Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
How did Cornelius, a Gentile, know to fear God?
A Gentile is defined as someone who is not a Jew. So if Cornelius wasn’t a Jew, how did he come to know God? In fact, not only was he a believer, he had believers in his ranks too – one of those he sent to find Peter was “a devout soldier”. Clearly at some point these men have been exposed to the message of the Jews, and have a firm belief in God, the same God the Jews worshipped. It would have been stunted, perhaps, by the fact that they weren’t technically Jews, and wouldn’t have had access to the Synagogue in quite the same way. They were outsiders, outcasts, not good enough for Jewish traditions.
To be honoured with a visit from one of God’s angels would surely have come as a surprise, if not to Cornelius then to any Jew who heard about it. It would be like the Queen of England requesting a meeting with a random Frenchman, only on a much bigger scale of awesomeness. Perhaps this is another indication that the hearts of the Gentiles were already yearning for their Saviour.
Why was Peter so reluctant to accept Gentiles?
You’d think Peter would have got the message by now. Jesus had talked about it often enough, about how the good news was for all people, not just Jews. The Great Commission, after all, was about preaching to Word to all nations. And yet, when asked directly about it, Peter still reverts back to his own Jewish roots and takes the scriptural high ground. It takes a pretty graphic vision, repeated no less than three times, for Peter to realise that when Jesus said the message was for everyone he really did mean it!
There are times when we too can perhaps get too possessive over our faith. We like our cosy way of doing Church, and we wouldn’t want to have to change it too much to accomodate others. We don’t want to offend others by telling them the truth of their need of salvation, so to avoid confrontation or embarrassment we keep it to ourselves, because that’s easier. We think that people will probably figure it out for themselves in time, so for now we keep our faith and our belief hidden. The message for us here is that everyone needs to know the message about Jesus, no matter what their background, or attitude, or personality, or interests, or intellect, or even belief – Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to preach to Christians of all nations, but to everyone, which has to include those of others faiths as well as those of none. God welcomes everyone, and so should we.
What’s so special about receiving the Holy Spirit?
The believers who come with Peter are astonished that the Holy Spirit should be given out to these Gentiles. It clearly wasn’t what they were expecting. This, despite the fact that the Samaritans (also non-Jews) had already received the Holy Spirit. Are they really that slow, or is there something else going on here?
I think there’s a difference between being baptised and receiving the Spirit. In a previous chapter we met the Ethiopian whom Philip explained the scriptures too, and he was baptised, but it doesn’t say anything about receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s as if being baptised is just something people did back then, like wearing a badge to show everyone you were in the club. Peter’s friends don’t appear shocked that these Gentiles want to hear more about Jesus, and they clearly have no problem with them being baptised, but seeing the Holy Spirit being given to them seems like something on a different level. Perhaps they thought that only the best believers, the truest believers, were good enough for that. Like Peter, they needed to learn about the unbiased and unlimited love that God has for all people.
The Holy Spirit is fundamentally about personal relationship. It is through the Holy Spirit that we can all come into relationship with our God, in a way that before Jesus was reserved only for ‘special’ people – the prophets. Now the Spirit is given to everyone, indiscriminately, meaning that there is no heirarchy of ‘better’ believers – we are all equal. A Bishop is no more or less entitled to a relationship with God than my kids. It also shows that relationship is massively important to God; he doesn’t want mediators, he doesn’t want barriers, he doesn’t want pecking orders. He wants to know you.