I’m currently in Sulaymaniyah in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq with my wife, meeting some extraordinary people who are doing some extraordinary things. I say that partly to impress, partly to explain why I’ve been a bit slow following up on comments and questions. But I do want to keep my series on the role of the Holy Spirit in the story of Israel, as it is being told in the New Testament, plodding along.
Following Pentecost the Holy Spirit becomes the guiding power of the community of Jesus’ Jewish disciples. They are filled with the Spirit and so proclaim the word of Israel’s salvation with boldness (Acts 4:8, 31; 6:10); Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Spirit, they test the Spirit of the Lord (5:3, 9); the Jews resist the Holy Spirit who inspires the prophetic utterances of Jesus’ followers (7:51); Philip is instructed by the Spirit to go to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29); and Peter is informed by the Spirit that three men from Caesarea are looking for him, which brings us to the story of Cornelius and the moment when it becomes startlingly apparent to the early Jewish church that the word of Israel’s salvation was not of interest to the Jews only.
Cornelius is described as a pious man, who feared God, who prayed continually; a righteous and God-fearing man, who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts 10:2, 22). It was unlawful for a Jew such as Peter to “associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28), but Peter had been shown in a dream that he “should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28; cf. 10:9-16; 11:2-10).
So the issue of whether Cornelius is acceptable to God has been dealt with even before Peter arrives in Caesarea: with God there is no inherent bias against the Gentiles; if a person fears God and does “righteousness”, it makes no difference whether he is a Jew or a Gentile, he is acceptable to God. Cornelius, in other words, belongs to a group of Gentiles who, on the basis of their “works” both towards God and towards other people, are counted as justified before the God of Israel. This unorthodox argument needs to be squarely faced.
In Romans Paul highlights the eschatological implications of their behaviour: those Gentiles—and, for that matter, those Jews—who do good works in the hope of attaining “glory and honour and immortality” will receive the life of the coming age (Rom. 2:6-7); those who do the work of the Law, whether or not they actually have the Law, will be justified (Rom. 2:13). In fact, such righteous Gentiles will “judge” (krinei) unrighteous Israel on the day of God’s wrath against his people (Rom. 2:27).
My argument in The Future of the People of God is that the justification of Jews and Gentiles who do the works of the Law makes sense only if we understand the coming wrath—against the Jew first, then against the Greek—historically, as judgment on Israel followed by judgment on Greek-Roman paganism. It is very difficult otherwise to differentiate meaningfully in Paul’s argument between the justification of some according to works and of others according to faith. But that is another matter. Read the book.
For now, this is the first point that Peter makes to Cornelius. Before he has said a word about Jesus, he affirms that the righteous, God-fearing Gentile Cornelius is acceptable to God; he is, to use Paul’s terminology, justified, and he can expect to be rewarded in the coming judgment.
That’s all very good. It means that Israel’s God is fully aware of the fact that there are decent God-fearing people out there who do not deserve to perish. But it does not make Cornelius a member of the prophetic renewal movement of Jesus’ followers.
Peter goes on to recount what had happened in Judea. A “word” has been proclaimed to Israel which was “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). This is not the “peace” of personal salvation or even of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph. 2:14). It is the sort of “good news of a report of peace” that is proclaimed to Zion in Isaiah 52:7 (LXX), which is that “Your God shall reign” and shall restore his people.
Peter then explains how this came about. After the baptism of John a man called Jesus from Nazareth was filled with the Holy Spirit, went about doing good and healing those oppressed, was put to death, was raised on the third day, and appeared to those chosen to be his witnesses, who were commanded to announce to “the people” (that is, to the Jews, not to the whole world) that Jesus has been “appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead”. Those Jews who believed in him received forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:37-43).
While Peter is setting out this narrative about the judgment and forgiveness of Israel, the unexpected happens: “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word”. Peter may have had an inkling of what was coming, but his companions were clearly astonished to see Gentiles manifesting the same gifts of the Holy Spirit—speaking in tongues and worship of Israel’s God—that had become commonplace amongst the Jewish believers. If these Gentiles had in this fashion become part of the community of the Spirit of prophecy and renewal, it was only proper that they should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:44-48).
In this way Cornelius and his household were “saved” (Acts 11:14), but saved somewhat incidentally. Peter was not preaching to Cornelius and his household. He was simply relating to Cornelius and his household the events surrounding the preaching of peace to Israel. They heard this “word” about the judgment and salvation of Israel and presumably were convinced by it—they believed that Israel’s God really had done this extraordinary thing for the sake of his people, for the sake of his own glory; and their instinctive, unprompted reaction was to speak in tongues and worship God. They worshipped their way into the people of God.
So this is now a Jewish renewal movement that includes Gentiles, in fulfilment of the sort of hope that is already glimpsed in Isaiah 52:7-10: the good news of restoration is proclaimed to Israel, God redeems Jerusalem, he bears his holy arm before the nations, and all the ends of the earth see the salvation wrought by Israel’s God for his people. I think we will see later how the very union of Jew and Gentile through these concrete manifestations of the Spirit will itself become a prophetic sign to the pagan world that a massive eschatological transformation is looming.