Question: Prior to the vision, what was Peter’s attitude concerning interaction with gentiles?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:14, 10:28
Answer: He believed that to interact with gentiles would make him ceremonially unclean — that it was, in fact, “unlawful.” According to his life-long practices, this meant no contact with gentiles (especially in religious matters), which inferred to him that the gospel was not intended for gentiles.
Question: Prior to Peter’s return to Jerusalem, what was the attitude of the Jerusalem church concerning interaction with gentiles?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:2-3
Answer: The Jerusalem church was of the same opinion as Peter — it was “unlawful.” By the way, Luke’s expression “those who were circumcised” (v2) could be interpreted to mean Jews in general including those not part of the church, but the remainder of the passage indicates that those who took issue with Peter were part of the church (v18).
Question: Why did Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem church have this attitude toward gentiles prior to these events?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:8
Answer: They had been raised under the Law of Moses, which forbade the eating of unclean foods or (by extension) interacting with unclean gentiles. They simply had not been given enlightenment yet about the full scope of what Christ had accomplished at Calvary (that would be revealed later by Paul), and were continuing with what they had always known.
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?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 2:10, 8:27
Answer: Gentiles could be accepted as Jewish worshippers (with the exception of entrance into the Temple itself) by adopting Jewish customs and following the Jewish rites, including circumcision. This effectively made them Jews according to the Law of Moses. Proselytes were present at Pentecost, and the Ethiopian eunuch was probably already a proselyte when he met Philip, since he was in Jerusalem “to worship.”
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?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:14, 10:28, 11:2-3
Answer: This was nothing new, it was part of their Jewish cultural heritage. It was commonly known among both Jews and gentiles. It had been in effect since the days of Moses.
Question: Given this attitude, who would the apostles and those who had been scattered into Samaria and beyond have preached to?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:19, 8:25
Answer: Only to Jews, and perhaps some Samaritans (who were half-Jews). More likely they were preaching only to Jews who happened to be in Samaria. Luke seems insistent in 11:19 that as a result of the persecution (which included Philip) the gospel was preached to Jews only, regardless of location.
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.)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:1-2
Answer: Luke makes it clear that Cornelius was not already a proselyte. Perhaps he lacked the knowledge of how to become one, and was seeking someone to help him in this process. He had a long familiarity with the God of the Hebrews, and a strong desire to be approved by Him. Given the only avenue that was known at the time, his expectation was probably to become a proselyte. His desire is similar to that of the Ethiopian eunuch, but differs in that he was not yet a proselyte and the eunuch probably was.
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 10:15, 20, 23, 28-29; Galatians 2:11-13
Answer: God showed Peter that He had cleansed what formerly was unclean, and Peter should not refuse it. Peter understood that the vision referred specifically to gentiles as soon as Cornelius’ emissaries arrived at the house in Joppa. God succeeded for the moment, but many years later Peter returned to this error on a visit to Antioch. This was a huge change for Peter, and we should not be surprised at Peter’s later problem when the lesson had faded in immediacy and Peter had been under the influence of persistent members of the Jerusalem fellowship who were still insisting on circumcision for new gentile believers and eating separately from them.
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: I Corinthians 1:22
Answer: We have previously addressed the importance of miracles — they are God’s way of certifying authenticity to Israel. To drop a cliche, to convince lifelong Jews (even though they were believers) that God had cleansed the gentiles too, well… “it would take a miracle!” (Several, in fact…)
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?)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 2:2-5, 10:44-46
Answer: The rushing wind and the “tongues of flame” are apparently absent (or maybe not and Luke just didn’t mention it). Other than that, the outward evidence of the Holy Spirit “falling” on Cornelius and the others — the speaking in foreign languages, the praises — were the same. In any case, it was plainly evident to both Peter and his companions. Notably, this is still different from the way in which the Holy Spirit indwells believers today.
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:5-16
Answer: Without an accurate account of the miracles that had taken place, the Jerusalem church would not have accepted Peter’s conclusion in v17. We must remember that the church in Jerusalem, unlike our churches today, was entirely Jewish, and required signs to authenticate the work of God.
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:19
Answer: Yes, clearly. The exception is described in the next verse.
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)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:20
Answer: While Luke diverted briefly to Paul’s conversion and activities immediately afterward in Acts 9:1-31, he returns to the main chronology in 9:32. Peter visits Cornelius, he returns to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem church is prepared to accept gentiles on an equal footing, and then Barnabas is sent to Antioch. The men from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the gospel to gentiles in Antioch, but word of gentile conversions did not reach Jerusalem until after Peter had defended his actions with Cornelius.
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 11:3
Answer: Their attitude would have been unchanged from what it was before Peter’s visit to Cornelius — that the gospel was for Jews only, and that gentiles were still unclean. At the least they would have rejected these gentile believers, and at the worst they might have sent emissaries to Antioch to “clean house.”
Question: Was the Great Commission in force from Acts 1:8 through Acts 11:22?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 1:8
Answer: Certainly. Nothing was ever said to direct Peter and the other Apostles otherwise.
Question: Under what constraint, either by human inadequacies or by Divine design, was the Great Commission operating under until these events?
Scripture Reference Evidence: Matthew 15:24, Acts 1:8 (note the order of progression), Acts 11:19
Answer: It’s scope was limited to Jews, and gentiles were excluded.
Question: If this constraint was due to human inadequacies, why did God wait so long to correct it?
Scripture Reference Evidence: (same as above)
Answer: That’s a good question! In current orthodox theology, human lack of understanding limited the gospel’s promulgation to Jews only, and the Apostles were operating in error until the time of Peter’s visit to Cornelius. One of the reasons I disagree with this interpretation is the fact that God did nothing to correct it for nine chapters!
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?
Scripture Reference Evidence: (same as above)
Answer: If the Great Commission was tied to Israel’s Kingdom program, where “good news” for gentiles would consist of the benefits they would receive when ruled over by Israel, this lack of gentile scope would be perfectly in keeping. The absence of any efforts by God to change this thinking through the first nine chapters of Acts suggests they were doing and thinking what God expected and approved.
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…)
Scripture Reference Evidence: Acts 15:1,5; Galatians 2:11-13; Acts 11:17-18
Answer: The conclusion of Peter’s visit to Cornelius was completely outside the expectation of the Jerusalem church and the other Apostles. They had always been ready to accept gentiles as proselytes, but this was a completely unexpected turn of events. God succeeded with most Jews in the Jerusalem church, but there were pockets of anti-gentile resistance that persisted for a long time. They apparently had significant influence, if measured by the amount of trouble they caused in the Church.
The final importance of this passage is not so much that gentile believers would be welcomed into the Church, but that they would be welcomed into the church as equals instead of mere proselytes! This was too much change for many in the Jerusalem church, and they stubbornly held onto their ways the rest of their lives. When God makes changes, sometimes we are incapable of accepting them. But it does not negate the truth of what He has changed, it only robs us of the blessing of accepting it. Praise God for His loving patience with us!
Dare I suggest an important parallel? Are you clinging to a theology that God is showing you is incorrect? Perhaps your life-long investment in that theology, like the believing pharisees of Acts 15:5, keeps you from changing when change is what God wants. It’s difficult enough for the ordinary believer to overcome traditional orthodoxy, but nearly impossible for someone who has taught or preached traditional orthodoxy for years in ignorance. If you fit that category, the weight of responsibility for what was taught to the believers God put in your care can be overwhelming. We will be held accountable for what we have taught. (Hebrews 13:17) But God is loving and forgiving, and knows our weakness and pride. Do not let pride stand in the way of reversing your position when God reveals to you that it is incorrect. That only perpetuates the sin and thwarts the blessings that could be yours.