Overcoming Prejudice

Overcoming Prejudice

The natural human tendency is to embrace homogeneity. People are most comfortable around others like themselves. Computer programmers often form friendships with other programmers. Competitive runners develop a community with other runners. This extends beyond work and recreation to race, gender, and religion too. Often, “outside our comfort zone,” simply means someone is surrounded by people who don’t share their interests, understanding, or cultural background.

Few people in history exemplified this phenomenon like the ancient Jews. Israel was called God’s “treasured possession” (Exo 19:5), and “chosen” (Deut 14:2). At times they were called to limit their contact with non-Jews for special reasons, however (Deut 7:1-4). However, God desired to bless all the nations and peoples of the earth (Gen 12:1- 3). He always intended to save Jews and Gentiles.

After the Babylonian exile and repatriation, this concept of “treasured possession” was distorted by the Jews to mean exclusivity. No doubt the Babylonian exile, the threat of Hellenization, and the Roman occupation helped harden the Jews’ attitude toward the Gentiles (J. J. Scott, “The Cornelius Incident in the Light of Its Jewish Setting,” JETS 34 (1991), 475-84). By the first century and the advent of the Lord, Jewish exclusivism was the rule of Judea. Out of this context, God’s church was born.

How could a church filled with Jews who preferred the company of other Jews and viewed themselves as the exclusive heirs of God’s salvation reach a world filled with social enemies? Exclusivism threatened to become the rule of the church as it had been the rule of Palestinian Judaism. It took special measures from God to turn the church’s focus to realms outside Israel.

God used persecution to challenge the church. In Acts 1-5, the church was a thorn in Jerusalem’s side. The Jewish leaders were annoyed by the disciples continually preaching about Jesus. The conflict reached its apex with the death of Stephen (Acts 7). Acts 8:1 says a great persecution arose and the disciples in Jerusalem scattered into Judea and Samaria. Those scattered “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). God used the persecution like a mother bird kicking her chicks out of the nest. The church’s initial timidity was soon overcome by the thrill of soaring spiritual success.

God also used incrementalism and the Holy Spirit to prod the church into worldwide evangelism. When the disciples were scattered, they did not immediately approach pagan Gentiles with the gospel. Instead, God first brought them into contact with Samaritans (Acts 8:5-12). While there was a lot of animosity between the Jews and Samaritans (John 4:9), they did share the religion of Yahweh. Yet, even with a shared religion, God used an extraordinary encounter of the Spirit to show the reluctant Jews his acceptance of the Samaritans (Acts 8:15-17).

The Samaritan conversion was followed by a diaspora Jew from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40), an avowed enemy of the church (Acts 9:1-18), and two people living on the coastal highway (Acts 9:32-43). Each of these came with their own prejudicial baggage in the eyes of the average Jerusalem Christian.

Finally, God turned his sights on the Gentiles. Acts 10 records the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and part of the forces occupying Israel. Luke’s introduction to Cornelius, however, focuses on his better qualities: devout, God-fearer, good household, almsgiver, praying person. He appears to be an exceptionally good Gentile. Again, God used a special event of the Holy Spirit to reiterate his acceptance of the Gentile.

As the book of Acts continues, Cornelius became the springboard for the spread of the gospel. All of Paul’s missionary efforts could be traced back to the conversion of Cornelius. It opened the door and the minds of the Jerusalem church to the possibility of a worldwide religion. It lifted their eyes to see the harvest. Ultimately, the gospel triumphed over prejudice, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

-Sam Dilbeck


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