Interpreting Peter’s Visit to Cornelius

We’ve done our homework on Acts 10:1 through 11:18, and we’re ready to ask the big questions: What does this passage mean? What are its implications for our understanding of the history of the Church and our understanding of the Bible as a whole? Does our previous understanding of this passage match the facts of the case?

It would be profitable to have a printed copy of the outline at hand as we interpret. At the very least, you should go back and re-read the outline from the previous post now. It’s okay — I’ll wait right here until you get back!

Welcome back! Put on your thinking cap — we’re going to approach interpretation by asking some leading questions that are designed to challenge current orthodox thinking. I’ll ask you to think carefully about each of these questions on your own, based on the outline and what you have learned from the passage by observation. Write down your answers somewhere for future reference. The answers are not presented here, only the questions. To see my answers (only after you’ve worked on your own!), switch to the Study Guide Answer Keys category.

Here we go…

Question: Prior to the vision, what was Peter’s attitude concerning interaction with gentiles?

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Question: Prior to Peter’s return to Jerusalem, what was the attitude of the Jerusalem church concerning interaction with gentiles?

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Question: Why did Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem church have this attitude toward gentiles prior to these events?

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Question: Was there any means for a gentile to become accepted among Jews prior to these events? If so, what was it and what were its terms? (Were gentiles included in the events of Pentecost? If so, how were they characterized by Luke?)

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Question: How long had Peter and the Jerusalem church held this attitude toward gentiles? (Was it something that developed recently, or was it in effect from the very beginning of Acts or before?)

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Question: Given this attitude, who would the apostles and those who had been scattered into Samaria and beyond have preached to?

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Question: Prior to these events, what was Cornelius seeking, and how did he hope to attain it? (Compare this to the expectations of the Ethiopian eunuch ministered to by Philip.)

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Question: What specific attitude in Peter’s thinking did God intend to change through the vision? Did God succeed? How significant a change was this for Peter?

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Question: These events begin with an angelic appearance to Cornelius and a thrice-repeated vision to Peter, both miraculous. The timing of these miraculous events is miraculous in itself, and serves to authenticate them. The Holy Spirit miraculously interrupts Peter’s message and miraculously falls on gentiles without being conferred on them by Peter. Why did God use miracles to accomplish this?

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Question: Luke suggests that the Holy Spirit fell upon these gentile believers in the same way that He had upon those gathered at Pentecost, and Peter confirms it in his defense before the Jerusalem church. What does Peter mean when he says “… just as He did upon us at the beginning”? Compare this event to Acts 2. Is anything missing? Is anything added? What apparently was the same? (What did Peter and his companions see and hear that indicated this?)

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Question: Peter faithfully reports these miraculous events while defending his actions before the Jerusalem church. Given the attitude and background of the Jerusalem church, his audience, why was this important?

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Question: Consider Acts 11:19. The persecution that scattered the Jerusalem church happened before Peter’s visit to Cornelius. Was this same attitude toward gentiles held in general by those who were scattered?

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Question: According to Luke’s narrative, was the gospel preached to the gentiles at Antioch before or after Peter’s visit to Cornelius? (See Acts 11:20)

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Question: Consider Acts 11:21-23. Suppose the events of Peter’s visit to Cornelius had not already happened (or never happened) when word of gentile conversions reached the church in Jerusalem. What would their response have been?

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Question: Was the Great Commission in force from Acts 1:8 through Acts 11:22?

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Question: Under what constraint, either by human inadequacies or by Divine design, was the Great Commission operating under until these events?

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Question: If this constraint was due to human inadequacies, why did God wait so long to correct it?

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Question: If this constraint was NOT due to human inadequacies, how can we reconcile this attitude of the Apostles and the Jerusalem church, and the time period over which it persisted, with the notion that Christ died for all, not just for Jews?

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Question: Did the Apostles and the Jerusalem church need to be convinced that gentiles should be allowed in the church as more than Jewish proselytes, in fact as equals among believers? Did God succeed? (See also Acts 15:1 and Galatians 2:11-13 before answering…)

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Peter’s visit to Cornelius and his subsequent defense before the Jerusalem church reveals everything about who the Jerusalem church and its leaders thought the Great Commission applied to! If I were a modern liberal theologian, I’d say it was positively racist. But I’m not a modern liberal theologian. They were simply operating within their promised future economy — the Millennial Kingdom that was just around the corner. In that kingdom the Jews would rule over the gentiles world-wide, not as equals with them before God. But they were persistent in rejecting Jesus from Nazareth as the Messiah, a rejection that culminated in their stoning of Stephen.

God continued to offer repentance to Israel for a time after that, but eventually and gradually set Israel’s Kingdom program aside in favor of something much better for gentiles — the Age of Grace, whose chief and only Apostle was Paul. But God needed to lay the groundwork for the Jews to accept Paul’s ministry to the gentiles as being His doing. And so we find that magic turning point when the Jerusalem church’s attitude toward gentiles is changed by the power of God. They are able to accept the events taking place in Antioch, sending Barnabas to investigate and encourage the new gentile believers — in Peter’s words, “without misgivings,” — after God has changed their minds about gentiles and the gospel through Peter’s visit to Cornelius.

Why does the Bible make such a big deal about Peter’s visit to Cornelius? If orthodox interpretation of this passage is right, it was completely unnecessary. As the gospel spread out from Jerusalem, Cornelius would have eventually heard it and believed. His conversion and that of his household would have been completely unremarkable as was the conversion of thousands of other believers of that day who are unnamed in Scripture (let alone receive a chapter and a half of attention). But it is a big deal, and we must accept it as such. It’s recorded in the Bible as much for our understanding and instruction as it was for those in the Jerusalem church.

What’s more, an understanding of this passage and its ramifications raises problems for denominations whose theology places the origin of the church of today in the practices and attitudes of the Jerusalem church, beginning with the reiteration of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8. Whatever we adopt from the Jerusalem church must be considered very carefully, and particularly in the light of the differences between Israel’s Kingdom promises and what God revealed through Paul. To do otherwise is to practice our faith in the wrong dispensation, contrary to the revealed will of God.

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