The Gospel Given to the Gentiles
Saul of Tarsus was not only converted directly by the Lord Jesus; he was also called just as directly by Jesus to be an apostle, and especially an apostle to the Gentiles. But other instruments were also used in the beginning of the Gentile mission. Even Peter, whose work continued for a number of years afterwards to be chiefly among the Jews, was led by the Holy Spirit to take a notable step in the offering of the gospel freely to the whole world.
During the period of peace which followed after the persecution at the time of the death of Stephen, Peter went down to labor in the coastal plain of Palestine. Acts 9:31–43. At Lydda he healed a lame man, Æneas; at Joppa, on the coast, he raised Dorcas from the dead. And it was at Joppa that he received the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to the reception of Gentiles into the Church. Ch. 10.
Acts, Chapter 10
At midday Peter went up upon the flat housetop to pray. There he fell into a trance, and saw a vessel like a great sheet let down from heaven, and in it all kinds of animals which it was forbidden in the Mosaic Law to use for food. A voice came to him: "Rise, Peter; kill and eat. But Peter said. Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean. And a voice came unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, make not thou common. And this was done thrice: and straightway the vessel was received up into heaven."
The meaning of this vision was soon made plain. A Roman officer, Cornelius, a devout Gentile, living at Cæsarea, which was a seaport about thirty miles north of Joppa, had been commanded in a vision to send for Peter. The messengers of Cornelius arrived at Peter's house just after Peter's vision was over. The Holy Spirit commanded Peter to go with them. Arriving at Cæsarea, the apostle went into the house where Cornelius and his friends were assembled, and there proclaimed to them the gospel of the Lord Jesus. While he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were present, upon the Gentiles as well as upon the Jews. Then said Peter, "Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?" So the Gentiles were baptized.
A very important step had been taken. Cornelius, it is true, was a "God-fearer"—that is, he belonged to the class of Gentiles frequently mentioned in the book of The Acts who worshiped the God of Israel and were friendly to the Jews. Nevertheless, he was still outside the covenant people, and under the old dispensation he could not be received into covenant privileges until he united himself with the nation by submitting himself to the whole Mosaic Law. Yet now such restrictions were removed by the plain guidance of the Spirit of God. Evidently an entirely new dispensation had begun.
At Jerusalem Peter's strange action in receiving Gentiles into the Church without requiring them to become Jews gave rise to some discussion. Acts 11:1–18. But the apostles had no difficulty in convincing the brethren of the necessity for what he had done. The guidance of the Holy Spirit had been perfectly plain. When the brethren heard what Peter said, "they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life."
The freedom of the Gentiles had not yet, however, fully been revealed. For a time the case of Cornelius seems to have been regarded as exceptional. The Holy Spirit had plainly commanded Peter to receive Cornelius and his friends without requiring them to be united to the people of Israel, but perhaps similar definite guidance was required before others could be received. The underlying reason for Gentile freedom, in other words, had not yet fully been revealed.
The revelation, however, was not long delayed; it came especially through the Apostle Paul. But meanwhile Paul was being prepared for his work.
Acts 9:19-30, and Parallels
After the journey to Arabia, which was mentioned at the end of Lesson XVI, Paul returned to Damascus, and preached to the Jews, endeavoring to convince them that Jesus was really the Messiah. His preaching aroused opposition, and the Jews, with the help of an officer of King Aretas of Arabia, had tried to kill him. But the brethren lowered him over the city wall in a basket, and so he escaped to Jerusalem, Acts 9:23–25; II Cor. 11:31–33, where he desired to become acquainted with Peter. No doubt he then talked with Peter especially about the events of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the appearances of the risen Christ. He also engaged in preaching to the Greek-speaking Jews. But when these Greek-speaking Jews sought to kill him, the brethren sent him away to Tarsus. He was unwilling to go, being desirous of repairing the harm which he had done to the church at Jerusalem; but a definite command of the Lord Jesus sent him now forth to the country of the Gentiles. Acts 9:26–30; 22:17–21; Gal. 1:18–24. He labored in or near Tarsus, preaching the faith which formerly he had laid waste.
Meanwhile an important new step in the progress of the gospel into the Gentile world was taken at Antioch. Acts 11:19–26. Antioch, the capital of the Roman province of Syria, was situated on the Orontes River, near the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. It was the third greatest city of the empire, ranking immediately after Rome and Alexandria. And among the great Gentile cities it was the first which was encountered on the march of the gospel out from Jerusalem to the conquest of the world.
At Antioch, certain unnamed Jews of Cyprus and Cyrene, who had been scattered from Jerusalem by the persecution at the time of Stephen's death, took the important step of preaching the word of God to the Gentiles. Before, they had spoken only to Jews; here they spoke also to the Gentiles. Gentiles were received no longer merely in isolated cases like the case of Cornelius, but in large numbers. To investigate what had happened, Barnabas, an honorable member of the early Jerusalem church, Acts 4:36, 37, was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch. Barnabas at once recognized the hand of God, and sent to Tarsus to seek Paul. He and Paul then labored abundantly in the Antioch church. At Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called "Christians"—no doubt by the Gentile population of the city. The fact is not unimportant. It shows that even outsiders had come to see that the Christian Church was something distinct from Judaism. A distinct name had come to be required.
QUESTIONS ON LESSON XVII
- Describe the conversion of Cornelius in detail. What was the importance of the event?
- What was the meaning of Peter's vision on the housetop at Joppa?
- What important step was taken at Antioch?
- Trace the part of Barnabas in furthering the work of Paul.
- Show how every successive step in the offering of the gospel to the Gentiles was taken under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.