To ensure that the people of Israel would always know that God had made a unique covenant with them, they were enjoined to distance themselves from the idolatrous Gentiles around them. They were forbidden to intermarry (see Deuteronomy 7:1-3) and interaction in general was discouraged in order to prevent Jews from adopting idolatrous behaviors. When this separation was ignored, the effects were seen as disastrous, as Psalm 106 indicates:
“They did not destroy the peoples, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them, but they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works; they served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they were defiled by their own works, And played the harlot by their own deeds” (vv. 34-39).
There were Gentiles who were drawn to Judaism, usually by contact with Jews in Palestine or the diaspora. Some abandoned polytheism and adopted the worship of the One God. Those who in addition adopted the Jewish customs and laws – in particular, circumcision – were considered proselytes, Jews by adoption.
There were other Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel and were open to its practices but had not entered fully into the people of Israel. They were often Roman army officers or had positions in the structure of the Roman provincial administration. These were called the “God-fearing” – non-Jews who were sympathetic to Judaism but had not fully converted. The Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48) was one of these Gentile sympathizers to Judaism.
When Gentiles Encounter ChristAccording to Acts 10, St Peter was in Joppa (modern Jaffa), a Mediterranean port city some 30 miles from Jerusalem, when he had the following experience: “… he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’
“But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’
And a voice spoke to him again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again” (vv 10-16).
Called by the Roman officer to visit him in Caesarea and speak to him of God, Peter replied: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). St Peter thus saw his vision of the “great sheet” as a decisive reversal of the division between Jews and Gentiles.
There was an even more powerful reversal to follow. While Peter was proclaiming the Gospel to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit cut him off. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10: 44-48).
The news of this remarkable event spread quickly and when Peter returned to Jerusalem he was confronted by “those of the circumcision“(Acts 11: 3) among the brethren. After Peter recounted his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea, Acts continues, “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (v.18).
This “Gentile Pentecost” forced many Jewish believers in Jesus to reevaluate the idea that the Jews alone were God’s people and that Gentiles were by definition unclean.
In Gentile TerritoryThe next step in the spread of the Gospel is described in Acts 11. “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch…” (v. 19). Antioch was the provincial capital of Syria while Phoenicia (Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut) and Cyprus were important trading centers on the Mediterranean. There were several Jewish colonies in these regions which had been there since at least the second century BC.
We read in Acts that the believers who had fled persecution in Jerusalem brought the Gospel to these Jewish colonies “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only” (Acts 11: 19). That soon changed as the visitors in Antioch began teaching “the Hellenists” as well, bringing “a great number” to the Lord. The term Hellenists often referred to Hellenized Jews but it seems clear that here the term refers to Hellenized natives of the region. Thus the first non-Jewish believers in Jesus were the ancestors of the Melkites – Orthodox and Catholic – of Antioch! And, as we read in this same chapter of Acts, “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
While the initial opening to the Gentiles was as a result of Peter’s experience in Caesarea, it was St Paul and Barnabas who were the first explicitly sent to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. As missionaries of the Church at Antioch, these apostles visited Cyprus, and southern Asia Minor (Pamphilia and Pisidia) where they met with success as well as opposition (see Acts 13 and 14). After completing a circuit in Asia Minor, the apostles returned to Antioch.
The Council at JerusalemNot everyone accepted the apostles’ openness to the Gentiles.”And certain men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (Acts 15:2). Their meeting with the other apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Church is described in Acts 15.
The apostles’ decision recorded in Acts 15 was as follows: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (vv 28, 29).
The Church’s connection to Judaism was effectively broken.