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Growth and Persecution of the Church in Jerusalem
The mother church of Christendom, after so glorious a beginning, grew mightily, both inwardly and outwardly, and at first found great favor with the people, (Acts 2:47), for the purity of its walk, and the glow of its first love and benevolence, which reached even to a community of goods. But even the opposition, which soon arose against it in the unbelieving world, must according to a universal law of the kingdom of God, serve only to purify and extend it. As on the day of Pentecost, so also in the succeeding history down to the appearance of Paul, Peter is the great leader, promoter, and defender of the church, by word and deed. Behind him walks John, in mysterious silence, betokening a hidden depth of life and great promise for the future. The miraculous healing of one, who had been more than forty years a cripple, by the sublime word of Peter: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk,” (Acts 3:6), made a great noise among the people, and increased the number of male members of the church to five thousand. But at the same time it roused the jealousy and hatred of the priests; especially of the Sadducees, since the resurrection of the Lord, so offensive to them, was the central theme of the apostles’ preaching and the main argument for the Messiahship of Jesus, (Acts 4:2). The two apostles were arrested and imprisoned by the temple guard, and on the next day brought with the healed cripple before the Sanhedrin, in which the Sadducean party just then had the upper hand. Then Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, boldly declared that the miracle was wrought in the name and by the power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom they had crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead; whom they, the builders, had rejected, according to the prophecy of the 118th Psalm; but whom God had made the cornerstone of his whole kingdom. Then, passing from the bodily healing to the spiritual, he announced the fundamental article of Christianity, as the only saving religion: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
How Are We to Understand the Holy Spirit and the Apostolic Church?
As the members of the council could not deny the fact of the miraculous healing, and at the same time feared the people, they discharged Peter and John for this time with simply a warning not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. The apostles returned to the brethren, who united in a fervent prayer; when, in token of their being heard, as on the day of Pentecost, the place, where they were assembled, was shaken, and they were filled anew with the Holy Spirit.
In this first persecution we have a true type of all the subsequent hostilities against the church of Christ. “The moment the evangelical truth rises,” says Calvin, “Satan rises to meet it in all possible ways, and puts everything in motion, to kill it in the bud. In the next place, we see how the Lord armed his people with invincible courage, that they might stand firm against all the machinations of the ungodly. Finally, we see how power seems, indeed, to lie in the hands of the adversaries, who spare no pains to blot out the name of Christ, and how the disciples of the Lord are among them, as sheep among wolves; and yet how God extends the kingdom of his Son, replenishes the kindled flame of the gospel, and can preserve his people.”
How Do We Grieve the Holy Spirit?
According to their principle, however, which they openly avowed before the high council, that they must obey God rather than man (4:19, comp. 5:29), the apostles could not keep silence. Their preaching and miracles (5:12–16), with the terrible judgment upon the hypocritical Ananias and his wife, more and more attracted the attention of the people, and awakened their admiration of the church. The Sadducean party, therefore, again had the apostles arrested and confined. But the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison (5:19), and they taught all the more joyfully in the temple. Brought again before the council, they reiterated their protest against the prohibition to teach, as conflicting with their obedience to God; and testified anew of the resurrection of Jesus, whom the counselors had slain, but whom God had exalted at his right hand, as a Savior to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to the people of Israel. The enraged fanatics desired at once to pass sentence of death on the apostles, when the Pharisee, Gamaliel, grandson of the renowned Hillel, and one of the most distinguished Rabbins, brought them to moderation, and the apostles this time escaped with scourging, which was the customary punishment of disobedience, and with a repetition of the injunction to cease preaching. “If this counsel or this work,” said Gamaliel, “be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it,” (5:38 sq.). In these famous words, he betrays his undecided posture towards Christianity. He had not yet clearly made up his mind respecting the new religion, and he wished, from human prudence and caution, to wait the judgment of time; convinced, that what was good and of God would ultimately prevail over all opposition, and that, on the other hand, fanaticism and wickedness would only gain from attempts to suppress them by force; and hence it were better to leave them to condemn themselves, as, sooner or later they surely would. Gamaliel here shows himself an impartial, justice-loving man, thoroughly imbued with the Old Testament faith in a divine providence, which would not leave false prophets long unpunished. But this expression by no means warrants us to suppose that he was a secret adherent of Christianity. We should rather infer the contrary from the fact, that, down to his death, he remained a Pharisee and in great esteem with the Jews. He probably passed from neutrality to hostility, as soon as Christianity came into open conflict with Pharisaism; as we may conclude from the earlier spirit of the apostle Paul, who proceeded from his school.
How Are We to Explain the Holy Spirit in the First Century and Today?
This opposition of Christianity to Pharisaical Judaism soon showed itself in Stephen, who, though not an apostle, was certainly a man of apostolic spirit, and marks an epoch in the development of Christianity. Thus far the division between the Pharisees and Sadducees had been favorable to the church. But after the appearance of Stephen, the Pharisees also became decidedly hostile, and Pilate and Herod leagued themselves anew for the suppression of the common foe.
Stephen, the first Martyr
If the preaching of the resurrection and the moral earnestness of the Christians had called forth at first the hatred of the worldly-minded Sadducees; so also, in process of time, must Christianity show its opposition to the stiff and cold formality and the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Pharisees. This it did through Stephen, one of the seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem, distinguished for his wisdom and miraculous powers. He was probably a Hellenist, i.e., of Graeco-Jewish descent. This may be inferred partly from the occasion of appointing these deacons,—the complaint of the foreign Jewish Christians respecting the neglect of their widows,—partly from his Greek name, and partly from his liberal, evangelical views. As to his place in history, he was the man, who first clearly brought out the opposition of Christianity to hardened Judaism; and he thus became a forerunner of the apostle Paul, who sprang from the blood of his martyrdom. His views seem to have been especially influenced by the discourses of Jesus against the Pharisees (Matt. 23), and his threatenings respecting the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Stephen had many disputations with foreign Jews of Grecian education (Acts 6:9), and probably even with Saul of Tarsus; and no one was able to resist “the wisdom and the spirit, by which he spoke.” Without doubt his object was, to convince them from the Old Testament itself, that Jesus was the Messiah, and the founder of a new spiritual worship, and that the Jewish nation had sealed its doom by rejecting the Salvation, which had appeared. This drew upon him the charge of blaspheming Moses, which was the same as blaspheming God. False witnesses accused him before the high council of having said, that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the laws of Moses.4 The truth at the bottom of this charge was probably Stephen’s opposition to the Pharisees’ over-valuation of the ceremonial law and the temple, and his reference to the overthrow of the old economy of salvation. His views on these points he might have derived from our Lord’s prophecy respecting the destruction and rebuilding of the temple (John 2:19), and the cessation of all national worship confined to a particular place, be it Gerizim or Jerusalem (John 4:21–24). But it was a calumny, when his enemies accused him, on this account, of blaspheming Moses and God. For the whole Old Testament itself points beyond itself to Christianity, as the fulfilling of the law and the prophets.
The defense, which this bold witness delivered before the Sanhedrin, (7:2–53), on the inspiration of the moment, and with a heavenly serenity, which reflected itself in his angelic countenance (Acts 6:15), was not a direct, but a remarkable indirect refutation of the charge brought against him. In the genuine spirit of the Christian, he regarded not his own person; in holy zeal for the cause of God, he forgot all effort to propitiate his judges. From his general vindication of the divine plan of salvation, every reflecting hearer involuntarily drew the application to this particular case. By far the greater part of his discourse, (v. 2–50), is a review of the history of Israel from the calling of Abraham to the giving of the Mosaic law, and thence to the building of Solomon’s temple, closing with a quotation from Isaiah, (66:1), against the carnal, superstitious notion of the Jews, that the Most High was confined to a building made by human hands. By this reference to the sacred history Stephen wished, in the first place, to testify his own faith in the Old Testament revelation, and, by unfolding the true office and relations of Moses and the temple, to refute the charge of blaspheming them; and secondly, to show, that the conduct of the Jews was always grossly unworthy of their relations to God; that, the greater his favors to them, the greater was their ingratitude and contumacy towards him and his servants, and especially towards Moses. He held before his accusers the past, as a faithful mirror, in which they might see their own conduct towards the Messiah and his followers. At the same time, he presents the dealings of God with his people as proceeding upon a fixed, theocratic plan; continually pointing to something beyond, and reaching their end in the Messiah. Even Moses spoke of a prophet, who should come after him; and accordingly, the law itself looks away to something higher. The temple of Solomon was built merely with human hands—the type of another temple, of the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Probably he intended to enlarge more upon the third period, the Messianic predictions of the prophets, and their strivings against the carnal disposition, the scrupulous, but empty formality, the ingratitude and obstinacy of the Jews. But he was interrupted by the rage of the excited hearers, who keenly felt the polemical sting of this history of their conduct. Exchanging, therefore, the calm tone of the narrator for the pathos of the earnest preacher of repentance, he concluded with the fearful denunciation (v. 51–53), in which he represented his accusers and judges as the true sons of the murderers of the prophets; held up their betrayal and murder of the Just One, as the climax of their ingratitude and iniquity; and threw back upon themselves the charge of impiety.
But by this discourse he, at the same time, precluded all possibility of his own acquittal. Nor was it his object at all to save his life, but solely to vindicate the truth. The members of the council gnashed their teeth with rage; but Stephen was transported in the Spirit to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the almighty God, ready to protect and receive him—the glorified Son of Man, who, from the throne of his majesty, puts to shame all the machinations of his enemies. The fanatics would hear nothing more. They thrust him out of the city and stoned him without a formal sentence, or a hearing before the governor, and therefore in riot; for the Romans had deprived the Sanhedrin of the power of life and death. The witnesses, who, according to the custom of the Jews, cast the first stones at the criminal, in testimony of their firm conviction of his guilt, laid their burdensome over garments at the feet of the young man, Saul, who seems thus to have taken a particularly zealous part in this execution of a pretended blasphemer, and to have regarded it as an act well pleasing to God. Stephen committed his soul to the Lord Jesus, as the dying Lord had committed his to his Father (Luke 23:46). Then, kneeling down, he prayed, like his Master on the cross (Luke 23:34), now that the rage of his enemies was directed upon his person, that the Lord would not lay this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
How Do We Receive the Holy Spirit Today?
Worthy was this man, whose last moments reflected the image of the dying Redeemer, to lead the glorious host of martyrs, whose blood was henceforth to fertilize the soil of the church. The idea, for which he died, the free, evangelical conception of Christianity as opposed to the stiffness of Judaism, died not with him, but was perpetuated in one of his most bitter persecutors, the Apostle of the Gentiles. But even his death contributed to the outward extension of the church. It was the signal for a general persecution, and for the dispersion of all the Christians, except the apostles, who felt it their duty to face the danger boldly, and stay in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1, 14). Thus were the sparks of the gospel blown by the stormy wind into various parts of Palestine, and even to Phenicia, Syria, and Cyprus (8:1, 4. 11:19, 20). The exemption of the apostles themselves from this persecution, must be attributed either to a special divine interposition, or to the fact, that the war was directed first and mainly against the Hellenistic portion of the church.
Christianity in Samaria. Philip
The gospel was first brought to Samaria by Philip; not the apostle, but one of the seven deacons (6:5. 21:8), who, as colleagues of Stephen, and as Hellenists, were doubtless among the chief sufferers by the persecution. He was to reap what Christ had already sown in his conversation with the Samaritan woman and his two days’ residence in Sychar (comp. Jno. 4:35 sqq.). The Samaritans, indeed, received no part of the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch; yet they were more susceptible, than the proper Jews, to superficial religious impressions and foreign influences, and, of course, also to all sorts of superstition and fanaticism; and they expected from the Messiah the general restoration and consummation of all things. They were thrown into great excitement by Simon, one of those wandering Goëtae, to whom the door was then opened by the general longing after something higher, and by the prevailing receptivity for the secret wisdom of the East; and who, with their deceitful arts, presented the same contrast to the apostles and evangelists, as did the Egyptian sorcerers to Moses and his divinely wrought miracles. This Simon, who received from the church fathers the surname Magus, the Magician, and was regarded by them as the patriarch of all heretics, especially of the Gnostics,2 gave himself out for a higher being, and on account of his sorceries, including perhaps astrology, necromancy, exorcism by formulas of the Graeco-Oriental theosophy, &c., was gazed upon by old and young as an emanation or incarnation of deity. But when Philip, by the unostentatious power of faith and the simple invocation of the name of Jesus, wrought miracles, especially of healing, which Simon, with all his jugglery, could not imitate, the people fell over to the evangelist and were baptized. The magician then thought it best to yield to the higher power and likewise to be baptized; doubtless hoping thus himself to obtain the miraculous gifts of his rival. For the result forbids us to regard him as having been truly converted. He probably perceived in the gospel a superior divine power, and was for a moment subdued by it, but never truly and honestly embraced it. He wished to hold fast to his heathen views, as Ananias to his gold, and to make the Christian name a tool of his avarice and ambition.
This rapid success of the gospel among a mixed people, mortally hated by the Jews, and, though circumcised, not considered by them as belonging to the theocratic race, must make no little stir among the believers in Jerusalem. Many, perhaps, under the influence of old prejudices, might doubt the genuineness of the new conversions. At all events, the work was imperfect. The faith of the Samaritan converts was based less on inward experience, than on the miracles of Philip, as formerly on the juggleries of Simon. The baptism with water needed to be confirmed and completed by the baptism with the Spirit (Acts 8:16). The apostles, therefore, sent two of their number, Peter and John, to Samaria, to examine the matter and supply what was wanting. These apostles, no doubt, first gave the Samaritans more accurate instruction concerning the history of Jesus and concerning repentance and faith in him; and then, by the symbol of the laying on of hands, imparted to them the Holy Spirit, who now revealed himself by tokens like those on Pentecost. Simon, still more astonished, sought to buy of the apostles the art of communicating the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, that he might thus obtain the greater dominion over the minds of men. This, like the history of so many other fanatics, shows that there may be a sordid and arbitrary effort to obtain even the highest and holiest gifts—an effort, which, as it springs not from humility, but from ambition and selfishness, is an abomination to the Lord, and works destruction. Peter sharply rebuked the hypocrite for this profane degradation of the holy and the supernatural into the sphere of perishable matter; yet he did not give him up, but exhorted him to repent.2 Simon, trembling with fear of divine punishment, now besought the apostles, indeed, to intercede for him with the Lord, and avert the fulfillment of their threatening. But this impression was merely transient, and, so far as we have any traces of his subsequent history, he remained, as before, the old man, making out of religion a miserable trade. This remarkable interview of Simon Peter with Simon Magus was regarded and set forth in varied colors by ancient Christians, as typifying the posture of the orthodox church towards deceptive heresy.
Two nations, most obstinately at variance, being thus united by the spirit of Christianity into one fellowship of love, the two apostles returned to Jerusalem, which was then the center of church operations; preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages on the way (8:25). But Philip, at the instance of the Spirit, went to the road which leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, an ancient city of the Philistines, destroyed by Alexander the Great, but rebuilt by Herod. Here he met an Ethiopian, court officer and treasurer of queen Candace, just returning from a visit to the temple at Jerusalem, and reading the fifty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah.2 Philip explained its meaning to him, preached to him Jesus, as the grand subject of the prophecy, and baptized him. We have no means of knowing, whether any further results followed this conversion. Church history tells us indeed, that Frumentius and Ædesius, in the fourth century were the first missionaries of Ethiopia. Yet the gospel might have been spread, before this, in another part of that country; and a tradition of the Abyssinian church derives the origin of this church from that chamberlain, whom it calls Indich; and many of its doctrines and usages seem to point to a Jewish Christian origin.
How Would You Explain the Holy Spirit and the Apostles?
Philip next went to Azotus and preached in the cities southward and northward on the coast of the Mediterranean, till he settled for some time in Caesarea Stratonis, the capital of Palestine, where the governor resided, (8:40, comp. 21:8). Here he prepared the way for the visit of Peter, shortly after, and for the conversion of Cornelius; to which we now pass.
The Conversion of Cornelius. Beginning of the Mission to the Gentiles
Thus far none had been received into the Christian church but Jews, and such proselytes as had been circumcised. But the missionary work could not possibly stop here. The salvation of the gospel was for all people, Gentiles, as well as Jews. This was implied even in the promise to Abraham, that in his seed all families of the earth should be blessed. Isaiah had expressly predicted the conversion of the Gentiles.2 And the Lord, at his departure, had charged his disciples to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the holy Trinity, (Matt. 28:19, 20). But nothing particular had been revealed respecting the way of bringing the Gentiles into the church. The apostles and primitive Christians were at first of the opinion, that this could be only through the medium of Judaism, and that the Gentiles must, therefore, first be circumcised. They were still too much restricted to the letter in their views of the Old Testament, which, though it ordains circumcision for all time, and threatens the uncircumcised with being cut off from the people of God, (Gen. 17:10, 13, 14), yet intimates, on the other hand, the typical import of this rite, its reference to the circumcision of the heart, as the main thing, and contains occasional hints of the abolition of the ancient worship and the establishment of an entirely new covenant.4 Then again, the plain declaration of the Lord, that he came not to destroy the law, (Matt. 5:17), seemed to favor their scrupulous attachment to it. The idea of such an abstract separation of the moral and ceremonial laws, as is current with many modern theologians, was utterly foreign to them. Their doubts respecting the legality of admitting the uncircumcised into the Christian fellowship flowed, therefore, very naturally, from their religious training, and were essentially grounded in their conscientiousness and reverence for the Old Testament. God himself must break this prejudice, and give the apostles to understand, that the gospel, which they very properly preached first only to the chosen people, after the example of their Master, they should also carry to the Gentiles. Larger views of Christianity as related to Judaism were suggested, it is true, by the converted Hellenists, especially Stephen, and by the marked success of the gospel among the Samaritans. But the scruples of the stricter Palestinian Jewish Christians, the “Hebrews,” could be overcome only by a special revelation, like that made, before the baptism of Cornelius, to Peter, then leader of the church, and of the Hebrew party in particular.
From this we see that the knowledge even of the apostles was progressive. The communication of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost must not be regarded as a magical bestowment of all possible articles of knowledge and information, but as a central enlightenment, as the implanting of the living principle of all religious truth, the unfolding and particular application of which was left to the regenerate human mind in its organic coöperation with the divine Spirit. The gracious control of Providence appears much more adorable in this accommodation to the wants and laws of human nature, than if it had proceeded in an immediate, abrupt, magical way. The gradual providential preparation for the great work of converting the heathen must be obvious to every one, who attentively reads the artless narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, from the appearance of Stephen onward. All the events wonderfully and yet naturally conspire, each in its right time, until the foundation is inwardly and outwardly completed for the grand superstructure of the apostle Paul. None but a perverted sense can turn this objective pragmatism of the history itself into a purely subjective one, and everywhere see here not the operation of God, but merely the designed fictions of a later writer.
Premising these general remarks, we pass to the history of Cornelius itself. From this, we shall see, first, how the Lord opens the way for his work independently of the wisdom and erroneous notions of men, and yet exactly at the right time; secondly, how the Holy Spirit gradually enlarged the knowledge of the apostles, and loosed the shackles of their Jewish prejudices, while they, on their part, readily submitted to the higher instruction; and finally, that Christianity is originally not doctrine nor a system of thoughts, but life and experience.
How Are We to Understand the Holy Spirit and Jesus?
Cornelius, the first fruits of the faith from the heathen world, was captain of a cohort of Italians, stationed in the maritime city of Caesarea, (Acts 10:1), and was probably himself an Italian, perhaps a Roman. In religion he was Pagan; for Peter calls him “one of another nation,” with whom the Jews dared not hold intercourse, (10:28); he was numbered among the uncircumcised and therefore unclean, (11:3); and it was as the conversion of a Gentile, that his conversion made so great a noise, (10:45. 11:1.). But, unsatisfied with polytheism, and honestly longing for the true religion, he with all his family, had embraced the monotheism of the Jews, and doubtless, also, their Messianic hopes. He was therefore one of the proselytes of the gate, and stood in high esteem with the Jews for his fear of God and his benevolence, (10:2, 22, 35). The address of Peter, (10:37), implies that Cornelius was acquainted with the historical facts of Christianity; as he might very well have been, since the deacon Philip preached in Caesarea, (8:40), and Peter’s miracles in the neighboring regions made no small stir, (9:32–43). This knowledge only increased his inward disquietude, and his desire to be clearly instructed respecting the weightiest concern of the heart. He might suspect, that this new religion, vehemently condemned by some, and by others zealously embraced, was perhaps the true one, and the only one, which could meet the deepest wants of his soul. He sought information respecting it in prayer, and, that he might devote himself with less disturbance to the contemplation of divine things, he adopted the Jewish custom of fasting. At the third hour of prayer, (three o’clock in the afternoon), he fell into an ecstasy, and an angel appeared to him, telling him that the Lord had graciously regarded his sincere and earnest prayers for salvation and his works of love, and directing him to send for Simon Peter from Joppa. In pursuance of the divine suggestion, the centurion immediately sent two slaves with a faithful, devout soldier to Joppa (now Jaffa), also on the coast of the Mediterranean, and a good day’s journey (thirty Roman miles) from Caesarea.
By a miraculous coincidence, Peter also, on the next day, experienced an inward revelation, by which he was prepared to understand the unexpected invitation of a Gentile. When the persecution had ceased, this apostle, in virtue of his gift for leading the church, made a tour of visitation to the churches in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, especially in the fertile plain of Saron on the Mediterranean. In this tour he preached and wrought miracles, among which the raising of the benevolent Tabitha from the dead is minutely related, (9:36–41). In Joppa he abode some days in the house of a tanner by the name of Simon, (9:43). This circumstance is particularly noted, perhaps, to show how, even then, the apostle had begun to lay aside his Jewish prejudices; for the trade of a tanner was considered half unclean, and those who followed it had to live by themselves. At noon, when the messengers of Cornelius were approaching the city, Peter went up to the flat roof, to offer his prayer, which doubtless referred to the spread of the kingdom of God. While his spirit hungered for souls, to win them to Christ, his body, weakened perhaps by protracted fasting, craved earthly food. Suddenly he fell into a trance, in which his ordinary consciousness was suspended, and God gave him new information respecting the way of spreading the gospel. The vision was clothed in a form exactly suited to the condition, the spiritual and bodily desires of the apostle. Food was set before him, which he, as a Jew, shrank from touching. Peter, in the Spirit, saw a vessel, like a great sheet, fastened at the four corners (with cords from heaven?), filled with animals clean and unclean, and let down from the opened heavens to the earth. At the same time, he received a command from the Lord: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” When he refused, saying he had never yet eaten anything unclean, he heard the significant words: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” When the voice had thrice repeated this command, the vessel was drawn up again to heaven, (10:11–16).
The symbolical import of this vision we can easily conjecture. The vessel denotes the creation, especially mankind; the letting down of it from heaven, the descent of all creatures from the same divine origin; the four corners are the four quarters of the globe; the clean and unclean beasts represent the Jews and Gentiles; and the command to eat contains the divine declaration that the new creation in Christ has henceforth annulled the Mosaic laws respecting food, (Lev. 10:10), as well as the distinction between clean and unclean nations; and that even the heathen, therefore, were to be received into the Christian church without the intervention of Judaism; as the cloth, with all the animals, was taken up again to heaven.
Scarce had Peter awaked from his trance and begun to reflect on the meaning of this appearance, when the Gentile messengers presented themselves at the door of the house, and the Spirit at once showed him the object of the vision. He entertained the strangers, and on the next day went with them and six brethren, (comp. 11:12), to Caesarea. Cornelius, who in the meantime had called together his kinsmen and near friends, fell upon his knees before the desired divinely commissioned teacher, as before a superhuman being. The apostle refused this well-meant, but heathenish idolatry, saying: “Stand up; I myself also am a man.” After hearing from the centurion the reason of his sending for him, perceiving the wonderful coincidence of the two visions, and being convinced, by his own eyes, of the Gentile’s humble readiness to receive religious instruction, he broke forth in the remarkable words, which show that his new view of the relation of the Gentiles to the gospel had now ripened into a clear and firm assurance: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him,” (10:34, 35). Here Peter brings out the principle of the universalism of Christianity in opposition to the Jewish particularism. National distinctions, he would say, have nothing to do with admission into the kingdom of God. The great requisite is, not descent from Abraham, not circumcision, but simply a sincere desire for salvation. God looks upon the heart; and to every one who reveres him according to the measure of his knowledge and advantages, and lives accordingly, he will graciously show the way to the Saviour, who alone can satisfy the cravings of his soul. This is the sense of the words in their connection. It is, therefore, as De Wette says, (on Acts 10:35), “the height of exegetical frivolity,” for Rationalistic interpreters to draw from these words of the apostle the equality of all religions, and an extenuation of indifferentism. Peter is plainly speaking, not of being absolutely well pleasing to God, but only of acceptance with him in reference to admission into the Messianic kingdom. “Accepted with him,” denotes the capacity of becoming Christian, not the capability of being saved without Christ. Otherwise, Cornelius might as well have remained a heathen, and need not have been baptized at all. On the contrary, Peter immediately after, (10:43), announces Jesus as the one, who alone imparts forgiveness of sins through faith, and in another place, (Acts 15:11), he expressly says, we all shall be saved only through the grace of the Lord Jesus. Wherever, therefore, in the natural man, there is an earnest longing for righteousness, a yearning of the soul after God, there preparing grace is already at work, continually urging the soul, consciously or unconsciously, towards Christ, who alone can satisfy its wants.
Peter then reminded Cornelius and his friends of the historical facts of the life of Jesus, which he took for granted were, in general, already known (10:37 sqq.); spoke of his death and resurrection; and showed how, according to the testimony of all the prophets, men should obtain remission of sins and salvation by believing in him, as the Messiah and the judge of all. While he was yet speaking the Holy Spirit fell on the waiting hearers and made it impossible and useless to continue the sermon. They spoke with tongues and magnified God (10:46). In short, the day of Pentecost here repeated itself for the Gentiles. The communication of the Spirit, and consequently regeneration, in this case, before baptism, is striking, and without parallel in the New Testament. In all other cases, as with the Samaritans, the gift of the Spirit accompanied or followed baptism and the laying on of hands. Man is bound by the ordinances of God, but not God himself; He can anticipate them with his spiritual gifts. This exception to the general rule was undoubtedly ordered, though not for the benefit of Peter himself, as Olshausen supposes, yet for that of his Jewish Christian companions; and was intended to give them, and through them the whole Jewish Christian party in Jerusalem, who could conceive of no baptism with the Spirit without the baptism with water, incontestable proof of the participation of the Gentiles in the kingdom of Christ, and to free them from their narrow, legalistic views. The apostle, however, even in this case, bore the strongest testimony to the importance of baptism with water, by causing this sacrament still to be administered as an objective divine seal and pledge of the gifts of grace (10:48).
How Do We Explain the Work of the Holy Spirit?
At the request of the Gentile converts, Peter remained some days in Caesarea, and then returned to Jerusalem. Here he set the rigid Jewish Christians at rest respecting his conduct, by giving them a full account of the whole wonderful transaction, so that they also praised God, that he had given repentance and the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles (11:18). And now that God himself had so plainly broken down the partition wall between Jews and Gentiles, and had glorified his grace in the latter, the narrow Judaism, which made circumcision the condition of salvation, became henceforth a formal heresy.
Yet we could not but expect, that the deeply rooted prejudices, especially of those churchmembers, who had formerly been Pharisees (comp. 15:5), would long continue to work and destroy the peace of the church. Of this testify the transactions of the apostolic council, (Acts 15), and almost all Paul’s epistles. Even Peter himself, on a subsequent occasion, acted against his own better conviction, from fear of some narrow-minded Jewish Christians; for which he had to be sharply rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11 sqq.).
The Church at Antioch. Origin of the Christian Name
About the same time, or at least soon after, a step preparatory to the conversion of the Gentiles was taken in another quarter. Though most of the members of the church at Jerusalem, who fled after the martyrdom of Stephen, preached the gospel only to the Jews in Phenicia and Syria (11:19); yet there were some Hellenistic converts among them, from Cyprus and Cyrene, men of kindred spirit with Stephen, who addressed themselves also to the Gentiles at Antioch (v. 20), and with great success. Antioch, the former residence of the Seleucidian kings, was then the seat of the Roman proconsul, the capital of Syria and of all the Roman provinces in the East, and at the same time a renowned center of eloquence and general culture. The church at Jerusalem now sent Barnabas to Antioch, as formerly it had sent Peter and John to Samaria, to inspect and to water this new plantation. Joses, surnamed Barnabas, (son of exhortation, of consolation), the subsequent companion of the apostle Paul, had already distinguished himself, in the earliest days of the church, by his self-denying benevolence, and was also a Grecian Jew, a native of the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36, 37). Thus, being a mean between Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian views, he was peculiarly fitted for this mission. By his preaching, and especially by bringing the converted Saul from Tarsus, he did much to strengthen and enlarge the infant church (11:23–26).
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Thus this important city came to be a second center of Christianity; the church there holding the same relation to the Gentile mission, that the church at Jerusalem held to the Jewish. It was from Antioch, and with the coöperation of its church, that Paul undertook his great missionary tours into Asia Minor and Greece.
But Antioch was important also in another respect. It was there, and probably soon after the formation of the church there, that the name, Christians, originated (Acts 11:26). This appellation was not assumed by the Christians themselves. They rather called themselves “disciples,” “believers,” (in reference to their relation to the Lord), “saints,” (with respect to their character and the great problem of their lives), “brethren,” (referring to their mutual fellowship). Still less was it given them by the Jews, who would have been far from applying to the hated heretics the hallowed name of Christ, Messiah, and who contemptuously called them rather “Galileans,” “Nazarenes.” The name came from the heathen, who applied it to the followers of Jesus Christ, either in mockery, or from a mere misunderstanding, taking the term, Christ, for a proper name, instead of an official title. In the New Testament the name occurs in but two places besides the above, viz., Acts 26:28, in the mouth of Agrippa; and 1 Pet. 4:16, as an honorable nickname. It was soon, however, universally adopted by the believers; and we may hence suppose that, notwithstanding its heathen origin, it arose not without a divine purpose, as a kind of unconscious prophecy, like the words of Caiaphas. The name, Christians, expresses most briefly and clearly the divine destiny of man, and always holds before the believer the high idea, after which he should strive; that is, to have his own life a copy and a continuation of the life of Christ and of his threefold office. Man, indeed, in virtue of his inherent likeness to God, is already by nature, in some sense, the prophet, priest, and king of the whole creation. Sin has obscured this original quality of his nature and checked its development. But regeneration and vital union with Christ deliver it from the power of sin and death, and gradually unfold it in all its glorious proportions.
By Philip Schaff
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