The preaching work opens up to uncircumcised Gentiles
Based on Acts 10:1–11:30
1-3. What vision does Peter receive, and why do we need to grasp its significance?
THE year is 36 C.E. The autumn sun warms Peter as he prays on the flat rooftop of a house near the sea in the harbor city of Joppa. He has been a guest in this home for some days now. His willingness to stay here reveals, to an extent, an unprejudiced attitude. The owner, a certain Simon, is a tanner by trade, and not every Jew would lodge with such a man.a Still, Peter is about to learn a vital lesson regarding Jehovah’s impartiality.
2 While Peter is praying, he falls into a trance. What he sees in a vision would disturb any Jew. Descending from heaven is a sheetlike vessel containing animals unclean according to the Law. Told to slaughter and eat, Peter replies: “I have never eaten anything defiled and unclean.” Not once but three times he is told: “Stop calling defiled the things God has cleansed.” (Acts 10:14-16) The vision leaves Peter confused but not for long.
3 What did Peter’s vision mean? It is important that we grasp its significance, for at the heart of this vision is a profound truth about the way Jehovah views people. As true Christians, we cannot bear thorough witness about God’s Kingdom unless we learn to share God’s view of people. To unlock the meaning of Peter’s vision, let us examine the dramatic events that surrounded it.
Making “Supplication to God Continually” (Acts 10:1-8)
4, 5. Who was Cornelius, and what happened while he was praying?
4 Little did Peter know that the preceding day in Caesarea, about 30 miles (50 km) north, a man named Cornelius had also received a divine vision. Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, was “a devout man.”b He was also an exemplary family man “who feared God together with all his household.” Cornelius was not a Jewish proselyte; he was an uncircumcised Gentile. Yet, he showed compassion to needy Jews, giving them material help. This sincere man “made supplication to God continually.”—Acts 10:2.
5 At about 3:00 p.m., Cornelius was praying when he saw a vision in which an angel told him: “Your prayers and gifts of mercy have ascended as a remembrance before God.” (Acts 10:4) As directed by the angel, Cornelius dispatched men to summon the apostle Peter. As an uncircumcised Gentile, Cornelius was about to enter a door that up to then had been closed to him. He was about to receive the message of salvation.
6, 7. (a) Relate an experience showing that God answers the prayers of sincere ones who want to find out the truth about him. (b) What can we conclude from such experiences?
6 Does God answer the prayers of sincere ones today who want to find out the truth about him? Consider an experience. A woman in Albania accepted a copy of The Watchtower containing an article about raising children.c She told the Witness who called at her door: “Would you believe that I was praying to God for help in raising my daughters? He sent you! You touched my heart in the exact spot where I needed it!” The woman and her daughters began studying, and her husband later joined in the study.
7 Is this an isolated example? By no means! This type of experience has been repeated over and over again around the world—far too often to be attributed to mere chance. What, then, can we conclude? First, Jehovah answers the prayers of sincere individuals who search for him. (1 Ki. 8:41-43; Ps. 65:2) Second, we have angelic support for our preaching work.—Rev. 14:6, 7.
“Peter Was . . . Perplexed” (Acts 10:9-23a)
8, 9. What did the spirit make known to Peter, and how did he respond?
8 Still on the rooftop, “Peter was . . . perplexed” over the meaning of the vision when messengers from Cornelius approached the house. (Acts 10:17) Would Peter, who had three times said that he would refuse to eat foods considered unclean according to the Law, be willing to go with these men and enter into the home of a Gentile? In some way holy spirit made God’s will known in this matter. Peter was told: “Look! Three men are asking for you. So get up, go downstairs and go with them, not doubting at all, because I have sent them.” (Acts 10:19, 20) The vision of the sheetlike vessel that Peter had received no doubt prepared him to yield to the leadings of the holy spirit.
9 Learning that Cornelius had been divinely instructed to send for him, Peter invited the Gentile messengers into his house “and had them stay as his guests.” (Acts 10:23a) The obedient apostle was already adjusting to new developments in the outworking of God’s will.
10. How does Jehovah lead his people, and what questions may we need to ask ourselves?
10 To this day, Jehovah leads his people progressively. (Prov. 4:18) By means of his holy spirit, he is guiding “the faithful and discreet slave.” (Matt. 24:45) At times, we may receive clarifications in our understanding of God’s Word or changes in certain organizational procedures. We do well to ask ourselves: ‘How do I respond to such refinements? Do I submit to the leadings of God’s spirit in these matters?’
Peter “Commanded Them to Be Baptized” (Acts 10:23b-48)
11, 12. What did Peter do upon arriving in Caesarea, and what had he learned?
11 The day after his vision, Peter and nine others—the three messengers sent by Cornelius and “six [Jewish] brothers” from Joppa—headed up to Caesarea. (Acts 11:12) Expecting Peter, Cornelius had assembled “his relatives and close friends”—evidently all Gentiles. (Acts 10:24) Upon arriving, Peter did something once unthinkable for him: He entered the home of an uncircumcised Gentile! Peter explained: “You well know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or approach a man of another race, and yet God has shown me that I should call no man defiled or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) By now Peter had come to discern that the vision he had received was intended to teach a lesson that was not limited to the types of foods one should eat. He should “call no man [not even a Gentile] defiled.”
12 A receptive audience awaited Peter. “We are all present before God to hear all the things you have been commanded by Jehovah to say,” explained Cornelius. (Acts 10:33) Imagine how you would feel if you heard such words from an interested person! Peter began with this powerful statement: “Now I truly understand that God is not partial, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) Peter had learned that God’s view of people is not determined by race, nationality, or any other external factors. Peter proceeded to bear witness about Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.
13, 14. (a) What was significant about the conversion of Cornelius and other Gentiles in 36 C.E.? (b) Why should we not judge people on the basis of external characteristics?
13 Something unprecedented now happened: “While Peter was still speaking,” the holy spirit was poured out upon those “people of the nations.” (Acts 10:44, 45) This is the only reported case in the Scriptures of the spirit’s being poured out before baptism. Recognizing this sign of God’s approval, Peter “commanded them [that group of Gentiles] to be baptized.” (Acts 10:48) The conversion of these Gentiles in 36 C.E. marked the end of the period of special favor to the Jews. (Dan. 9:24-27) Taking the lead on this occasion, Peter used the third and final key of “the keys of the Kingdom.” (Matt. 16:19) This key opened the door for uncircumcised Gentiles to become spirit-anointed Christians.
14 As Kingdom proclaimers today, we recognize that “there is no partiality with God.” (Rom. 2:11) It is his will that “all sorts of people should be saved.” (1 Tim. 2:4) So we must never judge people on the basis of external characteristics. Our commission is to bear thorough witness about God’s Kingdom, and that involves preaching to all people, regardless of their race, nationality, appearance, or religious background.
“They Stopped Objecting, and They Glorified God” (Acts 11:1-18)
15, 16. Why did some Jewish Christians contend with Peter, and how did he explain his actions?
15 No doubt eager to report what had happened, Peter headed for Jerusalem. Evidently, the news that uncircumcised Gentiles had “accepted the word of God” preceded him. Soon after Peter arrived, “the supporters of circumcision began to criticize him.” They were disturbed because he had entered “the house of men who were not circumcised and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-3) The issue was not whether Gentiles could become followers of Christ. Rather, those Jewish disciples were really insisting that Gentiles needed to observe the Law—including circumcision—in order to worship Jehovah acceptably. Clearly, some Jewish disciples had difficulty letting go of the Mosaic Law.
16 How did Peter explain his actions? According to Acts 11:4-16, he recounted four evidences of heavenly direction: (1) the divine vision he had received (Verses 4-10); (2) the spirit’s command (Verses 11, 12); (3) the angel’s visit to Cornelius (Verses 13, 14); and (4) the pouring out of the holy spirit upon the Gentiles. (Verses 15, 16) Peter concluded with a most compelling question: “If, therefore, God gave the same free gift [of holy spirit] to them [believing Gentiles] that he gave to us [Jews] who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should be able to hinder God?”—Acts 11:17.
17, 18. (a) Peter’s testimony posed what test for Jewish Christians? (b) Why can it be a challenge to preserve the unity of the congregation, and what questions do we do well to ask ourselves?
17 Peter’s testimony posed a crucial test for those Jewish Christians. Would they be able to put aside any traces of prejudice and accept the newly baptized Gentiles as their fellow Christians? The account tells us: “When they [the apostles and other Jewish Christians] heard these things, they stopped objecting, and they glorified God, saying: ‘So, then, God has also granted to people of the nations repentance leading to life.’” (Acts 11:18) That positive attitude preserved the unity of the congregation.
18 Maintaining unity today can be challenging, for true worshippers have come “out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.” (Rev. 7:9) We thus find a diversity of races, cultures, and backgrounds in many congregations. We do well to ask ourselves: ‘Have I rooted out of my heart any traces of prejudice? Am I determined never to let this world’s divisive traits—including nationalism, tribalism, pride in culture, and racism—influence the way I treat my Christian brothers?’ Recall what happened to Peter (Cephas) some years after the conversion of the first Gentiles. Yielding to the prejudice of others, he “separated himself” from Gentile Christians and had to be corrected by Paul. (Gal. 2:11-14) Let us keep ever on guard against the snare of prejudice.
“A Great Number Became Believers” (Acts 11:19-26a)
19. Jewish Christians in Antioch began preaching to whom, and with what result?
19 Did Jesus’ followers start preaching to uncircumcised Gentiles? Notice what happened later in Antioch of Syria.d This city had a large Jewish community, but there was little hostility between Jews and Gentiles. So Antioch offered a favorable atmosphere for preaching to Gentiles. It was here that some Jewish disciples began declaring the good news “to the Greek-speaking people.” (Acts 11:20) This preaching was directed not only to Greek-speaking Jews but also to uncircumcised Gentiles. Jehovah blessed the work, and “a great number became believers.”—Acts 11:21.
20, 21. How did Barnabas show due modesty, and how can we show similar modesty when fulfilling our ministry?
20 To care for this ripe field, the Jerusalem congregation sent Barnabas to Antioch. The thriving interest evidently was more than he could handle alone. Who was better suited to help out than Saul, who was to become the apostle to the nations? (Acts 9:15; Rom. 1:5) Would Barnabas see Saul as a rival? On the contrary, Barnabas showed due modesty. He took the initiative to go to Tarsus, look for Saul, and bring him back to Antioch to help. Together they spent a year building up the disciples in the congregation there.—Acts 11:22-26a.
21 How can we show modesty in fulfilling our ministry? This quality involves acknowledging our limitations. We all have different strengths and abilities. For example, some may be effective in witnessing informally or from house to house but have difficulty making return visits or starting Bible studies. If you would like to improve in some aspect of the ministry, why not ask for help? By taking such initiative, you may become more productive and reap greater joy in the ministry.—1 Cor. 9:26.
Sending “Relief to the Brothers” (Acts 11:26b-30)
22, 23. The brothers in Antioch made what expression of brotherly love, and how do God’s people today act similarly?
22 It was first in Antioch that “the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.” (Acts 11:26b) That God-approved name aptly describes those whose way of life is modeled on that of Christ. As people of the nations became Christians, did a bond of brotherhood form between Jewish and Gentile believers? Consider what happened when a great famine occurred about 46 C.E.e In ancient times, famines sorely affected the poor, who had neither reserves of money nor extra food. During this famine, the Jewish Christians living in Judea, many of whom apparently were poor, were in need of provisions. Learning of the need, the brothers in Antioch—including Gentile Christians—sent “relief to the brothers living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29) What a genuine expression of brotherly love!
23 It is no different among God’s people today. When we learn that our brothers—in another land or in our own area—are in need, we willingly reach out to help them. Branch Committees quickly organize the formation of Disaster Relief Committees to look after our brothers who may be affected by natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. All such relief efforts demonstrate the genuineness of our brotherhood.—John 13:34, 35; 1 John 3:17.
24. How can we show that we take to heart the meaning of the vision that Peter received?
24 As true Christians, we take to heart the meaning of the vision that Peter received on the rooftop in Joppa back in the first century. We worship an impartial God. It is his will that we bear thorough witness about his Kingdom, which involves preaching to others regardless of their race, national origin, or social standing. Let us, then, be determined to give all who will listen an opportunity to respond to the good news.—Rom. 10:11-13.
a Some Jews looked down on a tanner because his trade brought him into contact with the hides and carcasses of animals and with the loathsome materials required for his work. Tanners were considered unfit to appear at the temple, and their place of business had to be no less than 50 cubits, or somewhat over 70 feet (20 m), from a town. This, in part, may explain why Simon’s house was “by the sea.”—Acts 10:6.
e The Jewish historian Josephus refers to this “great famine” during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 C.E.).