On his return to Jerusalem, Peter had to defend what had happened in Caesarea to the believers. He did this by recounting the event and explaining that God's Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles, too.
On his return to Jerusalem, Peter had to defend what had happened in Caesarea to the believers. He did this by recounting the event and explaining that God's Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles, too.
In this episode we’re continuing the story from Episode 2, concerning the remarkable event of the first conversion story of a group of Gentiles in the book of Acts.
Background and Introduction
If you’ve followed the structure of the teaching that we’re going through, you’ll realise that the Gospel starts with the Jewish people in one city, one location, in Jerusalem. That’s the story of Series 1. Then it spreads across the Jewish homeland, the land of Israel - three different areas: Galilee, Samaria and Judea. That’s the story of Series 2. Now, in Series 3, Luke is focusing on explaining to us how the Gospel got to the Gentile, or non-Jewish peoples. That’s going to become the major focus of the rest of the book of Acts because the Gospel is going to move more and more away from the land of Israel into a number of different other countries. We’re beginning this process in Series 3.
We started with the story of Cornelius, which I described last time. Cornelius having found faith with his household in the city of Caesarea, the Roman capital city in the country, then we have an issue that’s faced by the churches: can the Church accept these Gentiles into the Church community? Peter went to Caesarea and preached, and people received the Holy Spirit; they believed in Jesus; they repented of their sins; they were baptised in water; and it was a great story. Peter began to realise that his way of thinking, as a Jew with the Old Testament background in mind, was faulty. He didn’t realise that God was replacing the Jewish Laws with the Gospel and the power of the Spirit, letting people into the faith community who previously hadn’t been able to join, in the time of the Old Testament. Cornelius has become a believer, and we noticed at the end of the last passage it says,
‘they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.’
Peter stays in Caesarea, which is about 120 km, roughly speaking, from Jerusalem, the capital of the Church and Peter’s home. He stays there for just a few days in order to instruct them and to help these new people to get established in the faith. We take up the story in Acts 11 which describes how the Jerusalem church, which is wholly Jewish, comes to terms with different sorts of people joining their Church community. It wasn’t easy for them, for reasons that will become clear very quickly. Let’s read Acts 11:1 - 3
Peter Faces Criticism
1 ‘The Apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”’Acts 11:1-3, NIV
It’s interesting how fast news travels! Before Peter could get back to Jerusalem, the news had gone before him. Have you ever had that experience? News travels very, very fast. Something you do today is broadcast very quickly, and often people are thinking about it before you have time to talk to them. This is what happened. The news went straight back to Jerusalem and people said, “Hang on a minute. Peter went off on a journey to the Jewish towns and to the Jewish churches,” places like Lydda and Joppa that we saw in an earlier episode. “Now he’s gone to Caesarea, the Roman capital city where the governor lives, and the military’s headquarters, and he’s been preaching to the Gentiles. He wasn’t planning to do that. No one told us this was going to happen. Is this the right thing to happen? We even hear that he’s gone into the house of the Gentile family, had hospitality from them, and received food from them!” The believers in Jerusalem were alarmed by what they heard. It was a cultural shock. This is because, as I explained in the last episode, there were a number of boundary markers, cultural issues, where the Jews distinguished themselves from the other ethnic groups around them, which we call Gentiles, based on the Law of Moses, revealed in the Old Testament in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. These included male circumcision; the observance of the Sabbath day; and the food laws which prohibited certain meat products and certain fish for the Jews. This divided them from the Gentiles. In their time, no one would go into a Gentile household for hospitality purposes. When you go to the Jewish Temple there’s actually a little wall, a little low wall in part of the Temple compound, beyond which no Gentiles were able to go in as they went towards the centre of the Temple. They weren’t allowed in the centre of the Temple; they weren’t allowed to worship directly. They had to stay at a distance, There were all sorts of boundary markers that came from the Jewish background.
The Christians were still thinking in terms of these boundary markers, so Peter got a bit of a shock when he arrived in Jerusalem, after a few days celebrating this great breakthrough in Caesarea, spending time with Cornelius and his family, to find he was being interrogated by his friends and the church community that he’d built in Jerusalem. They asked him, “Hang on a minute, why have you done this? What’s going on here in this situation?” A crisis was threatening at this particular point, and Luke wants to explain what happens. This is a very sensitive issue for the Jews who have become believers in Jesus. They’re struggling to understand what’s happened to their culture, their history and their religious rules from the Old Testament, from the Hebrew Scriptures. What is their place in the Christian Church? Do those rules still apply? We’ll answer that question more specifically by the end of this episode but that’s the question that’s in their mind.
So, Peter then retells the story of what’s happened. Let’s read it, Acts 11:4 - 17,
4 ‘Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ 8 I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again. 11 Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”’Acts 11:4-17, NIV
Peter’s response to the question is to tell the story, to explain to his fellow Jewish believers in Jerusalem how God had led him. It wasn’t his plan to do this but miracles happened, to him and also to Cornelius, that brought them together in that remarkable meeting in Cornelius’ house. Peter goes on to tell them the story that the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius - all those people, and we numbered them, perhaps at around thirty people, in the last episode - and the Holy Spirit fell on them in such a way they spontaneously started praising God and speaking in tongues. Peter said, “The Spirit came on those Gentiles in Cornelius’s house, “as he had come on us at the beginning”, meaning the Day of Pentecost. He explained to the Jewish people that the coming of the Holy Spirit in power is not a Jewish event only. This is going to happen with other people groups. In fact, it has happened already with the Samaritans. We saw that story in Acts 8. It’s more difficult for the Jewish people to accept the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit because they are totally outside their faith, whereas the Samaritans shared some of their faith and history with them. People like Cornelius don’t, they’re outsiders, and the Jews had a very strong sense of outsiders, a sense of ethnic superiority, over other races. This is a common issue in human society as we know - a form of, what we would call today, racism. That was in the background of Jewish thinking. They believed that they were a people chosen by God uniquely, with special status and privileges from God. That easily led them to look down on outsiders as somewhat impure, somewhat unclean, rather like the unclean animals they weren’t allowed to eat, as described in Leviticus 11, and as mentioned by Peter in the vision that he’d had on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa. It was hard for them to accept that there’d been a breakthrough and these people were now on equal terms but Peter was quite clear, “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning”, Acts 11:15. In other words, God is bringing all sorts of people into his Kingdom.
Then Peter quoted words from Jesus in Acts 11:16, and that refers back to a statement by Jesus, just before his ascension as recorded in Acts 1: 4 and 5:
4 “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”Acts 1:4-5, NIV
It has just occurred to Peter; the Holy Spirit does not belong to the Jews. The Holy Spirit, God’s living presence within us, the person of God who is here on earth, belongs to all believers. He will be given to anyone who truly believes. There is no distinction between them; there’s no hierarchy; there’s no racial hierarchy or social hierarchy involved in the giving of the Spirit. Peter’s explanation at this point, persuaded the listeners that God was at work.
We see a great conclusion in Acts 11:18, the last verse of our passage:
‘When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”Acts 11:18, NIV
The dispute was settled for now, although this issue will recur again as a result of things that happen further afield in the Gentile mission, under the leadership of Paul. But that’s a story we’ll come to later.
Cornelius in Caesarea
Let’s go back to Caesarea for a moment. What did he feel about all this? Well, he wasn’t involved in all this theological discussion in Jerusalem. He was just so thrilled that he’d found salvation. Here’s an interesting thought for you. We know from an earlier episode that the evangelist, Philip, who you may recall went to Samaria, went down the Gaza road and met the Ethiopian eunuch. Then after that, Philip travels along the coastline, the very coastline that Peter had travelled to go from Joppa to Caesarea; he went all the way along that coastline preaching in different towns, and he ended up in Caesarea, it says in Acts 8. In Acts 21 we find, at a later stage, that Philip and his family had settled down in Caesarea. He obviously became a church leader and an evangelist based in Caesarea. We find Paul comes to meet him and he’s got four young daughters who are all unmarried, living at home, when Paul comes to stay with him. There’s Cornelius coming to faith miraculously, in his own household because Peter came to preach but there’s also a Christian community already in Caesarea that he probably didn’t have any contact with because of the social divisions between Jews and Gentiles, and the fact that he was a soldier. Now, almost certainly, Cornelius and his family would have connected with Philip and his family, and they would have formed one church community in Caesarea, perhaps in many households because they didn’t have any public buildings. That’s just an interesting thought. It doesn’t say that in the text but we can assume that this would have happened. Cornelius wasn’t left on his own. There were believers around, and leaders to help him in his new-found faith.
This story reaches a fantastic conclusion. Now the scene is set for the spreading of the faith amongst the Gentile communities and that’s exactly what we’re going to see in the next episode. The next episode moves us several hundred kilometres further north, to a huge regional capital city called Antioch, where many of the believers had travelled, after the persecution. We see the first church forms with Jews and Gentiles together - many different ethnic groups and it’s a remarkable story. So, that’s to come. What’s happened now is that the conversion of one family has convinced the Jerusalem church, which is the headquarters of the Church, that they must now orientate themselves towards looking further afield, and sending people out, believing that God is going to start reaching other ethnic groups. That’s the impact of the Cornelius story; it changes the thinking of many of the believers in Jerusalem, who are so tied in with the history of Judaism and the Jewish faith, that they find it hard to think of other ethnic groups. Now they’re beginning to do it, and that’s great.
As a reflection, I want to think about the question that underlies this episode and the last episode, which concerns the Old Testament Law or the Law of Moses. As stated before, it’s revealed in Exodus and Leviticus and there are several hundred commands. They formed a whole body of Law that all the Jews had to obey and they had followed those Laws through many hundreds of years of Judaism. Now we see that some of those Laws are being questioned. In fact, God himself is leading Peter, the leader of the Church, to understand those laws in a different way, showing him that they are becoming redundant. Paul tells us more about this process later on in his writings. He even says at one point, in Romans 10: 4, that Jesus Christ brings the Law to an end. Basically, that means when Jesus Christ died, and his death is celebrated by the Last Supper, the new covenant is formed; the new covenant in his blood replaces the covenant of Law between the Jews and God, through Moses. This means that, as the Church goes on, they begin to work out how to deal with all those regulations in the Old Testament. They begin to realise that all those Laws have now been superseded, except the ones that are reapplied in the New Testament. Sometimes Jesus, or the Apostle Paul, or another writer reapplies a law. For example, some of the 10 Commandments, indeed most of them, are reapplied. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is from the Law of Moses in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but we find that it reappears in the New Testament. It becomes a law for us only because it reappears in the New Testament. Anything that does not reappear in the New Testament is being made redundant. That is the vast majority of those laws, including circumcision, the Sabbath Law in the Old Testament form, and the food laws, which are the subject of this particular challenge that Peter was facing. Jews no longer had to follow a special diet if they became believers in Jesus. Most important of all, they couldn’t impose on the Gentile believers, the Laws that they had in a previous era. If they did that, it’s what we call legalism - creating a legal framework for the Christian religion - which God did not inspire or want for us. This story is developed further, a little later in Acts, and Paul teaches about it, specifically in books like Romans and Galatians.
What happens in this episode with Cornelius is very important because it’s laying the foundation upon which the Church in the future is built. The foundation is very simple. The foundation is: to become a Christian, you don’t have to become a Jew first, you don’t have to follow the Jewish laws. To become a Christian, you have to respond by faith and repentance to the reality of Jesus’ life, his death, sacrificial substitutionary death on the cross for you, and his resurrection from the dead. These are the key elements that Peter preached to Cornelius in his house, which we saw in the second half of Acts 10 in the last episode. This is the central message. It’s the message about Jesus Christ that brings us to salvation. That’s the foundation for the Church. The entry point for the Church is repentance, faith, baptism in water - the outward symbol of entrance into the Church community - and the receiving of the Holy Spirit; God’s presence himself, coming into you and empowering you and giving you Spiritual gifts. None of these things require obedience to the Old Testament Law. The Old Testament Law is becoming redundant, or in the words of the writer to Hebrews, obsolete, out of date. We see this happening before our very eyes, in this episode, and the Jerusalem church having to come to terms with this new framework.
People throughout the world, whatever cultural background you have, have a tendency to consider that religion and the worship of God is defined by a number of rules and regulations. The New Testament shows that true faith in Christ is not defined this way. It’s defined by faith and it’s defined by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit within our lives. He is the one who guides us to know what the right thing to do is in any circumstance. The other resource we have is the guidance of the New Testament writings which is why studies like the ones we’re doing here, are so important because the Scriptures come to help us - specifically, the New Testament, in terms of this particular issue. This is the foundation for Christianity and this means that throughout Church history, if the Church is following the way of the Apostles accurately, we do not create a racial or social hierarchy in the Church. There are no people who are closer to God than another group because of their racial or social background. There are no first and second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Cornelius and his family were not second-class citizens because they weren’t Jews. Peter makes the point, “They received the Spirit like we did on the Day of Pentecost, and that equalises us. It’s the same Spirit given to them, as was given to us, the same mark of salvation. Their racial background has nothing to do with their qualification in the Kingdom.” It’s clear that from this point onwards, God’s plan is to create a multiracial Church community and we see that developing through the pages of the New Testament, right the way up until the book of Revelation, where John sees in a vision the fact that the crowds in eternity, who’ve come through the terrible tribulation of the last times and have been saved, Revelation 7: 9,
“There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” That’s the ultimate destiny.Revelation 7:9, NIV
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your ethnic group, whatever country you’re in, whatever continent you’re in - you’re part of this story. There’s no superior race anymore and the Jews take their place in the Church, alongside all the Gentiles. Their job wasn’t to be superior; their job was to be the servants of the Gentiles by bringing the Gospel message to them. That’s exactly what Peter did with Cornelius. He became the servant of the Gentiles, offering them the same message that they had received. If you’re looking into Christianity today and you’re listening to this saying, “Well, I’m not really a Christian. Could I possibly qualify?” Can I just say, there is nobody who is disqualified. Everybody comes in on the same basis. Cornelius came in on the same basis as Peter. The basis is very simple and very straightforward: repentance, faith in Christ, being baptised in water, and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. As we end this episode, the scene is set for the Gentile mission, which is the theme of Series 3. We’re going to see some rapid expansion in the episodes that follow. So, I hope you’ll join us as we continue the story with the next episode and a remarkable work of God as a large church is built in the city of Antioch.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- How is faith the foundation of the church?
- Are there first and second class people in your church community?
- What was important to the Jewish faith in this episode? How does Christianity differ?