Acts Lesson Twenty-three: Acts 11:1-18 – The Jerusalem Church Accepts the Gentiles

The apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles had welcomed God’s message also. When Peter went up to Jerusalem, those who stressed circumcision argued with him, saying, “You visited uncircumcised men and ate with them!” 

Peter began to explain to them in an orderly sequence, saying: “I was in the town of Joppa praying, and I saw, in a visionary state, an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners from heaven, and it came to me. When I looked closely and considered it, I saw the four-footed animals of the earth, the wild beasts, the reptiles, and the birds of the sky. Then I also heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat!’ 

“‘No, Lord!’ I said. ‘For nothing common or ritually unclean has ever entered my mouth!’ But a voice answered from heaven a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call common.’ 

10 “Now this happened three times, and then everything was drawn up again into heaven. 11 At that very moment, three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were. 12 Then the Spirit told me to accompany them with no doubts at all. These six brothers accompanied me, and we went into the man’s house. 13 He reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa, and call for Simon, who is also named Peter. 14 He will speak a message to you that you and all your household will be saved by.’ 

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came down on them, just as on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore, if God gave them the same gift that He also gave to us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how could I possibly hinder God?” 

18 When they heard this they became silent. Then they glorified God, saying, “So God has granted repentance resulting in life even to the Gentiles!” (HCSB)

After the conversion of Cornelius and his household, Peter travels back to Jerusalem to relay what had occurred in Caesarea among the Gentiles.

The majority of this passage is a repeat of the events that occurred in chapter ten. Instead of reviewing those portions, this lesson will concentrate on the few but important differences. If you’d like to review chapter ten, please look at Acts lessons twenty-one and twenty-two.

Peter heads back to Jerusalem after spending several days with Cornelius. By the time Peter makes it back to Jerusalem, the events that unfolded were already known. In verses two and three, it becomes clear that not all the believers were happy about what occurred in Caesarea. This will be our first discussion point.

The Circumcision Sect is Not Happy

The term “those who stressed circumcision” is pointing to a strong legalistic segment within the Judean church. Let’s discuss what is known about this group and the general resistance to the inclusion of Gentiles into salvation.

  • Just as many religious leaders in Judaism were entrenched in legalism, the same problem existed to an extent within the young church. We need to remember that those who comprised the early church were almost entirely made up of those who converted from Judaism.
    • They represented a conservative minority within the church.
    • They were dedicated to protecting the Jewish perspective on Christianity.
  • At this point, many Jewish Christians viewed it simply as a smaller movement within mainstream Judaism.
  • The issues of Jewish purity and their purity laws and customs would be prevalent in the practices and thought processes of these early Jewish Christians.
    • They followed Jewish dietary customs about what could and couldn’t be eaten.
    • Not associating with Gentiles, especially during mealtime, as their food would be considered unclean.
  • This group didn’t have any issue with:
    • Sharing the Gospel.
    • The outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
    • Baptism in the name of Jesus.
  • The new believers didn’t understand the relationship between the Law and grace, Jews and Gentiles, and Israel and the church.
  • There were many converted priests in the Christian church, and these men would likely be zealous for the Law.
  • They felt that any Gentile who became a Christian must also convert to Judaism and follow the procedures to become a full Jewish proselyte.
    • Follow Jewish dietary customs.
    • Become circumcised.
  • The group’s concern was not that the Gentile believers were baptized; it was that Peter shared a meal with them.
    • By sharing a meal with them, Peter demonstrated his acceptance of them being Christian brothers and sisters.
    • However, they were not circumcised, going against Jewish custom.
  • This group may be the same one mentioned in Acts 15:5.

The Issue of Cornelius

There is one additional nugget of information regarding what Cornelius told Peter when the latter arrived in Caesarea. In his vision, Cornelius related how the angel told him that Peter would speak a message that would result in his and his household’s salvation. This would explain their eager anticipation in hearing the message Peter brought. 

Another important to consider as Peter relates the events that occurred in Caesarea is that Peter never mentions the centurion’s name. Who he is isn’t important to the Judean Christians. However, the fact that he was a Gentile is the key sticking point. 

Gentile Pentecost

Peter relates how the Holy Spirit descended upon the household, the same as how the Spirit descended at the Jewish Pentecost in Acts chapter two.

  • Peter remembered what Jesus had told the disciples.
    • John baptized with water.
    • They would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
  • This is the third “Pentecost” event described in Acts.
    • Jewish Pentecost in Acts 2.
    • Samaritan Pentecost in Acts 8.
    • The Gentile Pentecost in Acts 11.
  • The fact that God would pour out the Spirit on the Gentiles was a crucial point as Peter explained the event in Caesarea.
    • It was a testimony that God had truly saved the Gentiles.
    • If God approved of the Gentiles, how could Peter feel any different?
    • The word “hinder” in verse 18 means “to oppose” in the original Greek.
      • Peter couldn’t oppose the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Christian family.
      • Anyone who would oppose their inclusion would be opposing God.
  • At this point, there wasn’t much the “circumcision group” could say as a rebuttal. 
  • However, this isn’t the last time that Gentile inclusion and not following Jewish customs and traditions would be an issue to the church.
  • There were three questions that persisted for years until they were brought before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
    • What lifestyle was appropriate for Gentiles coming to Christ directly from a pagan background?
    • How do the Gentile believers relate to Jewish Christians?
    • How should the Jerusalem church handle these individuals?
  • Although it may appear on the surface that the church successfully dealt with the issue of including Gentiles into the family of God, history shows that the transition wasn’t smooth. The main issue in the socio-political framework was the inclusion of members of the very group who were occupying and controlling Israel.
    • From the 40’s until the Jewish revolt in AD 70, the situation became increasingly tense.
    • During that time, the main issues weren’t food laws and circumcision.
    • To welcome Gentiles as equals could, and was, viewed as fraternizing with the enemy.
    • This would eventually bubble over in AD 70 with the Jewish revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel.
  • In the rapidly changing world we live in today, it is important to keep that point in mind. The church must be faithful to God while navigating the changing socio-political landscape.

Applications

  • Legalism has no part in a biblical church or the lives of followers of Jesus. Yes, there are specific guidelines and doctrines we need to follow (the red letter passages in the New Testament are a good place to start), but just as Jesus pointed out the lack of understanding of the Pharisees, we need to make sure we don’t do the same things. 
  • When confronted by fellow believers, we need to maintain a calm demeanor and exhibit patience, and be directed by the Spirit. This is precisely what Peter did in this passage. The pre-Pentecost Peter would likely have had a confrontation with the circumcision sect. However, the Spirit-led Peter was able to calmly explain the events that transpired and point out that God’s hand was leading the Gentiles into the family of God.
  • Discussion and debate within the body of Christ are ok if…it doesn’t become divisive. We must all agree on the “majors” of the faith and not let the “minors” create disunity. This is especially true across denominational lines. As an example, whether we baptize someone by immersion or sprinkling will not change whether they are saved or not. Only faith in our resurrected Savior will restore our broken fellowship with God.

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