We all face numerous struggles in going to and living in another culture. But our struggles are all so normal. What is interesting is to discover that we aren’t alone in this. Even the Apostles faced similar struggles in their lives. This post we want to look at one Apostle in particular, and look at his struggles.
Who is the Apostle? It is Peter.
The life of Peter exemplifies what it is like to make the journey in crossing cultural and religious boundaries. He shows the stages we often make as we encounter transition and change. What is remarkable is this: Even though he was an Apostle, he was slow to change the way he saw reality. In spite of his slowness, if we watch him, we see that he was a learner and he did change.
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.
The classic commentaries generally assert that Peter wrote this letter to Jewish followers of Christ living outside of Israel. This conclusion was due to two reasons. First, Paul identifies Peter as the Apostle to the Jewish people. 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 the Roman Empire.
However, some 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 are statements that would were inappropriate for Jewish believers but were descriptive of Gentile believers. Jewish believers would have thought that they always had been the people of God. Jewish people they did not inherit futile ways from their ancestors, and Gentiles would never have expected Jews to participate in what Gentiles did.
Thus, these commentators assert that Peter was probably writing to Gentiles, not to Jewish background followers of Jesus (see Joel Green 2007 and Wayne Grudem 2009). However, writing to Gentiles seems a bit odd. It doesn’t fit our picture of who Peter was and it is why the internal data in the epistle was overlooked for centuries.
Why would Peter have written to Gentile believers rather than to Jewish believers?
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 Hellenistic 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 clear indication of this reluctance because the Hellenistic Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Why did the Hebrew Jews neglect the Hellenistic Jewish widows? The Hellenistic Jews were most likely seen as outsiders, somewhat 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 Hellenistic 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 Hellenistic Jewish believer, 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 are the points in Stephen’s speech that illustrate this:
- Stephen begins saying that God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, outside the land.
- He points out that Abraham’s descendents were going to live in Egypt but God would bless them.
- Joseph, rejected by his brothers, also lived in Egypt but God was with him.
- Moses was born and raised in Egypt, and God was with him.
- God also appeared to Moses in the wilderness, outside the land.
- The people of Israel had the tent of witness in the wilderness, not in the land.
- 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 way to respond: emotionally. His vision of Jesus ignited their response, 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 did not all go; they sent Peter and John. Thus, this is the first time Peter crossed an ethnic and religious boundaries 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.
The difficulty the early Jewish believers had in crossing ethnic and religious boundaries impacted even Paul. He only spoke to Jews in synagogues after his conversion (Acts 9:19). It wasn’t likely only until Paul was brought by Barnabas to Antioch that he began to discover what it was like to minister to Gentiles. We can assume this because Paul was flogged three times by
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 this ethnic and religious boundary is 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. This seems a bit of a harsh thing to say to people that God wants to bless. But, Peter was Jewish and he thought like a Jewish person. He was not sensitive to how his Gentile friends might have felt when told that Jewish people think that they are unclean. To his credit, Peter was just being transparent. However, it was the household and friends of Cornelius that they responded humbly. They did not take offense.
Crossing this ethnic and religious boundary was not only difficult for Peter, it was 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 just 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. They broke out. Now 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 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 and for cross-cultural workers? God is asking us, wherever we live, to break out of our molds. We begin to cross boundaries. However, we like Peter are confronted with situations we find difficult to adjust to, or are unable to accept. We find some behaviors offensive, and we end up offending the very people that we have been sent to, the people that God loves.
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). At the end of his life he writes to Gentiles. Peter is a transformed person. His heart has been changed, and his primary concern is to care for Gentile believers.
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 being Jewish. 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 his readers on his same level. He says that their faith was as precious as his, and not only his, but also his fellow Jewish followers of Christ.
Why is Peter writing to Gentiles at the end of his life? In 2 Peter 1:1 we see clearly that these are Gentiles because he differentiates them from him and the people he is with. 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. Now we see the love of God reflected through his thoughts and actions, through his inclusive, loving concern for the Gentile church. 1 John 4:12 says: No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. As Peter has lived his life with God, God has changed him. He is now a different man, filled with love and care for his fellow believers, who happen to be Gentile. In fact, it appears that the only two letters we have of Peter are letters written to Gentiles, not to Jewish believers.
As we encounter this transformed Peter in his epistles, let us allow the Spirit to form God’s character within us. Let us allow God to transform the way we see the world, the way we see those with whom we work. Let us allow God make us vessels of his love.
May the grace of the Lord be with us all.