Previous article in this series: June 2015, p. 396.
How does the Levitical system figure into the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentile world? That, we said, was the practical problem that waited still for solution. And it was to the apostle Peter that that mystery was revealed.
For Peter it was the question of how to respond to the request of one Gentile and his acquaintances. But the implications were far broader. For the church, it was the question of how to be obedient to Christ’s command to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul was already waiting, as it were, in the wings. For the ascended Lord had already said concerning him that he was a “chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Cornelius was but “the vanguard of the great army of Gentiles that soon entered the church” (Lenski). An incredible turn of events this would be for the church—one that could never even have gotten off the ground had there not been a removal first of the kind of scruples of conscience that would lead one of the apostles to say, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation” (10:28).
Those were the words of Peter to the gathering of Gentiles in the home of Cornelius. Truth is, there was no specific prohibition to that effect in the Mosaic law, but, as Jamieson puts it, “intimate social fellowship [between Jew and unproselytized Gentiles] was not practiced, as being adverse to the spirit of the law.”
Which explains Peter’s repeated objections, and very likely distress, at the outset. Three times, the vision of the sheet let down from heaven containing all manner of beasts and creeping things and fowls of the air. And three times, much to Peter’s dismay (to say nothing of abhorrence), the command “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter’s instinctive reaction, therefore, was “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” In fact, twice repeated— in spite of the admonition “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:11-16).
Peter knew well that the ceremonial distinction between clean and unclean animals had application to the world of people, but he needed still to be nudged through the ‘door’ that was being opened before him. Before he had time to process the vision, three men from Cornelius arrived at his gate. And the Spirit assured him that he could accompany them, “doubting nothing, for I have sent them” (10:19-20).
So Peter went. But not by himself. He arranged to have with him six brethren (11:12), to serve as witnesses for what he correctly perceived would be a truly momentous development—to say nothing about its being also potentially divisive.
On his arrival, Peter found a room full of people—Gentiles, all!—waiting for him. These Gentiles, Peter knew, were well aware of the exclusiveness that characterized the Jewish religion, for the Jews made no secret of their refusal to have fellowship with Gentiles. Peter, therefore, set this matter to rest right at the beginning. He says, in effect, that those were his scruples too—until the day before yesterday, when God showed to him that he must “not call any man common or unclean” (10:28). Yes, any man. Strictly speaking, the vision was about the mingling of clean and unclean animals, not men. But Peter had gotten the point.
The climax of the Spirit’s instruction of Peter on this occasion remained still to come, but Peter had obviously already made significant progress. We read that he “opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive [that is, I have it demonstrated before my very eyes] that God is no respecter of persons [that is, is not partial to the Jews merely because they are Jews]: but in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (10:34-35). That, I say, is progress. It may be “the veriest truism to us,” writes F.F. Bruce, “but it was a revolutionary revelation to Peter.” Think of it: Gentiles—uncircumcised Gentiles—on an equal footing with the Jews! What, then, of this, from Genesis 17: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised…. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (vv. 10-14)? Doesn’t sound at all ‘time-bound,’ does it?
But it was. Indeed a “revolutionary revelation”—even for the apostles. Writes Lenski: “Even they needed much time to recognize that all the ceremonial laws were only temporary, intended only for the old covenant, in force only until the Messiah should come, and not the divine will for all time.” That was precisely the lesson to be learned from Peter’s vision. From heaven itself came word that the ceremonial laws were abrogated: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (10:15).
Truth be told, God never was a “respecter of persons.” The Jews should have known that. It was clear already from their first Passover. The angel of death ‘passed over’ their houses in the land of Egypt, not because the occupants were ‘children of Abraham,’ but because of the blood on their doorposts. Looking past the ‘heart’ of that type, they came to believe that the Gentiles, unless they became Jews through proselytism, would forever be outside the kingdom. In other words: God is a “respecter of persons.”
“Begin not,” said John the Baptist to the multitude of Jews who flocked to hear him in the wilderness, “to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In other words: “God is not a respecter of persons.”
This is the “mystery” of which Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel”—a mystery not understood in ages past, but made known now by the Spirit (Eph. 3:3-6). To Peter first of all. “Of a truth I perceive [now!] that God is no respecter of persons.”
Then, to the Gentiles gathered before him, Peter preached Christ. “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:34-43).
“Whosoever believeth in him.” Out of the conviction of his soul, Peter said that. But then there was that vexing question: Is that really all of it? For the Gentile world, is it really faith alone? What about…circumcision? Must Peter’s preaching here lead to the proselytizing of Cornelius and his acquaintances? Or to…baptism?
Next to Peter at the moment were the six men who had accompanied him from Joppa. “Brethren,” they are called (11:12), that is, fellow believers. Interestingly, it is also said of them that they were “of the circumcision” (10:45), that is, of those who believed that circumcision was a necessity for membership in the church. The seven of them had already entered the house of, and were having fellowship with, non-proselytized Gentiles. And what they found there was unmistakable evidence of spiritual receptivity for the proclamation of the gospel. In other words, faith. Faith—in the uncircumcised. How, now, will Peter and his six companions respond to that? Will they administer baptism—the sign of the washing away of sins by the blood of Jesus, and a receiving of those baptized into the fellowship of the church?
“What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” Already, no doubt, Peter was beginning to understand that the vision of the mixture of clean and unclean animals implied a removal of all distinction between Jew and Gentile. So easy it is for Christians who live 2,000 years after Pentecost to confess with our Belgic Confession, Article 25, that “the ceremonies and figures of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished, so that the use of them must be abolished amongst Christians; yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion.” Not so easy for Peter, who was just beginning to get a hold of that concept. Twenty centuries of the Old Testament saints’ living under the necessity of circumcision could not be swept aside by an implication.
God, therefore, spoke again. This time not in words but in deed. “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word” (10:44). They spoke with tongues. And they magnified God (10:36). Just like the 120 Jews who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.
Gentiles! Uncircumcised Gentiles! Peter’s companions, we read, were astonished (10:45). Just a few minutes earlier, these six men “of the circumcision” would have been loath to consider these Gentiles brethren. But God had spoken. Not Peter, but God, had broken down the middle wall of partition and “made both [Jew and Gentile] one” (Eph. 2:14). Those who were before “far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (2:13). The evidence was before their very eyes. When, therefore, Peter asked, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” no one thought to object. Peter had it exactly right when, on returning to Jerusalem and having to face serious objections to what he had done in Caesarea, he concluded his defense with these words: “What was I, that I could withstand God?” (11:17).
Centuries of prejudice. Dislodged in a moment. By the Master Teacher.
How? Not in the abstract, as a doctrinal truth, but practically, by the event itself.
Such, as we saw earlier, was the Spirit’s method of instruction. And nothing, I think, better illustrates the wisdom of it than does His revealing to the church the mystery of the salvation of Gentiles.