Part of our Sunday School lesson the other day included the following verses from the second chapter of Galatians:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.
13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
15 “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles;
16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
Cephas, of course, was another name for Peter. One of the original disciples and generally considered the main leader of the church, he was being publicly upbraided by Paul—a man who had no real credentials so far as the official hierarchy of the church at that time, but who had been singled out by Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and appointed by Him to be an apostle.
Earlier in the history of the church, Peter had been given a vision by God (see Acts 10) in which God revealed to him that He wanted him to eat the same food the Gentiles ate—food which Jews deemed to be unclean. After the vision, Peter began to accept the Gentiles and to eat their food, but the Judaizers within the church began to draw him back under the law. He began publicly turning away from the Gentiles, so Paul publicly rebuked him for it. He reminded him that the law cannot save anyone, that we are saved only by grace.
Why did God allow this scene between the two foremost leaders of the first-century church? The issue of circumcision and all it entailed and implied was beginning to cause division in the church. God has never cared for division or disunity. He is very much into unity among believers.
Read Jesus’s words from the eleventh chapter of Luke on the subject:
17 . . . Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and a house divided against itself falls.
23 He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters.
The statement in verse 17 is familiar to most of us and is pretty obvious on its face, but the slightly less well-known statement in verse 23 is even more powerful. As He always does, Jesus leaves no middle ground. There is no neutrality here. Either we are with Him, or we’re against Him. Either we’re helping Him gather the body of Christ together, or else we are splitting and scattering it.
This unity is a very serious thing to God, and we as Christians need to take it seriously also. It’s easy to criticize another denomination for its beliefs that differ from our own, to denounce a local church whose service is not what we think it should be—but we need to avoid that temptation. When we succumb to this, we are engaged in scattering the brethren rather than unifying them.
This is not to say we should hold our tongues in the face of obviously unscriptural practices. When a denomination or local body claims we need something other than Jesus for salvation, we should denounce it—whether they’re claiming we have to be baptized in order to be saved or that we must have someone pour oil over our dead bodies to complete our salvation—it is not only our prerogative but our duty to correct it lest others be led astray. But it’s the erroneous doctrine we correct. We never question the salvation of a person who proclaims Jesus as Savior.
Are you with Jesus or against Him? Do you help gather, or do you help scatter His followers?
If you abide in Me and My word abides in you, then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
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