Jesus stated that one of the signs of the end times would be the exponential increase of “offense.” Not only can this poison unbelievers, it also threatens the health of the church as well. If Christ-followers aren’t knitted together in the opposite fashion of worldly individualism, they too will be ill equipped to navigate the minefield of hurt and anger in the last days. Thankfully, the first-century church healed a series of complicated discord and divisiveness, leaving us a road map highlighted in hope.
MANY WILL BE OFFENDED
I don’t know if there has ever been a time where I’ve observed so many people in a rush to reach “victim” status. For every legitimate case of abuse, prejudice and corruption, it seems like there are twice as many foolish claims of misguided people who are convinced of the justice due to them (someone was probably offended by the latter part of that statement).
Offense can appear in many forms. Even in churches where we have made efforts to celebrate diversity, we can experience schisms based on ethnicity, morality and affiliations.
Not only did Jesus inform us that it’s “impossible that no offenses should come” (Lk 17:1 NKJV); He later upped the ante by predicting that one of the signs of the end of age would be that “many will be offended, will betray one another and will hate one another” (Matt 24:10 NKJV). Notice, He didn’t say a few or a fraction, but many.
THE TABLE IN THE EARLY CHURCH
In the New Testament history of the early church, there was a massive amount of offense to overcome in order for His bride to move forward into her destiny. In the midst of the original “revival,” Jewish people and Gentiles were surrendering to Jesus by the thousands. Despite a shared faith in Christ, there was an inflammatory divide between these two groups of people that began and ended at “the table.”
The concept of “the table” was a central aspect to believers in the book of Acts. In his book, The Irresistible Community, Bill Donahue says…
“In first-century Jewish culture, people found their place to belong in their family or tribe and as part of the local community… Most of the time they met in a home, where the table became a symbol of hospitality, acceptance and friendship. There people found simple food, quality friendship and occasional fun.”¹
Fellowship and meals together at the table was so woven into the fabric of the first Christians that two-thirds of the Jerusalem Council guidelines was about how to eat with each other properly (Acts 15:19-21).
JEWS VS GENTILES
The problem was, the more Jewish believers and Gentile believers mixed company, the more controversy and disputes arose. The Jewish believers had a very conservative interpretation of their faith in Christ, while the Gentile believers were more liberal in their approach. Jews adhered to Old Covenant patterns of circumcision, dietary laws, ritual sanctification and observing feasts. Gentiles were more unorthodox in their practices and questionable about certain ethics (1 Cor 5:1). Based on the outcome of the Jerusalem Council, we learned both groups were right and both groups were wrong about some of their assumptions.
While the journey to become one body was a messy ordeal, it began and ended at the table. For example:
Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision (Jewish believers) contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men (Gentiles) and ate with them!” –Acts 11:1-3 NKJV, Italics added
Jewish believers were offended at the thought of being at the table with Gentiles, even if they converted to faith in Christ.
On the other side of the coin, you had Paul and Barnabus, whom God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles through (Acts 14:27). The Bible says they “had no small dissension and dispute” with Jewish believers who were commanding Gentile believers to conform to patterns of the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1-2).
These differences were multi-faceted and difficult to untangle. The competing issues were rooted in race, convictions and political privilege. Since the church depended on the intimate gatherings of fellow disciples, these disagreements threatened the vitality of this new and budding movement. Two thousand years later, these passages could not be more relevant to believers than today!
MENDING THE DIVIDE
The enemy of your soul uses offense to move you away from the table. God brings your enemies to the table to move you away from offense.
We’ve seen how the trouble began at the table. Let’s look at three ways the great divide ended at the table…
1. The Cross Opened Up the Table to All Ethnicity
In the Pentateuch, Israelites were not to mingle with or marry foreigners (Deut. 7:2-3). It was a mechanism to keep the bloodlines pure for the coming Messiah. Once Jesus was born of a virgin and had fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law for all, upon the cross, this mandatory separation was outdated.
In the New Testament era, unfortunately, there was still a stigma, rooted in race, between Jew and Gentile, even after conversion. It would be naïve to think there was not a remnant of Old Covenant thinking that would prevent an open-invite to Gentiles because they were perceived to be outside of God’s mercy by mere ancestry.
Before the Apostle Peter came to the Gentile table of Cornelius, he received a vision declaring that God had cleansed all nations of non-Jewish descent (Acts 10:9-16, 11:4-18).
I encourage you to also read the following words of the Apostle Paul slowly as he makes the case for inclusion at the table…
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. –Ephesians 2:11-16, NKJV
Jesus made a universal payment for Gentile and Jew at the cross. His shed blood overshadowed the Law of Moses as the light of the sun overshadows the moon.
Now that Christ broke down the spiritual Berlin Wall, the table should be open to all. This theology, however, is not always put into practice in our day.
My pastor, Scott Hagan, coined the phrase “A church that looks like Heaven” based on Revelation 7:9. He wrote an article with steps a pastor can take to break down walls of racism in our communities and churches. Here is an excerpt:
It happens best in a house. Until we begin breaking bread with people who are different from us in our homes, we will not have reconciliatory breakthrough. Your home is your sanctuary far more than your church. Having someone in your home is worth more than a hundred meals at a restaurant. –Scott Hagan²
2. The Presence of God at the Table Healed the Wounds of Political Privilege
Jewish believers asserted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised after conversion. This practice went back to the Abrahamic Covenant that promised the sons of Abraham a favored future that included becoming a great nation, possessing the Promised Land and inheriting spiritual blessings. The mark of circumcision was the official affiliation with the nation and commonwealth of Israel in the Old Covenant. With much passion and certainty, the NT Jewish believers concluded that all Gentile believers needed to be marked by an official affiliation with Israel, through way of circumcision.
The word “commonwealth,” which was previously cited in Eph 2:12, is the Greek word politeia. The root word of politeia is polis, from which we get our word politics. In other words, affiliation with the commonwealth of Israel was becoming a political wedge between Jew and Gentile. This issue of inheritance and association with Israel, through circumcision, was very contentious. This is why the Apostle Paul reiterated the reality of the cross in Galatians 3:26-29 (NKJV):
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Coming to the table together, like Peter in the House of Cornelius, creates the opportunity for the Lord to heal political division:
So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. –Acts 13:8-9, NKJV
The Presence of the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the mark of affiliation for believers, not a political affiliation.
One of the goals in coming to the table together is to be marked together by God’s Spirit. What could take hours, days, weeks or months to mend, can be reconciled supernaturally in a few moments gathered around His Presence. “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18, NKJV).
3. Walking in Love at the Table Eliminated Quarrels
To really unpack the value of this point, I would encourage you to read the entire chapter of Romans 14. Jewish believers were maintaining strict dietary laws from the Old Testament. Gentiles were not only oblivious to such restrictions, they were also partaking of food sacrificed to idols.
While Paul was convinced that all foods were now clean under the New Covenant, he was also willing to respect others’ dietary convictions by not debating about it…
So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. –Romans 14:12-16, NKJV
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:19-21) encouraged liberal Gentiles to be a little bit more conservative morally. The Apostle Paul (Romans 14) encouraged conservative Jews to be a little bit more open to liberal interpretation. The key was to walk in love with each other at the table.
Civility was more important than being right…
But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. –2 Tim 2:23, NKJV
When we have a difference of convictions with believers and those issues are not black and white in scripture, we need to come to the table with each other and walk in love. Obviously, sexual immorality was a black and white issue, and the church gave clear directions (Acts 15:20) to the Gentiles about that. Other issues such as special days and food were given more flexibility.
The question is this: Can we come to the table with Bible-believing Christians, who have convictional differences, and walk in love according to Romans 14? Can we eliminate foolish arguments and ignorant disputes that generate strife?
THE TABLE OF OVERCOMERS
In conclusion, I want to contend that in many cases we are trying to bring healing to offenses without ever coming to the table. The New Testament was already oriented to being at the table together. This not only exposed the offenses, but provided the healthy setting for them to be reconciled. I hope we can come to the table with the cross as our common ground, seeking the Presence of God and walking in love. If we can do that, I believe we, too, can be overcomers in the age of offense.
¹Donahue, Bill. The Irresistible Community: An Invitation to Life Together. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker , a Division of Baker Group, 2015. Print. 31-32
²Hagan, Scott. “Punching Prejudice.” Ministry Today Magazine. Charisma Media, 08 Aug. 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
This article originally appeared here.