A Lesson from the Legalists

There’s an old joke that I’ve repeated over the years. I actually misappropriated it to suit my point. It asks, “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a legalist?” Answer: “You can negotiate with terrorists.” (If that’s in bad taste, forgive me!)

And yet, legalism is not a fatal disease. It can be cured. It takes some determination. It takes discipline. But above all, it takes listening and a willingness to learn.

This morning I read a beautiful story about some recovering legalists. They were led by a man named Simon Peter. He had seen a vision…

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. (Acts 10:11-16)

So he followed the promptings of the Lord and ended up entering the home of a Gentile to share the good news about Jesus Christ. This, of course, ran counter to everything he had ever learned about purity and righteousness.

He took some heat. “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (Acts 11:2-3). So Peter explained his vision and how it juxtaposed with God’s call to the Gentile, Cornelius. He explained how the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household received the word and were touched by God’s Spirit.

Now here’s where it gets good.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

Huh? No theological fights? No name calling? No accusing Peter of heresy?

Wow. They actually listened. They learned. They put aside their need to be right and rejoiced at the new insight they had received.

There is hope for all of us recovering legalists.