A Tale of Three Conversions (Acts 10-11, 15)

We often call it the “conversion of Cornelius.” And, indeed, that is a significant moment. Cornelius was a Roman centurion—the commander of 80 men (sort of like a Captain of a company, though centurions could rank much higher in a Legion—stationed in Palestine. This was no honored placement. It was like soldiering on the Eastern Front during World War II. It was hostile, unpleasant and potentially explosive.

But Cornelius was a devout man who prayed incessantly and gave alms to the poor. God heard his prayers and honored his gifts. But that does not strike us as earth-shattering as it was in Palestinian Judaism. We are too tamed by the story, domesticated by hearing it innumerable times.

Let me say it again. God heard the prayers of a pagan soldier who served in the regime of an imperial nation that oppressed God’s people! Does God hear the prayers of a devout, alms-giving Taliban foot-soldier on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan? What Jew would have dreamed that God would hear the prayer of a Roman commander? But he did.

This shocked everyone. It even, I think, shocked Cornelius. His rush to obey God, his obeisance to Peter when he arrived at his house, and his willingness to believe and do whatever Peter told him point toward not only the excitement Cornelius felt but his utter gratitude that God answered his prayer.

Everyone included Peter. Even though he had announced that the promise of the gospel was for even those who were “afar off” in his Pentecost homily, he was unprepared for the three visitors who came from Cornelius’ house in Caesarea to the tanner’s house in Joppa. The Holy Spirit had to tell him to go with them as if Peter was racked with confusion and uncertainty.

Peter’s response was understandable. He had been taught the difference between clean and unclean all his life—clean food and unclean food, clean people and unclean people. And the Gentiles were, as a class, unclean. There was no touching them, there was no visiting them, and certainly there was no eating with them allowed within the halls of Jewish Orthodoxy.

When God told Peter in a vision to kill and eat unclean food, he refused. He reminded God of how he was raised and that only kosher food had touched his lips. Three times—mirroring the three who came from Caesarea—God invited him to eat and Peter refused. Refusing to eat what God has provided is no small act.

Perhaps Peter thought God was testing him; perhaps it was a false vision, even a temptation from Satan himself. But it was actually the first step in Peter’s conversion. He received Cornelius’ friends and they stay the evening in Joppa (they must have been Jewish friends of Cornelius—Cornelius was probably a “God-fearer”). He goes to Cornelius’ house, hears his story and concludes what he had been previously unable to even conceive, that is, God is no respecter of persons and whoever does what is right is honored by God, even among the nations (Gentiles).

But the story is not over. There is yet another conversion to come. It is the conversion of the church itself.

When Jerusalem heard that Peter had gone to the Gentiles—a Roman soldier no less—and ate with them, they were dismayed, scandalized and perhaps even hostile. Remember that those who are “zealous for the law” (even if they had become Christ-followers, as in Acts 21:20; cf. ) are hostile to any Jew who violates the traditions of the fathers, especially when it involves relationships with Gentiles, much less Roman soldiers. Circumcision—an Abrahamic covenant—must be maintained and the distinction between clean and unclean must be practiced even if Gentiles become Christ-followers. They must, so many believed, live by the Torah and embrace the covenant of Abraham through circumcision. This hostility continued for decades within the early church as it even fueled some of Paul’s letters like Galatians.

The book of Acts tells the story of Cornelius three times. The only other story it narrates three times is the conversion of Saul. This was a community-altering event in the life of church. It changed the church, and church had to undergo a conversion. The church had to rethink how it thought about Gentiles, related to Gentiles; it had to think about how it would receive Gentiles and live in the community with Gentiles; it had to think about how Jews and Gentiles could eat together, even eat the Lord’s Supper together given their divergent table manners.

That must have been an excruciating process filled with doubts, discomfort, and fear. Certainly in Acts 11 the church hears Peter’s report with joy and praises God. But the church has to hear it again in Acts 15, along with Paul and Barnabas’ missionary report as well as James rehearsal of Scripture to be convinced. Even then the Gentiles had to accommodate some Jewish sensibilities such as not eating food that had been strangled. That the process was frustratingly slow is evident when Peter himself felt so much pressure in Antioch that he withdrew from eating with Gentile Christ-followers in order to smooth the ruffled feathers of some from Jerusalem.

Gentiles in the church are fine as long as they are not in our local congregation, or as long as I don’t have to eat with them, right?

The conversion process for the church was filled with pitfalls—starts and stops and start ups again. The centuries of hostility, mistrust and scruples did not cease with one conversion in Caesarea. We might even wonder if the process was ever actually completed as the church failed to learn to live together as Jew and Gentile in peace and harmony (see Romans 14-15).

Sometimes the church needs conversion. When the church becomes encrusted in its traditional practices….when the church erects cultural or racial barriers….when the church favors particular habits over people….when the church finds spirituality only within the walls of its buildings…when the church is so territorial that it fails to plant new congregations…it needs conversion.

Sometimes the church needs conversion. It needs to hear the voice of God anew. It needs to listen to the stories of God’s work among people. It needs to hear the testimony of changed lives.

Given the history of the church in many places, no wonder that those outside the church retort back to it, “heal thyself.” Sometimes the church needs conversion just as much as those outside of it.



21 Responses to “A Tale of Three Conversions (Acts 10-11, 15)”

  1. Profile photo of Royce Ogle  Royce Says:

    An excellent post!

    It is striking that in both accounts of Peter’s defense of baptizing Gentiles his defense goes like this. “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

    I think the question is a valid one for many of us today. Yes, the church sometimes needs converting.

    Royce

  2.   jim burkhalter Says:

    Thank you Brother,
    That was a great, I always appreciate your thoughts.

    Because He lives,

    jim

  3.   John Kenneth King Says:

    John Mark,

    You are so right, brother. Another point where the western church needs conversion is our failure to see that Cornelius does not come to faith as a solitary individual. During the three days travel of those men who went to get Peter, he goes and gathers his oikos. When Peter comes he says, “We are ready to do whatever God says.”

    Some fruits must be picked one by one. Others are harvested in bunches. I pray we will learn to disciple people to faith in bunches.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Why didn’t Peter consult scripture, as the church today (at least most Protestants) would, to determine if God was really at work among the Gentiles? Or is it at all possible to discern God at work without book, chapter, and verse?

    Alright…I was asking those questions more rhetorically but here is one that I think about for which I have no answer:

    In order for the church in Acts to reach this conversion point, it first needed to be scattered (Acts 8.1). What needs to happen for the church to be converted again (if in fact the church does need a conversion)?

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  5.   Jerry Starling Says:

    Rex,

    In response to your 2nd question, think of it this way.

    The more insulated we become from the world around us, the more time we spend gazing at our own spiritual navels – and the more fragmented we become as each of us “discovers” new inferences and regulations that we want to bind on all.

    Would the converse of that also be true? If we got out of our own small circles and associated more with the brotherhood at large – and in telling the good news of Jesus in the world at large – the more unified we will become as we discover that things we thought were so important are very much “small potatoes” in the greater scheme of things?

    Jerry Starling, CommittedToTruth.Wordpress.Com

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      Jerry,

      Though I am moving to serve as a preacher for a church in NJ, for the last year I have been helping a friend in his house-church planting mission in Colorado which has taken us all out of our circles…and you are right, some of the things thought to be important have really only been small potatoes.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

      •   Jerry Starling Says:

        Best wishes to you in your move to new pastures as you continue to work in the one flock of our Shepherd. I shall continue to watch for your comments with interest.

  6.   rich constant Says:

    John mark?
    If the gentiles received The SpiRit as did peter and the other apostles,and peter command them to be baptized,
    Does this not conclude(necessary inference)also that the apostles MUST have been baptized with Water also?

    Blessings rich

  7.   Jr Says:

    What is apparent about Cornelius is that He knew of the God of Israel, and all that had taken place in regards to Jesus. As Peter preaches to them we read in Acts 10:37ff, “you yourselves know happened throughout all Judea…” and he speaks of John, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, etc. So Cornelius was not praying to some nebulous god. The point was He was a Gentile and not a Jew.
    Additionally, what is clear in Acts is that being a “God-fearing” Gentile is that they feared the One God of Israel. Therefore, they, in some way, were connected to the synagogue. So the question, “Does God hear the prayers of a devout, alms-giving Taliban foot-soldier on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan” must be qualified with the following question: what does “devout” mean? Is that Taliban foot-soldier committed to the One-True God of Israel? I’m thinking out loud here so I ask for mercy on this issue. But I have a hard time paralleling a Cornelius (or any Gentile “God-fearer” in Acts) with a random person worshiping a random, nebulous god. Missionaries would perhaps have a window in at that point to the Taliban man, much like Paul did in Athens, in clarifying what it is they are actually seeking; and thus, preach the Gospel. But I do not believe by Paul (or anywhere in Acts) those in Athens were called “God-fearers” (aka, fearing the God of Israel), were they? Is this not an important distinction?

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      I would not think that a Muslim praying to Allah is praying to a “random, nebulous god.” The God to which a Muslim prays is, in his/her mind, the God of Abraham. The Muslim faith knows the stories of Israel and Jesus, perhaps much like Cornelius would though, of course, his social-historical location is much different. A devout Muslim prays, fasts and gives alms, just like Cornelius.

  8. Profile photo of Royce Ogle  Royce Ogle Says:

    Rich and JR,

    What we can learn from the story of Cornelius and his house and Peter’s defense of baptizing them is that they had been saved, received the Holy Spirit when they believed, thus they were proper candidates for baptism.

    Peter clearly said God “cleansed their hearts by faith” and that they had received the Holy Spirit just like he did when he “believed”.

    We can ignore this important point but it is clearly stated and is the view that compliments Paul’s teaching.

    Royce

  9.   Jr Says:

    Royce, I agree with your comment. Not really sure why it was a reply to mine???

  10. Profile photo of Royce Ogle  Royce Ogle Says:

    My error Jr

    Royce

  11.   rich constant Says:

    salvation does not equate with righteous faith, this is the issue being looked at if we can follow the scripture.
    righteous faith is now by god looking into the hart of a man and accommodating that righteous faith with the presentation of the good news which is the promise and the salvation found in Christ’s death and Resurrection.
    baptism is the start of the new life…by and through his command as king.guys
    blessings rich

    •   rich constant Says:

      .P.S.
      and thus implemented through the apost. teaching and the spirit bearing witness to that truth…
      ROMANS
      Rom 1:4 who was marked out the Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord;
      Rom 1:5 by whom we received grace and apostleship to obedience of faith among all the nations, for His name’s sake,

      •   rich constant Says:

        also john mark,
        this is how i perceive imputed righteousness,
        god looks into the hart of the gentile and “that acceptable faith is credited as righteous”.
        and through the spirit’s guidance the kingdom builders bring the completed good news to the world.
        preaching and convicting men that our lord was put on the cross and raised from the dead according to scripture.
        THAT THEY MIGHT HAVE LIFE ETERNAL if they will obey the faith of the Christ the will of god.
        as preached by the apostles.
        and he ordered them to be baptized.
        this is the start of our new life…
        and we are
        “BEING SAVED”….
        NOT
        “SAVED”
        if we shrink not back from the upward call in the body of Christ
        anyway
        blessings

        •   rich constant Says:

          the difference
          anthropocentric:
          my faithfulness will not give me life. OR merit LIFE
          CHRISTOCENTRIC:
          HIS FAITHFULNESS DID IT ALL…raised from the dead by
          grace through faith…HIS.
          obey his words if you love him…
          and the apostles did…
          blessings
          rich

        •   rich constant Says:

          p.s.
          oops.
          nothing common or unclean now right?
          god no respecter of ethnic background.
          at that time and today as well.
          where as before the Resurrection.
          righteous faith was imputed in the old kingdom way.
          Old cov.way,
          the Jews were gods people,
          untill the glorification of our lord. and gods new cov.started,
          then in the heavens, the substance or image of the shadow of the cleansing of the sin represented through the old LAW practice of blood sacrifice.
          Christ’s blood, his life which is in the blood,through the righteous act of faithfulness to the will of the father,Now cleans’ the conscience of sin through death,by command of the word through the divine nature captured by the spirit of god for us through that faith.
          and so unfaithfulness is judged and the heavens cleansed. in by and through the loving Trinity’s sacrifice,unto the glory of the father,through the faithfulness of the son.
          now then,as i take a breath, :-)….
          the word went out from Jerusalem…
          the word of life the promise of the spirit,through the obediance of the faith, once for all delivered to the saints for the purpose of reconcilling or the redempshion of creation by a righteous, loving, kind,and mercyful trinity,the new man created in the likeness and immage of god through the spirit rom.8 our old man now dead rom7.
          the new man lives freed from the power of sin.
          by a law not of sin and death.
          but one of faithfulness for the purpose of righteous acts of gods good will for creation…
          in by and through the apostles teaching of the new life through the spirit of him that died unto sin and brought life through grace by faithfulness.
          ah…
          anyway blessings
          my friend :-)
          rich

    •   rich constant Says:

      reference this
      :-)
      Act 10:34 And opening his mouth, Peter said, Truly I see that God is not a respecter of faces,
      Act 10:35 but in every nation the one fearing Him and working righteousness is acceptable to Him.

      •   rich constant Says:

        righteous faith by any other name…
        faith in god,
        and then the story of gods loving faithfulness to his word ROM.3:1-4 and the accomplishment of the life giving spirit through the “command” to be baptized again after the baptism of the spirit.
        righteous faith does not equate with the promised restoration of life which is of by and through the son and thus peter ordered them to be baptized….reference ROM 6

        we are seeing a process to be followed.
        yes?

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