In our study this week of Acts 10-15 we are going to cover over 15, possibly 20 years of history. The church will experience a sudden surge in growth due to missionary efforts, but this growth will also bring many challenges because of ethnic, cultural, and doctrinal differences among the members of the church and leadership of the church.
The struggles of integrating new cultures, ideas, and people into a fairly homogeneous church membership has always existed. In this case, we have Jewish Christians that want to keep their traditions, which they believed were based in doctrine, and expected new converts to abide by those precepts. It is not dissimilar to the struggles that our churches face today. We have so many different people with different cultures and ideas, all of which we believe are based in doctrine, and expect everyone to confirm to our way of seeing things. The lesson we will learn this week from Peter, however, is that we must let our preconceived doctrines and cultural ideas go and let the spirit teach us new things so the Lord can influence all people.
As mentioned, another important lesson learned in this week’s study is how easy it is for cultural norms to be disguised as doctrine. When most members of the church, even leaders at times, say “the doctrine is this, or the doctrine is that” they are likely just expressing cultural norms that have become so common place that they are taken as doctrine by many. This leads to very difficult situations when things change in the future and it is important that we keep open minds that our way of seeing things, even doctrine, may be incorrect, or that things may change to accommodate the needs of the church.
What I loved most about this section of the New Testament was the bridge building nature of Peter and Paul. They truly loved the people who were being converted to the gospel, even though most of the converts were so different from them and many with the church were vehemently disagreeing with their baptisms. This just emphasizes to me how important bridge building is within the Lord’s church. Bringing us together and uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ is a singular goal of the church and we can all make a huge difference in our sphere of influence if we want to.
Finally, we get to see the first ever General Conference of the church in Chapter 15 and I think we should consider what it would have been like to have an entire conference dedicated to deciding if people needed to be circumcised to be baptized into the church!!
CHAPTERS FOR STUDY WEEK 28 – Acts 10-15
– Diversity within the Church has always brought challenges, but accepting and loving each other for our differences is part of being like Christ.
– Sometimes our traditions, even if based on doctrine, can blind us to new paths that the Lord would want us to go.
– Trusting in the Spirit will lead to miracles.
Context and Timeline:
– Cornelius was a leader of 100 soldiers in the Roman army. His legion was called the Italica. When the verse says that he was God-Fearing it actually meant that he was a follower of Judaism but had not been circumcised and so he was not a full member of the religion. As leader of his house, he would have determined the religion of every member of the house including servants and slaves.
– Unclean animals were – Bat, Camel, Chameleon, Coney (hyrax), Cormorant, Cuckow (cuckoo), Eagle, Ferret, Frog, Gier eagle, Glede, Great owl, Hare, Hawk, Heron, Kite, Lapwing, Little owl, Lizard, Mole, Mouse, Night hawk, Osprey, Ossifrage, Owl, Pelican, Pig, Raven, Snail, Stork, Swine, Tortoise, Vulture, Weasel, and many others were considered “common” where Jews would not eat by tradition (other reptiles, amphibians, birds, etc.).
– Antioch, located in the south of modern Turkey, became the hub of Christianity during Roman times with close to 100,000 Christians around 250 AD.
– Joppa is the city now called Jaffa in Israel and is on the northern coast of Israel.
– Agabus was called a prophet in Acts, he was a Seventy that was with the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and had the spirit of prophecy.
– Claudius – emperor 41-54 AD, was the Emperor of Rome during the time Agabus predicted a severe famine in Judea, which happened based on historical records between 45-48 AD.
– Christian was not the original name of the followers of Jesus, they were called the Way, until after many were gathering in Antioch, they began to be called Christians and the Church of Christ.
– The Herod who beheaded James is Herod Agrippa, not Herod Antipas. Agrippa was beloved by most Jews, and was devout in his belief of Judaism. He was also influential with Caligula and Claudius, which is how he came to become King instead of Tetrarch of the lands around Israel from 41-44 AD. His death was recorded by Josephus for similar reasons that Acts chapter 12 relates – for declaring himself to be above God.
– In these chapters we get further information about the ecclesiastical structure of the early church. Apostles were considered the leaders, but missionaries as a main function. Elders were to administer the temporal affairs of the church in each location with Deacons assisting them in their efforts.
– Silas or Silvanus was an influential missionary of the early Christian church. He was selected to accompany Paul on numerous missions and was a co-author of the Epistle to the Thessalonians.
There are a handful of key moments in the chapters we study for this week, but the most important to the trajectory of the church is the very first story of Cornelius the centurion. Cornelius is a follower of Judaism, unable to convert because he cannot become circumcised, and he has a vision in which an angel tells him that he needs to send some of his men to Joppa to visit with a man named Peter.
Shortly before the men arrive where he is staying, Peter has a vision of a giant sheet that contains all kinds of animals, both clean, unclean, and common. The Lord commands Peter to kill them and eat them, to which Peter responds like, “Uhh Lord you know I won’t eat those unclean and common animals.” The Lord then tells Peter that whatever God cleanses should not be called unclean. The vision is repeated three times and at the end of the third Peter is told by the Spirit that there are men to see him.
Peter then visits with the men and is told of the vision Cornelius had just had and Peter agrees to go with the men to visit with Cornelius. When Peter arrives he has decided the meaning of his vision is that Gentiles should be allowed to be baptized and the division between Jew and Gentile should be removed. He relates his vision and his interpretation to Cornelius and his household, and this spurs Cornelius to recount his vision as well.
Peter is moved by this experience and sees even more clearly the importance of every person receiving baptism and redemption through Christ. He testifies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the Day of Pentecost is repeated, only this time for the Gentiles as well. This astonishes Peter’s companions, but Peter sees the truth and instructs all who believe to be baptized. This may seem like a logical thing to us, but at this time it was a very controversial decision that could have caused the entire church to separate. At this point in time, those who believed in Christ considered themselves followers of Judaism just with the extra truth that Jesus was the Messiah. This meant that converts had to live the Law of Moses and additional doctrines that were instituted by Christ and the apostles. Therefore it was not only against the law for Gentiles to be baptized, but it was unlawful for them to associate with each other so closely. Peter threw all of that out and then some by baptizing Cornelius and his household.
When Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is greeted with a revolt. The most orthodox of the believers challenge Peter about the fact that Gentiles are not circumcised. Peter relates the two visions, the conversation, and the witness of the Holy Spirit and the men are satisfied with his decision. They are still very surprised and I am certain that they were left questioning a great many things about their traditional beliefs.
While this is happening in Jerusalem, the church is growing like crazy in Antioch. The church is getting so large in Antioch that it becomes the hub for centuries after this. Paul has his home base there and for the first time the church receives a name that sticks. They are called Christians that his point and their movement continues to grow and concern the political leaders around them.
Jacob (James) is beheaded by Herod Agrippa during the Passover and Peter was arrested as a result of the growth of the movement. Peter is miraculously saved from prison by an angel. Herod kills the guards responsible for Peter’s escape and is determined to stamp out the Christian movement. However, before he can do anything else, Herod takes a symbolic step to show that he is above God to the people and immediately dies and the Christian movement is able to continue.
We learn that there are many prophets and teachers who are inspired by the Holy Ghost to teach and prophesy in Antioch and so the apostles set apart Barnabas and Saul to be apostles. They were then sent on their first mission to the areas of Cyprus and Pisidia.
During Saul’s first mission he visits Cyprus and then on to Psidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and back through those cities on the way back to Antioch. From this point forward we mostly address Saul as Paul (his formal Roman name). Paul and Barnabas have success, despite conflict and opposition, in every city that they visit. However, their success puts them in danger in each place and so they are forced to move to new cities as they go along. Among the main issues that caused danger for them is their teachings that Gentiles can be baptized even though they are not circumcised. Paul responds to these dissidents by saying the pride of the Jews is the reason that the gospel is moving on to the Gentiles, which only makes these Jewish people more hostile toward Paul and Barnabas.
Despite the persecution by Jews in their travels, Paul and Barnabas have a lot of success in growing the church. They relate this to the leaders of the church in Antioch along with the continuing issue related to Gentiles and circumcision. This message forces the hand of the apostles to call the first general conference of the church in Jerusalem.
The entire purpose of the conference is to discuss the matter related to circumcision and kosher requirements for all baptized members of the church. Many believed that one could not be a member of the church if they were not circumcised and kosher Jews. However, the event that Peter experienced and the subsequent growth of the church among the Gentiles through Paul and other’s efforts had shown that was not doctrine.
After discussion the conference decides that Gentile converts will be allowed to forego circumcision and some aspects of the Law of Moses, but Jewish born Christians must still comply with those precepts. This is written in a letter that is delivered to Antioch and spread abroad by Paul and Barnabas. I think it is awesome that different members had to obey different rules just so all people could have baptism, the Holy Spirit, and full fellowship in the church. However, this was the first of many difficulties related to traditions of the initial Jewish Christians and that mixing with Gentile converts around the world.
Paul and Barnabas are supposed to set out on their second mission, but they have a falling out over Barnabas’s desire to bring John Mark with them since Paul felt he totally dropped the ball on their last mission. So they separate and Paul takes Silas and Barnabas takes John Mark as they set out to declare the gospel and the new direction from the leaders of the church.
Why was being kosher and circumcised so important to the Jewish Christians? What can this tell us about some of our cultural doctrines? How should we treat converts who might have different cultural ideas than us?
How do you feel Peter handled this difficult crises regarding Gentiles and their conversion? How would it make you feel if new converts were held to a different standard than you in the church?
What lessons can we learn from Peter and Paul as they sought to bridge the gap between the Jewish Christians and new Gentile converts?
Key Moment or Scripture: Acts 10:9-15, 19-23, 28-35
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.
12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you.
20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.
28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.
29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me
31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor.
32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’
33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism
35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
I will spend more time articulating my feelings on the importance of unifying the Body of Christ when we study Corinthians, but I think it is important to see through the events in this scripture section to see that when it comes to fellow believers of Christ we should err on the side of accepting each other as disciples and believers despite our particular ideas and practices. We should seek to strengthen, encourage, and support instead of seeking to correct, judge, condemn, ostracize, and criticize. We don’t have to agree on everything but disagreements are how we learn to love each other, not reasons to separate from each other.
Some of the most important doctrines we believe in come when a traditional belief is challenged. The subsequent prayer, fasting, and deliberation brings forth new revelations that change the world. I believe that it is always right to consider and believe that God is seeking the salvation of all of His children. This is true regardless of the person’s race, culture, sexual orientation, family situation, being married or single, gender, political persuasion, and so many other things that cause us to divide ourselves.
With the church membership exploding and the ability to travel increasing, the following chapters will take us with Paul as he seeks to establish the church across the world. The chapter this week show the first difficulties in bringing new people into the church. They had to have a huge conference just to deal with circumcision. Things will continue to explode, and the problems of keeping everyone together will get even more difficult. I love these early disciples who gave everything they had, including their lives, to bring the message of the gospel to the world. It is incredible what they were willing to do and the miracles they brought about. I think we could see so many more miracles if we trusted the Lord down to our very lives more. That kind of faith is something that can motivate us to find little ways in our lives to increase our trust in the Lord.