Sunday, October 7, 2018

Peter, Cornelius and the Jerusalem Conference: A Study on Acts 15:1-17 (Part One)

Introduction

One of the conclusions at which I arrived in my four-part study, "God's covenant people" (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2018/09/gods-covenant-people-why-most-believing.html) is that the apostle Peter was called by God through the gospel (or "evangel") entrusted to him - i.e., the “evangel of the Circumcision” - to an expectation that is entirely distinct from the expectation that belongs to those who have been called by God through the evangel entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations (i.e., the “evangel of the Uncircumcision”). I further argued that, as a member of God’s covenant people, Israel, Peter had (and continued to have) a covenant-based obligation to keep the law given by God to Israel, and that this covenant-based obligation was inseparable from his covenant-based expectation. 

Concerning Peter’s covenant-based obligation, I quoted (and then provided some explanatory remarks on) Matthew 5:17-20 in part three of the aforementioned study. Here, again, is the passage; notice especially Christ’s words in the last two verses (which I’ve placed in bold):

“You should not infer that I came to demolish the law or the prophets. I came not to demolish, but to fulfill. For verily, I am saying to you, Till heaven and earth should be passing by, one iota or one serif may by no means be passing by from the law till all should be occurring. Whosoever, then, should be annulling one of the least of these precepts, and should be teaching men thus, the least in the kingdom of the heavens shall he be called. Yet whoever should be doing and teaching them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I am saying to you that, if ever your righteousness should not be super-abounding more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, by no means may you be entering into the kingdom of the heavens.”

In the context, the righteousness that Christ had in mind in v. 20 is undoubtedly connected with doing the precepts of the law. But what was so deficient about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in regard to “doing the precepts?” Christ made it pretty clear what their deficiency consisted in on several occasions during his earthly ministry, but perhaps the most obvious example can be found in Matthew 23:1-3, where we read the following:

Then Jesus speaks to the throngs and to His disciples, saying, “On Moses’ seat are seated the scribes and the Pharisees. All, then, whatever they should be saying to you, do and keep it. Yet according to their acts do not be doing, for they are saying and not doing.

I don’t think Christ could’ve made it any more obvious to his disciples what was expected of them if they were to “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens” (which, as I’ve argued in "God's covenant people," is the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel at Christ’s return to earth). In order to enter this kingdom, the righteousness of Peter (and every other believing member of God’s covenant people) had to “super-abound” more than that of the scribes and Pharisees. And this meant actually keeping the law of Moses.

That the scribes and Pharisees in Christ's day had failed so miserably at keeping the law of Moses is surprising to some. However, it shouldn’t be. The fact is that they excelled at keeping their own traditions and additions to the law of Moses, but it was these very traditions and additions (neither of which were divinely sanctioned) which prevented them from keeping the actual law, as found in the inspired scriptures. Christ’s words in Mark 7 are a perfect example of this. In this eye-opening rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, we find that they were “teaching for teachings the directions of men,” that they left “the precept of God” and were “holding the tradition of men,” that they were “repudiating the precept of God, that [they] should be keeping [their] tradition,“ and that they were “invalidating the word of God by [their] tradition” (and in addition to the specific examples Christ provided, Christ added, “And many such like things” were they doing)!

In contrast with the hypocritical and lawless scribes and Pharisees, Zechariah and Elizabeth were a good example of faithful Israelites who were actually doing what God had commanded Israel: “Now they were both just in front of God, going in all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord, blameless” (Luke 1:6). I think it’s safe to say that the righteousness of Zechariah and Elizabeth super-abounded more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, and that these two faithful members of God's covenant people will be included in “the resurrection of the just” referred to by Christ in Luke 14:14.

The upshot of everything said above is simply this: Peter was, and remained, a part of that company of believing Israelites whose righteousness had to super-abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees in order for him to “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens.” Of course, Christ clearly had no doubt that Peter and his apostolic companions would, in fact, endure in their faith and righteous conduct even to the end of their lives (Matt. 19:27-28; cf. John 21:18-19), but they nevertheless had to endure to the end in order to be saved. And this, of course, means that - unlike the salvation of those in the body of Christ - Peter’s salvation was not based on an inseparable union he had with Christ. His righteous standing before God was not based on “the faith of Christ” (as is the case for those in the body of Christ), but rather was based on a combination of his own faith and works (hence, James declared that the justification - i.e., declared righteous standing - of the believing Israelites to whom he wrote was NOT “by faith only”). Peter’s salvation, in other words, involved not just believing in Christ (as important and essential as this was) but also on “fearing God and acting righteously.” For a more in-depth look at the doctrine of justification taught by Paul - and how it differs from that which we find affirmed in James’ letter and elsewhere - click this link.

In contrast with everything said above, many Christians understand Peter’s words in Acts 15:7-11 as evidence that Peter believed that he and the Gentiles to whom he delivered the message recorded in Acts 10:34-43 had been justified by faith apart from works (or “justified through the faith of Christ Jesus,” as Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere). What I’m going to be arguing in this study is that this view is mistaken, and that one must already be presupposing this position (and then reading it “in between the lines”) in order to find it affirmed in Acts 15:7-11. Contrary to the more popular position, I don’t think we have any good reason to understand Peter’s words at the Jerusalem conference as an affirmation of the doctrine of justification that we find revealed in Paul’s letters.

I believe that it was by means of the events described in Acts 10 (which include the vision that God gave Peter involving the sheet filled with various clean and unclean animals, as well as Peter’s experiences involving Cornelius and his house) that God wisely prepared Peter for what he would later say at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. And the truth that I believe Peter came to understand (and which could be considered mature truth for believers among God’s covenant people at that time) was simply this: those among the nations who feared God and acted righteously could qualify for an allotment in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel without having to become circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Since this fact meant that Gentiles could be saved apart from circumcision and law-keeping, Peter was able to come to the defense of Paul’s ministry to the nations, so that it could be recognized as valid by the ecclesia at Jerusalem.

The reason for the Jerusalem conference

In Acts 15:1-5, we read the following:

And some, coming down from Judea, taught the brethren that, “If you should not be circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Now as Paul and Barnabas come to have no slight commotion and questioning with them, they prescribe that Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them are to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this question. They indeed, then, being sent forward by the ecclesia, passed through Phoenicia as well as Samaria, detailing the turning about of the nations. And they caused great joy to all the brethren. Now coming along into Jerusalem, they were received by the ecclesia and the apostles and the elders. Besides, they inform them of whatever God does with them. Yet some from the sect of the Pharisees who have believed rise up, saying that they must be circumcised, besides charging them to keep the law of Moses.

In these verses we find that “some” had come down from Judea and were teaching the new believers from among the nations that their salvation depended on being “circumcised after the custom of Moses.” It’s also evident that they thought keeping the law of Moses was a requirement as well (which is unsurprising, given that becoming circumcised implied that they would “keep the law of Moses”). Now, what evangel had these Jewish believers believed? By virtue of what was Luke able to refer to them as having “believed?” Evidently, they had believed the same evangel that “the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem” had believed – i.e., the “evangel of the Circumcision,” which Paul said had been entrusted to Peter (Gal. 2:7). In other words, these Jewish believers - like the “tens of thousands” of Jews referred to by James in Acts 21 - believed the truth concerning Jesus’ being “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Significantly, we read in v. 5 that these believers from Judea were “from the sect of the Pharisees” (which is a detail that I believe is worth keeping in mind, as it will serve to help us better understand something Peter says later on in this chapter).

Now, it’s important to consider what wasn’t being questioned, debated or discussed at this gathering in Jerusalem. The meeting was not held to determine whether or not believers among God’s covenant people, Israel, had any covenant-based obligations. It was not held to determine whether or not the words of Malachi 4:4 (“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel”) were still necessary for members of the believing remnant of Israel to heed. It was not held to determine whether or not those whose calling and expectation was in accord with everything prophesied concerning Israel during the reign of Messiah could simply stop keeping the law of Moses while still expecting to receive eonian life in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel. The question that the conference was intended to resolve was not, “Is fearing God and acting righteously by keeping the precepts of the law essential to the salvation of believing Israelites?” No; the conference in Jerusalem was concerned with whether or not those among the nations who were coming to faith in Christ through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas had to become circumcised and keep the law of Moses (i.e., become proselytes) in order to be saved. It was this question that the conference was intended to resolve.

Peter: apostle of the nations?

Continuing with Acts 15:6-7, we read the following:

Now the apostles and the elders were gathered to see about this matter. Now, there coming to be much questioning, rising, Peter said to them, “Men! Brethren! You are versed in the fact that from the days at the beginning God chooses among you, that through my mouth the nations are to hear the word of the evangel and believe.”


How does this declaration by Peter square with the fact that it was Paul– and not Peter - who was made “the apostle of the nations” (Rom. 11:13)? We know that Peter was not talking about being chosen for an apostolic ministry to “the nations,” in general, for that would’ve meant being chosen to herald his evangel to idol-worshiping pagans (and there is absolutely no indication from Scripture that Peter ever did this). Rather, what Peter had in mind was a single incident that involved a man named Cornelius, and his house (who comprised the “nations” that Peter had in view in v. 7). It was these Gentiles to whom Peter had been chosen by God to herald the evangel with which he’d been entrusted, in accord with his “apostleship of the Circumcision.” And it was this important experience in Peter’s life that taught him something that would later enable him to say what he did at the Jerusalem conference in defense of the unique apostolic ministry of Paul.

It is important to note that Peter was the man to whom Christ had given the “keys of the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 16:19-20). As argued in “God’s covenant people,” the kingdom of the heavens of which Peter had been given the “keys” is the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel, and which is to be established on the earth after Christ’s return to the earth. In light of what we know concerning the authority given to Peter (symbolized by “keys”), it’s no surprise that it was through his apostolic agency that the kingdom of God was “unlocked” to these God-fearing Gentiles. It also needs to be noted that, although Cornelius was uncircumcised (and thus not a proselyte of Israel), he was by no means representative of most Gentiles living during the time of the Roman Empire. Cornelius was 
“devout and fearing God with his entire house, doing many alms to the people [Israel] and beseeching God continually…a man just and God-fearing, besides being attested by the whole nation of the Jews”(Acts 10: 2, 22). Cornelius and his house evidently recognized their place in subordination to the nation of Israel, and desired to worship the God of Israel via the mediation of Israel. Another example of a God-fearing Gentile like Cornelius would be the Roman centurion referred to in Luke 7:1-5.

The gospel heralded by Peter to the nations

What is (conveniently) overlooked by those who believe that only one evangel was being heralded during the apostolic era is the fact that, in the message heralded by Peter to Cornelius and his house (as recorded in Acts 10:34-43), there is no mention whatsoever of one of the essential elements of Paul’s “evangel of the Uncircumcision” (i.e., the fact that “Christ died for our sins”). Just as with the messages Peter had previously heralded to Israelites (as recorded in Acts 2 and 3), this truth is completely absent from what Peter declared to Cornelius and his house:

“Of the word He dispatches to the sons of Israel, bringing the evangel of peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all), you are aware, the declaration coming to be down the whole of Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John heralds: Jesus from Nazareth, as God anoints Him with holy spirit and power, Who passed through as a benefactor and healer of all those who are tyrannized over by the Adversary, for God was with Him.
And we are witnesses of all that He does, both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem; Whom they assassinate also, hanging Him on a pole. This One God rouses the third day, and gives Him to become disclosed, not to the entire people, but to witnesses who have been selected before by God, to us who ate and drank together with Him after His rising from among the dead. And he [God] charges us to herald to the people and to certify that this One is he who is specified by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To this One are all the prophets testifying: Everyone who is believing in Him is to obtain the pardon of sins through His name” (Acts 10:36-43).[1]

Peter’s declaring that Jesus of Nazareth had been anointed by God “with holy spirit and power” is simply another way of identifying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (see Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34). Everything Peter said – including the facts concerning Jesus’ "assassination" and subsequent resurrection – served to support and further validate this central truth. To say that Jesus is “…he who is specified by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (which, again, was the truth that Peter said he and his co-laborers had been charged by God to herald) was simply another way of saying that Jesus is the Christ, for no other man had been, or would be, given this great authority from God (cf. John 5:21-29).

Peter’s omission of the fact that Christ died for the sins of those to whom he spoke means that it’s impossible that “the word of the evangel” he heralded to Cornelius and his house (as referred to in Acts 15:7) was the same evangel that was entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations. Logically, the evangel that Peter heralded to Cornelius and his house and the evangel which Paul heralded among the nations must be different. And if that’s the case, then we can reasonably conclude that the evangel heard and believed by Cornelius and his house (who, again, were the “nations” referred to by Peter in Acts 15:7) was the evangel of the Circumcision.

Consider the following argument:

1. The gospel that Paul heralded among the nations is the only gospel through which people are called to become members of the body of Christ, and this gospel essentially involves the truth that Christ died for our sins.
2. Since the truth of Christ’s death for our sins is absent from the gospel that Peter heralded to Cornelius and his house, it cannot be the same gospel that Paul heralded among the nations.
3. Cornelius and his house believed a different gospel than that which was entrusted to Paul to herald among the nations, and did not become members of the body of Christ when they believed this gospel.

Why Cornelius qualified to receive blessing through Peter

I purposefully skipped the introduction to Peter’s message to Cornelius and his house in my above quotation of what Peter declared to them in Acts 10. What I want to do now is focus on it, because I see Peter’s introductory words as the key to understanding why Cornelius and his house were able to have Peter’s evangel heralded to them so that they could be saved.

Keeping in mind that this is how Peter introduced the evangel he subsequently heralded to Cornelius and his house, we read the following Acts 10:34-35: “Now Peter, opening his mouth, said, “Of a truth I am grasping that God is not partial, but in every nation he who is fearing Him and acting righteously is acceptable to Him.” This is the lesson that God taught Peter by means of the vision involving the “sheet” full of various clean and unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16). The word translated as “acceptable” (dekton,’ literally “RECEIVable”) means just that – i.e., able to be accepted or received. In this verse, then, we find Peter providing Cornelius and his house with the reason why this small company of Gentiles had been deemed acceptable to God, and why they therefore qualified to have the evangel of the Circumcision heralded to them by Peter: Cornelius and his house were “fearing [God] and acting righteously.”

Why was the fact that Cornelius and his house feared God and acted righteously such a big deal to Peter (so much so that he would introduce his message by pointing out that anyone of any nation who's fearing God and acting righteously is acceptable to God)? We know that, in stark contrast to this, Paul couldn't have cared less about whether or not the Gentiles to whom he heralded his evangel feared God and acted righteously before he evangelized them; their ethical and religious status and behavior prior to hearing his evangel was a complete non-issue for Paul. But for Peter, it mattered greatly. Why? Answer: Because Peter's understanding was that "fearing God and acting righteously" was essential to his own salvation, as a member of God's covenant people.

The reader must keep in mind what it is that Peter believed concerning how people were saved prior to the events described in Acts 10. Peter did not believe that those among God’s covenant people, Israel, could be justified by faith apart from works. Although Peter understood faith as being essential to salvation, “faith alone” would’ve been viewed as completely insufficient; Christ himself had made this clear to Peter (and to the other disciples) on several occasions during his earthly ministry (see the above introduction as well as part three of “God’s covenant people”). Peter believed that, in order to qualify for entry into the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel, a believing Jew had to fear God and act righteously. And for Peter, it would’ve been unthinkable that a member of God’s covenant people could be fearing God and acting righteously while, at the same time, disregarding the law of Moses (or deciding that the law was merely optional to keep). Nor would Peter have thought that a believing Jew could be fearing God and acting righteously by picking and choosing which precepts of the law they were going to follow (if any at all). And we have no reason to believe that Peter and the rest of the twelve ever ceased to be (or came to see themselves as no longer being) members of God’s covenant people. Prior to the events of Acts 10, Peter believed that the salvation of Jews who believed the evangel he heralded in Acts 2 and 3 involved doing the will of God by “keeping the precepts.” And if a Gentile wanted to share in Israel's covenant-based expectation, Peter would've believed (again, prior to the events of Acts 10) that he or she had to proselytize and become a member of God’s covenant people. Only then would he or she qualify for eonian life in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel.

Thus, to think that Peter, in Acts 10, believed that he – as a member of God’s covenant people – could be said to be “fearing God and acting righteously” without trying to fulfill his covenant-based obligation as an Israelite is simply nonsense. Prior to his experiences involving Cornelius, we have every reason to believe that Peter’s understanding of how Israelites were saved was based on what he learned from Christ himself during his earthly ministry. And we have no reason to believe that, with the events of Acts 10, Peter acquired any new beliefs or understanding concerning how he and his fellow Israelites would qualify for eonian life in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel. 

On the other hand, Peter learned a great deal about what was possible for those of the nations in regard to qualifying for eonian life in this kingdom. By the time Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he’d come to realize that any Gentile who was “fearing God and acting righteously” (i.e., by conducting themselves as Cornelius and his house did) could qualify for eonian life in the kingdom by obtaining the pardon of sins. Thus, Peter learned that Gentiles did not have to become members of God’s covenant people (by getting circumcised and keeping the law of Moses) in order to be saved; if they feared God and acted righteously, they were acceptable to God, and could be saved through faith in the evangel of the Circumcision, right along with believing Jews. 

But by virtue of what could it be said that Cornelius was “fearing God and acting righteously?” What kind of conduct did Peter have in mind when he used these words in reference to Gentiles? Well, according to Acts 10:2, 22, Cornelius was “devout and fearing God with his entire house, doing many alms to the people [Israel] and beseeching God continually…a man just and God-fearing, besides being attested by the whole nation of the Jews” (Acts 10: 2, 22). We also read that a celestial messenger told Cornelius the following in Acts 10:31: “Cornelius, your prayer is hearkened to, and your alms are brought to remembrance in God’s sight.” To whom was Cornelius giving the alms which were “brought to remembrance in God’s sight?” Answer: he was giving alms to the poor among Israel (which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why he was “attested by the whole nation of the Jews”). This God-fearing Gentile was, in other words, acceptable to God (and thus worthy to have the evangel of the Circumcision heralded to him) because he feared (i.e., took seriously) the God of Israel, and was blessing God’s covenant people, Israel

This would make Cornelius a prime example (and “firstfruit” representative) of those who belonged to that category of Gentiles referred to as “the sheep” in Matthew 25:31-46 – a category of people who, because of their righteous treatment of God’s covenant people, will be judged worthy by Christ to receive eonian life in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel (for a more in-depth look at the identity of the “sheep” referred to in Matt. 25:31-46, see my seven-part study on this passage: http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2018/04/the-judgment-of-sheep-and-goats-study_14.html). In light of the conditions specified in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3), it can be reasonably inferred that Cornelius and his house were eligible for receiving blessing (i.e., eonian life in the kingdom of God) because they took the God of Israel seriously and were blessing his covenant people. Despite their uncircumcised status, Cornelius and his family would still be able to enjoy an allotment in the millennial kingdom of Israel.

Thus, Peter recognized Cornelius as one who, lack of circumcision notwithstanding, “feared God and acted righteously.” He qualified for entrance into the millennial kingdom in accord with the Abrahamic covenant. Cornelius’ fasting, prayers to God and generous giving of alms “to the people” (i.e., God’s covenant people) seems to have been the very reason that he - and not just any Gentile living at that time - was used by God to reveal to Peter the important truth that he learned at this time, and which would enable Peter to come to the defense of Paul’s ministry to the nations, so that it could be recognized as valid by the ecclesia at Jerusalem.





[1] The word “everyone” is always to be understood relative to whatever category of people and situation is in view, and we must always look to the immediate context of scripture in order to determine who is (or isn’t) being included in the word (see, for example, the use of “everyone” in Matthew 5:22, Mark 5:20 and Luke 16:16). The word “everyone” in Acts 10:43 refers back to “the people” of v. 42, and “the people” of v. 42 refers back to “the entire people” of v. 41. It refers, in other words, to everyone among the people of Israel, and corresponds to those referred to by Peter in Acts 3:23 as “every soul among the people” (see also Acts 4:10; 5:20-21; 10:2; 13:24, 31; 26:23).

Based on the immediate context, then, we can conclude that the people referred to in v. 43 are everyone to whom God had charged Peter and his Jewish companions to herald the evangel of the Circumcision (which was, of course, those among “the Circumcision”; see Gal. 2:7-9 for further proof of this). Cornelius and his household - who were not of “the Circumcision” - had become the exception to the rule (being, as it were, outside of the category of those referred to by Peter as “the people”). Thus, those to whom Peter later related his experience involving Cornelius and his house are understandably surprised that people from among the nations had also been given “repentance unto life” (Acts 10:18). The idea that non-Israelites could, by believing the evangel of the Circumcision, obtain the pardon of sins, was completely unexpected to these believing Jews.

2 comments:

  1. Very powerful and compelling scripture-backed truths. Thank you, and thank you Martin Zender for referring me to this blog.

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  2. Outstanding commentary! With regard to Peter's Vision in Acts 10. I wonder if the vision was part of God's original plan before the "...eons were adjusted to a declaration of God... Heb. 11:3 as preparation for the Great Commission that never came as a result of Messiah's rejection?

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