In our last essay we studied Acts 10:1-48. It concerned the most serious problem that faced the early church, namely, what to do with Gentile believers. God was now ready for Gentile believers to be accepted into the fellowship of the Church; and he wasn’t interested in their becoming part of the Old Covenant community. That is, it was not part of God’s plan that Gentile believers in Jesus become Jews to be saved. And Peter was God’s chosen instrument to get that across.
In this essay we are studying 11:1-18 in which we see the controversy that Peter’s actions caused among the believers. In verse two where the NRSV has “the circumcised believers,” it could have been translated “the circumcision party.” [The Greek literally simply reads, “the “circumcision.”] Either way the reference clearly is to believers who were circumcised.
Of course circumcision was strictly a religious observance. It had no hygienic purpose as far as Jews were concerned. Rather from the Jewish perspective, circumcision was the mark of the chosen race. And it symbolized for them personal holiness and cleanliness before God.
Now then, the circumcised believers were convinced that one could not be saved without being a Jew. Therefore, in their opinion, a Gentile would have to convert to Judaism and take on the entire Jewish law and rituals in order to be saved.
You easily can see how significant this was. From the point of view of the Jewish Christians, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and logically, for Gentiles to benefit from faith in the Messiah, they would have to become Jews. It seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable position to take.
Peter, by entering into a Gentile home, had broken the Jewish Law. This was an extremely serious offense in the eyes of conservative Jews. And so, Peter came under fire from the circumcised believers, because he had entered a Gentile’s home and then brought Cornelius and his household into the church.
Notice that the circumcision party didn’t attack Peter for baptizing the Gentiles. Rather they criticized him for entering a Gentile’s home and eating with them (v. 3). In other words they criticized him for breaking the law. So in defense Peter told the whole story of what had happened. And in the process Peter noted four things that God did to break down his prejudices against Gentiles.
In verses 4-9 we see the first of the four things God did. He gave Peter a vision. Peter gave his personal testimony about the vision of the great sheet filled with unclean animals and the heavenly voice that spoke to him. Peter’s story is basically the same as Luke’s earlier version in chapter 10. And of course the important factor, once again was the voice, which told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 9). As we saw in connection with chapter 10, Peter was somehow informed that the animals in the sheet symbolized not unclean animals, but unclean people. And God no longer permitted Peter to call anyone unclean.
In verses 10-12, as we had seen in chapter 10, the men from Cornelius arrived at the gate at that very moment. And then we see the second thing that God did. The Holy Spirit told Peter that he must go with them without doubting. The NRSV in my opinion gives a terrible translation of verse 12. The verse literally reads, “go with them nothing doubting.” I don’t know how in the world the NRSV translators came up with the translation “go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” The NIV is much better. It reads, “to have no hesitation about going with them.” The idea of the Greek word is that Peter should not doubt that God was at work in the situation. Despite the fact that the men were Gentiles, and despite the fact that they were inviting Peter to a Gentile home, he was not to doubt that it was God’s will that he go with them. ?
Notice that Peter reminds the Jerusalem leadership that six believing Jewish brothers had accompanied him from Joppa to Caesarea. This was important, because they were witnesses to what had happened at the house of Cornelius.
In verses 13-14 we see again something that we saw in chapter 10, though an additional fact is revealed. The thing we saw before was the fact that God was working on both ends of the situation. He not only gave Peter a vision, he also sent an angel to Cornelius. And that was the third thing God did. He sent an angel to Cornelius to tell him to send for peter. The additional fact that is revealed here is that the angel not only told Cornelius that he was to send for Peter, but the angel also told him that Peter would have a message for him and his household that would bring salvation to them.
In verses 15-17 we see the fourth thing that God did. Peter testifies that as he preached to the Gentiles in Cornelius’s house, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as it had on the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost. Peter doesn’t mention here that they spoke in unlearned languages, but Luke revealed that fact in chapter 10 (v. 46). Notice that Peter does say that they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. Therefore it would seem that the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house were justified and filled with the Spirit at the same time.
Clearly God wanted Gentile believers to be part of his Christian family on equal terms with believing Jews. Peter was completely convinced and didn’t hesitate to baptize them into the fellowship of the Church.
Verse 18 shows the response of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” The Jerusalem leadership accepted what God had done; but unfortunately, the issue was not dead by any means. Some extremely conservative Jewish believers simply could not let the matter go. And as we shall see, the controversy crops up again later.
Now then, John Stott in his commentary lays out four “lessons” that we should take away from a study of this section of Acts. So let’s look at those. First, he says we should learn the lesson of the unity of the church. In the first century the distinction between Jew and Gentile could not have been sharper. They despised one another. And the thought of a Gentile becoming part of the covenant community without converting to Judaism was unimaginable to most Jews. But God clearly wanted the covenant community in Christ to include all who would believe in Jesus. As we are going to see, the admission of Gentiles into the church was not acceptable to many Jews, and the Council of Jerusalem had to be called to settle the matter (Acts 15).
Unfortunately, the church did not learn its lessons well. Over the centuries it has had to deal with racism, nationalism, tribalism (Africa), casteism (India), and sexism. And several of these are plaguing the church around the world today. As Stott puts it, “All such discrimination is inexcusable even in non-Christian society; in the Christian community it is both an obscenity (because offensive to human dignity) and a blasphemy (because offensive to God who accepts without discrimination all who repent and believe).”
Second, we should learn the lesson of the gift of the Holy Spirit. All believers in Christ receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Although the gift of speaking in unlearned languages is not universal, the gift of the Spirit himself is. And every believer who totally surrenders to the indwelling Holy Spirit is filled, or baptized, with the Spirit.
Third, according to Stott we should learn the lesson of the status of non-Christian religions. Some have argued that God’s acceptance of Cornelius, because of his prayers, alms, and fear of God means that anyone like that, regardless of their religion, is saved. This argument is strengthened by Peter’s statement at the beginning of his sermon to Cornelius and his household, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” But Peter certainly did not mean by “acceptable to him” that they were saved prior to repenting of their sin and believing in Jesus. In Stott’s words, he meant, “not accepted in the absolute sense of justified, but ‘acceptable’ in a comparative sense, because in everybody God prefers righteousness to unrighteousness and sincerity to insincerity, and in the case of Cornelius God provided for him to hear the saving gospel.”
Finally, fourth, we should learn the lesson of the power of the gospel. On the one hand, by means of the gospel, God saved a bigoted legalistic Jew like Paul; and on the other hand, he saved a God-fearing Gentile like Cornelius. The gospel, backed up by the power of the Holy Spirit, can save any human being who is willing to repent and believe.