Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
Acts 11:1-18 (NRSV)
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”
4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
As we learned in the previous posts about Acts 10, the plan of salvation for the gentiles is being revealed. Peter received the vision which led him to pray for the house of Cornelius, which resulted in the falling of the Holy Spirit on all gathered there. This report seems to have reached the believers back in Jerusalem before Peter was able to get ahead of it. It is probable that by the time Peter arrived there that the matter of circumcision of the gentile believers had been thoroughly discussed. Peter would have been outnumbered in the debate but it did not prevent him from getting the rest of the apostles on board.
In this fiery discussion, there were two main issues that were being considered. The first was Peter breaking from Jewish customs by eating with uncircumcised gentiles (“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”). The issue that Jews had with uncircumcised people was that circumcision was the one thing that symbolized humanity’s covenant with God. It also acted as an initiation of sorts, much like freshmen on sports teams must pass through a fire of sorts. After freshmen “hazing” they are no longer considered freshmen, but team members. Another analogy would be Christian baptism, where the flesh is died and buried with Christ. The concept of transition is best seen in the story of Joshua preparing for battle. Before the Israelites were able to enter into battle, the Lord commanded that they circumcise the nation again.
2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth.
4 Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. 5 All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. 6 The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. 8 And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.
9 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.
Circumcision was also a symbol for the Jews, showing who was part of God’s people and who were not. Those who were not part of the covenant were also not part of God’s people. This becomes clear when reading Genesis 17.
Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:14)
Moreover, it was the first step in maintaining ritual purity. A person who had not yet been circumcised certainly was not keeping ritually clean and having fellowship with that person would but the Jew at risk of becoming ritually impure themselves. In the post-exilic world ritual purity was incredibly important, as well as national purity (no intermarriage with non-Jews).
The second issue was whether or not the gentiles were candidates for receiving the gospel (circumcised or not). Up until this point in history, there does not appear to be a consensus within the early Jewish church on whether or not the gentiles are included in the salvation brought through the Jews. However, many Jews contended that they should be treated as the Jewish converts were treated; meaning once they were circumcised they would be allowed some form of fellowship, even if they were not up to speed on keeping the Jewish laws. This particular issue is resolved by the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, as Peter points out:
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. (Acts 11:15)
Peter’s logic is that since the Holy Spirit fell upon the unclean and uncircumcised, in the same way it did to the Jews, then surely the gospel must be intended for the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised. In one single swoop God is answering questions to both of the issues raised above. Salvation is for the Jews and the gentiles both, regardless of whether or not the gentiles have been circumcised or follow the laws of Moses.
If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)