He did not discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith.
The source of the Judaizers’ stance is the idea that the Levitical codes must still be followed—the 613 rules that govern Jewish society. These rules were extremely detailed and tedious; nothing like them ever existed before or since. They detail hundreds of ways that you are made “unclean”—and if you are unclean, then you are not fit to go before a Holy God.
Some of the things that made you unclean were committing sins that we would all agree to—things like adultery or murder. Others were things like eating shellfish or pork. Others were things that you had to do for your job or to provide meals, like handling dead animals or dead bodies. Others were things that happened to you naturally, like menstruation. Some were sicknesses. Other times it was doing things God commissions elsewhere as good, like a married couple having sex.
And the thing was that they were communicable…touch someone or something which is impure and now you too become impure.
It is like Lady Macbeth. She feels the guilt of what she has done and begins hallucinating a spot on her, and she can’t wash it off and no amount of perfume hides the stench of what she has done. She keeps saying, “Out, out, damned spot!” but nothing can wash it away.
That’s the gist of the Levitical codes. Usually to become clean again was just a bath or washing up; sometimes, it required a period of time; sometimes, a sacrifice. But what the Levitical showed again and again and again was that we are not good enough to approach a Holy God. You have to go to absurd and insane lengths just to be able to go and pray to Him.
That is completely opposite from every other religion in history. In every other religion, you do behavior to try and barter with the gods, to get certain things from them. You can approach them easily, just with a sacrifice or any temple; but your work and actions are done in a way to indebt them to you. In Judaism, the point is that you CAN’T easily approach God. He is unapproachable not because He doesn’t care—far from it!—but because the gap in His holiness and yours is so large that you are not worthy to speak to Him.
So the Levitical codes are a barrier that keep you away from Him. They are a wall around His estate, a wall that is painful and difficult to climb but you must do it if you wish to catch a glimpse of Him, even if you can only maintain it for a moment.
Then along came Jesus. And Jesus did not do away with this code—that is a huge misunderstanding. We don’t as Christians just get to choose to ignore the Levitical code. If someone asks why we believe parts of Scripture but don’t follow Levitical codes, then they haven’t paid attention to what Jesus said. Jesus didn’t say these things weren’t applicable—in fact He said the opposite! He said that they last for all time! But He says that He came to fulfill them. So that we no longer have to scale the wall dividing us from God, Jesus drove a hole right through it. He came and through His life and death and resurrection, built a path through the Levitical code.
This is why in Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish [the laws] but to fulfill them.” He fulfills the Laws so that the box is checked; so that the barrier between us is destroyed. The veil that separates us from God is torn.
So it isn’t that we IGNORE parts of the Old Testament…we just believe that Jesus ALREADY COMPLETED those for us. It’s like answers on a test…Jesus came over and took the test away from us and filled in all the answers and then gave it back. All we have to do is hand it in.
What the Judaizers were saying, in essence, is that the way to get to God is to live like Jesus and break another new hole in the wall; to pick up the test, erase His answers, and try to re-bubble them all in.
What Peter is saying is that God showed that He has accepted Gentiles as they are: He knows their heart and has already declared it good enough, so there is no need to purify it.
Paul will go further later and explicitly state that the death of Jesus is our circumcision in our hearts. What does this mean? Covenants were often ratified by acting out the curses symbolically. A person might take a cow and cut it in two, walk between the halves, and say to the sovereign, “If I break our covenant, may this same fate happen to me.” Circumcision works the same way in the Abrahamic Covenant: it is essentially “acting out” the curse of being cut off, violently, painfully, in a bloody way, for that is what happens to us if we turn from God. Jesus, in ratifying the new covenant, becomes this circumcision for all of us: He is bloody, He is cut off from God (saying, “My God My God, why have You forsaken Me?”), He is beaten and killed; and as a result, He has acted out the curse already, provided the sacrifice, so that we are now ratified to Him. He has paid the debt of the curse, so that all of our sins are forgiven.
Thus, the Levitical code is not binding on us because, in God’s eyes, we have already fulfilled it. We have already paid it, in the death of Jesus.