The muzzle of fear

Published 9:55 am Friday, October 15, 2021

By R.A. Mathews

I still remember the fear I felt, passing within inches of those huge weapons.  

This happened in Belfast, Ireland, during a ceasefire between the Irish Republican Army and Great Britain. At the time, the IRA was intent on independence for Northern Ireland and there had been a great deal of violence against Great Britain.

Everywhere, British soldiers patrolled the capitol city. I’m just over five and a half feet tall and their weapons felt that big. I held my breath each time I passed a soldier, moving close to the walls of the shops that lined the sidewalk and away from those men. It was frightening. 

That’s probably how the Israelites felt in the New Testament. Roman soldiers would have carried dangerous weapons as they patrolled the streets of occupied Jerusalem. You need to understand this as the backdrop for the Jewish hunger for a Messiah. The Israelites were fearful and resentful of an enemy nation occupying their homeland. Each day was a revolt in the making. 

Jesus was not the deliverer they longed for, but the revolt comes. In 66 A.D., the Jews overwhelm Roman troops and seize Jerusalem. They hold it until 70 A.D. 

When Rome recaptures Jerusalem, it’s a bloodbath, the enemy destroying everything including their sacred temple. All that remains now is one wall, known as the Wailing Wall.

Fear of the Romans is real in the first century A.D., but you may not realize that there’s also great fear within the Christian church. In fact, Jesus’ brother, James, so unnerves both Peter and Paul that they crumble, turning from what God had shown them. 

That’s true—it’s in Scripture. Here’s what happened.

Before Jesus, Jews believed salvation was rooted in the ancient law — in circumcision, in certain ways of eating, and in those you can associate with. 

The first Christians were Jews and the Jerusalem church apparently had a powerful group of men called the “circumcision party” who meant to uphold the law. They believed in Jesus but also in keeping the Jewish law. Remember that name, the circumcision party, because they bred fear.

But God gave Peter a vision meant to clarify what God wanted. It happens at Joppa. Peter sees a sheet descending with all sorts of beasts and hears God telling him to eat.

God then sends Peter on a journey, and Peter realizes the vision isn’t about food. “God has shown me I should not call anyone impure or unclean,” Peter tells a group of Gentiles.

Peter preaches to them about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit falls on the gathering. Unbelievably, the Gentiles begin speaking in tongues as at Pentecost! (Acts 10)

The circumcision party is angry with Peter until they learn all that happened. (Acts 11:1-18)