7On 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), 9and 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. 10Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
The modern western church holds in high esteem people of influence. Pastors are valued because of the size of their congregation or the reach of their pulpit. Credence is given to men who can market well and appeal to a large audience. Leaders are given honor because of their ability to engage people, often ignoring or dismissing a lack of character. Not so with the early church! These men of God held in high esteem those who with honesty and integrity presented the gospel clearly.
When Paul stood in the Jerusalem council and presented his case for the uncircumcised, the other apostles accepted his ministry because of “the grace that was given to” Paul (v. 9). Paul had been a murderous agent of the Pharisees prior to his conversion. Yet, Christ saw fit to grant him grace and deliver him from his own sinfulness. Surely if God can transform His enemy into a child, then He can do the same for the ignorant Gentile who knows nothing of God’s Law. Consider further Saul’s reputation among other Christians. Prior to Damascus, Paul was a scourge to Christianity. He was a villainous adversary to Christ and the church. Ananias received a special vision from God and granted grace to Paul as a result – accepting him into the fellowship of believers. Finally, a man who was such a horrible adversary could not be expected to be given such a fruitful ministry. Yet, Christ saw fit to grant Paul grace in his ministry. It was that grace that served as Paul’s resume.
Consider for a moment what it would be like if your resume was entirely based on Christ’s work in your life. Consider the strength of a fellowship that recognizes others as equal recipients of the gift of life. What would it be like if you were judged by the work and effort that God has done for and in you? Further, what if you granted favor to other believers simply because God has given grace to them? What if you granted grace to others according to the grace that has been extended to you in Christ? Infinite, marvelous, and matchless grace has been given to you! Indeed, this is what we are called to do as Christians. We are to see one another through the lens of grace. We are to recognize our state as those who have been redeemed not by merit, but by the grace of an infinitely loving King!
Such an understanding of grace does not permit a Christian to hold another to a system of religious law. Rather, it drives the believer towards holiness and, instead of merely avoiding sin, leads to a community of faith that exhorts one another to live holy according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Scripture. In such a community, there is no place for superstars. When Paul explains that the same grace worked through Peter as has worked in Paul, he levels any sense of superiority in the life of the Christian community. If anyone was worthy of extra prestige and honor in the first century of the church, it was certainly Peter. Yet, Christianity is not a merit-based, legal system. It is, in contrast, a system based on the grace of God and it is dependent on the mercy of God for its life.
When Paul sought wisdom over the question of circumcision of Gentile believers, he sought the community of faith and entrusted himself to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Trusting in the grace of Christ, Paul stood before the Jerusalem council as an equal recipient of the Grace of God and counted upon that grace to manifest itself among them. Paul and Peter did not get bogged down in the minutia of laws and legal morality. They lived in a system of grace with one another, addressing struggles and difficulties when they rose. Rather than setting up sign-posts and rules that explained what you could or could not do, the early church favored asking deep questions about motivation and dealing with each individual struggle as they arose. In this, the community thrived and holiness blossomed. When the community spends its efforts attempting to manage behavior, the community becomes lifeless. When the community strives towards holiness by exhorting each other in grace, then that community thrives!