“Retreating from Conclusions”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

Acts 11:1-18 contains one of the most remarkable examples of good behavior in the entire Bible.  Peter returns to Jerusalem to Caesarea, fresh from the triumph of baptizing the household of Cornelius, the first Gentile converts to Christ. 

However, this poses an ideological problem for Christians whom Luke describes as being “of the circumcision”.  These are brethren who believe that in order to follow Christ, you have to follow Moses too.  That required observant Jews to maintain the bewildering tangle of dietary laws from Leviticus, laws that no one but Jews followed. 

Thus, to eat with a Gentile was to violate the Law, and in observing that Peter ate with the household of Cornelius, this is precisely the accusation that the Christians who are of the circumcision are making.  They don’t condemn him right out, but it’s fair to imagine their feet tapping impatiently as they wait for an explanation.

Of course, an explanation is precisely what Peter is delighted to give.  He has associated with Gentiles only because the Holy Spirit has shown him a vision, a vision that simultaneously identifies Greeks as fit prospects for the gospel and declares all foods clean.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon those in Cornelius’s household, confirms that this dramatic change is the will of God.

Here is where we come to the remarkable thing.  The party of the circumcision causes plenty of trouble later, pressuring Peter into hypocrisy and provoking Paul to write the epistle to the Galatians, among other problems.  In Acts 11, however, they make the godly choice.  In the face of evidence that Peter had done righteously, they walk back their implied accusation and acknowledge that God has opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles too.

This is hard.  Indeed, this is very hard.  At one point or another, all of us have found ourselves in a place where we have jumped to the wrong conclusion.  Maybe, like the party of the circumcision, we stated the facts and then raised an accusatory eyebrow.  Maybe we went so far as to say the ugly part out loud, to accuse another of wrongdoing on the basis of inadequate information.

When we find out the truth in such cases, the temptation is to double down on the error.  We will stick to our guns on the mistaken assessment of the situation, the mistaken interpretation of Scripture.  We will manufacture additional arguments, additional claims, attempting to shift some or all of the blame for our mistake to the other.  If we do so with sufficient volume, these efforts may even persuade bystanders and silence any opposition.

However, they will not change the truth, and they will not please God.  He desires truth in the inmost parts, and choosing to continue in error is knowingly insisting on a falsehood.  Though it is painful to our pride, the righteous choice is to retreat, to acknowledge that we assumed too much.  Only this kind of honesty and self-honesty will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.