Cornelius and Circumcision

13 Sep

Acts 10 ends with the Holy Spirit falling upon and filling Cornelius and all his gentile countrymen and friends, whom he had invited into his home to hear the word of God preached by Peter. When this occurred Peter’s Jewish friends, whom he had taken with him from Joppa as witnesses (cp. Acts 11:12), became astonished at the sight. The Holy Spirit had filled these gentiles just as they were—without embracing the Jewish faith. In other words, God received these gentiles, just as he had received the first Jewish followers of Jesus at Jerusalem in Acts 2.

Immediately Peter asked if any man could refuse baptism for these, whom God had so openly accepted as his own (Acts 10:47). Nevertheless, not one word was uttered about circumcision! The word, circumcision, in Acts 10 is like the word, God, in the book of Esther. Respectively, neither word is found in Acts 10 and the book of Esther. Yet, Acts 10 is all about circumcision and Esther is all about God. They are like love songs without the word, love, in its composition. Yet who could claim that a song like “I’ll Be Seeing You”[1] is not about love?

Acts 10 opens by introducing Cornelius as a God-fearer (Acts 10:2). This means he was not a Jewish proselyte, but he did shun pagan worship. God-fearers found the Jewish faith very appealing—its monotheism, its idol-less worship of God as Spirit and its morality and communal life centered around the synagogue. However, they found the Jewish dietary laws and the practice of circumcision distasteful. So, they worshiped the God of the Jews through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but did not practice the Jewish ceremonial rites of circumcision, repeated washings or their dietary laws.

Nevertheless, unclean Cornelius received a heavenly vision (Acts 10:3-6), telling him to contact a Jew named Peter. Meanwhile, Peter had his own heavenly vision, which challenged his sense of what is clean and unclean. Both visions are parts of a whole—a puzzle, if you will—that together unveil God’s will. The same was true of the duel visions of Paul (Acts 9:3-6) and Ananias (Acts 9:10-16). These types of visions are very rare among heavenly revelations, but their interpretations are so woven together and interdependent that their overall meaning is quite clear and unmistakable.

Peter claimed that God had shown him that no man, no matter what his nationality or culture should be accounted unclean (Acts 10:28). God is not a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34); that is, he doesn’t play favorites among nations, as far as righteousness is concerned, but he accepts any man from any nation who fears him and practices righteousness.

This was a major event for both Jew and gentile. First of all, God has made it clear that he receives all men alike among those who fear him—Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female (cp. Galatians 3:28). While this was great news for gentiles like Cornelius, it met with mixed reviews back home in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-3)! Why would this be so? What was so important about circumcision that it divided between Jew and gentile, between clean and unclean, between the righteous and the unrighteous?

In ancient Jewish history, God made a covenant with Abraham, the father of the Jewish race (Genesis 17:4) This covenant was the Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:10), and it was a sign between God and Abraham’s descendents through Isaac (Acts 17:11, 21) that they were to be his special people among all nations. Anyone not circumcised would be cut off from this special relationship (Acts 17:14). This was as much the word of God as anything in the New Testament, so it was quite a hurdle to get over for any Jew who worshiped the God of Abraham. So, why hadn’t Peter suggested or even commanded that the gentiles in Cornelius’ household to be circumcised?

The answer to this dilemma is not a simple one. But, it is understood in that the Old Testament was all about changing one’s behavior, but the New Testament is all about changing one’s heart. In my previous blog I mentioned how the prophet Jonah changed his behavior and obeyed God, but his heart was not in it. However, Peter’s behavior changed only after his heart was changed. He, and not Jonah, understood the heart of God in the matter of forgiveness and grace.

Nevertheless, the circumcision issue was not very easily overcome. About 200 years before the Cornelius incident war broke out between the Jews and the Greeks because Antiochus Epiphanes had outlawed the rite of circumcision and Sabbath keeping. This inaugurated the Revolt of the Maccabees cir. 170 CE. Moreover, about 100 years after the Cornelius incident the Roman emperor, Hadrian, outlawed the rite of circumcision, and this incurred the Bar-Kokhba Revolt that ended in banishing all Jews from Jerusalem.

For a Jew, circumcision is a holy rite of identification with God. You may as well take away his name or nationality, if this rite is taken from him. Circumcision told Jews who they were. So, for the gentile, not having to be circumcised to enjoy a close relationship with God was good news indeed. But, for the Jew—if circumcision means nothing—what was the value of being a Jew to begin with? What was the value of their history as a nation? Paul replies to this question in Romans 3:1-2; and the Old Testament tells us that in the Kingdom the Jewish nation will be the first among all nations (Isaiah 2:1-4).

Yet, there is more to this dilemma than one or two Scriptural references. The Old Testament is all about what can be seen. The rite of circumcision is an outward sign of cutting off the flesh, but it also pointed to a time when a New Covenant would be made, whereby one’s heart would be circumcised (Jeremiah 31:31-33; 32:37-40). This is a spiritual covenant between all men and God, whereby we invite God to cut away our fleshy behavior. That is, we invite him to bring us through life’s circumstances that would change us from the inside out. The New Covenant is all about trusting God (faith in him) to do this. There is no physical identification which we could point to and show our identification with him, but our behavior eventually changes, not through our own power but in such a manner that we are recognized as God’s people. If Jesus is our Lord, then our behavior will reflect his rule in our hearts. If I hold the reins of my own life, then my behavior will reflect that as well, and it will matter very little whether or not I had been physically circumcised eight days after my birth.

[1] Lyrics by Irving Kahal, music by Sammy Fain, and published in 1938.

Comments Off on Cornelius and Circumcision

Posted by on September 13, 2012 in circumcision, Peter and Cornelius


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: