Cornelius Answers Jerusalem’s Big Problem

18 Oct

Luke makes no attempt to smooth out the abrupt change of people and places in Acts 11:19. In the first eighteen verses Luke records Peter’s interrogation by critics in Jerusalem, and his defense before them concerning his activities in Acts 10. Then, suddenly and without notice, Peter vanishes from the scene and Luke begins writing about the Hellenist Messianics who fled Jerusalem during the persecution surrounding Stephen’s death. It seems Luke simply picks up the story of the fleeing brethren at Acts 8:4 and tells us what they did in the remaining verses of chapter eleven, as if he wrote nothing about Philip, Paul or Peter and Cornelius. Then just as abruptly, he leaves the Hellenist Messianics again to speak of Peter in Jerusalem. What gives?

Luke is often censured by Biblical critics for smoothing out matters, leaving out important details concerning Paul; yet, he makes no effort whatsoever to smooth out these eleven verses between telling us what Peter did in Acts 10, how he defended himself in Acts 11:1-18 and then what happened to him as a result of those activities in Acts 12.

One of the fascinating details that Luke leaves out, but unveils for us in a matter-of-fact manner without making any connection as to its importance is the fact that Philip, one of the Seven of Acts 6, settled in Caesarea (Acts 8:40; cp. Acts 21:8). Why didn’t the Lord simply lead Cornelius to Philip? They weren’t very far apart; they may have even lived in the same neighborhood. Did Cornelius know anything about Philip? We don’t know for certain, but what are the chances he didn’t, if Peter expected him to know about Jesus and John the Baptist (Acts 10:37)? Certainly, Rome knew of what the Jerusalem authorities were doing with the Hellenist Messianics. Roman authorities simply turned the other way, unless they were confronted with the details by a third party. Such confrontations may be behind the abrupt changes of the high priesthood relating to Caiaphas (cir. 35/36 CE) and Jonathan (37 CE), both of the Annas family. The fact that Rome kept replacing the current high priest with another member of Annas’ family showed Rome wasn’t displeased with the current affairs in Jerusalem, which may be why the Lord had Luke present Theophilus, Jonathan’s brother and son of Annas, with a copy of his Gospel, showing the Roman army would destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in short order if he didn’t repent of his persecuting activity (cp. Acts 9:31). Politics is often a dirty business, and when religious authorities and political authorities are in bed together the dirty business is often unbearable, hence the Lord’s intervention with Caesar threatening to place a statue of himself within the Temple compound at Jerusalem.

The problem seems to be that the believers at Jerusalem were not very sympathetic toward their persecuted Hellenist brethren. The Judean born brethren probably disagreed with the blunt approach of Stephen and the other foreign born Messianics. There had to be some disagreement, since only the foreign born believers were persecuted to the death. No doubt the Judean born believers were expelled from synagogues and perhaps even beaten, but they weren’t expelled from Jerusalem—until Acts 12. The fact that a great company of priests and Pharisees joined the Judean born community of believers only after Stephen and company left (cp. Acts 6:7) shows that dirty politics didn’t exist only outside the nascent Church. These newcomers actually believed there was something unclean about the foreign born, Greek-speaking, Jewish believers. What the Twelve believed about these brethren isn’t clear, but it seems to me the Apostles felt they were between a rock and a hard place. They certainly didn’t want to unduly arouse the wrath of the Jewish authorities. Up to now the Lord had defended the Apostles when the authorities wanted to slay them (cp. Acts 5). Yet, these same authorities were slaying the Hellenist brethren. According to the most fundamental, Law keeping believers, they were unclean (Acts 6:7), and they may have taken the “see no evil—speak no evil” approach (cp. Luke 10:30-32). After all, if one helped the unclean, one couldn’t serve in the Temple at Jerusalem, could one? So, the Twelve found it difficult to satisfy both the Hellenist brethren and the most conservative body of believers and still ward off the ever-present Jerusalem authorities.

As I see it, something had to be done with the brethren that the fleeing, persecuted Messianics had harvested from the Gentile community at Antioch. Probably, Paul was doing the same thing in Syria/Cilicia. If the truth were known, the Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20) probably heard of Paul’s success among the gentiles in Cilicia and felt compelled to do the same where they had fled. The news of this no doubt reached Jerusalem some time before the Cornelius incident, but the Apostles didn’t know what to do with it. What was clean, and what was unclean? Circumcision had always identified the people of God. What were they to do with people whose only knowledge of the God of Israel was what an evangelist on the street told them? This, in my opinion, is why Cornelius was told in a heavenly vision to send for Peter. What could Philip do about the believers in Jerusalem? He was no doubt considered unclean by many of them. If any change in Jerusalem’s outlook would occur, it had to come through one of the Apostles, and Peter was the first choice.

Therefore, no smoothing out had to occur. The abruptness of Luke’s pen causes us to consider what occurred in Acts 8:1-4, while he inserts the accounts of Philip’s ministry, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and the Peter/Cornelius incident in order to show how the Jerusalem church reconciled itself with her persecuted brethren by coming to terms with the issue of circumcision and believing gentiles.

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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in circumcision, Cornelius


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