Studies in the Book of Acts
The Gospel Goes to Gentiles, Part 2 (Acts 11)
The Gentile challenge
The conversion of Cornelius is a milestone in the church’s history. However, it doesn’t settle the troubling issues of the proper relationship of Jews to Gentiles within the body of believers. In fact, the church throughout Judea is soon buzzing with the tale that Peter met with and baptized Cornelius. Luke writes of the controversy: “The apostles and believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So that when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the uncircumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (11:1-3).
Luke makes a distinction between “the apostles and believers” (11:1) who hear about what Peter did and “the circumcised believers” who criticize them. This implies that the apostles and leaders of the Jerusalem church, as well as some believers in Judea, don’t have a problem with Peter’s actions in Caesarea. It is other circumcised believers of Jerusalem who think that Peter violated Judaistic regulations pertaining to the separation of Jews from Gentiles. (That is not to suggest that there is a formal “circumcision party” in the church at this time, though apparently there will be one later.)
The circumcised believers apparently do not criticize Peter for baptizing Cornelius. Rather, Peter is challenged because he enters the house where uncircumcised people are, and eats with them. (That he eats there is not directly stated by Luke but is inferred from Peter staying at Cornelius’ home for some days.) “The sting in the charge, of course, is found in the ancient symbolism of table-fellowship: to eat with someone is to share spiritually with them as well; by implication to eat with Gentiles is to collude in idolatry.” [Johnson, 197.]
Peter’s opponents are accusing him of abandoning his sacred Jewish heritage by associating with and eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. Some think he is putting the identity of the church community at risk. Thinking in terms of the Jewish paradigm of Israel as God’s holy nation, some emphasize that the church is a holy people. It is to be separate from the pollution of the world, including fraternizing with Gentiles. But now the church is tainted because one of its leaders violated ritual separation.
There may be another, more practical concern as well. The Hellenistic believers were persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem for their attacks on the foundations of Judaistic piety. Now Peter, a leading apostle, has disregarded the sacred and traditional laws of separation in order to associate with a Gentile. This may lead the Sanhedrin to persecute the remaining, and more conservative, Jewish converts in Jerusalem.
Peter explains his actions (11:4-17)
Peter needs to explain why he met with Cornelius and baptized him. He goes before the “circumcised believers” of Jerusalem (not the apostles!) and there “told them the whole story” (11:4). That is, he recites the events related to Cornelius’ conversion in sequence, step by step. In giving us a summary of what Peter says, Luke repeats, to a large degree, the material he includes in chapter 10. We need not tell the entire story again, though there are a couple of new pieces of information that should be mentioned.
Peter refers to the six circumcised disciples who go to Caesarea with him, and who also enter the home of Cornelius (11:12). The fact that he brings these six men with him to Jerusalem suggests that he expects to be challenged. These six men are important witnesses to what happened. They are circumcised believers, and hence their credentials as pious Jews (as well as Christians) should carry weight with the church in Jerusalem.
The six saw Cornelius and the other Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit (10:45). Thus, they are witnesses to the fact that God put his stamp of approval on the whole occasion. More than this, the six believers also enter Cornelius’ home, and eat with him. They are more than witnesses for the truth of Peter’s story. These pious and observant Jewish Christians are also implicated in Peter’s actions at the house of Cornelius. Since they are respected members of the circumcision, the fact that they are willing to be “tainted” by being in a Gentile’s presence would help counter the objections being raised. Peter did not act alone.
More important, however, is that Peter can appeal to God as the One who orchestrated the meeting with Cornelius. Thus, Peter concludes his defense by saying, “If God gave them [the Cornelius group] the same gift he gave us…who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17). The important phrase here is “same gift.” The Gentiles experienced something similar in all essentials to that of the original Jewish disciples at Pentecost (2:1-5). That being so, they should have an equal membership in the body of Christ.
Peter argues that he went to the home of Cornelius, baptized him, and then fellowshipped with the group in response to God’s action. He didn’t do this simply on his own initiative or to play fast and loose with tradition. There has been a divine motivation in all this, beginning with his vision on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house.
For the moment, the Jerusalem disciples are satisfied with Peter’s explanation. “They had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11:18). On the surface, this appears to be the end of any controversy regarding the Gentiles. But that is not the case, as we shall see later in Acts.
The conservative Jewish Christians acknowledge that Gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit before living the Jewish life. After all, Peter and the six witnesses show, through the miracles involved in the conversion of Cornelius, that God is behind the salvation of Gentiles. Perhaps they allow that Peter, in this extraordinary circumstance, needed to fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles.
However, some in the church will claim that Gentiles should, after conversion, begin to fulfill all the requirements of the Torah, such as circumcision. Only after doing so can they be saved. No doubt, the more “zealous” [Zealous for the law, that is — not zealous for grace.] members of the Jerusalem church point out that many problems will be created in allowing formerly pagan Gentiles to fellowship with observant Jews. The Gentiles will ritually “defile” the Christian Jews and will then make it difficult for them to fellowship with non-Christian Jews.
The Jerusalem believers might also be concerned about the results if a large number of Gentiles become part of the church. What will that do to the standing of the church in Jerusalem? After all, the church is being closely watched by the Jewish leaders to see if it is upholding the standards of Judaistic worship. Any suspicion about the church fraternizing with Gentiles will create suspicion and rancor in the Jewish community. This will be a problem in other cities with a large Jewish population in which large-scale Gentile evangelization and conversion occur.
These issues are not solved nor even taken up by the Jerusalem church at this time. However, the questions will continue to linger — until the apostles find it necessary to call an unprecedented council (Acts 15). Meanwhile, the Jerusalem congregation struggles to remain acceptable to the Jewish authorities. If they fail in this regard, they will suffer the fate of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians who were persecuted and expelled (8:1).
Such fears may cause the Jerusalem mother church to acknowledge James as its leader, rather than any of the apostles. (The apostles probably agree that such a course is best, and in any case they soon have to leave the city.) James is known to be a scrupulous practitioner of the Torah, for which he is called “James the Just,” or “James the Righteous.” He enjoys a good reputation with the Jewish community. This will help diffuse any potential crisis with the Sanhedrin over the “Gentile question.”