Bad Manners at the Dinner Table
June 30, 2010
Before doing anything else, take a moment and make sure you read our text:
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” (Galatians 2:11-14)
Did you read it? I hope so because this is one of those passages that at first glance seems rather remote from us today. Let’s see if we can unravel it a bit.
Our story begins in Antioch, a bustling, cosmopolitan center located north of Israel, in the province of Syria. It was a major city in the Roman Empire and an early Christian center. Although it had a large Jewish population, Antioch was predominantly Gentile. We know from Acts 13 that the first missionaries to the Gentiles were sent out from the church in Antioch. Evidently there were two sizable groups of converts in that one local church. There were the Jews who had been circumcised, raised under the Law, and had come to faith in Christ. Then there were the Gentiles who had not been circumcised, had been raised in pagan religions, and had come to Christ. Those two groups got along just fine. The Jews and Gentiles in the church loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company despite their very different backgrounds. They even ate their meals together, which for the Jewish converts was a huge step since that meant leaving the kosher laws of their childhood.
One day the Apostle Peter came for a visit. Can you imagine what a scene that would have been? Peter who walked on the water. Peter who was personally called by Jesus. Peter who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Peter who came to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Peter who swam to meet the risen Christ. Peter who saw 3,000 men trust Christ after his mighty sermon on the Day of Pentecost. That Peter, the man whom Jesus named “The Rock,” had come to Antioch to visit them. I’m sure they crowded around him and listened with rapt attention to his stories. And what Peter saw in Antioch amazed and pleased him. He saw Jews and Gentiles worshipping together in one church, singing the same songs, laughing together, working together, praying together, and yes, even eating together. Nothing like that had happened in Jerusalem yet. The Jerusalem church was still entirely Jewish. But here in Antioch things were very different. Peter loved it and he joined right in with his brothers and sisters. He gladly ate his meals with his Gentile brothers in Christ. They loved him and he loved them. To him, this was what the body of Christ was supposed to be.
Troublemakers From Jerusalem
Then one day some other people came along who spoiled everything. They claimed to be sent from James, the leading apostle in Jerusalem. Evidently they were on some sort of inspection tour. Maybe they had heard about what was happening in Antioch and came to put a stop to it. What they saw appalled them. They saw circumcised Jews eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. They saw Jews disregarding the kosher laws of the Old Testament. And to their astonishment, they even saw the Apostle Peter openly eating with those same uncircumcised Gentiles. The whole scene revolted them. It upset everything they had been taught to believe. Evidently they started stirring up trouble.
Spiritual leaders never sin alone.
I imagine they came to Peter and said something like this: “Brother Peter, we know you mean well, but we are shocked that you would so soon give up your Jewish heritage. Don’t you know that God wants every man to be circumcised? Have you forgotten how our Lord himself was circumcised? Does that not mean anything to you? You are setting a terrible example. Soon even our Jewish children won’t be circumcised. What you have done is wrong. Stop eating with those Gentiles. Stay with your own people.”
So he gave in despite his inner doubts. He stopped eating with his Gentile brothers and sisters. I can think of several ways he might have justified it to them: “You know I love you. And it’s only until these guys leave town. God knows my heart. They’re putting so much pressure on me, I have to do something.” In his heart he knew he was doing wrong, but he did it anyway. That’s why Paul accuses him of hypocrisy. The word means “play-acting.” Peter pulled back from the Gentile converts out of fear of the men who came from James. It is a sorry spectacle to see the bold apostle give up his freedom in order to placate these men. Write over the whole story the words of Proverbs 29:25, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” Peter feared what these men might do, so he compromised his convictions even though he knew it was wrong. And worst of all, his bad example caused the other Jewish Christians to follow his example. Even Barnabas (Paul’s associate) was carried away in the same hypocrisy. Spiritual leaders never sin alone. What they do always drags others with them.
“Let’s Eat in the Heritage Room”
So maybe it happened like this. When everyone came for the Wednesday night supper, the Jewish converts would go through the line together. Then they all took their plates to the “Heritage Room.” They even put up a sign that said, “Jews Only. Kosher Only.” That meant the Gentile Christians had to eat in a different room. It’s not hard to see where this would lead. Pretty soon you’ve got two churches under one roof, and you’ve got two groups that don’t have much to do with each other, and finally you’ve got two groups that don’t even like each other. All because Peter caved in under pressure.
Enforced segregation in the church is always a sin and a scandal to our gospel witness.
But it’s right at this point that we’ve got to ask a question. What’s the big deal here? Where in the New Testament does it tell you what to eat or where to eat or who you should eat with? Answer: Nowhere. Eat what you want, when you want, where you want, and feel free to choose your own tablemates. If you want to eat at Denny’s, go ahead. If you prefer a fancy restaurant with nice linen and fine china, be my guest. We have perfect freedom regarding where we eat, what we eat, and who we share a meal with. The New Testament lays down no rules in this area.
So that raises some other questions . . .
What’s wrong with Jewish Christians eating with other Jewish Christians? Nothing.
Or Gentile believers eating with other Gentile believers? Nothing.
What about inviting your friends over for a 4th of July picnic? Perfectly fine.
What about having a Super Bowl party with your friends? No problem.
Let’s take this a step further . . .
Is it okay for Japanese to eat with other Japanese?
Is it okay for Lebanese to eat with other Lebanese?
How about if people from Michigan hang out with other friends from Michigan?
What about Koreans? Can they eat together and hang out together?
How about Methodists? Can they socialize with other Methodists?
If you’re Chickasaw, can you invite other Chickasaws over for a big meal?
Suppose we have Nigerian Christians over here. Can they sit together at a church dinner?
How about the Lutherans? They can be a tight bunch. Is that okay?
What about people from Texas? Let’s make it Baptists from Texas. Is it okay for them to hang out together and eat their meals together?
How about rich people? Is it okay for them to have their own Sunday School class where they can enjoy each other’s company?
What’s the Big Deal?
We are all tribal by nature, aren’t we? Without even thinking about it, we seek the company of PLU–People Like Us. And that might be determined by national origin, family background, culture, language, skin color, hometown, preferred sports team, social standing, where you live, your net worth, your accent, or any of hundreds of other variables. We feel more comfortable around people with whom we find some degree of affinity.
Enforced segregation in the church is always a sin and a scandal to our gospel witness.
So what’s the big deal in Antioch? Why shouldn’t the Jewish Christians eat with the Jewish Christians or the Gentile Christians with the Gentile Christians? Where does it say we all have to eat together? It doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t tell us we have to look alike or dress alike or speak alike or share the same cultural heritage. It certainly doesn’t demand that we like the same food or that we eat together all the time. Those things will always be secondary to our deeper bond of unity in Christ.
So here’s the big deal . . .
It’s not wrong for Jewish Christians to eat with Jewish Christians.
But it’s wrong for Jewish Christians to eat with Jewish Christians to the exclusion of Gentile Christians.
It’s fine for Texans to eat together, but it’s wrong for Texans to eat together to the exclusion of people from Oklahoma.
It’s fine for Korean Christians to eat together but not to the exclusion of Christians from Japan.
It’s perfectly understandable for the Lutherans to hang together but not to the exclusion of their Methodist brothers and sisters in Christ.
Enforced segregation in the church is always a sin and a scandal to our gospel witness. I have seen churches dedicated to reaching Filipinos, Romanians, Russians and Swedes. Well and good. And we understand that if you don’t speak Romanian, you may have trouble finding your place in a Romanian church. Or a Navajo congregation. No problem there. But when we decide that we only want “our group” or “our kind” and we won’t have anything to do with other genuine believers in Christ, we have denied the very gospel we claim to preach.
It’s Hard to Find a Good Church
In the last five years I have become much more aware of this than I was in the past. In fact on one particular point I now have new sympathy that I didn’t have before. I now understand in a personal way how difficult it is for people to find a good church. I used to hear people say, “It’s hard to find a good church” when I was a pastor, but I never took them seriously. When I was a pastor, I always knew where to find the best church in town. You have to feel that way when you’re a pastor. It goes with the territory. But in 2005, after 26 years in the pastorate, we found ourselves on the other side of that whole question. I discovered that lots of churches that say “Everyone Welcome” don’t really mean it. Mostly, we want people who fit into whatever group we already have in the church. I discovered how difficult it can be to find a church where you are truly welcomed by the people.
I discovered that lots of churches that say “Everyone Welcome” don’t really mean it.
I remember visiting one church, a newer congregation, not very large, made of up mostly of young families with children. A typical new church. We entered the building and stood in the lobby for ten minutes as people milled around us. No one paid us any attention at all. I’m convinced we could have pitched a tent and camped out there and no one would have noticed us. We were invisible to people because we didn’t fit their demographic. Few churches program for couples over 50 whose children have already left home. That’s just not a very popular group. People walked all around us that morning but no one really saw us.
Not in Line with the Gospel
It’s not wrong to be with your people, your age group, your friends at church, but you need to be careful lest subconsciously you send out an exclusionary message that says, “Other people aren’t welcome here.” Folks who are new to the church often pick up those signals even when the rest of us don’t think we’re sending them out.
Paul’s response to the problem in Antioch is decisive. He saw that they were not “acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (14). The Greek word for “acting in line” is orthopodeo, from which we get the English word orthopedic. Paul understood that Peter’s hypocrisy was really a compromise of the gospel itself. Withdrawing from the Gentile believers under these circumstances denied the truth that all believers are one in Christ. It established two classes in the church and implied that one class of believers (the Jewish Christians) was superior to the other (the Gentile Christians). Paul took drastic measures because the gospel itself was at stake.
Let’s wrap up our study of this ancient church conflict by focusing on two contemporary applications.
1) We need love for all of God’s blood-bought children.
Even at the end of this message, it can seem like Paul is making a mountain out of a molehill. Who cares what happens at a church dinner? Evidently Paul did because he understood that the gospel impacts how we treat believers who are not PLU-People Like Us.
I’m not intending to say that doctrine doesn’t matter. Far from it. It was gospel truth that led Paul to confront Peter in the first place. Left to ourselves we will always choose our friends over people we don’t know. We’ll choose PLU over Christians from other cultures. That’s just the way we are. We need an infusion of God’s love shed abroad in our hearts to make us open in our friendships, open in our churches, and yes, open on Sunday morning to new people who love the Lord but don’t fit our demographic, our denomination, or our particular target group.
Our churches should be as broad as God’s love is broad and as narrow as God’s truth is narrow.
Only a new infusion of God’s love can overcome the impulse toward tribalism that separates us into a thousand competing groups.
Perhaps the most obvious application is to reach out across the barriers to befriend a Christian who doesn’t attend your church or isn’t from your group. Perhaps you need to reach out across the racial divide or the cultural divide to invite someone new to your home. Who knows? You may find out that despite your differences, your unity in Christ transcends all the barriers.
It would be good for pastors and elders and deacons to ask, “Do we really mean it when we say that everyone is welcome?” Just to ask the question would spark a healthy discussion.
Remember, we’re not talking about compromising the gospel. Our churches should be as broad as God’s love is broad and as narrow as God’s truth is narrow. Truth and love. We need them both, and we can’t sacrifice either one.
2. We need to pray for our leaders.
This passage reflects the enormous tension that weighs upon all spiritual leaders. Every pastor needs prayer. Every elder and every deacon needs prayer. We neglect to pray for our leaders and then wonder why they fall into sin. We forget to pray and wonder why they struggle to lead us as they should. We forget to pray and then wonder why our churches are not all they could be.
Have you prayed for your pastor today? Paul asked people to pray for him. If the great apostle needed prayer, how much more do the rest of us need prayer?
Church of the Pathetic Losers
A few years ago Pastor Alistair Begg spoke at the Moody Bible Institute Pastors Conference in Chicago. Near the end of his message he told the story of how King Jehoshaphat prayed in 2 Chronicles 20. The Ammonites and the Moabites were moving with a vast army toward Jerusalem. Because there were so many of them and they were so well armed, the men of Israel could never defeat them. As the invaders came closer and closer, the situation looked increasingly hopeless. When the king called for a nationwide fast, men from every town and village gathered in Jerusalem to seek the Lord. Then the king stood up and cried out to the Lord for deliverance. At the end of his prayer, Jehoshaphat concluded with this simple confession: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (verse 12). God’s answer came through a prophet who told the people to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” The next day Jehoshaphat put the male singers at the head of the army and sent them out to do battle. They literally stood still and watched as the Lord sent confusion into the enemy ranks. The Moabites and Ammonites started killing each other by mistake. There was a great slaughter followed by the plundering of the supplies left behind by the enemy soldiers. The story ends with the army gathering for a praise celebration, giving thanks to God for the victory he provided (vv. 27-28).
After telling that story Alistair Begg commented that when Jehoshaphat prayed, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you,” he was really saying, “Lord, we’re just a bunch of pathetic losers. And if you don’t help us, we’re sunk.” He went on to say that he had discovered that this was the true mission statement of the church he pastors: “We’re just a bunch of pathetic losers and if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk.” That’s a good name for a church: “The Church of the Pathetic Losers.” You would never run out of prospects.
Apart from God’s grace, we’re all just a bunch of pathetic losers
I think he’s absolutely right. Apart from God’s grace, we’re all just a bunch of pathetic losers. Without God, we don’t have a chance, we don’t have a thing to offer, and we don’t even know what to do next. Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him. So let me say it clearly to everyone who reads these words: I am a pathetic loser. Apart from the grace of God, I own up to the truth that in me, that is in my flesh, there is nothing good at all. Whatever talent I possess, and whatever good I have accomplished, the power to do it has come from the Lord, and he alone gets the credit.
At the same Pastors Conference Dr. Joseph Stowell (at the time he was president of Moody Bible Institute) commented that many days he is just sick of himself. I understand that and say “Amen” to it. When I mentioned that in a sermon, a man told me he had stayed up all night wrestling with the Lord because he too was sick of himself. A woman added, “Sometimes I get on my own nerves.” All of us (if we are honest) are sick of ourselves sooner or later.
Perhaps you’ve heard the old Shaker hymn that goes this way:
’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,
’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
It’s a good thing for all of us to “come down where we ought to be.” Jesus told us how to live when he declared, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). In the Kingdom of God, all the values of the world are reversed. The way up is down.
Are we really “pathetic losers?” Yes, and we don’t know the half of it. We need to pray for each other, and we need to pray for our leaders. Apart from God’s grace, all of us are pathetic losers. There are no exceptions. And when pathetic losers band together to seek the Lord, the Red Sea parts, the walls come tumbling down, the enemy is routed, and the church rolls on for the glory of God.