When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’ (Acts 11:18).
With a few exceptions Jews living a hundred years or so before the birth of Christ did not have any interest in ‘Gentile evangelism.’ They considered the Gentiles as profane, vile, and pagan, those who worshipped false gods and engaged in sexual perversion. A priest and scribe named Ben Sira warned against taking strangers into one’s house who would alienate people from the Jewish way of life. He asks God to lift up his hand against all foreign nations, to pour out his wrath against them, and to crush the heads of hostile rulers. Wolfgang Kraus concludes that Ben Sira does not envisage the Gentiles’ participation in salvation.1
In the Psalms of Solomon, a non-canonical book written around A.D. 50, the Pharisees portray the Gentiles as those who profane the temple. The author announces that when Messiah comes he will purge Gentiles from Jerusalem. The unlawful nations were to be destroyed by the word of his mouth. He prophesies that alien and foreign people will no longer live near the Jews, that Yahweh will have Gentile nations serving him under his yoke.2
In the Apocalypse of Baruch, written around A.D. 100, we read,
The Anointed One will call all nations, some of which will be spared by Him, and others He will destroy. Every nation which has not known Israel and which has not trodden down the seed of Jacob will live. All those, now, who have ruled over you or have known you will be delivered up to the sword.3
Finally, this idea of antagonism and segregation from the Gentile world is very evident in the Qumran Community of the Essenes. The Essenes were a separatist sect of Judaism which taught that marriage to a Gentile led to sexual impurity, that such marriage meant no atonement for sin was possible, that sharing a meal with a Gentile led to impurity. The Essenes also taught that the Teacher of Righteousness demanded that the priests refuse to accept cereal offerings from Gentiles, that they must refuse to permit them to be brought to the temple.4
With this as vivid background, consider with me Peter’s vision at Joppa (Acts 10). Luke tells us that Peter went to the roof of Simon the tanner’s house around noon to pray while his lunch was being prepared. While there he fell into a trance and saw a sheet coming down from heaven with all manner of unclean animals on it. He then heard a voice saying ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat.’ Peter replied, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy or unclean.’ A voice came to him a second time saying, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ Luke then tells us that this happened three times (Acts 10:9-16).
Meanwhile, Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army and a God-fearer (a Gentile who believed in the one true and living God and who followed Judaism though had not yet been circumcised) also received a vision, that he was to send for Peter to come and preach to him the true way to God. So the next day Cornelius’ servants made their way to Joppa to bring Peter to Caesarea. Peter went with them and found the Gentile Cornelius waiting for him, along with his family and friends (the biblical way to evangelize is to meet people in their household, their friends and family), eager to hear from God.
Consequently, after receiving the word of the Lord from Peter who preached forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to these Gentile people, they called on the name of the Lord and spoke in tongues, just as the Jews at Pentecost had done. When Peter reported all that had happened to the Jewish Christian apostles and leaders in Jerusalem, they were troubled at first. After all, there was a long history of racial and religious bigotry at work in Jerusalem. However they then realized that the gospel had been sent to the Gentile world, just as it had been to the Jewish world.
With the aversion the Jews had to the Gentiles, there is little wonder why Peter was so very slow to embrace the command to kill and eat. We can better understand the scepticism of the Jewish, Christian leaders when they were told about the Gentiles calling on the name of the Lord. Six hundred years before, Jonah had a similar aversion to the Ninevites, the people of modern day Iraq, who were murderous and ruthless. Even after Yahweh rescued Jonah from the belly of the great fish, after Yahweh brought a major revival, Jonah was livid with envy and regret. He still hated the Gentiles to whom God had sent him. Prejudices die hard.
Who are the ‘Gentiles’ or Ninevites in your life? Who are the people with whom you have a natural aversion – homosexuals, atheists, paedophiles, sex addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, people of another race, rednecks, New England elitists, political conservatives, political liberals, racists, fornicators, adulterers, con artists, alcoholics, rapists, Muslims? In your flesh, due to your upbringing and culture, you probably have some kind of natural aversion to someone. Peter and the other Jewish Christians certainly did, but God showed them how the middle wall of separation between Jew and Gentile had been destroyed. Do you believe that Jesus is concerned for these people? What will you do about it?
By 2043 Caucasians in America will become a minority. Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States have generally been unsuccessful in reaching into the various minority cultures of their nations with the full orbed, Calvinistic, doctrines of grace. The Reformed faith, in its fullest expression, can be a powerful message of reconciliation between racial and socio-economic entities. Our emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the glory of Christ’s redeeming work, the sanctifying and empowering work of the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s Lordship as it affects every aspect of man’s life in this world, has practical implications for all who follow the Lord Jesus.
Peter was pushed out of his comfort zone. He went to people with whom he had a natural aversion. As the church expanded into the Gentile world, certain sacrifices were made to accommodate Gentile believers (circumcision was not required, nor were Jewish worship forms). If we are serious about reaching into worlds different from our own, then we must also be willing to give up tertiary issues like dress and worship styles. Many of our congregations are shrinking as the majority white culture continues to reject Christ and his gospel. Those who accomplish much without God are always the hardest to reach. They see no need for a saviour. So, out of a sense of sheer survival, we must reach across racial and socio-economic oceans with the gospel of grace.
But we must also do so for a much higher reason. Jesus commands us to go, to be his witnesses in all the world, to preach him to all the nations, to fulfil his vision of every tongue, tribe, people, and nation being before his throne, singing ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ Are you engaged truly in doing so? Who are your Gentiles? Who are your Ninevites? I ask this of every one of you, regardless of your own ethnicity or nationality.
- Eckhard Schnabel, Early Church Mission, volume one, pp. 101, 102.
- Ibid. p. 103.
- Ibid. p. 104.
- Ibid. pp. 105-112.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network.