May 19, 2014

Heart and Soul: Theology

Although Jesus’ disciples were commanded to go into all the world preaching the good news of salvation, early Christians were reluctant about working with the Gentiles—perhaps because they lacked specific instructions that the gospel was also for Gentiles. What changed them?

Doctrinal Drivers

Three considerations usually operate when interpreters seek to apply biblical principles to the world. The three elements are not necessarily opposed to each other.

Scripture: The most secure way to proceed doctrinally is based on the principle of sola scriptura (Isa. 8:20). Anyone’s claim to be God’s messenger must be tested (1 John 4:2). This is so critical that Paul warns believers not to listen even to angels from heaven if they bring a different gospel (Gal. 1:8).

The Holy Spirit:According to John 16:13, one of the main purposes of the Holy Spirit is to guide God’s people into all truth. The verb “to guide” (hodēgeō) is used in Acts 8:31 to refer to the agent who rightly decodes a biblical passage. This does not mean that the truth is not yet part of the church; rather, it means that the truth will be given with greater clarity.1 The text does not promise guidance “into [Greek, eis] all [new] truth,” but simply guidance “in [en] all [known] truth.”2 This suggests that while the disclosed truth will not be changed, the Spirit will guide Jesus’ followers to comprehend the depths “of the revelation as yet unperceived by them.”3 The church would be not only Scripture-driven but also Spirit-driven.

Culture: Conscientious Christians are sometimes reluctant to consider culture as a guideline for real-world issues.4 Paul, however, addresses many issues based on society. He contextualized the gospel for both Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor. 9:19-23). He commanded women to use head coverings (1 Cor. 11:5) and men to cut their hair (verse 14) because it was culturally proper (verse 16). Likewise, he advised believers in Corinth to refrain from eating food offered to idols to avoid causing church members to stumble because of it (1 Cor. 8:13).

Mission Launch: Cornelius

The book of Acts does not initially report Peter as reaching out with the gospel (centrifugal action), but shows the Gentile Cornelius as summoning him (centripetal action: Acts 10:22). The pattern found here is God-Cornelius-Peter, a somewhat odd missionary method of the early Christians. A centrifugal, reaching-out method, according with the gospel commission (Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8), requires the God-Peter-Cornelius pattern. However, here the mission comes from God to Cornelius to Peter. Cornelius’ baptism resulted explicitly from divine intervention rather than spontaneous human initiative.

Reception of the Holy Spirit Before Baptism

The Cornelius account contrasts with the story of Acts 1-9, in which faith + baptism leads to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with Jesus’ commission in Mark 16:16, where belief [X] + baptism [Y] = salvation, establishing a sequence of X >> Y >> Z (Spirit anointing: Acts 2:38; 3:19). But with Cornelius’ story the anointing of the Holy Spirit comes before baptism, producing the sequence X >> Z >> Y.

This kind of disruption was possible in Hebrew marital laws as well. Though sexual intercourse was expected only within the marriage relationship (1 Cor. 7:9; Heb. 13:4), a man who had sexual relations with a woman before marriage was obliged by law to marry her (Deut. 22:28, 29). Applying such a principle, Peter was obliged to baptize Cornelius and company, who were already enjoying the benefits of a baptized people.

Peter’s Reaction

God’s command to Peter was to go to Cornelius without hesitation (Acts 10:20; 11:12).5 Upon arriving, Peter advises: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). This type of avoidance of ceremonial uncleanness (John 18:28) was Jewish tradition,6 not Mosaic law.7 But God “was seeking to teach Peter the worldwide extent of the divine plan,” 8 requiring him to leave behind his inherited view of the Gentiles, so the gospel could reach everybody.

It placed Peter in a complicated dilemma: having to choose between keeping established tradition and God’s direct command. Peter’s continued hesitation indicates that for him God’s command was not enough to instantly resolve his inherited prejudice. His attitude illustrates a sad and most common truth: tradition’s strength may serve as a more important motivator than God’s words (Matt. 15:2, 3).

God found it necessary to intervene by sending His Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles.

Thus, though Peter sees himself as being Scripture-driven (Acts 10:14), he can still resist following God’s direct instruction (Spirit-driven). The account actually reveals that in this instance Peter was more tradition-driven than Scripture-driven, because there was no properly understood biblical law prohibiting Jews from joining Gentiles. Finally, although reluctant, Peter acceded to God’s command.

Peter’s dilemma was solved at Cornelius’ house. There he witnessed an unexpected event, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles, that made him change his view regarding the mission to the Gentiles. Confronted by this new experience, Peter yielded. Responding to the experience rather than to his initial beliefs (Acts 10:47; 11:17) did not mean that Peter disobeyed God’s word. He already knew, by personal experience, the Holy Sprit’s manifestation among believers. So much so that he could assert that the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house received the same Spirit (Acts 11:17) that he and others had received at Pentecost (verse 15).

Therefore Peter could yield to the experience of Spirit manifestation because he had tested it first (1 Thess. 5:19-22). He could baptize Cornelius (Acts 10:47, 48; 11:17) prior to official approval without being in rebellion, and defend himself by referring to what had happened rather than to the Bible (Acts 11:4).

The Great Council at Jerusalem

Although Peter was convinced that God was with Cornelius, the church was not. While baptizing Gentiles was no longer an issue for Peter, it still was for the church. This difference vis-à-vis the Gentiles led to the church’s first world session (Acts 15). Apostles and elders got together to examine the relationship between the Law of Moses and the salvation of the Gentiles. An unknown number of delegates presented their position (verse 7).

First, Paul and Barnabas led off (verses 2, 4), defending a pro-Gentiles position (verse 4). No biblical passage seems to be mentioned, just the work of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles. After them, those against, from “the party of the Pharisees” (verse 5), made their case.

Proceedings seem to have lasted a little while (verse 7), allowing all to have a clear view of both parties’ argumentation. The Greek word zētēsis (“debate,” verse 7) points to that understanding. It refers to “dispute” (John 3:25) or “to seek information,” “investigation” (Acts 25:20).9 Taking into consideration that parties pro and con were presenting their case to a council, probably zētēsis, in judicial terminology, refers to the trial stage.

Decisive Evidence

The words “much dispute” also suggest that the issue presented “insurmountable difficulties.”10 Then Peter intervened refering again to God’s wonders among the Gentiles, already mentioned by Paul and Barnabas. But now, Peter brings something new to the table, namely, God’s choic
e. He calls attention to the fact that God had already made the choice11 when He granted the Holy Spirit “with equal power upon the uncircumcised Gentiles and the circumcised Jews.”12 For Peter the Holy Spirit’s guidance was paramount to solving the question.

Then Peter, Paul and Barnabas repeated how God’s wonders and signs were seen among the Gentiles through their ministry (Acts 15:12), which Peter [Simon] saw as agreeing with the prophets (verse 15), no doubt as a fulfillment of Amos 9:11, 12.

Significantly, though, the council did not settle the question until finding their Scripture support. They were concerned not only with being Spirit-driven but especially with being Scripture-driven. In other words, they wanted to discover biblical support for this new practice.

However, since they were convinced that the Holy Spirit had manifested Himself upon the Gentiles, the members of the council expected the Bible to confirm their experience rather than to prove the Spirit. God’s works upon the Gentiles were so indisputable that they were forced to reexamine their theological vision to understand what was happening. Their problem was their struggle between the traditional point of view about the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit’s indisputable manifestation upon them.

Reaction to the Council’s Decision

Paul’s letters seem to suggest that not all were pleased with the council’s decision.13 For example, the council voted that Christians must abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20, 29). But Christians from Corinth continued to debate that (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:25-33). The church should not be surprised by negative reactions to world council decisions. Even the apostolic church experienced such disagreement.

Acts 10 and 15 reveal the negative attitude of the first Christians toward the Gentiles as inherited rather than biblical. Their resistance and hesitance came from their limited theological vision, rather than from ample biblical reflection.

Thus, in order for the early church to launch its mission to the Gentiles, God found it necessary to intervene by sending His Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles. Later, this historical event was used as evidence in the world church council at Jerusalem to make official that Gentiles did not have to keep Mosaic laws to be saved. God had already made the decision when He gave the Holy Spirit to Gentiles in the same way that He did to Jews.

In issues where the Holy Spirit is involved, the church acts responsibly in evaluating its viewpoint in the light of the Holy Spirit’s work upon and among people. Peter and his colleagues at Cornelius’ house (Acts 11:12), and Paul and Barnabas before the Jerusalem Council, attested to the experiential truth of Jesus’ promise in His final charge before He was taken out of their sight, as recorded in the gospel commission and the book of Acts: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Matt. 28:18, 19; Acts 1:8).

  1. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 2002), vol. 36, p. 283; Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), vol. 29A, p. 715.
  2. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 539.
  3. Beasley-Murray, John, p. 283.
  4. For details about determining culturally relative regulations, see Ron du Preez, “Interpreting and Applying Biblical Ethics,” in Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach, ed. George W. Reid (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, 2005), pp. 293, 294.
  5. The Greek phrase mede diakrinomenos could be translated as “without making distinction.” But it is preferable to render it here as “without doubt,” because elsewhere it is used with the sense of doubting (Matt. 21:21; Mark 11:23; James 1:6), and, second, becauseit describes the manner in which the main verb (“to go”) must be carried out—“without making distinction” might work if Peter had different roads to choose from, but here his choice is between trust and skepticism.
  6. The Talmud says, “Separate thyself from the nations, and eat not with them: and do not according to their works, and become not their associate; for their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness” (Jubilees 22:16).
  7. Carson,p. 333.
  8. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 136.
  9. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 339; Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, ed. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988, 1989), 27.34, 33.440.
  10. E. G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 192.
  11. The expression translated “choice among you” (Greek: en humîn exeléxato) may mean “chose by you,” with en having an instrumental usage. Acts 15:22 expresses the separation usage (“from among you”) with ek rather than en. Peter is apparently saying that the Holy Spirit had already made the decision by them years ago. (Cf. E. G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 193.
  12. E. G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 193.
  13. Ibid., p. 196.