You Are Who You Eat With
We find an unexpected tension in the middle of Luke’s record of the Acts of the Apostles. The early disciples were trying to figure out how their Old Testament theology finds fulfillment in Jesus while practically attempting to disciple thousands of new converts. These were exciting times, full of complexity and conversions.
As a modern reading audience, we can savor the deep theological study and at the same time miss some of the simple and clear trajectories in the book of Acts. One clear trajectory, summarized by Peter in Acts 11:1-18, is that God now intended his people to share meals with skeptics and sinners--for the sake of the Gospel--in ways that they had never been able to do so before.
A Story of Two Visions
Peter recounted to the Jerusalem church how God changed his thinking about both sanctification and missiology in the context of table fellowship. It was close to the afternoon meal and Peter was hungry. He went up to the roof to pray. While praying, God gave him a vision. A linen cloth was let down from heaven with various animals on it, some of which were inedible according to Levitical law (Lev 20:22-26). Amazingly, God commanded Peter to eat food that was previously unlawful for him to eat. When Peter balked, God answered, “What God has made clean, do not call common (Act 11:9).” A little while before Peter’s vision, Cornelius–a Gentile soldier, also had a vision. An angel told him to seek out Peter who would relay a message by which Cornelius and his family would be saved (Act 11:14).
God knew that Peter would avoid going to Cornelius’s house for fear of breaching Levitical law. Peter understood that one of the purposes of the dietary laws of the Old Covenant was to separate the Jews from the Gentiles. David Gooding notes:
These ceremonial and ritual laws would have both a positive and a negative effect. Positively, they reinforced in Israel’s thinking that as a nation they were separated to the Lord; specially set apart for Him. However morally and spiritually clean the members of another nation might have been, they did not have the role that Israel as a nation had. Israel’s role, as a kingdom of priests, was special, indeed unique. The ceremonial separation from certain kinds of food which other nations ate reinforced and underlined the fact that they were in a special sense separated to the Lord, especially holy in a ritualistic way.
Negatively, these food laws had an immediate practical effect: they made social mixing with Gentile nations difficult, since Israelites could not eat Gentile food. This would not only reinforce the fact that Israel was a special nation, but also act as a constant reminder that Israel was to avoid the moral and spiritual uncleanness of the Gentiles.1
Peter wanted Cornelius to hear the gospel but worried about eating foods that would make him unclean. In Peter's mind, there was a conflict between his theology of sanctification and his missiology--and, we should note that, at this point in redemptive-history, this was a good thing. Peter was concerned with personal holiness. This concern would carry on through the New Testament (1 Peter 1:16). But God revealed to Peter, and to the church, how the cleansing provided by Jesus’ atonement changed the dietary laws of the Old Testament (Mark 7:18-20; WLC 33-35).
Simply put, New Testament sanctification is not just about how believers avoid sin and increase in personal holiness through faith in Jesus--it is also about how they are equipped for the missional explosion that is said to have turned the world upside down in the days of the Apostles (Act 17:6). The tension that Peter felt between his missiology and his theology of sanctification was removed by God Himself, when he taught Peter how to look at meals through the lens of redemptive-history. Peter could now simultaneously pursue personal holiness and share the gospel with non-Christians over a meal.
Sanctification vs Missiology?
What about the church today? Do we still struggle with competing theologies of mission and sanctification? How would you or the members of your church honestly answer the following questions?
- With whom do you eat and why?
- When was the last time you had a skeptic to your home for a meal?
- Where do meals fit into your theology of sanctification and mission?
- How do you utilize your lunch hour to spend time with people who are not disciples of Jesus?
- Do you view hospitality more as table settings and menus or as kingdom extension and missionary work?
- Do you know the names of the employees at the restaurants you frequent?
I’m going to guess that for some Christians, questions like these aren’t just answered poorly, they aren’t even asked. I’m also going to guess that most of those folks who aren’t asking these questions could at the same time present a cogent doctrine of sanctification. So we are forced to admit a disconnect. Biblical missiology is one of the tests of biblical orthodoxy (James 2:17).
It is anything but uncommon for us to find Christians falling into one of these two camps today. The "sanctification camp" articulates a firm and orthodox stance on personal holiness. The "missiology camp" articulates a firm and orthodox stance on personal evangelism. Often, they talk past each other. Are personal holiness and personal evangelism in conflict with one another? According to Acts 10-11, they are not. And the reason that they are not is because of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Christology presides at the wedding of Soteriology and Missiology. What was expressed in the shadows of the Old Testament is now fully revealed in the bright light of the New Testament (Col 2:17). Sanctification and missiology are to be mutually expressed with fullness and congruity. It took the empty tomb and the early church’s struggles to flesh it out.And as we learn in Acts 10-11, one of the practical steps of obedience for a Christian is to eat meals like a missionary.
Here are eight tips that might be helpful to us as we seek to develop an Acts 11 missiology around our meals:
8 Ways to Eat like a Missionary
- Diagnose your mealtime prejudices. Who don’t you eat with and why? Do you only eat with Christians at Christian establishments? When was the last time you had a meal with a Muslim or an atheist friend?
- Take initiative with skeptics. Inviting someone out, or over for a meal, is one of the easiest and most natural ways to get to know them--but YOU have to take initiative. Extend the invitation.
- Start out small. If you follow a normal 3-meal-a-day pattern then you have 21 meal opportunities a week. How many do you currently eat with unbelievers? Make a goal to increase that number by one this month and then reassess at the end of the month and set a new goal.
- Learn servers names and tip them well. Go to the same restaurants, learn names, and tip well. There are folks who make a living serving food in your town. They are providing a great product that facilitates your ability to tell others about Jesus. Appreciate them.
- Throw parties. This is a no-brainer. Have people over and make sure they have fun when they’re at your place. This is modeled in the early accounts of converts like Levi (Mark 2:13-17).
- Take advantage of community events. Utilize holidays like July 4th or Thanksgiving to have people over for a meal. Or take advantage of community events like back-to-school nights or National Night Out events.
- Laugh, talk, and celebrate. Enjoy yourself when you’re out. Don’t be so preoccupied with host duties or gospel outline that you don’t enjoy yourself.
- Talk about Jesus. Without it being forced, speak freely and often about Jesus--even as you talk about your family, your church family, and your beliefs. Be yourself.
1. David Gooding True to the Faith p. 163
Vern Poythress The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses - This is a deep dive into the law of Moses and how it finds fulfillment in Jesus.
Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan - If redemptive history is new to you, this is a great place to start.
Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus - Chester looks at the table fellowship of Jesus and makes some suggestions for how a local church could develop a similar strategy.
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