“God-fearer” a Gentile who had embraced the Jewish faith but had not become a practicing Jew because he had not yet submitted to circumcision (as was the case here with Cornelius, cf. 11:3).
While we tend to think of the account that follows as “the conversion” of Cornelius, it is perhaps as likely that this man was already a true believer, he simply had not yet been fully indoctrinated in the teaching about Christ. After all, Zechariah and Elizabeth, just a few years before, were believing people because devout, biblically oriented Jews.
We begin this evening, an account that Luke regards of immense importance to his history, giving it twice as he does — first in the report of the event itself and then again in Peter's recounting of the event to the brethren in Jerusalem. And no wonder. What we have here is the first inkling of what is to be the great issue and problem of first century Christianity, an issue that leaves its mark on virtually every page of the rest of the NT: namely the transition from a virtually entirely Jewish church to a mostly Gentile church, a transition that was bitterly resisted by a large part of early Jewish Christianity, and a transition that was not, in fact, altogether successful insofar as the Jewish segment of the church virtually disappeared after the first century.
The clear impression of the NT is that the early Jewish Christians had no particular problem welcoming Gentiles into the church and seeing them baptized. The problem came in welcoming them as Gentiles without further requiring them to submit, if not to the entirety of Jewish regulation, at least to those practices to which Jews were most deeply and emotionally attached — especially circumcision, the Saturday Sabbath, and the laws of clean and unclean foods. In other words, the Jews had no difficulty with the idea of Gentiles becoming Christians, but they thought that in order to become a Christian you had also to become a Jew. When it became clear that the apostles were not going to require this, were not going to require Gentile Christians to practice the most sacred parts of the Jewish religious culture, the fur began to fly and we don't see the end of it really until AD 70 and the destruction of the Jewish state and its temple, which marks, among other things, the ascendancy of the Gentile church. From that time forward Jews were a tiny minority among Christians and their opinions no longer carried enough weight to trouble the church as a whole. Further, unhappily, the church gradually began assuming a more hostile attitude toward the Jews which finished, humanly speaking, any hopes of a real reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity.
Of course, the Lord had prophesied all of this and Paul had too — the grafting out of the Jewish branches of the olive tree and the grafting in of the Gentile. But, this failure to effect the transition from all Jewish to mostly Gentile Christianity is how it came to pass.
You are going to find in the NT, of course, wonderful instances of Jews and Gentiles coming together as fellow Christians — Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 2, where he speaks of God “making the two one” and destroying “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” But the tension thus created also lies behind the problems in Galatia which Paul addresses is his letter to those churches, in his remarks about the observing of laws regarding foods and days to be celebrated in Romans and Colossians, in some of his controversial remarks in 2 Cor., etc.
Because I have only a little time this evening and because this is such an important turning point in the entire history of the NT, I want to spend a few moments tonight considering the whole matter of this transition from a Jewish church to a Gentile church, because one's understanding of this bears so mightily on the way one reads the NT!
The point I want to make is, then, the point I want to apply and elaborate next time: viz. that the transition from the one era to the other in the history of the church was primarily a cultural not a theological transition.
Many suppose that it was a theological transition, but this grievously mistakes the teaching of the Bible.
The average evangelical today, I gather, thinks that the problem the Jews had in accepting Christianity, that is the Jewish Christians themselves, was that in doing so they were embracing a new and very different principle of religious life that required a wrenching readjustment of their own longstanding religious principles. This is what made the transition a failure from the Jewish point of view.
But that is not what the NT says.
There was no new theological principle — the post-Pentecost church was founded on exactly the same doctrine of grace and redemption that had always been taught in the OT, or, what we call the OT, what the NT calls simply the Scripture. This is Paul's entire argument in Galatians. He does not argue that the Judaizing Christians, those who were requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised, would have been correct if only the principle hadn't been changed a few years before. I think that is the way people think he argues — fellows you were right, but now you've got to get with this new program — but that is the reverse of his argument. His argument in Galatians is that these people do not understand their own Bible. Justification has always been by faith, it was in Abraham's day and it is today. And anyone who argues as the Judaizers argue can only do so because he fundamentally misunderstands not just how sinners now get right with God, but how sinners have always gotten right with God.
There is, striking as this may seem to many ears in today's evangelical church, there is not even any new liturgical principle. I think the typical evangelical believes that once Christ died on the cross blood sacrifices were not only no longer apropos but a positive offense to the completed work of Christ. But that is not the teaching of the NT. We have already seen in the early chapters of Acts that the temple continued to be a focus of the worship of the early Christians after Pentecost, and we will read later (21:26) that Paul at the end of his third missionary journey, nearly a generation after the crucifixion, still found it appropriate to offer blood sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. He had lived for years with no temple sacrifice while he was away from Jerusalem, but he had no difficulty participating in its worship when he was there either. He wouldn't have minded if a Gentile had, but, of course, the Jews didn't allow that.
It is true, of course, that there were changes. Jesus himself had introduced some of them (Mark 7: “all things are clean”) and others would be introduced through the course of events (the resurrection leading to the transfer of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday — an implication of the version of the 4th commandment in Deut. 5!), the end of other celebrations related to the Mosaic ceremonial cycle (New Moons, etc.). But, it is clear, very clear, in the NT that these changes were changes in form only, not in substance. Paul was happy to have Jewish Christians continue circumcision; he didn't even make an issue of Gentiles being circumcised until the Judaizers began to insist on it for the sake of a false principle of justification. This is an enormously important point!
One's view of the Sabbath today, the obligation of the 4th commandment hangs on this point. [A recent sermon by a prominent PCA pastor — a fine man!] Was the 4th commandment abolished — did one of the creation ordinances and only one of the 10 commandments fall out of the will of God without any teaching to that effect in the NT — or did the day change in form only — from Saturday to Sunday to mark the accomplishment of redemption, in the same way, for example, circumcision changed its form to baptism which retained the same spiritual signification that circumcision had always had (Paul in Col. 2:11-12). Indeed, knowing what we know of the crisis in NT Christianity, we would absolutely predict that just as baptism was fine for Jewish Christians so long as circumcision was still also required, so the Sunday Lord's Day would be fine so long as the Saturday Lord's Day was also required. Such is exactly the impression given of the controversy in Romans, Galatians, and Colossians. Nothing substantial, nothing essential, nothing in principle has changed at all — the same faith, the same salvation, the same worship of the same God for the same reasons — only the forms have changed to mark the new day of the church and to clear the deck for the Gentile epoch.
But, if that is so, then we are left with the fact that what the Jewish Christians couldn't bear to give up was not a theological principle, for no principle had to be given up, but a spiritual culture with which they were familiar and which they loved. To put it very simply, they were used to things being done a certain way and they did not want to have to change their ways, especially for a bunch of Gentiles. They did not want to give up their distinctive pattern of thought and life and, in particular, given the larger numbers of Gentiles, they did not want to see their spiritual culture overwhelmed by another. They were fighting, like Christians have fought in the ages since, for what was familiar to them and what gave them a sense of mastery and superiority in life.
That makes the story of this crisis in the NT very much more human and much more relevant to ourselves. For we too have a spiritual culture and it too can stand in the way of changes that need to be made and of the acceptance of folk who ought to be accepted without reservation in the church.
What Peter and Paul said was that Gentiles didn't have to embrace a Jewish culture to be Christians in good standing and further that Jews didn't have to abandon their culture either. All that was required was a fundamental change of loyalty at the worldview level and an embrace of the life of faith as Holy Scripture taught it.
Cultures are extraordinarily powerful influences — that set of practices, beliefs, products that shape the worldview of a people. Why, for example, do people in our culture generally think that polygamy is wrong but have no particular difficulty with a man having several wives or a woman several husbands so long as they have them one after another. It is a cultural difference that frowns on African polygamy but accepts serial marriage.
Or why do even American Christians have a worldview that pretty much leaves out angels and demons except when they are in Bible study, while other peoples in the world have no difficulty embracing that part of the Bible's teaching and making it a part of their every day view of the world and their own lives? Koreans pick out this omission in American Christianity very quickly because their cultural worldview has spirits in it. It is a cultural difference, opening one people up to an idea, closing another people to the same idea.
I heard a lecture from a Korean missionary once. He pointed out that the Anglo culture is a rules and bylaws culture whereas most cultures are not rules and bylaws but relationship cultures. He said that in 25 years in Korean sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies he had never seen a rule book or heard one referred to, even though they have them and had never seen a copy of minutes though they take minutes. In such a culture you would never do what is often done in a PCA General Assembly, shout down a speaker with a point of order. Now, no one can say that the Bible teaches us that Anglo culture is right and Korean is wrong in this particular respect. But, the Bible does teach us to appreciate how powerful these forces are, how offensive a culture teaches you to find another culture's way of doing things.
This is what was going on in the first century — just what goes on today. Jewish Christians who couldn't bear to see their way of doing things passing away! So powerful was this force that it led them to embrace even heresy in order to defend and maintain their spiritual culture. Finally the culture was more important to them than the gospel — preserving their rites and ceremonies, the view of themselves as the center of God's interest in the world was more important than believing God's word and obeying it.
We'll treat Acts 10-11 from that vantage point over the next several Lord's Day evenings, Lord willing.