Crossing Cultures: Who are we becoming?

Living and working interculturally can take its toll on our emotions. There are so many things that are different in a new culture. Simply walking into a store requires emotional energy. Stores in our host countries don’t operate the same like stores in our passport countries. The stores don’t have the commodities we are used to buying; and we aren’t used to the way the clerk interacts with us. These differences account for two of the reasons why even buying simple supplies requires emotional energy. When we first arrive in the country we love all the differences. However, over time, the differences begin to cause us stress. The stress of our intercultural life wears us down- and living overseas loses its sparkle.

Shopping can be an irritant, albeit a minor one. The real problems come from our work and our relationships. We get irritated by some of the ways of our host culture. There are times that we think that the way they do things is not just different- they are wrong. The unfortunate outcome of making value judgments like these is that our ability to understand the reasoning behind why they do what they do becomes impaired.

What counsel does the Bible offer for us? I suggest we begin by looking at the example of Peter in his first epistle. One of our goals in intercultural living is to grow in our understanding of how our host culture works. Developing this understanding generally takes a lot of time. In order for our understanding to grow we often have to reshape the way we view the world, reshape some of our basic assumptions about life and truth. This process takes time. The life of Peter is a rich source of encouragement for us as we engage in this journey of transition and change. Even though Peter was an apostle, we are going to see that he was slow to change the way he saw reality. Nonetheless, in spite of his slowness he was a learner, and he did change. Therefore, Peter is a good role model for us all as we make the transition from our passport cultures to our host cultures.


Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

If we read the classic commentaries, they generally will assert that Peter wrote this letter to the Jews living outside of Israel. This conclusion was due to two reasons. First, Paul identifies Peter as the Apostle to the Jews. In contrast, Paul identified himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul used these titles for their separate ministries in Galatians 2:7-9:

7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Galatians 2:7-9).

Second, in 1 Peter 1:1 Peter says he is writing to the exiles of the dispersion. This is a clear link to the story of the Jewish people. Due to these two reasons, commentators throughout the centuries concluded that Peter was writing to fellow Jewish followers of Jesus who were scattered throughout Asia Minor.

However, recent commentators have noticed that Peter says things that would have been inappropriate to say to fellow Jews. For example, in 1:14 Peter encourages his readers to not be “conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” In 1:18 Peter says that his readers were ransomed from the futile ways of their ancestors. In 2:10 Peter tells his readers that they were once not a people. In 4:3-4 Peter mentions that the time is passed for doing what the Gentiles want to do. He also goes on to say that the Gentiles are surprised that his readers do not join with them in their debauchery and idolatry. These statements were likely inappropriate for Jewish believers. Jewish believers would have thought that they always had been the people of God. Jewish people would not have considered the ways they inherited from their ancestors as futile. These ways were derived from their understanding of the Torah. Finally, Gentiles would not have expected Jews to participate in what Gentiles did.

Thus, some commentators now assert that Peter was probably writing to Gentiles, not to Jewish background followers of Jesus (see Joel Green 2007 and Wayne Grudem 2009; contra Witherington 2008). However, writing to Gentiles seems a bit odd for Peter. It doesn’t fit our picture of who he was.

Why would Peter have written to Gentile believers rather than to Jewish believers? The answer to this question is the reason why I entitled this post: Who are we becoming? Let us continue to ask these two questions as we proceed.


When we go back thirty years and look at Peter, the new apostle, he wasn’t one who demonstrated a lot of concern for or an understanding of Gentiles. They were outside his world. He was a Jew from the land of Israel. Gentiles lived around him in Galilee, but they were not part of his relational world. This is deduced from what we read in the first eleven chapters of the Book of Acts. In Acts the apostles and the Jewish followers of Jesus of Jerusalem and Judea were focused on those immediately around them, their fellow Jews. The Jews who lived in Israel appeared reluctant to reach out to the Gentiles. In contrast, the Hellenist Jews, the ones who had been living in regions outside of the Jewish heartland, were the ones who crossed the ethnic and religious boundaries and aggressively reached out to the Gentiles.

We know this by the stages the church took in reaching out to the Gentiles. In Acts 6 we get the first indication of this reluctance. The Hellenist Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Why did the Hebrew Jews neglect the Hellenist Jewish widows? The Hellenist Jews were likely seen as outsiders, possibly second-class in their Jewish-ness. Yet, due to the just attitudes of the church leadership, the seven deacons selected to solve this problem were all Hellenist Jews. We know this because of their names. They were not Hebrew names; they were Greek names: And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch (Acts 6:5).

The next indication of the reluctance of the apostles and the Israelite Jewish believers is found in Acts 6 and 7.  The Jewish believers in Israel were very comfortable with worshipping at the temple. These Jewish believers were also tied to their homeland. This was normal because for all Jews in Israel the temple and their land played a central role in the way they created their Jewish identity (See N T Wright 1992; S. J. D. Cohen 1987, 106-107). However, Stephen, a Hellenist Jew, had lived outside the land and he still had a strong Jewish identity. Thus, he challenged the mindset that was dependent on the temple and the land for identity markers. These points in Stephen’s speech illustrate this:

  1. Stephen begins saying that God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, outside the land.
  2. He points out that Abraham’s descendents were going to live in Egypt but God would bless them.
  3. Joseph, rejected by his brothers, also lived in Egypt but God was with him.
  4. Moses was born and raised in Egypt, and God was with him.
  5. God also appeared to Moses in the wilderness, outside the land.
  6. The people of Israel had the tent of witness in the wilderness, not in the land.
  7. When the temple was built, Solomon said that the temple could not contain God. Even the highest heavens could not contain God.

Stephen challenged the idea that the land and the temple were the crucial symbols for creating a Jewish identity. Abraham, Joseph, and Moses had lived outside the land and without the temple. They still had been God’s people. God had kept them and appeared to them. The children of Israel expanded in number in Egypt and still kept their identity. Even as important as the temple may be, even Solomon realized that God could not be contained by it.

This undermining of their symbolic world was so great, his argumentation was so solid that those who heard Stephen were dumbfounded. Equally powerful was his denunciation of their rejection of Jesus, comparing it to the Israelites’ rejection of God’s chosen ones in Jewish history. Stephen’s listeners were left with only one way to respond: emotionally.  His vision of Jesus ignited their hostility, and they killed him.

After Stephen’s death a great persecution arose and believers were scattered. In 8:4 we read that everywhere they went they proclaimed the Word. However, there is an important caveat with their preaching the Word. In Acts 11:19 we are told that those who were scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom only proclaimed the word to Jews. Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews (11:19).

The exception to this was Philip. He was the first to cross the ethnic and religious boundary separating Jews and others, and he proclaimed the Word to the Samaritans.

The Apostle’s initial response to Jesus’ commission to take the Gospel to the whole world was to keep it in Jerusalem. The Lord used the success in Samaria to help them break out of this mold. Philip took the Word to Samaria but the Lord held back the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the apostles were compelled to respond to this problem and begin to move out of the sacred space of Jerusalem. They all did not go; they sent Peter and John. Thus, this is the first time in Acts that Peter crossed an ethnic and religious boundary for the sake of the Gospel. This experience was transformational for the two apostles because on their way back to Jerusalem they followed Philip’s example and proclaimed the Word in many of the villages in Samaria (Acts 8:25).

To illustrate the difficulty the early Jewish believers had in crossing ethnic and religious boundaries, even Paul, the Hellenist Jew and eventually the Apostle to the Gentiles, only spoke to Jews in synagogues after his conversion (Acts 9:19).

Due to divine prompting, Peter officially opened up the mission to the Gentiles in Acts 10. However, we discover that even with three divine visions, crossing an ethnic and religious boundary was difficult for Peter. When Peter entered the house of Cornelius, what did he say? In 10:28 Peter told Cornelius and his household how Jews were not supposed to associate with or visit Gentiles. Even though Peter is being honest, this seems a bit of a harsh thing to say to people that God wants to bless. But, Peter was a Jew and he thought like a Jew. He apparently was not sensitive to how his Gentile friends might have felt when told them that Jews think that they are unclean. To his credit, Peter was just being transparent. To their credit, the household and friends of Cornelius responded humbly. They did not take offense.

Crossing this ethnic and religious boundary was not only difficult for Peter, it was difficult for many of the Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel.  In Acts 11 Peter is has to defend his actions in going and eating with Gentiles.

In Acts 10-11 a shift in thinking begins to take place among the Jews in reaching out to the Gentiles. In Acts 11:20 we are told that some men of Cyprus and Cyrene broke out of the mold and spoke the Word to Hellenists/Greeks in Antioch.

20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.

Why did the apostles and the early church experience this reluctance? I think it is wise to see it as the natural outworking of who we are as human beings. It is difficult for us to make changes to the way we see the world. The ones who were quick to make the changes were Hellenist Jews: Stephen, Philip, and these men from Cyprus and Cyrene. These were the ones who felt free to break with tradition. This time, what was the apostles’ and the Jerusalem church’s response to the Antiochenes reception of the Gospel? They sent Barnabas to Antioch. Why Barnabas? Barnabas was also from Cyprus; he was a Hellenist Jew.  In Acts 11 we read:

21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

So, what we learn from all this is that the early Jewish church, including Peter, was slow to embrace the idea that the Gentiles were to hear the Gospel. Even when Peter did recognize it, he had difficulty with changing his allegiances and truly caring for Gentiles. His lack of care is seen in Galatians 2:11-14, when he pulls back from eating with Gentiles after some Jews from James came to Antioch. Think about the rejection the Gentiles felt when this happened. This is why Peter is rebuked so sharply by Paul.

Why are these details of Peter’s life important for us? We have broken out of our molds. We have left our homes and crossed ethnic boundaries. However, we like Peter are confronted with situations we find difficult to adjust to, or are unable to accept. We find some of their behavior offensive, and we end up offending the very people that we have been sent to, the people that God loves.

Who did Peter become?

Let’s get back to Peter:

When Peter writes his first epistle, he is near the end of his life (see 2 Peter 1:12-14). Why at the end of his life is he writing to Gentiles? Let me step back and get a bit personal. Who would we write to when we know our end is near? I think we would write to those we love the most. Therefore, in this act of writing to Gentiles we see that Peter has grown dramatically from how he appeared in Acts 1-10.

Peter’s words in the opening of his first epistle are striking. Peter uses the motif of the Diaspora, the exile, which is an integral part of Israel’s story, to describe the situation in which these Gentiles were living. By doing this he indicates that these Gentiles are also a part of Israel’s story, part of his story as a Jew. He is being inclusive instead of exclusive. This inclusiveness is also seen in the first verse of his second letter to these Gentiles: Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith as precious as ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. Peter could have been an exclusive elitist if he wanted to be. He was one of the 12. He was also the first leader of the church. Peter had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. However, he puts the intended recipients of his letter on his same level. He says that their faith was as precious as his, and not only his, but also those who were with him.

Why is Peter doing this?

This change reveals what Peter has become. We see that his life has been shaped by the Spirit and his heart and his thoughts have been transformed and enlarged. We see the love of God reflected through his thoughts and actions, through his inclusive, loving concern for the Gentile church. In this growth we see the words of 1 John 4:12 made real: No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Over the years, as Peter has lived his life with God, God has changed him and perfected his love in Peter. Peter is now a different man, filled with love and care for his fellow believers, who happen to be Gentiles. If this analysis of Peter’s letters is accurate, then the only two letters we have of Peter, the apostle to the Jews, are letters written to Gentiles, not to Jews.

Who are we becoming?

As we encounter this transformed Peter in his epistles, let us take courage. Let us give ourselves time to grow in love. Let us ask the Spirit to perfect God’s love within us. Let us allow God to transform the way we see the world and the way we view those with whom we work, and change the way we respond to all these things that are different.

May the transforming grace of the Lord be with us all!