“…James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles…” Gal. 2:9
It’s amazing how the Gospel of Jesus Christ unites people of various ethnicities, genders, cultures, and social statuses, into one equal organism the church (Eph. 4:16). It’s also fascinating to witness a congregation made up of those distinctions, worshipping the same God through Christ. Apart from the unifying blood of Christ, it would be highly unlikely that such a diverse group of people, would assemble under the same roof and of one accord. That is because God shows partiality to no man and recognizes no distinctions (Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9, Col. 3:25). All who believe in Him sins are forgiven and stand perfectly equal in the eyes of God.
Perhaps no group of people experienced the transforming power of the Gospel, more than the believing Jews of the early church. Throughout biblical history Israelites despised Gentiles and had a deep-seated hatred for them, commonly referring to them as “dogs”. During biblical times dogs were not kept as pets and were filthy animals that roamed the streets as scavengers; they were considered “unclean” by Jewish people. To further illustrate their prejudice, if a Jew had to travel [on foot] from Judah to Galilee [approximately ninety miles], they would bypass taking the significantly shorter route through the city of Samaria (Samaritans were Jews and Gentiles mixed through marriage). Because Jews despised the “half-blooded” Samaritans so vehemently, they believed setting foot in Samaria would defile them.
Even Gentiles who became proselytes [converts to Judaism], had a designated area in the temple courtyard, known as the “court of the Gentiles”. Gentiles, under no circumstance were allowed inside the temple. Looking to bring charges against the Apostle Paul, the Jews [falsely] accused him of bringing Gentiles into the temple (Acts 21:28). This was the main reason why a riot over Paul in Jerusalem and was attacked and severely beaten in the process. These Jews considered Paul to be a traitor. He most likely would have been killed, if not for the intervention of Roman soldiers who came to his rescue. Under the soldiers protection, Paul was able to speak to the hostile mob. He almost persuaded them with his words, for they intently listened to what he had to say, until he mentioned the Lord sent him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-23). When he mentioned the Gentiles, the multitude again began to furiously threaten him with violence, while screaming “…’Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!'” (v. 22b).
The question can be raised, how can a long history of hostility, separation, and manifest antipathy between parties; instantaneously cease and reverse direction–becoming beloved brethren?
Again we reference Acts. Saul [Paul] zealously persecuted Christians [Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2] and was infamously known in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, for his pernicious behavior against Christ’s church. However, that changed in a “flash” [literally] when Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, thus converting him (Acts 9:3-8). When Saul was first confronted by Jesus, he was blinded by the presence of the Lord’s resplendent light and had to be led by the hand into the city. (Acts 9:8). So shaken up from the Lord’s appearance, Saul was unable to eat or drink for three days. Displaying mercy toward Saul, the Lord sent His servant Ananias to lay hands on him to receive his sight (9:10-12). When Ananias first received the Lord’s command to go to Saul, he implored: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name.” (Acts 9:13-14). However, the Lord commanded Ananias: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” (Acts 9:15). Ananias obeyed the voice of the Lord and sought out Saul, the very man responsible for imprisoning and murdering many of his brethren. Amazingly, the first words Ananias spoke to him were, “brother Saul…” [Acts 9:17]. He referred to Saul as his “brother”. It was an intimate and endearing address. Ananias immediately had come to realize, that all of Saul’s past wickedness against Christians, was not to be regarded. Moreover, he knew Saul was a new man in Christ and that the Lord had erased all his past sins. Therefore, Ananias and Saul were united by Christ’s blood, no ethical distinctions or past sins against each other mattered–they instantly became brothers.
In Paul’s [formerly Saul] epistle to the Galatians he explains how the “church pillars” James, Peter, and John gave him the “right hand of fellowship“, despite their having full knowledge of his ministry to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9). It was a gesture of approval to Paul’s ministry, that he was divinely appointed to help build Christ’s church. It was not just an ordinary gesture on their part, it was a deep and affirming expression. The John MacArthur Study Bible says: ”The right hand of fellowship, in the near East represented a solemn vow of friendship and a mark of partnership. This act signaled the apostles recognition of Paul as a teacher of the true gospel and partner in ministry.”
Only the true Gospel of Christ has the power to completely nullify prior prejudices, heal a long history of opposition, and coalesce them as brothers in faith. Only the Gospel can turn envious hatred into sacrificial love. Only the Gospel has the capability to transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, thus enabling new creatures in Christ the capability to completely forgive one another (Ezek. 36:26, 2 Cor. 5:17, cf. Matt. 8:22). Only the Gospel has the power to erase history and celebrate distinctions; that all men are united by the blood of Christ. It was Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross and His limitless love for His elect, that motivates men to love one another (1 John 4:9-10, 16, 19). In fact, if a believer genuinely exudes love for one another, it is a true sign that he is a child of God. Knowing what’s in man’s heart, Jesus commanded believers to love one another [Acts 15:8, Jn. 3:34-35, also see 1 Jn. 3:23, 4:11, 21]. Scripture is crystal clear and replete regarding that mandate. “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14; also see Lev. 19:18, Matt. 19:19, 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, 3:34, Rom. 13:9, James 2:8–cf. Jn. 3:34-35, 15:12, 17, 1 Pet. 1:22, 2:17, 1 Jn. 3:23, 4:20-21, 2 Jn. 5-6).
Therefore, upon receiving the Holy Spirit there is a manifest change in the heart and actions of a new believer in Christ. Not only a desire to accept one another [even pagans do that], but also to express sacrificial agapé love for one another. The greatest human action which transcends all other virtues known to man is love, for we are to imitate God and He is love (1 Cor. 13:13, Eph. 5:1, 1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Christians exhibiting love are willing and eager to offer to any believer regardless of gender, ethnicity, or social status; the “right hand of fellowship.”