You should know a little bit of background information before you read the beginning of this chapter. Before Jesus came, God made a promise called a covenant to the people of Israel (we call them Jewish people). God’s promise was to make Abraham’s family really huge and that Abraham’s family would be God’s people forever, and they would be with Him forever. Abraham’s part of the deal was to become circumcised. This is pretty gross, but it’s important to know. Circumcision is to cut off a piece of skin on the end of a boy’s private part (his penis). I bet it is pretty painful! Every single Jewish man got circumcised, most when they were eight days old and their family promised God that they would raise them to know Him. In Paul’s time, if someone decided to become Jewish, even if he was a grown up, he had to get circumcised. Think of what it stands for – you remove a part of yourself even though it hurts because God is the most important thing to you. There were lots of arguments in the church right after Jesus went back up to heaven about whether or not people who became Christians should have to be circumcised. Some people insisted that everybody just HAD to get circumcised in order to be a Christian. Other people said that Jesus was all they needed to believe in, and they didn’t need to become circumcised in order to be a Christian. It was finally decided that getting circumcised was an okay thing to do, but it didn’t make you a Christian.
Another argument that happened was related to food. The old Law from the Old Testament said that Jewish people could only eat certain meats because some animals were clean and some animals were unclean in God’s eyes, so for a long, long time, Jewish people only ate certain foods. As non-Jewish people started to become Christians, Jewish people weren’t sure whether they had to keep following the rules about eating or if they could eat whatever they wanted with the non-Jewish people. There was a lot of arguing about this, too. Some people insisted that everybody just HAD to follow the old rules about what they could eat in order to be a Christian, to the point where they couldn’t even eat at the same table as the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) because they were unclean just by being around it. Other people said that Jesus was all they needed to believe in, and what they ate wasn’t as important. It was finally decided that eating food that had been unclean before was an okay thing to do, but it didn’t make you a Christian.
What makes you a Christian is your choice to follow Jesus and to try to be like Him. What makes you a Christian is your faith – that is, believing that Jesus is real, that He told the truth while He preached on earth, and that His death saves you from your sins. All the other stuff is extra. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad, and it doesn’t mean it is automatically good. But this is important to keep in mind because Paul talks about these things a lot because it was stuff that the early church members were always arguing about.
After fourteen years, I went back to Jerusalem, and I took my friends Barnabus and Titus with me. I went because God showed me in a vision that I should go. I met one-on-one with people who others looked up to as leaders and told them the story of Jesus as I had been telling it, because I wanted to make sure that what I was saying was correct and true, and I wanted them to hear the correct and true story. Even though they heard the message, not even Titus wanted to be circumcised. He wasn’t Jewish, so he wasn’t circumcised, but he still didn’t want to do it. This whole issue of circumcision became a problem because some people were pretending to be Christians to try to start fights with us. They wanted to catch us doing things that were against the old Jewish rules. But we have freedom because of Jesus. He stands in the place of the old law, so we don’t have to be stuck following it anymore. We are free instead of slaves. We didn’t give in to the spies at all, because we wanted the truth of the story of Jesus to be kept true for you to hear.
Anyway, those leaders who I told my story to – by the way, even though they are leaders, that doesn’t make a difference to me, because God doesn’t pick favorites – those leaders didn’t add anything or change anything about the good news I was telling, so I know it was correct and true. Instead, they felt the Holy Spirit telling them that I was specifically supposed to keep telling the good news of Jesus to people who haven’t been circumcised, the same way that they felt the Holy Spirit telling them that Peter was specifically supposed to keep telling the good news of Jesus to people who had already been circumcised. So the Jews to become Christians were for Peter, and the non-Jews (sometimes we call non-Jews Gentiles) were for me. James, Peter, and John, three of those leaders, gave a blessing and friendship promise to Barnabus and me when they realized what the Holy Spirit was telling them. They agreed with our plan: I would go to non-Jews, and they would go to the circumcised people. They just asked that we would keep helping the poor, which was a great idea to me, because helping the poor is so important to me.
Unfortunately, I had to stand up to Peter later on because he was not doing the right thing. A while before, he had eaten meals happily with non-Jewish people. But when some special people got there, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) because he was afraid of what the Jewish circumcised people would say. The other Jews were afraid of this, too, and even Barnabas got confused about it.
This idea that we have to follow the old laws about eating is not part of the true story of Jesus! When I saw that they were acting this way, I had to call Peter out in front of everybody.
So this is what I said to Peter:
Peter, you are Jewish, but you don’t have to follow all of the rules of Judaism (that’s the name of the Jewish faith). How can you force non-Jewish people to follow all those rules when you don’t even have to? We are Jewish, so we know that we get to know God because of our faith, not because of the stuff that we do. Following all the rules doesn’t make any difference, because we know that believing in Jesus is what matters. We can’t ever follow the rules perfectly enough to be good enough. Only Jesus was good enough for God, so He stands in our place. We would have had to follow all the rules, but Jesus followed them all perfectly for us, and then traded his perfectness with our messed-up-ness so that we can know God.
I can see how this would be confusing, though! Does this means we can sin as much as we want and Christ says that’s okay to do? Absolutely not! Does this mean that sin is suddenly perfectly fine to God, just because we are around it in order to tell sinners about Jesus? No way!
Think about it like this: in my sin, I built a house. The house was strong and powerful, but it was nasty and dirty and gross, and no matter what I did to clean it up, I couldn’t get it clean. So I tried to tear it down, but I wasn’t strong enough. Then Christ came, and in His power, He tore down the house. Now I was finally clean because the dirty, nasty, gross house was gone. That’s what it is like now that my sin is gone. But then, let’s say that I try to build the house again myself. Won’t it be clear to everybody around me just how dirty it really is when I start to build it out the dirty, leftover scraps? The old law is like this. Now that Christ took care of the law, He made us perfect by standing in its place. Trying to go back to it just shows how dirty we are. It shows how much we mess up. It shows because we know what it is like to be clean.
Christ replaced the law with Himself. He is the only perfect person. He is the only one who could clean everything up completely. When Christ died, he tore down my house of sin. It was like I died with Him – not my body, but my soul. And since I can’t clean up my house by myself, I don’t live by myself anymore. Christ lives in me instead, and my life is because of Him. I’m still alive in my body; I haven’t really died yet. But my soul died with Christ, and now it is alive again because I believe in Jesus! He loves me and stood in my place. He took the punishment that I deserved so that I can live, so I’m going to live for Him, because it’s the only way I can say thank you. I can’t stop thinking about God giving me a special gift that I don’t deserve – that’s what grace is. God’s grace is that I get to live with him forever even though I deserve to die. If I could be good enough to be with God by myself – you know, if I could get that dirty house clean enough by myself – then it would be like Christ died for no reason!