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Gentiles and the Natzrim: A Look at Cornelius

The story of Kefa’s (Peter’s) visit to Cornelius’ house as it is recorded in Acts ten is one of the great turning points in the development of the early Nazarene community. Up to this point, the message of Messiah had only gone to the Jews in Judea and the surrounding countries, and to the Samaritans, who were ‘half-Jews’. With Cornelius, G-d had brought Kefa to teach the message to an uncircumcised gentile. And not only that but one of the enemy, a Roman, and a Roman soldier at that, one of the oppressors. In the eyes of a Jew, if G-d could reach a Roman soldier in Judea, He could reach anyone.

Cornelius was not just any Roman dog, however. Acts describes him as a devout man who feared the G-d of Israel, prayed to Him regularly and gave generously to the poor. This man, at the least was a G-d fearer, what some may describe today as a ‘noachide’, or a righteous Gentile. Or we could read a little more into his ‘qualifications’ and see a man who had adopted much of Jewish tradition short of being circumcised. Either way, he was a man who had brought his whole family to faith in the G-d of Israel and there would be few in Israel that would deny him a place in the world to come.

G-d had bigger plans for Cornelius, however. G-d spoke to him and told him to send for Kefa and Kefa received a vision that would shake him from his racist upbringing and allow him to come unhindered into Cornelius’ home. In the middle of his sermon, the Ruach fell on Cornelius and his household just as it had on the Jewish talmidim in Acts Chapter two. The entire group was then immersed. It is a simple story but the implications are radical.

The crucial detail of the story is identifying the meaning of the spirit falling on him. Kefa said it was the same as what had happened to them on Shava’ut. So let’s go back to Acts 2. Kefa was preaching in the temple to a group of devout Jews that had made the trip to Yerushalyim for a pilgrimage festival. When they heard the message, they asked the talmidim (disciples) “what shall we do?” And Kefa told them to repent, but repent for what? Had these torah obedient Jews all of a sudden become convinced that they were going to hell and they had to believe in the Messiah to have a place in the world to come? I don’t think so, it was something else. And for that we have to look at the context of his sermon. Kefa explains the events of that day in the context of Joel 2, and in good hebrew fashion, expects his hearers to remember the context. The book of Joel is all about the Day of the Lord and how horrible it is going to be. Both chapter one and two tell Israel to repent (1:13-14, 2:12-17) and the plea is that the people be spared (2:17) on that day when G-d’s wrath will be poured out on Israel and then on the nations. The nation of Israel, G-d’s inheritance, are the only people spared here, the remnant who repent. And that remnant will be identified because the Spirit of G-d will be poured out on them (see also Isa 2:11-17, 10:20-23, 13:6-9, Jer 46:10. Ez 13:5, 30:3, Amos 5:18-20, Obed 1:15-17, Zeph 1:14-2:3, Mal 4).

The point of Kefa’s sermon was that Yahushua had fulfilled the part of the suffering Messiah, Messiah ben Yoseph, and that all that was left was for him to usher in the kingdom, which would be preceded by the Day of the Lord. And if these Jewish people wanted to survive that day, they had to repent, have their sins washed away through Yahushua and receive eternal life. Then they would not see death on that day but be miraculously preserved just as Noah was, and they would receive resurrection bodies without tasting death. This is the promise given to remnant Israel (Isaiah 10:22, 23, Rom 9-11) and it was this unique status they received upon repentance and immersion in Yahushua, provided they continued in the faith.

If that was what happened in Acts 2, and Kefa stated that is what happened to Cornelius and his family in Acts 10, then what we have here is G-d placing the mark of his people Israel on an uncircumcised Gentile. G-d was showing Kefa and the others that this Roman soldier was now one of G-d’s elect, one of the remnant. Through his faith and obedience to Torah, for that is what the spirit does, it enables the remnant to obey Torah as a natural expression of who they are (Eze 36:27, 28) and that is required for their preservation (Mal 4:4), Cornelius became the equal of his Jewish brethren in the Messiah, all were united around Torah and messianic belief.

For his part in this great work of G-d, Kefa was scolded by his Jewish compatriots. They were upset that he went and ate with uncircumcised gentiles. In their eyes, there were two problems with Kefa’s work. First, according to the culture of the time, going into a gentile’s home made one ceremonially unclean, and Kefa should have avoided it as an observant Jew. And those among them of a more revolutionary temperment considered it consorting with the enemy The second was that this promise of salvation on this Day was only for the Jews, Gentiles were by definition under condemnation on that day, it was a day for the Jew to shine and the Gentile to be humbled. They couldn’t believe that G-d had also given life to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18), at least not without what the pharisees among them considered a valid conversion, which included circumcision.

Was he circumcised? The text is clear, he was not. First of all, G-d had shown his approval of him without it, G-d had sealed him into remnant Israel, what would Cornelius gain that he didn’t already have? Second, if he was, then Kefa’s defense of his actions to the brethren in Yerushalyim would have made no sense. He could have just told them that, ‘yes I went into a Gentile’s home but he was immediately converted and circumcised, and then I stayed with him ‘a few days’’. This would have been acceptable to them because it followed the pharisaic conversion practices of the day, that a Gentile would be circumcised as soon as possible when he wanted to accept the covenant, there was no long period of instruction as there is today (and beside that, Cornelius already knew Torah). After a short period of recovery, the convert would then be immersed. The fact that Cornelius and his household were immersed immediately shows there could not have been a circumcision beforehand. The point being, had Kefa followed the standard practice, there would have been no objection.

The story of Cornelius shows us that G-d was (and is) calling some from among the nations to be part of remnant Israel, united with the physical descendants of Avraham in the mission to bring Yahushua and Torah to all the world. G-d Himself sealed them and placed His mark on them and regardless of what the Jews thought should be proper procedure in the first century, G-d was showing everyone they were just as much His people as were the righteous, believing Jews.