EARLY CHRISTIANITY: The Conversion of Cornelius and the Beginning of the Mission to the Gentiles

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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. And the Lord, at his departure, had charged his disciples to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, (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. 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.

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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 cooperation 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 Ghost 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.

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, (Acts 11:3); and it was as the conversion of a Gentile, that his conversion made so great a noise, (Acts 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, (Acts 10:2, 22, 35). The address of Peter, (Acts 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, (Acts 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.

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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 remained 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, (Acts 10:11–16).

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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.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

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 fears him, and works righteousness, is accepted with him,” (Acts 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 Savior, 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 an unbeliever 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.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

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 (Acts 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 Ghost fell on the waiting hearers and made it impossible and useless to continue the sermon. They spoke with tongues and magnified God (Acts 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 (Acts 10:48).

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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 Ghost to the Gentiles (Acts 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 church members, 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.).

By Philip Schaff

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