Q Zone: Curious About Cornelius

Ancient ruins in Caesarea, the city where Peter and Cornelius met (Acts 10).

Ancient ruins in Caesarea, the city where Peter and Cornelius met (Acts 10).

Our time in Acts 10-11 has spawned a number of questions, but since we didn’t take any “live” last week at the 10:30 service, here’s some insight to three of them that came in during that service.

1. In light of Isaiah 49, why do you think Peter’s connection with the Gentiles takes the early church by surprise? Did they expect/assume Gentiles would become Jewish, then Christ followers? The chapter you’re referencing does prophecy clearly God’s intentions to make the tribes of Jacob a “light for the nations” so that his salvation “would reach the ends of the earth” (49:6). Further predictions are seen in 49:22 when God says he will “lift up his hand to the nations” and “raise my signal to the peoples.” Still more — in 52:15 he promises to “sprinkle (i.e., startle) the nations” through the lifting up of his servant. So it is clear God has always intended to “bless the nations,” as we know from Genesis 12.

So why did the Caesarea moment — the Cornelius experience — surprise them so much? I think you’re spot on: they assumed it would be through the Jewish system, not without it. As you said, probably Jewish, then Christian. Admittedly, this was what they knew — the Jewish law and it’s sacrificial prescriptions and legal protections. So their surprise, I think, was more rooted in how it was happening than in the fact that it was happening at all.

Keep in mind, too, that this “new man” — the Gentiles and the Jews together without the Jewish law — is exactly what Paul referenced as a “mystery.” In other words, it was something revealed in the Old Testament (i.e., Isaiah 49 for one), yet not fulfilled till the New Testament (Acts 10-11 at least). In other words, they knew something was “in the air,” but not specifically the details. So it should not surprise us that they were surprised. After all, we’re not a whole lot different — Anytime a “mystery” is “solved,” there is a sense of surprise, even if we know it’s coming.

2. In Samaria, the apostles laid hands on the new believers so they could receive the Spirit, but with Cornelius and family the Spirit came while Peter spoke. Was this because of the Jew’s prejudice toward Gentiles? Was it that much more of a leap for them to believe that Gentiles could be saved? I do think it was a greater leap for the Jews to hear of Gentile conversion than Samaritan conversion, primarily because the Samaritans were actually partially Jewish.  So it may not have seemed like a massive jump for the Jews to hear of the “almost” Jews receiving the Holy Spirit without Peter. That’s not how it happened, but had it occurred in that manner, I don’t think it would have been a major concern precisely because the Samaritans had some “Jew” in them already.

But for ones who were completely non-Jew, well, that’s another story! Think about it — for them (i.e. Gentiles through and through) to receive the same gift as those who were born fully Jewish, without any “enabling” by Peter and the apostles, was no doubt a big surprise and huge amazement. Perhaps this is why God did it this way — to garner their fullest attention. No doubt it did!

3. What role does the law play to the non-believer now that it’s not a “doorway to God”? Galatians says the law is our schoolmaster, showing us our need (Galatians 3:24). That’s always been the purpose of the law to non-believers. Yet, while the law has always done that, we no longer need to try and fulfill it in order to be right before God. Before Christ, this was necessary, thus the sacrifices, ordinances, regulations, etc. In this way it was a doorway. But now with Christ’s fully satisfactory, completely sufficient, once-for-all sacrifice, the law is more like a sign post — still pointing out our sin but directing us to Jesus, it’s ultimate fulfiller.

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