts, all languages—to be a temple of God. We are one house. And may we be a house of prayer for all nations. May we never try to tell people that they, because of their skin color, must take a lower or seek a higher place. May we never lift anybody up or put anybody down because of the history of their forefathers. May we only see the people of God as one church, one body, one family of God.

How Good and Pleasant

In the Psalms, we run across great glory and deep sorrow. We find praise and lament. We find expression of love and imprecations. We find gigantic texts in praise of Scripture and sweeping histories of Israel. And we find tiny little psalms, songs we almost forget, that have beautiful truths to share.

Psalm 133

1 A Song of Ascents. Of David.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Psalm 133 is all of 3 verses long. And what do we learn from it? What does it praise? We see the beauty of the unity of brothers. There is something good, something glorious, something magnificent when brothers dwell together in unity.

David tells us in this short text that, when brothers live united, it is like oil poured over the head. It is like the sweet and sacred anointing oil flowing over the head and shoulders of the high priest. It is sacred, special, and sensational. There is a good feeling, a refreshing feeling.

David also says that unity is like dew on a mountain. This is the original mountain dew, not a caffeinated sugary mess. It is just lovely to see and refreshing to the soul.

When brothers dwell together in unity, there is a blessing of life from the Lord. That is what the whole Psalm is pointing us too. Unity among the brethren is a sign of the blessing of God on us and a cause of further blessing.

Now, in David’s context, he is dealing with the nation of Israel. It is good when this nation, as the people of god, lives united. It is good when the people are kind to one another. It is good when they resolve conflicts simply. It is good when they are headed in the right direction together. It is sacred, beautiful, and it brings a blessing.

But what about our context? Of course the same is true. It is good when the people of God, the church of the Lord Jesus, find loving Christian unity. It is good when we live together graciously. It is good when we are humble enough to care about others and their needs. It is good when we let go of our preferences in nonessential areas so as to be kind to others. It is good when we lay down our lives for one another. It is good like we see in this Psalm. It is good like sweet and sacred oil on the head or the dew on the mountain. When we are united, when we care, when we help each other, we are showing that we have the blessing of God and that we are receiving even more blessing from our Lord.

Yes, this is a Psalm we can quote in about 10 seconds. Yes, it is short and simple. But it is surely needed. All churches need brothers and sisters in Christ who come alongside one another. WE all need people to care about us and people we can care about. We all need to learn to live this life together as we honor the Lord.

And, of course, as a disclaimer, we do not unify when major sin or major doctrinal error is threatening the honor of the Lord in our body. We go after that sin and lovingly press for repentance. We must never use the word unity as a club to prevent a person from calling us to be faithful to the word of God. But even as we call one another to righteous living and faithful biblical interpretation, we do so as brothers and sisters. And if we have been living together in unity, if we have been showing godly love, we will do a much better job of helping each other to turn from sin and honor the Lord.

Christians, let us pray that we will have a Psalm 133 church. May our fellowship be sweet and sacred. May our lives be united under the word of God. May we find the church family that refreshes our souls like the dew refreshes mountain plants. May we receive the blessing of the Lord, life forevermore.

Ethnic Reconciliation in Ephesians 2

open with coffee and notebook

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contains in it gospel glories that are rich and wonderful. Paul writes of God’s predestining grace, the promise of an eternal inheritance for all Christians, the way we were dead in sins before God made us alive in Christ, and so much more.

Paul also is clear to note that what God has done in the gospel accomplishes some amazing things, things that many in the past would have seen as impossible. Paul sees that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the predestination and salvation of Jews and gentiles, has brought about an ethnic reconciliation that is so amazing, so stunning, so wonderful that the plan to do such a thing is referred to as the mystery of God.

Ephesians 1:9-10 – 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 3:1-6 – 1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Notice that the profound mystery of god, the mystery hidden in the Old Testament, is that God in Christ would reconcile to himself believing Jews and gentiles. The mystery is that the people in the Old Testament days did not understand that their entire national religious system was a pointer to a profound work of God whereby he would make a people for himself that is not a Jewish or a gentile nation, but a united family of believers.

And look at how Paul speaks of this reconciliation at the end of chapter 2. What is said here is tremendously important to Christians today.

Ephesians 2:11-13 – 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

This section says what I have already been pointing out. It is a biblical glory that God has united two different ethnic groups, two peoples who had been violently separated in times past.

Ephesians 2:14-16 – 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

What does the word of God say has happened? Because of the work of Christ, the two have become one people. The wall of hostility has been broken down. The ethnic division has been abolished. How? This division was not overcome through special events focused on celebrating diverse cultures, nor through political maneuvering, nor through repeated apologies for wrongs done by any group’s forefathers. No, the reconciliation is effected by the glorious and mysterious work of Christ. The cross of Christ reconciles what had been divided. The blood of Christ makes one what others could have never imagined as less than two. The work of God in Christ, as Paul says, kills the hostility.

Ephesians 2:17-22 – 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Christ comes and brings peace. Christ unites people of diverse ethnic and historical backgrounds through his cross and his eternal plan. Christ builds us all into one household, one living temple of God. Christ is our reconciliation. All who are reconciled to Christ have become one family, no matter what the history of our lives beforehand.

Why point all this out? There is much talk about reconciliation in the broader Christian community. And I fear that this talk, this emphasis, is doing far more to undermine the work of Christ that God highlights in Ephesians than it is doing to strengthen the body. When a person comes into the family of God, our identity is changed. We become, not American or Japanese, not Chinese or Jewish, not black or white or any other color; we become Christians. Christian is now our identity. What had formerly been utterly divided through the actions of evil and selfish men is now united in a way that the world cannot understand. We are not united, however, by focusing on our differences and putting together events of false reconciliation. Instead, we are united when we see one another as blood relatives, family in the blood of Christ.

One beauty that I have in my life is that I see no skin color, none at all. I’m blind. If a person stands before me, I have no idea if they are lighter than me or darker than me. I have no idea if they have eyes of a different shape or hair of a different texture. I do not know, and I do not care. And, by the grace of God, I can call any Christian brother or sister, because God has broken down any walls that would divide our ethnic groups because of the finished work of Christ.

Do I have ancestors who were evil? Probably. So too do you, regardless of where you come from. Should we pretend that evils and wrongs in the past did not occur? Of course we should not. We should learn from the past and realize that great harm has been done when Christians attempt to define humanity as if different races exist. There is one race—human. Skin color or accent is no longer relevant under the blood of Jesus.

But if we continue to attempt to develop a form of reconciliation through event after event, highlighting differences and ignoring that the Bible now calls us one, we do not honor the reconciliation that Christ has already accomplished.

Note as well that, when Paul speaks of the unification of ethnicities in Christ, the breaking down of the dividing wall between groups, Paul does not suggest that either group attempt to redress past wrongs. Surely the gentiles to whom Paul was writing had wronged Jews. Surely, in other times past, the Jews had wronged the gentiles, even ancestors of gentiles in Ephesus. But Paul did not even look at those issues. Why? Paul did not touch those things, because Paul saw that a miracle had been done whereby divided groups, separate ethnicities, have become one family under the blood of Jesus. And Paul would command nothing be done that would highlight the differences when such a miracle of actual, spiritual, familial reconciliation and unification had taken place.

Christians, may we see that, in Christ, all ethnicities are reconciled. We ought now seek to magnify and proclaim that reconciliation rather than seeking to highlight divisions. May we honor the work of Christ better by embracing one another as family. May we be able to declare to the world that God has killed any past hostility between us and broken down any dividing wall that ever existed through the finished work of Christ. Yes, let us learn from past mistakes of previous generations. Yes, let us see to it that, as far as we are concerned, unfairness and racism be removed from our society. But let this be done because we are already reconciled in Christ.