Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 3: Peter’s Defense at Jerusalem)

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Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 3: Peter’s Defense at Jerusalem)

In Acts 10, one of the most significant walls of separation in the Christian church is broken down as God orchestrates a meeting between Peter, an apostle in the early church, and Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile army leader. Two things made this encounter possible: (1) minutely-coordinated Divine guidance, and (2) both Peter’s and Cornelius’ compliance with the Holy Spirit, even despite the church leader’s confusion and doubt.

 

As the reader explores this story, the question naturally arises whether, without direct intervention, given enough time, this type of encounter would have taken place as church leaders grew in their understanding of Scripture and God’s purpose for the church. We may not find an answer to this question on this side of eternity. One thing is clear, however: God chose to directly intervene at this point in time in order to make kind of unification possible.

We see such direct interventions a number of times in Acts when God orchestrated meetings between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, as well as between Peter and Cornelius. Knowing that God can choose prolonged silence (such as the four hundred years of no direct communication during the intertestamental period), the fact that God intervened in such powerful ways during this period of time suggests that it was extremely important for Him that the church took this unifying direction at the very beginning of its existence.

This unification turned out to be a core component of the identity of Christianity, and consisted in breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles in respect to (1) the groups being engaged in table fellowship together, (2) both groups receiving salvation, and (3) both groups becoming participants in the church’s mission. In essence, it overcame cultural taboos and religious regulations which had been socially and spiritually enforced through centuries of scriptural misinterpretation.

 

This integration, however, was not received with equal joy by all. Quite to the contrary, some individuals contended with Peter when he went up to Jerusalem—the headquarters of the Christian church.[1] The Greek word translated contended (vs. 2) is diakrino, which means “to separate,” “to doubt,” “to hesitate,” “to make a difference,” “to discriminate,” “to oppose.” In effect, it suggests that this group “separated themselves from Peter in a hostile sense, opposed him, disputed with him.”[2]

 

Specifically, Acts 11 mentions those of the circumcision (vs. 2) as the group of people who took issue with Peter. Most likely, Luke is referring to “the group within the church who required circumcision of all Gentile believers.”[3] It is important to note what the issue that stirred opposition was: those of the circumcision accused Peter of going “to uncircumcised men and [eating] with them” (vs. 1).

The expectation of the Jews was that a Gentile who converted to Christianity would first “undergo the normal procedure for converts to Judaism.”[4] This meant observing the law, not eating unclean food, and being “circumcised to show their participation in the covenant.”[5] Thus, although aligned with God’s purposes, Peter’s actions did not align with the church’s expectations of what Christianity would look like. Simply put, in the Christian Jews’ view, the laws of Judaism were to be mandatory for all cultures adhering to Christianity.[6]

 

There is no mention in the passage of the Jews having a problem with the Gentiles receiving salvation or being baptized. Of course, if evangelism was to follow Christ’s example, it would involve table fellowship. In practice, without the Jews and Gentiles mingling with each other, the sort of Christianity God wanted would not have been possible.

We can merely speculate whether the specific accusation mentioned was the only issue (and thus this group was fine with the Gentiles being saved), or whether the two issues were connected in their minds (as they would be in practice). What is clear is that the social taboo seemed to take precedence for them over the idea of Gentiles receiving Christ and being saved for eternity.

Related Article: Facing Adventism’s Historical Prejudices

This is not a small thing. Their hearts could not possibly have understood the essential aspects of salvation – who grants it, what it means, and who can receive it – if they could not see past the social prohibitions into the much more consequential effects of salvation—most especially the implications of Christ’s sacrifice. For them, Judaism and its rules and regulations came before Christianity and salvation.

 

How Peter responds to the accusation is worth paying close attention to. The defense is introduced with but—a conjunction intended to suggest something different, likely contrary to what came before. To the contention, Peter responds with a story. He did not contend back; he did not argue; he did not engage in a debate; he did not question the validity of their accusation; he did not dismiss the issue; he did not get angry and walk away. Peter stood his ground, and told the brethren the story as it happened, “in order from the beginning” (vs. 4). He simply shared with them his experience, to the best of his recollection.

 

He shared how he was taken up in vision, emphasizing his doubt and God’s persistence: “But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common’ ” (vs. 8-9). He shared the details of providence that orchestrated the meeting: “At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea” (vs. 11).

He shared that six brethren accompanied him. The expression these six brethren (vs. 2) indicates that they were present as he spoke to his contenders. The inclusion of moreover (vs. 2) suggests that he saw this as a defense. Not only did he go to Caesarea at the Spirit’s prompting, he did not go alone. He did not take action as a single individual, but made provision for accountability.[7] Ellen White writes on this passage along the same lines:

On the following morning he set out for Caesarea, accompanied by six of his brethren. These were to be witnesses of all that he should say or do while visiting the Gentiles, for Peter knew that he would be called to account for so direct a violation of the Jewish teachings.[8]

 

A different detail emerges as Peter retells the story unfolded in chapter 10. In 10:6, the angel tells Cornelius that Peter “will tell you what you must do,” while in 11:14 the Spirit’s words indicate that Peter “will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.” This was a matter of salvation, and Peter makes this central as he recapitulates the story. While he was preaching, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning” (vs. 15).

Peter emphasizes that the Gentiles had the exact same experience as the Christian Jews. There was nothing different in quality. The same Holy Spirit fell upon them in the same way the Spirit had fallen upon the Christian Jews. The word as literally means ‘equal.’ The Gentiles were, “equally with the Christian Jews, recipients of the Holy Spirit.”[9]

 

Next, Peter says: “Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit’ “(vs. 16). He relied on the words of Jesus Himself as he recalled the foretelling words, and understood those words to apply to this situation. For Peter, the falling of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles was a direct fulfillment of the words of Christ, the founder of Christianity.

The closing remarks of Peter’s speech are some of the most memorable lines of Scripture: “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (vs. 17). “The clause reads literally, ‘I, who was I? Able to withstand God?’ That is, how was I, beings such a one as I am, able to withstand God?”[10] Peter recognized that a higher power was at work in the new direction of Christianity. He understood that God Himself was shaping the identity of the Christian church, and thus he was willing to allow himself to be molded into the leader he need to be, in order to be part of the molding of Christianity into what God wanted it to be.

 

Just as Philip had done, Peter did not first seek the approval of the church when he moved forward with the encounter and baptism of Cornelius’s household. Given the urgency of the Divine commands, he followed God first, and dealt with the contenders later—even while considering ways to defend himself against the contenders all along.

 

The conclusion of this passage is stunning in its brevity, simplicity, and beauty: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’ “(vs. 18). No further discussion was necessary. The matter had been settled. The evidence was clear, and needed no further clarifications, discussion, or debates. The accusers acknowledged the work of God, and were willing to humbly submit to this new direction of Christianity. White writes:

 

On hearing this account, the brethren were silenced. Convinced that Peter’s course was in direct fulfillment of the plan of God, and that their prejudices and exclusiveness were utterly contrary to the spirit of the gospel, they glorified God, saying, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Thus, without controversy, prejudice was broken down, the exclusiveness established by the custom of ages was abandoned, and the way was opened for the gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles.[11]

 

This is no small thing. The success of the church’s mission depended, to some extent, not only on Peter and Cornelius complying with the specific instructions given by God, but also on the brethren ratifying the actions taken under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God had the power to intervene directly in this account, just as He had before. However, He chose to leave the endorsement of the church to the evidence of Divine power already manifested in the encounter between Peter and Cornelius. If a church is to function well, it needs to function on trust and acknowledgement of God’s leading.

 

The end of this story is a monumental step in the development of the embryonic church. Christianity would never be the same because (1) Peter chose to put God first and follow His direction, despite internal doubt and the likelihood of external opposition, and (2) the church acknowledged in unison that this unification between the Jews and Gentiles was God’s plan for the Christian church. As we will see later, the issue of circumcision resurfaced as more Gentiles were brought into Christianity.[12] In fact, the matter called for a church council to debate the issue. But for the time being, the testimony of God’s leading seemed to suffice.

 

The Christian church was called to adopt an attitude which  “reflected a respect for cultural roots that did not seek to make everyone in the church exactly the same when it came to practices that were not of essential importance.”[13] In addition, as Bock nicely puts it, with this episode of church history, “Jesus brings reconciliation not only with God, but also between people. The new community will be diverse in makeup, equal in status and called to reflect peace with one another”[14] as it will continue the process of unification in Christ and the mission of sharing Him with the world.

Click here to read the rest of this series

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Notes.

[1] Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: The Holy Bible with Exegetical and Expository Comment, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pg. 259.

[2] Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: The Holy Bible with Exegetical and Expository Comment, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pg. 259-260

[3] Ajith Fernando, Acts, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), pg. 338. See also John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary, Vol. 26, Acts (Nashville, TN: Boardman Press, 1992), pg. 266.

[4] John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary, Vol. 26, Acts (Nashville, TN: Boardman Press, 1992), pg. 266.

[5] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2007), pg. 406.

[6] Francis D. Nichol, Ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: The Holy Bible with Exegetical and Expository Comment, Vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), pg. 260.

[7] Nichol, pg. 260.

[8] Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), pg. 137.

[9] Nichol, pg. 261.

[10] Nichol, pg. 261

[11] White, pg. 142.

[12] Fernando, pg. 339.

[13] Bock, pg. 410.

[14] Bock, pg. 410.

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.