Excerpt: Phase III of the Early Church commenced when the First Gentiles were accepted into the church. This caused a dispute about whether they have to comply with the Law of Moses. This phase closed 10 years later with the decision that they do not.
The first 30 years of the church can be divided into four phases. The third phase commenced with Acts 10. This chapter can be divided into two events, both of which were shocks to the early church.
The first was the vision which Peter received in Joppa (10:5, 10). Through this vision, Peter, representing the church, discovered that Gentiles are not unclean (10:15, 28), that God does not show partiality to the Jews (10:34), and that people from all races and nations are welcome to Him if they fear Him and do what is right (10:35). This was a shock to the church because it previously thought of Gentiles as unclean and as not welcomed by God, even Gentiles that fear Him and does what is right. The church previously thought only Jews are welcomed by God and that they (the church) are accepted by God because they are Jews. The purpose of the vision was to convince Peter to “accompany them (the Gentiles) without misgivings” (10:20, 29), and to prepare him for the second event.
The second event—and shock to the early church—was when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles while they were listening to Paul (10:44-45); “all the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed” (10:45). The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews received the Holy Spirit in the beginning. This made such a huge impression on Peter that he mentioned it twice when he reported back to the Christians in Jerusalem (11:15, 17), and once again during the Jerusalem Church Council (Acts 15:8). The purpose of this event was to show the church that believing Gentiles must be baptized into the church (10:45). This was the first time that Gentiles were allowed to join the church. Before this event, the church had no idea that the gospel must of may be preached to Gentiles.
However, this is not a completely accurate statement. Because the believers included circumcised Gentiles, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is not exactly the same as between circumcised and uncircumcised people. The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people and to share equally in the duties and benefits of the Law of Moses (Ex. 12:48-49; Deut. 23:8; Isa. 14:1; 56:6-8). Such Gentiles are called proselytes (Mat. 23:15; Acts 13:43). They were circumcised and observed the Law of Moses. As far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and “uncircumcised men”. That is why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and to the circumcised, instead of Jews (for instance Eph. 2:11; Gal. 2:7; Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1). Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles). Similarly “Gentiles” must be read to exclude Gentiles that converted to Judaism.
The real surprise in Acts 10 (to the early church) was not that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit because Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before (6:5). The real surprise and real lesson in Acts 10, to the Jewish mind of the early church, was that “uncircumcised” Gentiles, who do not observe the Law of Moses, received the Holy Spirit. Before these events the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only. The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well, and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.
The events of Acts 10 provide further evidence that, up to the time that Gentiles received the Holy Spirit in Acts 10, all Christians observed the Law of Moses:
Peter said, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14).
The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which implies that they observed the Law of Moses. They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45). Gentiles, therefore, are mentioned as the opposite of “circumcised”. This means that uncircumcised people (Gentiles)—namely people that do not observe the Law of Moses—have never before received the Holy Spirit.
This was the first time that “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18) and that Gentiles were baptized (10:47), which means that only Jews previously accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and were baptized.
The church, until the time of the events in Acts 10, not only consisted of Jews only; they also strictly observed all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ. But since all other church members observed the Law of Moses, the question afterward arose whether the Gentiles that have accepted Jesus must not still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. Since his vision informed Peter that Gentiles must be accepted as clean and since the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles, just like on the Jews at Pentecost, Acts 10 seems to indicate that these Gentile Christians do not have to convert to Judaism through circumcision. The third phase concluded when the church made a formal decision that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses. This is recorded in Acts 15.
Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time (Acts 10) more or less 7 to 10 year after Pentecost. There were a further about ten years between the events in Acts 10 and Acts 15. In other words, only about 20 years after Pentecost did the church formally agree that Gentiles may join the church without circumcision and without the need to observe the Law of Moses.
ACTS 10 SUMMARIZED
A Gentile at Caesarea named Cornelius (10:1), a devout man who feared God and prayed to God continually (10:2, 22), saw a vision of an angel who said to him to send for Peter (10:3-6, 30-32), for “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved” (11:14). Cornelius sent two servants and a devout soldier to Peter (10:7-8).
As they were nearing the place where Peter was, Peter also had a vision (10:9-10; 11:5). He saw the sky opened up, and a great sheet coming down, filled with all kinds of animals and crawling creatures and birds (10:11-12). He heard a voice saying, “Peter, kill and eat!” (10:13; 11:7). But Peter answered, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14; 11:8). Then the voice said to him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (10:15; 11:9). This happened three times (10:16; 11:10).
Peter was greatly perplexed about the vision. While he was still thinking about it, the men from Cornelius appeared at the gate (10:17), asking for Peter (10:18). The Spirit said to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Go down and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (10:19-20; 11:12). Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; why have you come?” (10:21-22) They said, “Cornelius was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (10:22). Peter invited them in and gave them lodging (10:23).
The next day Peter and some of the brethren went with Cornelius’ men to Caesarea (10:23). Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends (10:24-27). Peter said to them:
“You know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for.” (10:28-29).
After Cornelius explained the vision he had seen (10:30-33), Peter continued:
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (10:34-35).
Peter then explained to them what Jesus Christ did in the land of the Jews, that He was crucified, but resurrected and appeared to chosen witnesses, and that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (10:36-43). While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening, just as He fell on the Jews at the beginning, and they spoke with tongues and exalted God (10:44-46; 11:15). This amazed the circumcised believers who came with Peter (10:45). Then Peter said, “Surely no one can refuse to baptize a person who has received the Holy Spirit, can he?” (10:47) Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:48).
The apostles and the Christians in Judea heard what happened (11:1). So when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3). Peter then explained to them what happened 11:4-16) and concluded:
“If God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17)
The Christians in Jerusalem then concluded:
“Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
Most of Acts 10 describes that happened, interspersed with conclusions expressed by Peter and others (10:28-29, 34-35, 47; 11:17-18). These conclusions are important. We should not develop our own interpretations of these incidents.
Peter’s first conclusion in Acts 10 is his interpretation of the vision. He said when he arrived at Caesarea:
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28). “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for” (10:29).
This has a number of implications:
Firstly, Peter thought of himself primarily as a Jew; a loyal member of Judaism, and only secondarily as a Christian. He thought of Christianity as a subset of Judaism, namely as the Jews that believe in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Secondly, the Jews in general, including the Christians—since all Christians at this point in time were Jews—considered Gentiles to be “unholy and unclean”, which made it unlawful for Christians to associate with Gentiles or to visit them. For that reason, as stated in verse 29, Peter would not have been willing to go with Cornelius’ to Cornelius’ house if he did not receive the vision.
This is confirmed by what happened when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem when his fellow church members: “took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2, 3). In other words, the church strongly disapproved of eating with “uncircumcised men”.
We also see in Galatians, written much later, that some Christian Jews still then considered eating with Gentiles to be a grievous sin (Gal. 2:12). This was the attitude in the Jewish culture of which the church was part. The Jews despised Gentiles.
We see an illustration of this in Acts 21, where Paul addresses the non-Christian Jews. They listened quite attentively, but the moment he mentioned God saying to him “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21), the Jews were in an uproar (22:22).
Another striking example of the Jews’ hatred of Gentiles is found in Luke 4. In verse 22 “all were speaking well of Him (Jesus)”, but when He mentioned two examples from the Old Testament where Gentiles were chosen above Israelites (4:25-27), “all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28) and “drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill … in order to throw Him down the cliff” (4:29).
NOT A MESSAGE ABOUT FOOD
Many people think that the purpose of the vision of the sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed creatures” was to allow Christians to eat “unclean” animals, but Peter’s vision must be interpreted as Peter himself interpreted it, namely that “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28). The purpose of the vision was not to say something about food but to convince Peter to accompany the uncircumcised men, which Cornelius sent, “without misgivings” (10:20). To interpret the vision as saying anything about what Christians may eat is taking it out of its context. One should not separate Peter’s vision from the entire incident,
Peter’s next conclusion, made at the beginning of his speech in Cornelius’ house, was:
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (10:34-35).
This means that he (and the church in general) previously understood that God does show partiality, namely to Jews, and that other people are NOT welcome to God; even people who fears Him and does what is right. Israel thought of itself as the Chosen People.
OBSERVE THE LAW OF MOSES
It has been shown above, in the discussion of the Judea & Samaria phase, that all Christians in that phase observed the Law of Moses. This would then be true up to the point in time when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit for the first time in Acts 10. This is confirmed by the events of Acts 10 and 11:
Peter’s response, “I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14), indicates that the church, up to that point in history, did not eat anything unholy and unclean. This implies that the church, at the time, still observed the Jewish laws.
The believers that came with Peter are described as “circumcised”, which, in this context, means that they observed the Law of Moses. They were “amazed“ when “Gentiles” also received the Holy Spirit (10:45). Gentiles, therefore, are the opposite of “circumcised” people. Gentiles are “uncircumcised” (11:3). Since Peter’s “circumcised” companions were amazed that “uncircumcised men” (11:3) received the Holy Spirit, we can conclude that this never happened before, which means that all Christians previously observed the Law of Moses.
Peter, after he saw that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, said: “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he? “ (10:47) This, therefore, was the first time that Gentiles were baptized. Peter—and therefore the church in general—previously thought that, because the Jews were God’s chosen people, only Jews may be baptized.
The conclusion of the Christians in Jerusalem, after Peter reported back to them, was, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). This confirms that this was the first time that Gentiles accepted Jesus as Christ (Messiah).
The church, up to that point in history, not only consisted only of Jews; they also observed strictly all Jewish laws and traditions, but obviously, as taught and applied by Christ.
The distinction between Jew and Gentile requires further explanation.
Acts 10:45-11:3 describes the believers as “circumcised” and Gentiles as “uncircumcised men”. This is the first time that the Book of Acts refers to people in such a way”. It says, “those who were circumcised took issue with him (Peter), saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:2-3). Why does Acts now suddenly refer to circumcised and uncircumcised men, instead of Jews and Gentiles?
Furthermore, Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit before, for instance, “Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (6:5). Why then were the “circumcised believers” “amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles” (10:45)?
The answer is that, as far as religious matters are concerned, the Jews did not distinguish between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between “circumcised” and “uncircumcised men”. The Old Testament allowed Gentiles to become part of God’s covenant people:
Deut. 23:8 speaks of “one who enters into the assembly of Jacob“.
Isa. 14:1 mentions converts as “strangers” who shall “cleave to the house of Jacob“.
Joshua led the people of God across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thanks to a Gentile woman, named Rahab, the city of Jericho is taken. Rahab not only protects the Hebrew spies from her own people but also confessed the Lord with her mouth, saying, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you … the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9, 11). Rahab joined the people of Israel, and she was included in the genealogy of the Messiah Himself (Matthew 1:5).
Naomi was an Israelite whose husband and sons died in the foreign land of Moab. Both her sons had married Moabite women. While one of their wives stayed in Moab, the other – Ruth – followed Naomi back to the land of Judah, where she married the kinsman-redeemer Boaz (whose mother was Rahab). A whole book in the Bible is devoted to her, and she also became an ancestor of Christ (Matthew 1:5).
A Gentile that put his or her faith in YHWH is called a “proselyte”:
Jesus said to the Jews, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte” (Mat. 23:15). (See also Acts 13:43)
The duties and benefits which the Old Testament bestowed on Jews apply equally to proselytes. They were also circumcised and they also observed the Law of Moses:
Ex. 12:48 provides for the proselyte’s partaking of the paschal lamb.
“The same law shall be to him that is born in the land, and to the proselyte that sojourneth with you” (Ex. 12:49).
“Foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD … and who hold fast to my covenant-these I will … give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-8).
Jews would not “associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (Acts 10:28) or eat with them (11:3) because they were thought to be “unclean”. But once a Gentile has been circumcised and “observe the Law of Moses” (15:5) and the Jewish customs, they were no longer viewed as unclean.
The real distinction was therefore not between Abraham’s physical descendants and Gentiles, but between circumcised and uncircumcised. That is also why Paul so often referred to the uncircumcised, instead of Gentiles, and circumcised, instead of Jews:
“Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision” (Eph. 2:11)
“But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter” (Gal. 2:7 KJV; See also Col. 2:11, Rom. 2:25-29; 3:1).
Therefore, where-ever this article refers to “Jews” the reader must understand “circumcised believers”, which include proselytes (circumcised Gentiles).
It, therefore, did not surprise the Jews when a Gentile proselyte received the Holy Spirit. The surprise, in Acts 10, was that uncircumcised Gentiles, that do not observe the Law of Moses, have received the Holy Spirit. Before these events, the apostles preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to circumcised people only. The purpose of the events in Acts 10 was to show that the gospel must be preached to uncircumcised people as well and that Gentiles must be accepted into the church without conversion to Judaism.
In Acts 2 the apostles received the Holy Spirit without the intervention of other people, but in Acts 10-11 the apostle Peter went to the Gentiles for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Similar to the Samaritans, who received the Holy Spirit only after the apostles went to Samaria and laid hands on them, the authority of the apostles and therefore the unity of the church was preserved.
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
1. Jerusalem Phase – the church consisted of Jews only.
2. Judea and Samaria Phase – all Christians still observed the Law of Moses.
3. Gentile Dispute Phase starts when a dispute arose whether Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses.
4. The Separation Phase started when the Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.
5. This history has theological implications for the New Testament letters.
6. Estimated dates for significant events in the history of the early church.
See Early Church Table of Contents for a more complete description of these articles.