Part 4. Was there room for Gentiles in the early church?
Imagine living in the first century, wanting to know and to worship God, but this involved adhering to ancient covenantal rituals that God had made with Abraham to remind him that God himself would provide Messiah.
If the events in these two chapters, Acts 10-11 (39-40 A.D.), hadn’t been orchestrated by God to free believers in Messiah Jesus from these covenantal rules and rituals, it is possible that the church of Jesus Christ would have been a Jewish endeavor with headquarters in Jerusalem. Believers would meet in their local synagogues all around the world.
To pursue a relationship with God, Gentiles (non-Jews) first converted to Judaism. The men were circumcised, they attended synagogue, and all of Judaism’s Laws, regulations, and festivals were observed. Cornelius, a Gentile follower of God, followed these observances of faith.
After Messiah came, many Jewish believers and Gentiles who had previously converted to Judaism believed in Jesus Messiah. The Holy Spirit drew them to him. However, they still maintained all of the Jewish festivals, the Law, and the celebrations pointing to Messiah’s coming.
Jesus could have left it this way. It was his prerogative for it is his church, and we would all have been pleased with whatever he chose. It worked well for Gentiles to convert to Judaism and to attend synagogues.
After Pentecost occurred, believing Hellenistic Jews eventually returned to their Gentile homelands. They continued in their synagogues. In Jerusalem, believing Jews initially met together in the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles, but also in their synagogues.
But then, Cornelius had a vision, and Peter did as well. The Holy Spirit had another plan, a plan that brought together people groups in harmony, while still maintaining their own cultural traditions. God loves diversity.
Cornelius was a unique man, a devout man, a centurion in the Italian Cohort, a man who feared God with all of his household (family members, slaves, indentured servants, everyone under Cornelius’ roof). Cornelius gave generously to those in need, especially to Jews in want. He prayed continually to God. The conversion of this man and his family and close friends is the longest narrative in The Acts of the Apostles.
This event also put Peter at the center of the mission to the Gentiles.
So what happened to Cornelius?
“About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, ‘Cornelius.’ And he stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.’” (Acts 10:3-6 ESV).
When the angel had departed, Cornelius called for two of his servants and an escort for them — a devout soldier who attended him. Cornelius told this soldier everything that had happened and sent the group to Joppa.
While this group was on their way to Peter’s location in Joppa, having no idea that a momentous event in the life of church was approaching, Peter went up onto the roof to pray, awaiting the noon meal. But, while the meal was being prepared, Peter fell into a trance and saw a vision.
In this vision the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descended, let down by its four corners until it rested on the ground. On it rested all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds. He then heard a voice:
“Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:13b ESV).
Of course, Peter protested, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14 ESV).
But then, the voice spoke to him a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15b ESV).
This happened three times. Then the sheet was lifted heavenward. Peter remained on the roof, mystified, inwardly perplexed, attempting to discern what this might mean. Completely unaware of the approaching Gentile men, Peter pondered the vision. Then the Holy Spirit instructed him:
“Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” (Acts 10:19b-20 ESV).
Meanwhile, down below, the men who had been sent by Cornelius stood at the gate, inquiring whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. (Acts 10:16-18)
And so, of course, Peter went down and spoke to the men. “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” (Acts 10:22).
The men responded: “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say” (Acts 10: 23 ESV).
So Peter invited these Gentiles in to be his guests, for they had made a long journey, and then the next morning they set off for Cornelius’ home, accompanied by some of the brothers from Joppa.
On the following day when they finally reached the seaside city of Caesarea, Cornelius was awaiting them, having summoned all of his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius fell down at his feet and worshiped him, knowing him to be one of the Lord’s disciples. But Peter lifted him up, reminding Cornelius that he was also a man.
When they entered, Peter found the crowd of Cornelius’ friends and relatives awaiting him. And so, he addressed them:
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me” (Acts 10:28-29 ESV).
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:30-33 ESV).
Can you imagine the joy that would have welled up in Peter’s heart because of the actions of this faith Gentile convert to Judaism? And now, Cornelius also wanted to know about Messiah Jesus and had, in fact, been divinely directed to send for Peter himself.
I don’t know about you, but I would have been bursting with joy!
“So Peter…said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:34-43 ESV)."God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all that he did" said Peter. Click To Tweet
What happened as these words were being spoken by Peter sparked the beginning of the worldwide church of Jesus Messiah, a church of both Jews and Gentiles together, entrusting themselves to Jesus as equals. When coupled with the Ethiopian servant of Candace who took the Gospel home with him after Philip explained it, the church went wider and farther.
As Peter spoke — amazing the circumcised brothers from Joppa who had accompanied him — the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the gathered crowd of Gentiles. They began speaking in tongues, just as the apostles had done, extolling and exalting God in praise and worship. At this outpouring of the Spirit, Peter exclaimed:
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?“ (Acts 10:47 ESV).
Peter commanded them all to be baptised in the name of Jesus Messiah, which they were quite willing to do. Then he remained with them for some days, teaching and explaining, exhorting and encouraging.
“Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.’ But Peter began and explained it to them in order . . .” (Acts 11:1-3 ESV).
Peter detailed his experience, beginning with the vision he saw while on his rooftop, which was raised and lowered three times. He also included Cornelius’ side of the event and his message from an angel. When the men had arrived, asking him to accompany them them back to Joppa, Peter’s told the “circumcision party” why he had responded as he did:
“And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:12-18 ESV).
These events changed the church, for the Gospel clearly was for the people of the entire world. It was time to take the message far and wide.
If you had been a witness of all of this, how would you have interpreted the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles?
How might you have felt after all of these events, if were had been a Gentile believer at this time?
Have you ever paused to consider how all of these people must have felt and what they must have considered as they pondered on these personal and societal changing events?
As always you can find the books here: Melinda’s Books
I can’t begin to imagine how life was for them in the midst of all this turmoil. Would I follow Jesus or the crowds? May God always strengthen me to make the right choice and follow Him only. Thanks Melinda
When we revisit the struggles of the early church and how many spiritual obstacles had to be overcome, it truly does cause us to consider our own faith and whether or not we would make the right choices. I resonate with the questions you posed, Yvonne. Would we?
Reading Scripture allows us to consider the emotions of the people back then. The decisions they made then and the decisions we make now will lead us closer to God or farther away from Him. I pray we always go to Him.
I love to read the Scriptures of these accounts, too, Melissa, for these give us so much insight into God’s ways with the early church and make us aware of all that has been overcome so that we can be members of Jesus’ church. We learn so much!
It was most definitely an amazing time to be alive back then! To witness the radical change of thinking regarding the Jewish religion into something that was very different must have been quite the epic moment.
Lisa, imagine being alive at that time period! It’s easy to see why some people dug their heels in, wanting Gentiles to continue to be circumcised. But, God’s plan was to open the door wide to welcome in all who would repent and accept Messiah Jesus as Savior, all while being able to maintain their ethnic differences. I love that the Lord loves diversity!
I love the story of Cornelius. I imagine it would have been difficult for the Jews of the early church to understand that the Gospel was for outsiders too.
I, too, love this story, Nancy! Such a man of faith, this Gentile military officer who so carefully followed the Lord’s orders and sent his servants on their journey to Peter and the beginning of something entirely new. This opened the church’s arms toward every people group on earth!
I love this account from Acts and how you described it.
It reminds me that the things I take for granted would have been shockingly radical for the early believers!
So true, Ava! It’s easy to read this, thinking that the outcome was a forgone conclusion, but instead it launched something entirely new. The coming years brought the working out of many of the kinks. We’re still growing in this in many ways as we try to eradicate barriers, but this sets the standard. All people who come to Christ on the planet are welcome, no matter their tribe or nationality!
Such a powerful close-up look at this scene in Acts that sparked the church of Jesus Christ! It must have been a lot to take in, to imagine that the God of Abraham was extending His kingdom family by faith. But of course, God revealed this very thing way back in Genesis. The Holy Spirit’s power was the outward sign they needed to understand the inward conversion was real before God. I pray that my spiritual eyes are open to God’s hand at work in the church and in my life today.
That’s such a great focus to take, Melissa. This has been God’s mission since the beginning of time — to reach all of fallen humanity through the gift of his Son, whose life, death, and resurrection can redeem us all. But, we must be willing to reach outside the people group to which we belong. We must go where the Lord sends us, even if to people of other religions that we don’t really understand. We must seek to understand them and to share the Gospel in a way that they can comprehend. God is always at work, and like you, I agree that we must pray that our spiritual eyes are open to God’s work.
I always try to imagine: what would I have done? Would I have scoffed? Jumped for joy? Scowled in fear or judgment? Knelt in worship? I just find it incredibly amazing that the Holy SPirit works among us with such power and might, swaying even the hardest to sway!
When we tell someone that we’ve had a dream or a vision of prophetic proportions, we never know how they’ll respond. It’s like announcing that God has led us to do this or that. Like you said, Jessica, would we scoff? Would we believe that such a dream had occurred? I like to think that we would believe. We did, after all, believe that the message of salvation and forgiveness and mercy was for us, too, and so I like to believe that, like Peter, we would have believed Cornelius and found meaning in his vision.
I just studied this for my devotions on Saturday. When God shows two people in two different places His will over the same issue, how can we NOT believe? This may have been the first time that Jewish believers realized God was serious that the whole world could be saved!
That’s a great point, Linda! This event was a world changer! Not only was God serious about reaching the entire world with the Gospel, but he was out ahead of them, a pillar of fire, leading them in places they never dreamt they would go. A devout, esteemed, and honorable Roman soldier hearing directly from God through the appearance of an angel even, spoken to and led just as the apostle Peter was led! God clearly loved the WORLD in sending his Son to redeem us all!
An amazing account of how God brought a spirit of acceptance between the Jews and the Gentiles. A miracle in itself. God is so good.
I love your depth and detail in retelling and reflecting on Bible narratives. So good! And crossing over and embracing Gentiles who so often oppressed them was an amazing step for these early Jewish followers of Jesus. Every day their heads must have been spinning. But, the Holy Spirit enabled them (and enables us) to see God’s heart for the way life ought to be.