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 death. 25 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!)