So the issue we see here in Acts 11 is whether or not non-Jewish believers in the Messiah need to first become Jews in order to join the Church. So Peter tells his experience from the top in the detail, and really nothing else needs to be said. It’s almost bizarre that Luke tells the whole story in such detail, but maybe he’s trying to make a point. The admission of Gentiles into God’s people without taking on Jewish identity was central to the spread of the good news about Jesus.
Though a few significant details are added here. “Being saved” would be the result of Peter’s message, so Peter’s message wasn’t some addendum to a salvation Cornelius’ already had. Peter says the Holy Spirit fell “as he began to speak.” The Spirit is surprising and sovereign. And Peter mentions Jesus’ words about Spirit-baptism.
Luke probably hammers the point home because it keeps popping up again and again (Acts 15, Acts 21, Galatians, etc.). I think the issue of whether or not Jewish identity must be taken on to remain a believer was such a recurring issue was because of the dynamic and unsettled social and political situation of the 1st century. Pressure was building up which would explode into two major revolts, ending with Jerusalem and its temple destroyed in 70AD, and all Jews expelled from Palestine after the Bar Kochba revolt of 132AD. In other words, people weren't sitting around debating abstract issues. People instead saw abandoning Jewish markers (food laws, Sabbath keeping, circumcision, Temple worship, etc.) as fraternizing with the enemy, and pressure probably seeped into the Church. How often are our modern debates in the Church shaped more by social, cultural, and political pressure than we realize?
Anyways, now in chapter 11 we also see the shift northwards (closer to Rome?) to Paul and his activities in Antioch. Antioch was, of course, a bustling metropolis and a crossroads of various cultures and peoples. And here we see the term “Christian” first used! I wonder if it wasn’t at first pejorative, as many labels first begin, and then take on positive meaning (such as the Catholics who called the Reformation Christians “Lutherans” because they followed the path of Luther’s by faith, grace, and scripture alone). Whatever it was, it gives us insight into what popular perception was. The people of this new group were thought of “the king’s people” or “Messianists.”
You see, calling yourself a Christ/Messiah carried the undertones of Israel’s anointed king through God’s purposes for his people are brought to fulfillment. And to be sure, Paul was at least one of the main teachers there advocating this. And this episode shows us that countless unnamed evangelists of all kinds had been doing there work since a man like Paul is needed. And let’s never forget Barnabas. He saw God’s undeserved love at work among the Gentiles and had the gift of identifying just to man to “get the job done.”
Now, when we get to Acts 12, we see perhaps the end of a “honeymoon” period. I wonder what the catalyst was for the violent persecution, as most persecution have some type of provocation to begin them (and, of course, the Herod family were known for their brutality). Why the sword, and not stoning or another method? Was it because he saw Christians as a political threat since they claimed allegiance only to Jesus as king of the Jews over Herod as king of the Jews? That definitely was the charge in Roman persecutions centuries later, and we don’t see Christians saying anything like, “Well he’s a spiritual king” or that “It’s symbolic” or anything of that sort…
I see Luke as sort of wrapping up the first “half” of his book in Jerusalem with this unofficial versus official king of the Jews, before Barnabas and Paul begin their first missionary journey. The good news has been announced in Jerusalem, Judaea, and Samaria. The local king tried to do his worst and failed. Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus as Lord is announced worldwide, even as far as Rome!
But before I conclude this post, I have to mention what may be a great comical part of the Bible, Rhoda. Here we can smile for the break in serious business, and smile for prayer at work. So the Church prays for Peter’s release, then it’s astonishingly answered, Rhoda gets excited and forgets to answer the door, then everyone thinks she’s crazy! It’s kind of nice to know that the early Jerusalem Christians were the bumbling faith uncertain people we Christians are today. This story has a ring of ordinary down-to-earth truth, maybe a heaven-on-earth truth… Of course the main point is that the true king’s representative is saved, and the imposter king’s plans are frustrated and he leaves, and is then killed (other sources put the date around 44AD for his painful death). And this pattern of confrontation, persecution, then sudden vindication and victory (with God getting all the glory) will continue throughout Acts. So here we see, Jesus win, Herod fail.
And I guess I’ll mention something else, and this mind sound like a soap-box, but so be it. Many tend to think of backward medieval Europe when they think of the ancient world, that they lived in primitive times and couldn’t distinguish between a vision and the reality of space/time/matter, or realize a dead body is a dead body, etc. But we see here, among other places, that they had words to describe odd experiences and knew about them. Luke and Peter knew that waking up in the night and seeing something might be just a dream. They could analyze the situation and make an informed conclusion. Peter realized that by the time he was really on the street, an angel really did appear to him. And those in the house knew women can get excited and think they heard or saw things didn’t see (I’m thinking women at Jesus’ empty tomb). People weren’t convinced of something as earth shattering as a resurrection that easily. So when Rhoda said she saw Peter, they thought she was having one of those vivid experiences where something thinks they’re talking to a recently deceased loved one (I think this sheds light on Acts 23:8, but that’s for another post…).