Galatians: A Lesson from Acts, Part 1 (Acts 10, part 1)

I’ve been asked to teach a combined class in support of the Galatians series of lessons, based on Acts 10, 11, and 15, that is, the chapters in which the apostles wrestle with how the Gentiles might become Christians.

We covered some of that material in the Introduction, and we’ll cover more when we get into chapter 2, in which Paul discusses his dealings with the apostles in Jerusalem. But what the original materials don’t cover is the conversion of Cornelius.

We’ve studied Acts in our last two quarters, but not all the classes made it all the way to chapter 10 (mine didn’t). I hope this isn’t too repetitive.

Chapter 10 — Cornelius converted

The normal Sunday school class version of Cornelius’s conversion (forgive me for not always saying “Cornelius and his household,” which would be more correct, but it’s a lot to type) is to conclude, correctly, that this proves that God extends the gospel to the Gentiles. Skip to chapter 12 — the story of Peter being freed from prison by an angel, which is just so much more suitable for flannel graph presentation than a lesson about circumcision!

But Luke thought Cornelius deserved nearly two entire chapters, and he actually tells the story three times (chapters 10, 11, and 15) — just to make sure we’re paying attention.

(Act 10:1-2 ESV) At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort,  2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.

Cornelius  was a centurion in the Roman army. These were, in the minds of the Jews, occupiers, indeed, the hated enemy who stood between the Jews and the freedom promised them by God through the prophets. How could the gospel be given first to a Roman soldier?!

God has a crazy sense of humor, beginning his mission to the Gentiles with the least likely candidate. Cornelius was a God-fearer (uncircumcised worshiper of YHWH) but still a soldier — the leader of around 600 archers. Their job was to keep the peace using the power of Rome to suppress all opposition to the Empire.

(Act 10:3-6 ESV) 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”  4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.  5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter.  6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

“Terror”! Of course, he was afraid. How many Roman soldiers are visited by an angel?

(Act 10:7-8 ESV) 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him,  8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

Interesting that he sent two servants and a soldier to bring Peter. Why a soldier? Presumably so that nothing would hinder Peter. Peter was brought to Cornelius’s home by the power of Rome! Again, delicious irony from God.

(Act 10:9-16 ESV) 9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.  10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance  11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.  12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”  14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”  15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Why a vision? Why not an angel giving a simple, direct message? Why not just say “Go preach the gospel to Cornelius!”? Well, because Jesus had already said,

(Act 1:8 ESV)  8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

(Mat 28:19-20 ESV)  19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Sometimes the simplest commands are the hardest to understand. You see, despite having spent three years with Jesus and received some very direct commands, years after Pentecost, the apostles had not gone to the Gentiles. Why not?

Well, they were First Century Jews, and the Jews knew that circumcision was the seal of God’s covenant with Abraham, predating even the Law of Moses for centuries. They knew that God was very insistent on circumcision.

(Exo 4:24-26 ESV)  24 At a lodging place on the way [to Egypt] the LORD met [Moses] and sought to put him to death25 Then Zipporah [Moses’ wife] took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”  26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

Moses was, to a First Century Jew, the equivalent of Superman — a hero capable of superhuman feats (read Exodus and imagine all the trips up the mountain Moses made at age 80) and with an unparalleled relationship with God. And yet God would have killed him for failing to circumcise his son!

But, of course, circumcision was a huge barrier to the conversion of adults! Remember: No anesthetics. No antibiotics. It’s not the quite the same thing as being circumcised when 8 days old!

Moreover, the promises made by the Prophets regarding the Kingdom were largely about the Jews and Israel. Yes, there were plenty of prophecies about the Gentiles being invited in — going back to Abraham — but it was hardly obvious that this would mean the end to circumcision.

Finally, circumcision placed God’s sign on — of all things — the male’s genitals. (I told Scott Kopf, our youth minister, that I felt sorry for him. He has to teach circumcision to teenagers!) Why?

All sorts of theories have been spun, but my own view is that this was to shield God’s people from worship of fertility gods and goddesses, which was accomplished through sex with temple prostitutes. By the time of Rome, even bestiality had been included as a means of worshiping Pan, the goat god, to encourage the spring rains.

In Greek society, social meals were for men only and typically concluded with time spent with ἑταῖραι, hetairai – high class prostitutes.

Therefore, it’s easy to see how a Jew would consider circumcision as at the core of his religion. It’s marks him as separate from the “fornicating Gentiles” and pledges his faithfulness to God in matters of sexuality.

Moreover, circumcision had become a boundary or identity marker — symbolically showing that the Jews aren’t like the Gentiles. It kept them separate — and feeling superior. Indeed, the rabbis managed to conclude that Adam was created circumcised, because he was created in the image of God, and therefore perfect — and that requires circumcision. (Which tells us something about how they thought of women!)

Circumcision thus was a marker of their superiority to God. To allow the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision would require that they give up their notion of superiority — which is why Paul so often says that in Christ “There is no room for boasting” (52 uses of “boast” in  42 verses!)

 

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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24 Responses to Galatians: A Lesson from Acts, Part 1 (Acts 10, part 1)

  1. John says:

    As most progressives who grew up in the CoC know marks of separation can easily become sources of pride. From baptism down to not eating in the church building (many of the marks depend on which wing of the CoC one is from) many Gospel Meeting sermons were the vehicles for holding our separations high, while members would give the “Did you get that?” look to the visitors.

    But marks of separation, within the right hearts, can be humbling experiences. When Peter likened the flood that “saved Noah” to baptism it is obvious that a man of imperfection, like ourselves, was carried, helplessly, to a place made clean only by God.

    As for Cornelius, yes indeed, what a wonderful example of the “unexpected”. But, in a way I am not surprized. I am one of those liberals who believe that Luke wrote Luke and Acts, and being that Luke was Paul’s traveling companion, and that Paul was a liberal for his day, (I hope no one Choked), remember, he went to the Gentiles, Luke wanted this event to shake everything up.

    I have to admit, there have been times I wondered why the first Gentile convert had to be a soldier. The question of Christians in the military has often created intense discussion and debate. Why not a well known religious leader or philospher? The only answer I can come up with is to teach us that the grace of God is far reaching, farther than we can ever imagine, regardless of how mature or knowledgeable we think we are.

  2. laymond says:

    “Indeed, the rabbis managed to conclude that Adam was created circumcised, because he was created in the image of God, and therefore perfect — and that requires circumcision. (Which tells us something about how they thought of women!)”
    Jay , when you drop little nuggets of wisdom in your posts, like the one above, you make me ask “what the heck, did he mean”

  3. Kevin says:

    John,
    Neither Paul nor Luke were liberal, progressive, conservative, or anything else other than sound, inspired writers. To contend otherwise is to call into question the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. While Luke penned the Gospel account according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit is the one who chose to include the conversion of Cornelius. Luke was certainly not stepping out on his own to “shake things up” with his own agenda.

  4. John says:

    Kevin,
    The Bible is not a product of dictation. It is a collection of writings from different individuals moved by the spirit of God. Each writer had a purpose and goal, many using oral and written traditions, as well as their own insights and experiences. God used them all. Using a word like “AGENDA” that frightens the legalistic mind like does not change that.

  5. I seem to recall that the very same Americans who penned that immortal phrase “that all men are created equal” at the same time bought and sold their human slaves like so many plowhorses, and did not see the disconnect. They fought the “enemies of liberty” while keeping men in chains. We are subject to the most extreme forms of myopia.

    Thus it was with the Jews in the First Century. It apparently took some pretty serious preparation to set Peter up to be able to see the Holy Spirit come upon Gentiles and to draw the obvious conclusion from that experience. His report to Jerusalem has the flavor of, “Hey, I wouldn’t have believed it either, if I hadn’t seen if for myself! I know it sounds crazy, but there’s no getting around it… God is accepting the Gentiles!” I would also note that, of the Twelve, Peter may have been the one most likely not to be shouted down or dismissed for proposing such an apparent heresy to the group. God could have sent anybody to Cornelius, but he did not.

  6. Kevin says:

    John,

    “It is a collection of writings from different individuals moved by the spirit of God.”
    Agreed. Nevertheless, 2 Tim 3:16-17 still applies. If Luke branched out on his own, absent the direction and consent of the Holy Spirit, then he would have been serving his own agenda and his product would not have been inspired. The conversion of Cornelius is included in the Scriptures because the Holy Spirit led Luke to include it, not because a writer perceived a need to shift the Church toward liberalism as you insinuate.

    I don’t understand the point of your last sentence, but I am confused how Luke can be legalistic.

  7. Jeff Richardson says:

    The inspired writers did not have a personal agenda, goal or purpose, their agenda was to teach that which had been delivered to them. A goal, purpose and agenda that each one of us should have. 2 Peter 1:20,21 “knowing this first, that no prophecy (teaching) of scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

  8. John says:

    Open Paul’s letters; you see a reason and a purpose. Open the letters of Peter, John and James; you see a reason and a purpose. Open these letters and you read the writings of men who saw situations, problems, needs, reasons for crying and reasons for rejoicing, who used their knowledge, wisdom and experience to address these problems and needs. There is thought and emotion in them all, and the purpose of God used them all.

  9. Kevin says:

    John,
    But the question is: Did the reason and purpose of Luke’s / Paul’s writings stem from themselves or from the Holy Spirit? To say that Luke was following a purpose other than the Holy Spirit’s is to call into question the nature of inspiration. Consequently if such is true, we can’t trust anything Luke wrote in matters of religion.

  10. Jeff Richardson says:

    Well said John, if a personal agenda is being had by these writers its nothing more than a collection of human wisdom, and worthless. Didn’t God say something about human wisdom? God’s word was given so that we may know Him and His will, not what man thinks is God’s will. Thats the beauty of the inspired pages, I can see for myself what God whats from me, I don’t have to listen to any man.

  11. Kevin says:

    Sorry for hitting “post” too early…

    For as Jeff noted from Peter’s epistle, “…holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” not as they were moved by their own will, purpose, or reason. If Luke’s motivation was to Merely to “shake everything up” then his letter does not belong in the Scriptures.

  12. Jerry says:

    John wrote, “To say that Luke was following a purpose other than the Holy Spirit’s is to call into question the nature of inspiration. Consequently if such is true, we can’t trust anything Luke wrote in matters of religion.”

    That is a huge leap. Luke’s purpose, as a man of faith who was walking in the Spirit and who was very much in tune with the Way that Jesus led, was to communicate the message of God. In this, he was guided and led by the Spirit to write those things that advanced his agenda – and the Spirit’s agenda.

    To say that if Luke’s purpose was not itself directly implanted within him by the Holy Spirit we cannot trust anything he wrote……? What a leap to defend inspiration!

    Do you understand the mechanics of inspiration? I thought not. So are you saying that if your ideas about how the Spirit inspired are not the correct ones, we cannot trust that inspiration is real – and reliable? And what makes you think that the same mechanics had to be used with every part of Scripture? (Granted, I may be reading more into what you said than is justified, but I believe you are reading too much into one definition of inspiration as well.)

  13. John says:

    Both. When these men wrote their letters the living, active process of information from mind to pen was no different than yourself thinking and writing comments on this blog, except God’s purpose was to use THEIR writings for scripture.

    Inspiration is not divine words suddenly becoming a part of someones thoughts and vocabulary. Inspiration is the purpose God coming together in and through the activity of human beings. It was Paul who said that “From God, and through God and to God are ALL things”. All things are used by God to bring about all of God’s purposes at all times. One of those purposes, the Bible.

  14. Jerry says:

    Sorry, my previous post should have been addressed to Kevin, not John.

  15. Kevin says:

    Jerry,
    I couldn’t disagree more.

    As has already been noted, Peter wrote, “…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
    Timothy explains further, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

    “Breathed out by God” is from the Greek word θεόπνευστος or theopneustos (Strong’s G2315) and means “inspired by God” or “divinely breathed in.”

    I believe I have a firm grasp on the concept of verbal, plenary inspiration of the scriptures. Both Timothy and Peter affirm that scripture writer’s were moved by the Holy Spirit and that all scripture is God-breathed. So, yes, the purpose of the book of Acts was the Holy Spirit’s purpose; Luke was merely the mortal instrument that God utilized. If it were not so, then Acts is merely an ancient document of some historical value but of little religious significance.

    I would greatly appreciate it if you would refrain from the insulting sarcasm…i.e “Do you understand the mechanics of inspiration? I thought not.” Such statements are absent of Christian decorum and wholly inconsistent with a blog of this nature. If you disagree, fine, but please do so in a professional manner.

  16. Kevin says:

    John,

    I asked, “Did the reason and purpose of Luke’s / Paul’s writings stem from themselves or from the Holy Spirit?”

    You said, “Both. When these men wrote their letters the living, active process of information from mind to pen was no different than yourself thinking and writing comments on this blog, except God’s purpose was to use THEIR writings for scripture.”

    I disagree wholeheartedly. The difference between my remarks (as well as your remarks / everyone else’s remarks since the 1st century) and the writer’s of scripture are night and day. The Biblical writers were inspired while we are not. How do you reconcile your answer with 2 Pet 1:21 and 1 Tim 3:16 where the inspired writers state the opposite?

  17. Jerry says:

    Kevin,

    How closely did you read what I wrote?

    Luke’s purpose, as a man of faith who was walking in the Spirit and who was very much in tune with the Way that Jesus led, was to communicate the message of God. In this, he was guided and led by the Spirit to write those things that advanced his agenda – and the Spirit’s agenda.

    To say that if Luke’s purpose was not itself directly implanted within him by the Holy Spirit we cannot trust anything he wrote……? What a leap to defend inspiration!

    I did not seriously believe that you believed you understood the mechanics of “verbal, plenary inspiration of the scriptures.” I apologize for my “offensive” way of stating that. However, your refusal to recognize any other legitimate way of understanding Peter and Paul is also not in keeping with good Christian decorum and humility. Note that I have not actually proposed a theory of just how God has given us “verbal, plenary inspiration of the scriptures” – though I believe that He did. I leave the “how” of God’s work up to Him and do not presume to tell Him how He must do what He does.

  18. Kevin says:

    Jerry,

    I’m sorry, but I still think your statement contradicts both Paul and Peter. If what Peter and Paul wrote was true (are they are), then it is impossible for any writer of scripture to have advanced a personal agenda. If the Holy Spirit guided them (and He did), then there is no room for personal agendas. At best, one could argue that the writer’s agenda was to comply with the Holy Spirit’s guidance / divine agenda. In which case, the scripture still originated with God, so the idea is moot.

    It has always been this way. Notice a few brief passages from the OT:
    Deut 18:18 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Jer 1:9 “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.”

    This continued into the NT:
    Matt 22:31 “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:”
    John 16:13 “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
    2 Pet 1:20-21 “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
    2 Tim 3:16 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

    “However, your refusal to recognize any other legitimate way of understanding Peter and Paul is also not in keeping with good Christian decorum and humility.” Jerry, I’m sorry, but I disagree that this is a legitimate way of understanding Peter and Paul. I think it is dangerous. If various writings originated with man rather than God, then it is simply not trustworthy. Scripture is sacred because it is the infallible, inerrant word of God, not the mere good intentions, however noble, of fallible men. Additionally, if a man, writing absent of divine guidance, is capable of generating scripture, who is to say that scripture is not being produced right now? The very definition of inspiration is that it is God-breathed, not man-breathed.

  19. Jerry says:

    Kevin wrote:

    I still think your statement contradicts both Paul and Peter. If what Peter and Paul wrote was true (are they are), then it is impossible for any writer of scripture to have advanced a personal agenda.

    So are you still insisting that your way of understanding Peter and Paul is the only way consistent with what they said and the rest of Scripture? As a matter of fact, I happen to agree (mostly) with what you have said about inspiration. However, I do not claim to have the last word on the subject, nor do I claim to understand the mechanism of just how God provided this blessing to us through the Holy Spirit.

    In these last days He has spoken to us through His Son. His Son promised the Holy Spirit would guide His disciples into all truth. I believe He has done this. But I do not believe that you can limit just how that guidance occurred to what is said by Peter and Paul in the passages you cite.

    In times past, God used many different ways to speak to mankind. One of those ways was through prophets who spoke things they could not possibly have known apart from the Holy Spirit carrying them along. Jesus promised two things to His apostles: (1) The Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all that He Himself had taught them and (2) that the Holy Spirit would also guide them into all truth.

    I believe he has done both of those; I do not claim to know how. (I’m not sure how a discussion of the conversion of Cornelius has turned into a debate over the nature of Biblical inspiration, but I’d like to end it (as far as I am concerned) right here.) I still refuse to place limits on the HOW of inspiration. I believe the Bible is inspired. I believe that the Bible is all of God’s revelation for us today. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit has gone into retirement. I believe He is still active in convicting men of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come. I do not pretend to know just how He does this. If you understand it and can enlighten the rest of us, well and good. However, I still cannot in good conscience sing the 2nd verse (alteration) of the song I Know Not How God’s Wondrous Grace” that reads, “I know just how the Spirit moves….” instead of “I know not how the Spirit moves….” My knowledge does not reach so far. Nor do I know how the Spirit used men of flesh and blood to pen the Holy Scriptures. I do not believe it was a process such as that claimed by Joseph Smith as he “translated” the golden plates by peering into a stone provided by an angel – or claimed by Mohamed as he received the Q’ran at the dictation of an angel. I believe that the personalities, emotions, backgrounds, and prior education of the human authors were involved in the process. Just how? I do not know. Period.

  20. John says:

    Jerry, you are so right. It’s time to give Jay his blog back.

    Jay, my apologies for the discussion drifting so far.

  21. Jerry says:

    John,
    I believe it was your calling Paul a liberal that got Kevin started. And once he started, he didn’t want to turn it loose. But I guess I sort of egged him on a little as well – for which I repent. (But not in sackcloth and ashes.)

  22. Doug says:

    I wonder, if I had been alive and active in one of the Churches that received the original manuscripts of Luke or Acts or any of the other books of the bible, would I have recognized the writings as inspired or the word of God at that time? Or, would I have gladly received the letters as a welcome letter from one of my beloved teachers? I am not questioning the letters as the inspired word of God but it seems like it took almost 400 years for them (the bible) to be recognized as such by Christians.

  23. Jerry says:

    Doug,

    Paul quotes Luke as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18 quotes Luke 10:7), and Peter says that some of Paul’s writings are difficult and that some twist them “as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). These writings were recognized as Scripture – but not all were brought together in a single volume until the late 200’s – mid 300’s. This was from 150-250 years, not 400, after the books were written between A.D. 45(?) earliest, James (maybe) and A.D. 96(?) latest, the most likely date for Revelation.

  24. Doug says:

    Jerry,

    That’s a good point and one I hadn’t thought about. I guess some letters were easier than others to recognize as scripture. Still, there was quite a bit of flux in which letters were considered as the Canon with some moving into the Canon and some moving out of the Canon over the space of 100’s not 10’s of years. As far as how long it took to develop the closed Canon, I guess it depends on when you start counting. I started at Jesus birth and you started at the dates the letters were written. I imagine along the way somewhere, some Christians read letters that they considered holy that we would not consider scripture today. Likewise, some who actually knew the writers of the letters probably read a letter as if it was from a dear highly respected Christian friend and not so much as the word of God. Jesus stood before his brethern and was only a carpenter to them. Today, some Christians still stand before a drug addict and just see a drug addict. They can’t see the Jesus inside the addict.

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