Christianity teaches salvation by believing in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This means that if you believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven and you receive eternal life. However, influenced by the currents of thoughts of the times, there is sometimes a movement to teach Christianity itself differently.
In the 19th century, there was a scholar at the University of Göttingen in Germany named Paul de Lagarde who studied the East. Lagarde criticised the Protestant Church’s Christianity and argued for a national religion that removed the teachings of Paul and the Old Testament from Christianity. Influenced by him, a journalist and playwright named Adolf Reinecke founded the magazine Heimdall in Berlin in 1896, near the end of the 19th century. Heimdall aimed to “create the German national spirit in all spheres of life and to safeguard the patrimony of the German spirit,” as expressed in its subtitle A Journal for the Pure German Spirit and the Whole German Spirit. In his book Deutsche Wiedergeburt (German Renewal), a compilation of articles he wrote for this magazine, Reinecke argued that an “Aryan” faith was needed, one that removed the Jewish and Roman elements from Christianity. “Aryan” is the idea that the Indo-European language-using peoples arose from a common ancestor, the Aryans. It is also referred to as “Aryan mythology” due to the lack of evidence for it as an academic theory. Reinecke argued that by substituting the legends of the gods and heroes of the Germanic peoples for the Old Testament, “we want to link Christianity with the free and Germanic spirit and to preserve its truly Christian, that is, Aryan, fundamental characteristics.”
This claim eventually became “German Christians” movement in collaboration with Adolf Hitler. Based on “Aryan mythology,” Hitler claimed that the Aryan race was the superior race of mankind, of which the Germanic peoples were the most superior. This ideology formed the basis for the genocide of the Jews and the wars of aggression against Europe and Russia. The “German Christians” movement that collaborated with Hitler was not Christianity.
A similar movement existed in Japan before and during the Second World War, i.e., the movement of “Japanese Christianity.” In the (former) Christian Church of Christ in Japan, which is the root of our denomination, there was a pastor named IMAIZUMI Genkichi. In 1935, he published a monthly magazine Mikuni (Kingdom) and started the movement of “Japanese Christianity.” At the start of the movement, IMAIZUMI said, “It is the essence of Christianity to make true use of the national character. It is our heavy responsibility to expound the truth of the Bible and rehabilitate Christianity in Japan, using the Yamato (Japanese) spirit, which is redeemed by the blood of Christ.” In other words, IMAIZUMI is saying that it is their responsibility to renew Christianity with the Yamato (Japanese) spirit. For this reason, his writings often contain teachings that can never be described as Christian. For example, in Vol. 4, No. 9 of the magazine Mikuni, IMAIZUMI wrote: “I have found that my belief in the cross of Christ is one means of opening my spiritual eyes and worshipping the Great Goddess Amaterasu.” In other words, it denies the God taught in the Old Testament and claims that the Goddess Amaterasu of Japanese mythology is the true God. Such claims of Japanese Christianity are in line with the militarism of the pre-war and wartime periods of the Second World War and are nothing but destructive of Christian teachings.
The German Christians and Japanese Christianity that I have just mentioned, attempted to make Christianity different from its original teachings by denying the Old Testament. In New Testament times, however, the opposite movement sought to make Christianity Jewish by literally imposing the teachings of the Old Testament. Today’s Bible verses show that there was a time when church leaders were sympathetic to such a Jewish movement.
Verses 11 and 12 of today’s passages state as follows.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
The events described here are thought to have been roughly as follows. Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church, came to Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria. “Cephas” refers to Peter. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire after the Roman capital and Alexandria in Egypt. And the Christian church in Antioch had both Jewish and Gentile believers. Peter evangelised and fellowshipped with the believers in the Antioch church. At first he shared meals and fellowship with the Gentile believers. However, some people came from James, the Brother of the Lord, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church with Peter and John, and told Peter something. Then Peter stopped eating with the Gentile believers. When Paul learnt of this, he objected to Peter to his face, saying that it was not right that Peter had stopped eating with the Gentile believers.
In order to better understand the significance of this event, a number of things need to be considered in a complementary way. First, in verse 9, before today’s passages, we read: “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.” This means that there was a rough division of ministry, with Paul and Barnabas evangelising the Gentiles and James, Peter and John, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, evangelising the Jews. However, this did not mean that they strictly defined each other’s jurisdiction. For example, Paul preached the gospel of Christ to the Jews as well when he evangelised in the various towns of the Roman Empire. So Peter’s coming to the Antioch church would not have been particularly wrong in itself.
Peter had special experience in evangelising the Gentiles. It was his evangelisation of Cornelius, a centurion of the Roman Empire, which is recorded in chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles. Before proclaiming the gospel of Christ to Cornelius, Peter had a strange vision. He saw the vision that something like a great sheet was coming down from heaven with the four corners hanging down, and that in it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air, including many that the Old Testament law said were not to be eaten. And Peter heard a voice saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” and he refuses to eat them. Then he heard a voice saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” After three such exchanges, messengers sent by Cornelius, came to Peter, asking to come to his house and to speak what Peter have to say. So Peter, realising that the vision he had just seen was God’s command to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, went to the house of Cornelius and evangelised Cornelius and his relatives and acquaintances. They all came to believe in Christ and were baptised.
With this experience of evangelising the Gentiles, it was not surprising that Peter shared a table and fellowship with the Gentile believers when he went to the Antioch church. Sharing a meal probably included not only the sharing of an ordinary meal, but also the sharing of the holy communion commemorating the cross of Christ. In the churches in New Testament times, the holy communion was not celebrated in a set order in the service as in the modern church. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and 21: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” This suggests that in the Corinthian church there was a secular fellowship meal where only the rich ate a lot, and that the holy communion was celebrated either during or after the meal. If the fellowship meal and the holy communion were also linked in the Antioch church, it is possible that when Peter stopped eating with the Gentile believers, he also stopped communing in the holy communion with the Gentile believers. If so, Peter would have behaved in such a serious way as to deny that Gentile believers were part of the Christian church.
Why, then, did Peter cease to have meal fellowship with Gentile believers? This is related to the question what it was about the statement that “he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” in verse 12. Often, “fearing the circumcision party” is interpreted to mean that Peter feared the Jewish Christians who came from Jacob, the leader of the Jerusalem church. In other words, he was told by the Jewish Christians as follows: “Gentile Christians had not received the ritual of circumcision and could not be said to have received full salvation. Therefore, you must not have meal fellowship with such Gentile Christians.” This interpretation is that Peter stopped having meal fellowship with Gentile believers for fear of being criticised by the Jewish Christians.
However, such an interpretation is not appropriate. Peter himself was the leader of the Jerusalem church, so if he had been criticised by the Jewish Christians who came from James, he would have been able to refute them with authority. Moreover, Peter had the valuable experience of evangelising the Gentile Cornelius after receiving the revelation of Christ. Based on his own experience, he should have been able to lightly rebut the criticisms of Jewish Christians who had no experience in evangelising Gentiles.
However, if “fearing the circumcision party” means “fearing the persecution of non-Christian Jews,” it does make sense. In other words, it means this. The Jewish Christians from James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, said to Peter something like this : “The congregation of the Jerusalem church is suffering from the persecution by the nationalistic Jews because of the teaching that Gentiles can be saved without the ritual of circumcision. Please act wisely with that in your mind.” In New Testament times there was a Jewish faction called the “Zealot.” “Zealot” was so-called the faction of extremists who wanted to defeat the Roman Empire’s rule by force and win the independence of the Jewish nation. The end of the 40s and beginning of the 50s AD was a time when the pressure of this “Zealot” on the Christian churches became stronger. This meant that Christian churches that accepted Greeks and Romans as well as Jews were likely to come under attack by the “Zealot.” The Jewish Christians from James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, may have explained the dangers which the congregation of the Jerusalem church faced and asked Peter to keep a certain distance from the Gentile Christians.
If the fact that Peter “drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” was some kind of “consideration” for the congregation of the Jerusalem church to avoid being persecuted by the Jews of the “Zealot,” it is not surprising that many in the Antioch church were sympathetic to this movement. Indeed, as verse 13 states, “the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” It is not surprising that the Jewish believers of the Antioch Church sympathised with Peter’s move, given the magnitude of the work he had done so far. However, it must have come as a shock to Paul that even Barnabas, who had worked with Paul in evangelising the Gentiles, sympathised with Peter’s move. Thus, the Antioch church was about to split into a Jewish party and a Gentile party. The pressure was then on the Gentile believers to undergo the same rituals of circumcision as the Jews, and to observe various ceremonial rules, such as food.
So Paul took a firm stand, as in verse 14. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” Peter did not overtly command Gentile believers to undergo the ritual of circumcision or to observe various ceremonial rules such as food. However, Paul saw that when Peter stopped eating with the Gentile believers he was “forcing the Gentiles to live like Jews.” He then publicly pointed out Peter’s error. He followed “the truth of the gospel” that people can be saved by believing in Jesus Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. And he defended the “truth of the gospel” in the Antioch church, which had been bent by human “consideration.”
The first two examples I have given today, the movements of “German Christians” and “Japanese Christianity,” and the movement to Judaise Christianity in today’s biblical passages, are, on the surface, diametrically opposed. One seeks to remove the Old Testament from Christianity, the other to literally impose Old Testament teachings on Christianity. However, both have in common that they have not accepted the Old Testament correctly, being influenced by the ideology of their times. Christians must accept the Old Testament as the book that reveals Jesus Christ. In our confession of faith, we, the Church of Christ in Japan, believe and confess that the Old Testament, together with the New Testament, is the word of God that “reveals the Lord Jesus Christ.”