by Pastor Ola Joseph Kolawole
In Acts 11, we see the reaction of the Jewish believers in the church in Jerusalem to the idea of ‘Gentile believers’ in Caesarea and Antioch who had trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Having fellowship with these Gentiles was a new experience for these Jewish Christians, who all their lives had looked on the Gentiles as pagans and outsiders.
Prior to this moment in history, traditionally, a Gentile had to “become a Jew” (become circumcised and fully subject to Jewish laws) in order to be accepted — we see many Gentiles do this in the days of Esther (Esther 8 & 9) — but now Jews and Gentiles were united in the church through faith in Jesus Christ (See Gal. 3:26–28). This chapter shows us three responses of the Jewish believers to the Gentile Christians, viz:
1. The Jews Accepted the Gentiles (11:1–18)
2. The Jews Encouraged the Gentiles (11:19–26)
3. The Jews Received (Financial) Help from the Gentiles (11:27–30)
I will only unpack the first one as a means of reminding us how Christians today ought to relate with the Christian faith and with one another.
THE JEWS ACCEPTED THE GENTILES (Acts 11:1–18)
As mentioned in my introduction, this whole idea of having Gentile believers is really a paradigm shift for any typical Jewish person. For them, being a Jew and being a believer is inseparable. Their culture and their religion (both before Christianity and now that they are Christians) are intertwined. You will recall that this is a nation that God literally ‘created’ through Abraham and shaped their culture. It was God who gave them all the laws that had shaped their culture (their ‘total way of life’). And they know — even Jesus affirmed it — that salvation is of the Jews. What they seemed to have forgotten, however, was that the covenant God had with their founding father (Abraham) had to do with using ‘the Seed of Abraham’ (not ‘seeds’) as the point/origin of blessing for ‘the whole world! In their Jewish minds, they thought that meant that one day, everyone on earth will become Jewish. Not until Apostle Paul began to write his doctrinal epistles (which, even Peter admitted as being difficult to understand — for a Jewish mind especially) do we begin to get the bigger picture regarding how all of this was meant to play out.
The point to take away from this part of Chapter 11, however, is the fact that, at least momentarily, THE JEWS ACCEPTED THE GENTILES. Peter explained what happened when he went there (and thankfully, he went with witnesses), and they believed his report. There will be more debate in Chapter 15 on what this new paradigm should look like.
What can we take away from this as lessons to apply? I like to put it like this: JESUS HAS MANY SIBLINGS AND MANY OF THEM WON’T LOOK, THINK, TALK, OR ACT LIKE YOU — AND THAT’S ABSOLUTELY OKAY!
The challenge of Christianity is that it is incarnational. There is room in Christianity for people from all cultures. The Christian faith will integrate itself into someone’s cultural heritage and begin to transform that heritage, purifying it from anything that is not God-glorifying while preserving the aspects of it that needs preserving. You don’t have to stop being Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Shona, Akan, Scouser, American etc in order to be a Christian. You don’t have to lose your cultural roots in order to become ‘Christian’.
This is part of the problems of African Christianity. When the Western missionaries came to re-introduce Christianity to us in the 1800s and 1900s, they discounted everything our fore-fathers were doing as being syncretic and paganistic practices. To be a Christian was to become, as much as possible, British or Dutch or Portuguese or what have you. They came and presented their culture and way of life as being superior to ours and many of us are still buying into that lie till tomorrow. A pastor in my church in Nigeria MUST wear a suit and a collar or tie when ministering on Sunday — because that’s how a pastor MUST dress? No. It’s simply because that’s how the missionaries that came to give structure to the church dressed when they came. If I begin to unpack layers upon layers of how much we’ve been influenced by this (Africans, I mean), you will be amazed. It has gotten so bad that most of us can hardly read works of literature written in our mother tongue fluently — worse, some of us can’t even speak it! Here I am in the UK struggling to make sure my son can speak Yoruba whereas my mates in Nigeria are doing everything to ensure that their children can speak Queen’s English at the detriment of being able to communicate fluently in their parents’ language.
(You should see how happy I am to find out recently that my boys’ favourite song is a Yoruba song they listen to virtually every night before they sleep — ‘Oyin Momo’ as performed by the Choir of ‘Fountain of Life Church’ in Lagos, Nigeria. You can watch Joshua singing it here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/QvuwYq4pr79NCYSS7 — pardon his loudness. LOL)
What’s my point before I drift off too much?
You are okay to be who you are culturally AND still be a Christian. You don’t have to look like or talk like or reason like an English wo/man for you to be a Christian. The good thing about Christianity is that the Holy Spirit, Our Teacher, resides in us to teach us how to take what we see in the scriptures and apply it to our cultural contexts in very appropriate ways.
In more practical terms, other believers don’t have to believe and agree with your stance about minor issues like how to dress; what to eat or drink; what day of the week to gather for corporate worship; whether or not tattoos, trousers for ladies, jewellery and/or piercings are okay . . . and the list could go on and on. It makes no difference whether I wear a white garment or flowery patterned clothing to church. I can choose to worship God without wearing shoes and I can choose to do so wearing shoes. It’s okay for some to believe in using mediums like handkerchiefs and anointing oil when/if you don’t. It’s okay to have believers that esteem and adhere to the principle of tithing and others that do not. It’s okay to have those who feel comfortable eating Salah meat, and those who do not. At the end of the day, Jesus has many siblings — many KINDS of siblings, in fact!
If you are waiting for the day when all Christians all around the world will believe the same thing about all these minor issues, you will wait till ‘thy Kingdom come’. So my piece of advice?
Stop waiting. Start accepting.
Read Romans 14 for more on this principle.
Grace to you.