“That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.”
THE FOLLOWERS OF Christ, following his death and resurrection, had multiplied significantly. However, they were composed only of Jews, and there were not enough found to complete the body of Christ. God then began to call and choose disciples from among the Gentiles. The first recorded Gentile convert was a Roman centurion named Cornelius. We read concerning him: “There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.”—Acts 10:1,2
It appears that this centurion was the same individual as mentioned previously in Matthew 8:5-10 and Luke 7:1-9. The Matthew account reads as follows: “When Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”
Jesus then added, “I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (vss. 11,12) This prophetic statement made by Jesus indicated that many in Israel would fail to avail themselves of the opportunity to become members of the body of Christ, and that God would turn to the Gentiles to find a people for his name. It was appropriate that Jesus should remark that he had not found such “great faith” in all Israel, in his commendation of the centurion.
CENTURION RESPECTED BY THE JEWS
Luke provides some additional details of this experience in his account. He begins by saying that when Jesus had ended his words to the people, “he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.” (Luke 7:1-3) We note how this report indicates that instead of the centurion, a Gentile, directly approaching Jesus, he sent elders of Israel to ask Jesus for this favor of healing his servant.
The ensuing verses tell us why the Jewish elders so promptly complied with the centurion’s request. “When they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he [the centurion] was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them.” (vss. 4-6) The account continues in harmony with that of Matthew, including Jesus’ statement that the centurion had displayed more faith than he had found in all Israel. Luke’s account of this event concludes by informing us that the Jewish elders who had brought Jesus, returned to the centurion’s house, and “found the servant whole that had been sick.”—vs. 10
It is logical that anyone whom God would choose to come into the body of Christ would first have exposure to Jesus’ teachings. We do not know when Cornelius came to Caesarea, which was in Judea, but it was likely prior to the start of Jesus’ ministry. Let us note the providential leadings of God which were shown in the matter. Being displaced from one’s homeland to a faraway place was unlikely at that time, unless the person was in the military service, or in Roman politics. As an officer in the army, Cornelius was evidently assigned responsibility in the region of Judea. While there, he possibly observed the religious worship of Israel, comparing it with his own religion. Perhaps realizing the futility of serving multiple heathen gods, he accepted the worship of the one true God of Israel. Whether in this way, or some other, God prepared Cornelius and his household for the greatest of all favors—an invitation to run for the mark of the prize of the high calling!
AN ANGEL APPEARS
The record of Cornelius’ conversion is in found in Acts, chapter 10. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a vision, and instructed him to send for Peter, who was in Joppa, at the home of a tanner named Simon. Cornelius complied, sending two of his servants and a devout soldier. (vss. 1-8) About that same time, Peter had a most unusual experience. He had gone to the housetop to pray. He was hungry and would have eaten, but while the meal was being prepared he had a vision. In this vision, what appeared as a “great sheet knit at the four corners,” descended from heaven. In it were animals considered unclean according to the Jewish law. A voice said, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”—vss. 9-15
This same message was repeated twice more. As Peter pondered the meaning, the men sent by Cornelius were at the gate and asking whether Peter was lodging there. The Holy Spirit enabled Peter to associate the three instructions of the vision to eat unclean animals, with the three Gentiles who had come on behalf of Cornelius. (Acts 10:16-21) As they explained their mission, the description given to Peter of Cornelius, and the one of the centurion in Luke 7:5 are remarkably similar. Luke 7:5 says, “He loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.” Acts 10:22 says, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews.” A Roman centurion who would love Israel enough to build them a synagogue would be a most unusual man. Knowledge of his good deeds would be publicized throughout the nation. It is unlikely that there would have been two centurions that matched this unique description.
Peter lodged the visitors overnight, and the next day they all traveled to Caesarea with brethren from Joppa accompanying them. When they arrived at the home of Cornelius, they found a large group of kinsmen and near friends. (vss. 23,24) The “devout” soldier sent on this mission, as well as the presence of these associates, gives us further insight into Cornelius’ life. His devotion to the God of Israel was not secret, and others had been convinced thus to worship him as well. As Cornelius saw Peter coming, he fell at his feet, worshiping him. Peter explained that this was not necessary—he was an ordinary man. (vss. 25,26) He also said, reminding them of a point of Jewish Law of which they were likely aware, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”—vs. 28
Upon Peter’s inquiry as to why he had been sent for, Cornelius rehearsed all that had happened concerning the angel’s appearance to him. (vss. 29-33) Peter exclaimed, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,” and began to explain the reason for God’s interest in the Gentiles. (vss. 34-43) He spoke about Jesus—how he went about “doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil.” It is noteworthy that Peter spoke of the teachings of Jesus in a way that implies they were already familiar with them, saying, “The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: … That word, I say, ye know.”—vss. 36,37
As Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon his hearers and they received the gift of speaking in foreign languages. By this sign, none of the Jewish brethren there, as well as Peter, doubted that Gentiles were being called by God. Cornelius and all his household were baptized, and Peter stayed with them for several days. (vss. 44-48) Although the name of Cornelius is remembered as the first Gentile converted to Christianity, it was actually the entire group assembled at his home that had been invited by God to seek the High Calling.
The selection of this first group of Gentiles marked the end of exclusive favor to Israel for the extending of this great honor to be part of the church class. From this point on, there would be “neither Jew nor Greek,” but all would be “one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) The way was now open for Gentiles to come into the body of Christ, and the witness of the Early Church, under the guidance of the Apostles, would begin to expose more Gentiles to the Gospel.
GENTILES’ INTEREST GROWS
Intense persecution had driven many Jewish brethren from Jerusalem to other lands, resulting in a general spreading of the message of truth. (Acts 8:1,4) At first, those who went to other areas preached the Gospel to “Jews only.” (Acts 11:19) Soon, however, their message came to the attention of Gentiles also, and as their interest in the Gospel increased, some became believers and began associating themselves with the Jewish brethren.
Such was the situation in Antioch, a city three hundred miles north of Jerusalem. We read: “Some of the Lord’s followers had been scattered because of the terrible trouble that started when Stephen was killed. They went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but they told the message only to the Jews. Some of the followers from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and started telling Gentiles the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s power was with them, and many people turned to the Lord and put their faith in him.”—Acts 11:19-21, Contemporary English Version
News of this influx of Gentiles into the church at Antioch reached the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem, and they selected Barnabas to go and assess the situation. He was a good choice since he had previous association with Gentiles when he lived in Cyprus, and probably could speak their language well. When he arrived, Barnabas found the entire congregation—Jews and Gentiles alike—rejoicing together in the knowledge of God’s plan and eager to know more. He set about to assist them as much as he could in further study and joint fellowship, for “he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Because of his valuable help, the church in Antioch began to prosper and “much people was added unto the Lord.”—vss. 22-24
BARNABAS SEEKS SAUL
As Barnabas watched this growing interest in the truth by Gentile brethren, his mind no doubt went back to what the Lord had declared about Saul’s special ministry to the Gentiles. (Acts 9:15) Convinced that Saul would have a vital interest in what was now going on, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to find him. Saul, whose name God would soon change to Paul, returned with Barnabas to Antioch, and it was there that his ministry as an apostle had its start. This large congregation in Antioch, composed of Jewish and Gentile brethren, was the first of its kind, and it was where the brethren were first called “Christians.”—Acts 11:25,26
During that time, a famine came upon that part of the world which, evidently, severely affected the brethren in Jerusalem and Judea, who were already quite poor. When the congregation at Antioch learned of their plight, they took up a collection and sent it by the hands of Barnabas and Paul to help their friends in Jerusalem. (vss. 27-30) This mission also gave Barnabas an opportunity to give a firsthand report of the witness work which was prospering among the Gentiles, and to acquaint them with Saul’s significant role in that work. No doubt the gift they together bore helped the Jewish brethren to realize God’s hand in these important matters. After completing their mission, the two travelers returned to Antioch, and John Mark, a nephew to Barnabas, accompanied them.—Acts 12:24,25
Barnabas and Saul were selected as “prophets and teachers” in the church at Antioch, along with three other brethren, “Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.” (Acts 13:1) As teachers, they had diverse backgrounds, and came from distant places. Barnabas had lived at one time on the island of Cyprus; Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor; Lucius was from Cyrene, a city in northern Africa. It is not known with certainty where Simeon called Niger came from, but it is thought that he perhaps also came from Africa. Manaen was from Jewish royalty, being a foster brother to Herod the tetrarch, and most likely raised in Jerusalem. How fitting it was that in the large congregation of Jewish and Gentile brethren at Antioch, five elders with such different backgrounds were chosen to teach the brethren. Faithfully, these leaders of the Early Church “ministered to the Lord,” as Gentiles began to join with Jews in accepting the invitation to be part of the body of Christ.—vs. 2