Sooner or later, pastors who champion the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, are likely to be caught off-guard by the tablemates he assigns to us. Take it from Pastors Peter and Barnabas.
It was a delightful homecoming when Barnabas, Paul, and Peter were all back in Antioch, along with all the Jewish and Gentile believers there. Even better, a delegation came all the way from Jerusalem, sent by the apostle James, the brother of Jesus. But then things went off the rails.
But when they arrived, he [Peter] 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 . (Gal. 2:12-13)
The sin that day was that Peter, Barnabas, and the others thought the Jews from Jerusalem were a better class of Christians than the Gentile believers. Ironically, the Antioch Jews were afraid of being ostracized by their Jerusalem cousins for their Gentile-inclusive convictions instead of recognizing their own gospel advantage. But Paul saw it for what it was: “conduct not in keeping with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14).
Barnabas was my pastoral hero till this flop. But this brand of hypocrisy still leads pastors astray. We wouldn’t want to be caught outside our camp and there are whole groups of believers we’d rather have sit at the kids’ table. But evidently heaven will not only be populated with bluebloods “from every tribe and language and people and nation,” but also with people from other traditions, worship styles, and Bible schools.
In pastoral circles it isn’t always easy to know who really belongs at Christ’s table and who doesn’t. On the one hand, Jesus said that not all who call him, “Lord, Lord,” actually know him, so we need to be discerning. Ecumenism has its God-given limits. On the other hand, we’ve all been surprised that we have spiritual siblings who genuinely call Jesus, “Lord, Lord.”
The grave temptation is to think we’ll be diminished by associating with Christians who are not part of our particular clan. Years ago, I remember hearing an area pastor promoting his conference on our Christian radio station. For me, it was an eye-roller. “I know his type,” I thought to myself. “So shallow!” Then God maneuvered us into working together on a city-wide prayer ministry. I was challenged by his hunger for Christ and perhaps he benefitted from me, too.
When we embrace believers from the other side of the spiritual dining room, we begin to grasp the breadth of justification. God’s grace isn’t only evident in our countless testimonies of salvation but also in the various ways the Lord assigns his saints to serve him. Furthermore, we discover new allies in advancing God’s kingdom. The church wasn’t weakened by having Jews and Gentiles, women and men, slave and free; it was strengthened!
When we resist seeing ourselves as a better class of Christian than certain others, we become more discerning. We more easily spot the actual wolves. We are more gracious about secondary differences, more appreciative of those in other churches, and more humble about our own convictions.
I wonder how the situation in Antioch would have turned out if Peter, Barnabas, and the other Jewish believers would have stayed at the Gentile tables and coaxed their Jerusalem brethren to join them. How wonderful their Communion would have been with one another and with Jesus. How much sweeter their songs. Thankfully we have the advantage of learning from them, so for that …
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.