Playing Favorites (Galatians, Part 16)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
6 And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. 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. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Why did God send Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles? Aren’t all Christians sent out to proclaim the gospel to anyone who will listen? Why are Peter and Paul “playing favorites” by focusing on specific groups of people?
First, let us note that while all human beings are created in the image of God and possess a great deal in common no matter who they are and where they are from, we must realize that the differences between various cultures and peoples are real and significant. Different cultures have different values, different priorities, different taboos, different ways of showing approval, different rules for social interactions, different paces of living—the list goes on and on. All of this means that the way we communicate the good news of Jesus and his kingdom is different from culture to culture. The good news itself doesn’t change, but the way we communicate it to different cultures absolutely must change. This is called contextualization, and it was practiced by both Jesus and Paul.
Now, if we must approach various cultures differently in order to communicate the good news of Jesus to them effectively, then it stands to reason that different people in the body of Christ might be better suited to reach certain cultures than others in the body. Just as we generally prefer the guy who is 6’-6” for the basketball team over his friend who is 5’-4”, so we might discern that one person would be a better missionary to a particular culture than somebody else.
But apart from the “best fit” concept I have been suggesting, there is another reason why we should “play favorites” like Paul and Peter were doing. That reason is efficiency. If a person spends time learning how to best communicate the gospel to a culture, wouldn’t it make sense for them to commit to those people for the long-term, since they are becoming more knowledgeable about that culture than the rest of us?
God is calling his people to minister to specific people, in specific places, in a specific culture. We cannot be at all places at once, and we cannot go to all peoples. We should embrace our limitations and commit to the people God has positioned us to reach with the gospel.
Why did the leaders in Jerusalem ask Paul to “remember the poor”? That seems like a pretty random comment that doesn’t fit with the rest of the passage.
“The poor” probably refers to the poor in Jerusalem. A severe famine had hit Jerusalem hard, and so Paul and Barnabas had brought an offering from their church in Antioch to help out the Christians in Jerusalem who were in great need. If “the poor” refers to the needy Christians in Jerusalem (most of whom would have been Jewish, of course), then this comment makes perfect sense in the context of the discussion. In essence, the Jerusalem leaders are saying, “Yeah Paul, you go ahead and keep focusing on preaching the gospel and ministering to the Gentiles while we focus on preaching to the Jews—but that doesn’t mean we want you to stop bringing relief offerings to the poor here in Jerusalem. Please keep doing that.” And Paul says, “Yeah, of course. Happy to do that” (paraphrase of Galatians 2:10).