Acts chapter 11 explains that after the incident with Cornelius and his household (when the Holy Spirit fell in a Pentecost-like event upon this group of Gentiles), that Peter went back to Jerusalem where he faced a barrage of questioning and skepticism by the Believers.
They were indignant that Peter, as their leader, would not only consort with a Roman army officer but also even have the bad judgment to go into the home of this gentile. The issue for them was that
- First of all; Gentiles were the oppressors of the Jews.
- Second, everybody knew that Gentiles were ritually unclean and thus by going into the home of this Roman Centurion, Peter (the leader of The Way) had knowingly defiled himself.
- But third, why would Peter think to want to deliver salvation and the fruit of the Holy Spirit to non-Jews? So far as they were concerned or knew, salvation was more than merely a uniquely Jewish concept; it was only available to Jews.
We’ve spent several weeks now discussing perhaps the most universal and central tenet of Jewish society: ritual purity. It crossed all the lines of Jewish factionalism. It didn’t matter whether you were a Hellenist Jew or Hebrew Jew; a Believer or a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee.
It didn’t matter whether you lived at the religious center of the world, Jerusalem, or in a small community far away in the Diaspora where Jews were a minority. Ritual purity was the goal, symbol, and cause for how Jews lived, and Gentiles represented the antithesis of it.
Peter’s only possible defense was to relate to his fellow Believers the astounding events that led him to make this equally surprising decision.
So the first half of Acts 11 is dedicated to mostly re-telling the story of Peter’s vision of the sheet full of animals, and his relating of the strange instruction from God to kill and eat. And then of his realization that the vision was a parable and it had nothing to do with the ritual purity of food, but rather the ritual purity (or impurity) of Gentiles.
Peter was telling these Gentiles the Gospel of Yeshua when his speech was interrupted by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon these same Gentiles who even did as all the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem had done on that first Shavuot after Yeshua’s death and resurrection. They began praising God and speaking ecstatically in languages they didn’t know!
And so what, exactly, was Peter supposed to think and do, especially when he remembered that their Master Yeshua had told them that while Yochanon (John the Baptizer) used to immerse people in the water, that we will be immersed in the Holy Spirit?
At this point the Believers saw that Peter had indeed made his case; he had no choice in what he did because the Lord had instigated it. So, in the best spirit they could muster, they quit questioning Peter and his motives and instead began to praise God agreeing that while it might make no sense to them, the Lord has chosen to allow gentiles into the fold.
However, that in no way meant to them that the issue of ritual purity between Jews and Gentiles was now resolved. Thus we see in this chapter our author, Luke, informing us of a sub-group within The Way that on the one hand grudgingly accepted that Gentiles could receive salvation, but on the other that merely meant to them that the next step was for these new Gentile Believers to be circumcised and thus officially become Jews.
It seemed entirely logical. After all, many Gentiles had become God-fearers; that is, they gave up their Greek gods and started worshipping the God of Israel. However, they remained Gentiles.
Therefore obviously it was that Yehoveh had seen fit to take these God-fearers to another level using salvation and the Holy Spirit, and make them Jews! All that remained, then, was for the circumcision ceremony to formalize their conversion.