Christ and Cornelius (3)

Peter and Cornelius

acts.10.PetersVision2_lgPeter’s Vision (Acts 10:9-16)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Jewish dietary laws as revealed by Scripture in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  Knowledge of and strict adherence to these laws was an absolutely central component of the Jewish identity in the first-century A.D.; as it continues to be for many Jews in the 21st century.

The spiritual/emotional power of these dietary and other laws was bound up within the concept of “cleanness.”  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible provides an explanation that may help us to appreciate the depth and power of this concept to a practicing Jew.

Old Testament laws of clean and unclean are applied to persons, foods, places, and objects.  Human beings become unclean principally by contact with the dead or with discharge of one of the body fluids, by the eating of tabooed foods, and by the disease of leprosy.  …

Hebrew priestly tradition regarded the laws of cleanness as a part of the Mosaic covenant, and essential to the survival of the nation, since violation of them was offensive to the holiness of God and estranged him from his people.

This discussion is a prelude to understanding how Peter, a practicing Jew and thus one who identified himself with the God of Israel, reacted when faced with the full implications of Christ’s words from Mark 7:18b,19: Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”.

Prior to reengagement with the text, we must note that it is God who is taking the initiative at both sides of the Jew/Gentile divide.  So, the the promise made two-thousand years earlier to Abraham (Genesis 22:18) was now, by God’s faithfulness, being made visible in this fallen world.

The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet contained all of the unclean animals that Peter had for his entire life avoided.  Here God is dealing with the central issue that would keep Jews and Gentiles in their separate worlds — the inability to come together in fellowship at a meal.

14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Peter’s revulsion and resistance is completely to be expected.  For, it is one thing to hear his Lord make the seemingly abstract statement that no food is unclean and quite another to put it into practice after a lifetime of carefully practicing the opposite!  But, God is here unmistakably decreeing that it is Peter’s Jewish heritage that must give way so that His promise to all nations may become a reality in the Christian Church.

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Christ and Cornelius (2)

Peter and Cornelius

gods_son_centurion
Cornelius’ Vision (Acts 10:1-8)

This monumental event begins by God working within Cornelius.  We don’t know just how he ended up being assigned to the job of occupying and managing this small province of the vast Roman Empire.  Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea, which the Google Maps “Quick Facts” describes as follows.

Caesarea is a town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s known for Caesarea National Park, which includes a large Roman amphitheater and the historic port. On the site is an archaeological park with pillars and sculptures, and the remains of a hippodrome, with frescoes and stone seating. The ruins of the seafront Promontory Palace include the remains of a mosaic floor.

10 At Caesare′a there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.

These two introductory verses describe a pagan man who has come into contact with the ancient culture of Israel, and, finding there something far deeper and truer than anything he had previously experienced.  We know now that what he experienced was the eternal God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — through engagement with the Jewish faith as revealed in their Holy Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

Thus, though this devout man was serving as an occupier for the Empire, he yet found within this subjugated nation that which his heart had been yearning for but was previously unable to find.  He may not have even been aware of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus Christ knew him, and, had saved him from within the mystery of eternal grace to which all Christians give thanks.

About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

God now takes the initiative again to bring Cornelius into knowledge of Christ’s unmerited saving act upon his behalf.  Cornelius’ response of respect and generosity to his Jewish neighbors has been a precursor to a fuller understanding of the true source for his blessed newfound faith.

Cornelius’ initial response of terror is not uncommon in the annals of interaction with God’s messengers.  Being a battle-hardened Centurion, there was likely little in the realm of flesh and blood that could elicit such a response.  But, proximity of frail flesh and blood to that which conveys God’s eternal holiness is another matter entirely.

The angel now introduces Cornelius to this seemingly insignificant Jewish man, “Simon who is called Peter,” who is to be invited into his Gentile home.

When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

Cornelius obeys without hesitation or qualm.  Note that we are here told that Cornelius’ faith had spread beyond himself, with this “devout soldier” as the first of his household mentioned.

Christ and Cornelius (1)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout-Cornelius.

Vision of Cornelius the Centurion – Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1664)

Opening Thoughts

Background

Christ unambiguously decreed that His Church would include all nations in The Great Commission (Matthew 18:18b-20).

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

However we, looking back over two millennia of Gentile dominated Christianity, find it difficult to comprehend the height of the barrier that the original Jewish Christians were being asked to traverse.  For, people raised Jewish at that time had within themselves the religious and cultural heritage of two millennia of Jewish separatism.  Thus, the idea that Christ’s command could be easily obeyed in actual practice is deeply naive.

Given this background, the conversion of the first Gentile to Christianity must have been viewed by the primitive Church as a pivotal moment of the greatest importance.  We would therefore expect such a moment to be a major focus in the Book of Acts, which chronicles the rise of the Church from Christ’s ascension in circa A.D. 30 to Paul’s preaching in Rome, circa A.D.68.  And, this expectation is surely met.

The First Gentile Convert to Christianity

Although there is some debate regarding who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity, the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion points to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1 — 11:18).  The other possibility is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).  An excellent summary of the considerations involved in this conclusion is found in G. H. C. Macgregor’s exegesis on Acts 8:26-40 in the Interpreter’s Bible.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is most vividly told, very much in the style of a narrative from the books of Samuel and Kings.  Was the eunuch a Jew or a Gentile?  Eusebius refers to him as the first Gentile to embrace Christianity; so this Ethiopian has sometimes been regarded as an uncircumcised heathen, and his baptism as the first departure from the principle that Christianity was only for Jews, either native or proselyte.  But there is nothing in the story to suggest any such far-reaching innovation.  The fact that the Ethiopian was a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem, and that he was reading Isaiah, indicates that already he was at least a Jewish proselyte.  Luke evidently regards not his case, but that of Cornelius, as the first admission of an uncircumcised Gentile.  The stress laid on all the details of Cornelius’ case, on the scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome, and on the controversy that the incident precipitated at Jerusalem —  all this proves that Luke is describing what he considers to be the first case of the baptism of a heathen.

Additional evidence for Cornelius as the first Gentile convert is the fact that it is Peter, Christ’s “rock” who is led by God to take this decisive step.  If we look into the number of words used by Luke to describe important conversions in Acts we get the following results (counts from the NIV text):

  • Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: ~347 words
  • Saul on the road to Damascus: ~733 words
  • Peter and Cornelius: ~1456 words.

It is a striking result that Luke spends almost twice the number of words on Peter and Cornelius than he does on what many consider to be the most important conversion in Christianity, that being Saul’s!  Clearly Luke sees the conversion of Cornelius to be of the greatest importance to Christianity’s history.

Who was Cornelius?

Cornelius was “a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment” who had become “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  The Apostle Peter was called to seek out Cornelius by God’s direct intervention, through recurring and vivid visions.

A “centurion” in the Roman army is well described as:

centurionThe centurion, or centurio in Latin, has become the most famous officer in the Roman army, and his experience and valour were indeed a crucial factor in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring Rome‘s military successes spanned over centuries. Commanding a unit of around 100 legionaries, he was also responsible for assigning duties, dishing out punishments, and performing various administrative duties, which ranged from distributing camp passwords to the escort of prisoners. Centurions could also rise to higher administrative positions within the empire, but the name centurion would forever be associated with the grizzled veteran who, emblazoned with decorations, led by courageous example on the battlefield.

Thus, Cornelius was a seasoned warrior who had certainly proved himself in bloody battle on multiple occasions to have risen to such an important position in the Roman army.  Therefore, were one a believer in Christian pacifism, then, beyond the primary issue of Gentile conversion, the secondary “scruples that Peter found so hard to overcome” (see G. H. C. Macgregor’s above exegesis) must have been about the admission of a professional warrior into the pacifistic Christian community.

This hypothesis will be tested by taking the radical step of submitting to what the Bible actually says as opposed to assuming what we would like it to say.

Mainline Christianity and Progressive Politics (4)

ManinBubbleThe Consequences of Progressive Bubble-dom

Some may be wondering why I’m not being even-handed about the issue of bubble-dom.  In particular, why focus only on “progressive bubble-dom?”  The answer is that, although it is theoretically possible for a conservative, libertarian or other politically positioned person to live in a bubble, the fact that Progressives dominate our culture (mainstream media, Hollywood, etc.) and institutions (education, unions, high tech industry, professional organizations, etc.) means that non-Progressives have a much more difficult job of maintaining a bubble’s boundary.  Certainly many non-Progressives withdraw into groups that share their beliefs.  However, even within that group it is neigh impossible to avoid the onslaught of Progressive ideas and policies as they move through everyday life.

With regard to consequences, this has been a major theme of this Blog since it’s beginning.  Some of these consequences were introduced in the previous post, including moral contempt for, refusal to engage in discussion with and inability to utilize persuasive argumentation with non-Progressives.  These issues were examined in my recent posts on immigration policy, most directly in this concluding post (emphasis added).

There is, however, a general consideration that may be of use to explore as we exit this particular topic.  Although it has been indirectly referred to, it has not yet been specifically addressed.  That being Progressive Christianity’s all too common presumption of a moral, intellectual and theological superiority that excuses them from engaging as peers with those holding opposing perspectives.  I certainly am not claiming that this problem is uniformly the case as I personally know numerous members of this group who engage on the merits.

However, I believe the argument can be credibly made that, due to their undeniable success in occupying most key positions of social and organizational power, the Progressive movement has become far too dependent on intimidation at the expense of persuasion.

This strategy is pursued by never acknowledging opposition as being legitimate and by insisting that opposing points of view are motivated by moral defects.  Thus they are not seeking to persuade peers to see their point of view, but rather using social and/or organizational force to obtain submission.  Those who have been following this blog will have no trouble recalling cases where senior leaders in the PC(USA) have aggressively utilized these tactics.

It is the accumulation of these defects that has led to our current sorry state, in which any disagreement on policy degenerates into cruel name-calling.

“The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”

This irresponsible descent into character assassination over the slightest deviation from Progressive group-think has seriously torn our nation’s social fabric.  The recent tragic events in Charlottesville VA laid bare this damage.

There was a time in my (more distant) memory when the epithet “racist” was reserved for application to only those who identified themselves with or vocally aligned their opinions with groups that were openly racist in their ideology.  Yes, it was understood that all people develop stereotypes and preferences that are unfair to or stigmatize others, with the victims most often being black.  However, these moral failures didn’t rise to the level of “racist.”  That is, the assumption was that a person existed within acceptable moral bounds unless something that they said or did clearly proved the opposite.

Although there were steps along the way, the major break in this social assumption occurred with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency.  For, to our shock and dismay, those of us who opposed his administration’s policies found ourselves regularly accused of racism because the head of that administration happened to be black.

In fact, so out of control did this situation become that the accusation of racism didn’t even have to be connected to a racial issue.  I’ve already documented the use of this vile tactic in writing by a Presbytery of the PCUSA in the debate on the definition of Christian marriage.  I must add that I was personally accused of being a racist (by an Elder in the PCUSA no less) while arguing for the position that Christian marriage is defined by Christ Himself to be the union of one man and one woman.

So, when a few hundred KKK and other white-supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to publicly demonstrate for their evil, hateful beliefs, and, one of these people committed murder, there was great need to discuss the issue of racist ideology in numerous public settings.  Many honorable, well meaning leaders and people did just that.

However, the problem is that, with the epithet of “racist” having been applied so indiscriminately and carelessly to literally millions of people, and, current Progressive leaders explicitly using the tragedy in Charlottesville to do this very thing, when many people heard the word “racist” they reasonably wondered if it was being directed at them.  So, when this topic was discussed, it was done within context of a “poisoned well” situation.

Thus, our nation’s ability to reasonably discuss what is surely an important issue has been undermined by irresponsible use of the very term required to hold that discussion. This is one tragedy among many that have rendered our Republic incapable of making progress in so many areas.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around for this current political and cultural collapse.  Many others have made excellent critiques of conservative and other group’s failings.  They should be listened to and carefully considered.  However, until the Progressive Left, including the PCUSA’a leadership, exits its bubble and rejoins the rest of humanity on terms of mutual respect the healing process cannot begin.