Peter and the Gentiles
Peter was the first apostle to proclaim salvation to the Gentiles. He continued to provide leadership in the church for a number of years after its foundation, even after Paul became the missionary to the Gentiles par excellence. Peter, together with Paul, helped the early church and its leadership, mostly Jews, understand the universality of the Great Commission.
Peter worked to bring about an integrated church, uniting Gentile converts, who were unaware of the finer points of Jewish culture, and Jewish converts whose customs tended to take on the character of divine absolutes. Like all pioneer missionaries, Peter had to discriminate between unchangeable divine absolutes and those practices that are cultural and relative and of no important consequence in the life of the believer, whether Jew or Gentile. Thus, it was Peter who, at the Jerusalem Council, declared of the Gentiles that God “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9) and who helped work through the issues that threatened the early church’s unity.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 29.
Jesus’ last words before His ascension were of a missionary nature: “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Here, again, we see the mandate to spread the gospel into all the world. Only ten days later, this calling started to unfold, with Peter playing a key role.
The Great Commission found its first fulfillment on the Day of Pentecost. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit had as its aim the evangelization of the world. This initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave great results on the Day of Pentecost. This was, however, only a foretaste of much greater results to come in the years that followed.
Peter’s sermon contained a few main points that remain relevant even today:
First, Old Testament prophecies and promises are fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2:17–21), a truth revealed through the powerful works and signs accompanying His ministry, as well as through His death and resurrection (vss. 22–24).
Second, Jesus was exalted, placed at God’s right hand, and is now Christ (the Messiah) and Lord of all (vss. 33–36). In Him, all who repent and are baptized will receive forgiveness for sins (vss. 38, 39).
Here we see the active and vocal disciple Peter standing up for his belief in Jesus. He was called by Jesus to be a strong leader in the church’s earliest days. Although less cosmopolitan, efficient, and adaptable to other cultures and religions than was the apostle Paul (see Gal. 2:11–14), Peter opened the way for the gospel to go to about fifteen nations, as he preached to Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem. In this way, he used a very important bridge to bring the good news to the Middle Eastern world of his time.
The conversion of Cornelius, a pagan officer in the Roman army along with his household, has been termed the Gentile Pentecost. It is a crucial story in Acts, one that addresses the most divisive issue facing the early church: Can a Gentile become a Christian without first becoming a Jew?
The Roman army’s headquarters for all of Judea, including Jerusalem, was Caesarea. Cornelius would have been one of six centurions commanding the 600 soldiers that made up the Italian cohort based there. His name indicated his descent from an illustrious Roman military family that had earlier produced the commander who had defeated Hannibal, a Carthaginian general who wreaked havoc against Rome for years. More important, Cornelius was a God-fearing man who enjoyed spiritual fellowship with his family, prayed regularly, and was generous to those who were needy. God heard his prayers and sent an angel with a special message to him.
“Believing in God as the Creator of heaven and earth, Cornelius revered Him, acknowledged His authority, and sought His counsel in all the affairs of life. He was faithful to Jehovah in his home life and in his official duties. He had erected the altar of God in his home, for he dared not attempt to carry out his plans or to bear his responsibilities without the help of God.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 133.
Notice, too, what happened when Cornelius finally met Peter. He bowed down and worshiped him, an act that must have appalled Peter. Thus, what we can see is that this Gentile, favored of God, a devout man, still had a lot of truth to learn, even at the most basic level; no doubt, though, he was about to learn it.
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’ ” (Acts 10:34, 35, NIV). Though these words to us are not that revolutionary, for them to have come from the mouth of Peter was an astonishing confession. We have to remember who Peter was, where he came from, and the attitudes that he had and still struggled with. (See Gal. 2:11–16.) No doubt, though, his experience with Cornelius helped him see even more clearly the error of his ways and helped him get a better picture of what God had intended to do with the gospel message.
As we have seen, Cornelius was a Gentile who “feared God” (Acts 10:2), though he still had a lot to learn (don’t we all?). Nevertheless, his fasting, his praying, and his giving of alms all revealed a heart open to the Lord; and thus, when the time was right, God worked miraculously in his life.
An important point to remember in this account is how, though an angel appeared to him, the angel didn’t preach the gospel to him. Instead, the angel opened the way for Cornelius to meet Peter, who then told him about Jesus (see Acts 10:34–44). We can see here an example of how the Lord uses humans as His messengers to the world.
As we saw yesterday, by the time Peter made contact with Cornelius, he had a change in attitude regarding the Gentiles that other Jewish believers hadn’t yet understood (see Acts 10:44, 45). What happened that changed Peter?
Cornelius’s conversion and Peter’s role in the witnessing task were so important for the mission of the church that God communicated in a supernatural way with both the missionary and the missionary’s eventual host: while an angel visited Cornelius, Peter was given a vision.
Also, Peter stayed in Joppa with a tanner (Acts 9:43; 10:6, 32), a detail that we don’t want to miss. Tanning and tanners were repulsive to the Jews since they handled dead bodies and used excreta in their processes. Tanneries were not allowed in towns; note that Simon’s was located “by the sea side” (Acts 10:6).
Peter’s stay with a tanner indicated that already, before his vision, he realized that some of his previous attitudes were at cross-purposes with the gospel. Both Peter and the family of Cornelius needed to shed some cultural baggage. All people, represented by “all kinds of . . . animals” (NKJV) in Peter’s vision, are God’s children.
Peter’s call to witness to Cornelius implied that, although all people are acceptable to God, not all religions are equally acceptable. Cornelius was already a “religious” man, like nearly everyone else in ancient society. As a soldier, he would be acquainted with the worship of Mithra, and as an officer, he would have taken part in emperor worship. But these were not acceptable to God.
There is a lesson here today for those who approach non-Christian religions on the basis of equality with Christianity. Although sometimes it is done in a spirit of political correctness, such an attitude leads to a watering-down of the biblical claims of Christian uniqueness and finality.
Early success of the mission to the Gentiles raised some crucial questions for the early church regarding what requirements should be expected of Gentile converts—those grafted into the faith (Rom. 11:17). Tensions always appear when people from other religions and cultures join an established believing community. In this case, Jewish Christians, with their high regard for the requirements of the Old Testament laws and rituals, assumed that Gentile converts would accept and obey these laws and rituals. The main focus was circumcision, the fundamental indication of entry into the Jewish community for males, symbolizing compliance with all the requirements of Judaism. Should Gentile converts to Christianity be required to undergo circumcision? Some Jewish Christians in Judea certainly thought so and stated their conviction in stark theological language: to them it was essential for salvation.
Although the question of circumcision was the main reason for the Jerusalem Council, it dealt with a range of cultural practices that the gospel did not require of its converts. The decree of the council (vss. 23–29) provided a common platform where Jewish and Gentile Christians could coexist in fellowship. Jewish core values were respected, but Gentiles were allowed to avoid circumcision. The council’s decision was both practical and theological. It set a pattern for the church to deal with issues and problems before they became too divisive. Experienced missionaries learn to identify core Christian belief issues and keep the focus on them as opposed to getting bogged down with things that are not essential to the faith.
Further Study: Read Ellen G. White, “Jew and Gentile,” pp. 188–200, in The Acts of the Apostles.
“Peter told of his astonishment when, in speaking the words of truth to those assembled at the home of Cornelius, he witnessed the Holy Spirit taking possession of his hearers, Gentiles as well as Jews. The same light and glory that was reflected upon the circumcised Jews shone also upon the faces of the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was God’s warning that Peter was not to regard one as inferior to the other, for the blood of Christ could cleanse from all uncleanness. . . .
“Peter’s address brought the assembly to a point where they could listen with patience to Paul and Barnabas, who related their experience in working for the Gentiles.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 193, 194.