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Conversion of Cornelius (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, August 2007


The following is a 1,200 word essay answering the question: Discuss the significance of Cornelius’ conversion for the nature and mission of the Church in Acts.

The conversion of Cornelius signifies a critical point in the early church. This event is effectively the inauguration of the mission of evangelism to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)[1]. The nature of the church would forever be changed following the episode, with the dawning of a church that fully and equally incorporated both Jews and Gentiles[2].

Luke commences his narrative of the Acts of the Apostles describing the mission of the Apostles to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The church in Jerusalem, consisting predominantly of devout Jews[3] in a culture of Jewish particularism, likely understood this commission in geographical terms for Jews[4]. However, by the time Luke concludes his book, with Paul proclaiming salvation to the Gentiles in Rome (Acts 28:28-31) it has become clear to the church that this commission is better understood in racial and cultural terms[5]. Within this frame-work, the story of Cornelius sits centrally placed as the point where the mission to the Gentiles, those at the “ends of the earth”, began[6].

Prior to the conversion of Cornelius, the church, which was centred in Jerusalem, consisted mainly of Hebraic Jews[7]. Hellenistic Jews who became believers after Pentecost had been dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria following Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1) leaving the more devout, Hebraic Jews in Jerusalem[8]. These Jews continued to practice a disciplined form of Judaism[9]. Acts depicts the apostles continuing to observe times of prayer (Acts 3:1) and dietary laws (Acts 10:14) and to meet in the Temple (Acts 5:12). The church in Jerusalem had the appearance of a sect within Judaism whose members were followers of Jesus as the Messiah[10].

The church, consisting of Jews that maintained the Law, thus had a mission that was focussed within Judaism[11]. There had been conversions within Samaria (Acts 8:5-14), but this was clearly distinct from the incorporation of Gentiles into the church[12]. Samaritans were related to the Jews racially, were circumcised and observed a form of the Mosaic Law[13]. There had also been the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch who was probably a God-fearer, although he was possibly a proselyte[14] (Acts 8:26-38), but this was an isolated event[15]. Furthermore, although not Jews, Ethiopians were traditionally believed to have descended from Solomon[16]. Therefore, even with Samaritans and the Ethiopian, the church maintained its Jewish distinctiveness and focus. It was not until after Peter’s vision in Acts 10 that he and the church began to understand that God’s plan of salvation extended to the Gentiles (Acts 10:28, 11:14)[17].

The significance Luke attaches to the conversion of Cornelius can be inferred from the large amount of text he dedicates to it[18]. Prior to his conversion, Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a devout God-fearing Gentile living in Caesarea, was visited by an angel who instructed him to call for the apostle Peter who was staying in Joppa. Concurrently, Peter received a vision three times, charging him not to call any food unclean when God had made it clean. Some have understood this vision to simply mean that Peter no longer needed to worry about the Jewish dietary laws, and so he could be free to spend time and eat with Cornelius and his family[19]. It is clear from the text however that Peter understood this vision as having the additional meaning that God accepts people from every nation (Acts 10:35)[20]. Following the vision, Peter greeted the men sent by Cornelius and accompanied them back to Caesarea, where he began to tell them the good news of Jesus. As Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon the hearers who spoke in tongues. It was this visible sign that propelled Peter to realize that God had accepted these Gentiles as equal citizens in his Kingdom[21], and he had them baptized (Acts 10:47).

Cornelius and his household, as Gentiles, were not circumcised (Acts 11:3). In preaching the Gospel and baptizing them, Peter was fulfilling the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 and Matthew 16:9 by binding Gentiles with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven[22]. In doing this, the nature of the church changed in appearance[23]. The church no longer had the appearance of as a sect within Judaism because its members now, unmistakable, did not need to become Jews in order to become followers of Jesus[24]. This caused immediate concern in the Jerusalem church, and on returning Peter was criticized (Acts 11:2-3). After explaining his actions however, objections ceased, at least initially[25] and the church recognized that God had granted life to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18).

Some scholars have suggested that the account of the conversion of Cornelius is fictional, citing reasons such as unbelief that the Jerusalem church could have had such a quantum shift in acceptance of Gentiles[26]. Claims of this nature rest on a number of assumptions, including the denial of divine inspiration of Scripture. Furthermore, this argument fails to recognize that the issue did actually remain contentious within the Jerusalem church even after Acts 11, as evidenced by the lack of Jerusalem Christians evangelizing Gentiles and the later need for the Council of Jerusalem.

Despite the conversion of Cornelius and the joy this brought, Acts does not give reports of significant evangelism to the Gentiles originating from the church in Jerusalem[27]. This suggests that these devout Hebraic Jews remained uncomfortable with the idea of witnessing to the uncircumcised[28]. Instead, Luke records that Diaspora Jews scattered by the persecution connected with Stephen were the first to witness in significant numbers to Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21)[29]. This occurred, following the conversion of Cornelius, initially in the multicultural city of Antioch, and the church in Antioch grew rapidly[30]. The Jerusalem church was aware of these developments and sent Barnabas to oversee the church of Antioch (Acts 11:22).

It was from Antioch that the church then refocussed its mission on Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). During this mission, Paul and Barnabas turned their focus away from the Jews who continued to reject the Gospel and towards the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-48).

The issue of circumcision and being subject to Mosaic Law, however, continued to be contentious to the church of Jerusalem and Judea and a number of men went to Antioch demanding that the believers there were circumcised and obedient to the Law (Acts 15:1). This culminated in a council being called at Jerusalem where the issue was debated, and after considering the conversion of Cornelius and his reception of the Holy Spirit, it was again established that the Gentiles need not be circumcised nor be subject to Mosaic Law (Acts 15)[31]. From this point on, Acts focuses increasingly on evangelism to the Gentiles and the church becomes ever more recognized, not as a Jewish sect, but an independent entity[32]. It seems likely that it was Gentiles who coined the name “Christian” in Antioch because of the increasing number of Gentile coverts making the church more visible to pagan Gentiles[33].

Ultimately, the mission of the church, with its focus on the “Gentile” world continues to this day. The conversion of Cornelius, as manifest visibly by his reception of the Holy Spirit, marked a turning point in the nature and mission of the church in Acts. The church became progressive less Jewish, recognizing salvation was through God’s grace and not observance of Mosaic Law. In response to this, while not ignoring the Jewish world, the church increasingly began to focus its mission on the Gentile world.

References

  1. JB Green, Dictionary of the Later New Testament and It's Developments, Editors: Ralpha P Martin, Peter H Davids, (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press: 1997), 243
  2. JJ Scott, “The Cornelius Incident in the Light of Its Jewish Setting”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Volume 34, No 4, 1991:475. Online copy of article: http://www.wheaton.edu/DistanceLearning/Cornel00.htm
  3. IJ Elmer, “Between Jerusalem and Antioch - The Advent of the Gentile Mission”, Australian Ejournal of Theology. Issue 6, 2006. Online address: http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/aejt_6/elmer.htm
  4. PJ Achtemeir, JB Green, MM Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: It's Literature and Theology, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing: 2001), 256
  5. JJ Scott, “The Church’s Progress to the Council of Jerusalem”, Bulletin for Biblical Research, 7, 1997: 205-224. Online copy of article: http://www.wheaton.edu/DistanceLearning/Progress.htm
  6. Green, Dictionary of Later New Testament, 243
  7. Scott, “The Church’s Progress”
  8. Elmer, “Between Jerusalem and Antioch”
  9. W Barclay, The Fourth Gospel & The Acts of the Apostles, Volume Two, The Gospels & Acts (London: SCM Press, 1976), 233
  10. Scott, “The Cornelius Incident”
  11. EF Harrison, “The Attitude of the Primitive Church toward Judaism”, Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 131, 2002:132-137
  12. MF Unger, “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit”, Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 101, 2002:486
  13. Scott, “The Church’s Progress”
  14. Scott, “The Church’s Progress”
  15. Harrison, “Attitude of the Primitive Church”, 137
  16. Scott, “The Church’s Progress”
  17. Green, Dictionary of Later New Testament, 244
  18. IH Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1980), 181
  19. Marshall, Acts, 181
  20. B Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House: 2001), 211
  21. JF Walvoord, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Believer”, Bibliotheca Sacra, Volume 99, 2002:50-51
  22. Unger, “The Baptism with the Holy Spirit, 489
  23. Scott, “The Church’s Progress”
  24. Marshall, Acts, 194-195
  25. Scott, “The Cornelius Incident”
  26. Elmer, “Between Jerusalem and Antioch”
  27. FF Bruce, New Testament History, (Great Britain: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1969): 219
  28. Marshall, Acts, 172
  29. Bruce, New Testament History, 219-220
  30. Bruce, New Testament History, 221
  31. FA Noble, Typical New Testament Conversations (Manchester: James Robinson Publisher, 1901): 225
  32. Barclay, Fourth Gospel, 234
  33. Bruce, New Testament History, 219-220




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