Acts 10 and 11 introduce to us one of the most radical changes in history, and not surprisingly, many Jews found this difficult to accept. Centuries of religious belief had led Jews to believe they were God’s chosen people and that the world would be saved and blessed through them. They were not averse to others becoming Jews, but this meant an adoption of all things Jewish, including circumcision (the visible sign of Jewishness for men) and dietary laws. For Gentiles to be accepted into the church without having to go through this initiation ritual or follow these food laws was a revolutionary concept.
Peter is forced to explain himself when members of the circumcision group asked why he had gone into the house of Gentiles and eaten with them. (Acts 11:2-3) His story (Acts 11:4-17) recounts the visions given to him and to Cornelius and what actually happened to persuade him to go there, as well as how the Holy Spirit fell on the group even as he was speaking. He remembered Jesus’s words to the apostles (Acts 1:5) and realised he was witnessing what Jesus had prophesied. How then could he stand in God’s way?
This explanation pacified the circumcision group at the time (though this became a recurring theme, as Acts 15 and Galatians 2 demonstrate.) We might feel impatient with the church’s difficulties in accepting Gentile believers with the benefit of almost two thousand years of history, but we do need to remember, as Tom Wright says, that we are all ‘more conditioned than we sometimes realise by the swirling currents of political, social and cultural pressures.’ (Tom Wright, ‘Acts For Everyone Pt 1’, P 175) Change is always difficult to accept because it challenges our preconceptions and our prior beliefs. Not all change is good and of God, so we need (like Peter) to be open to the Holy Spirit, rooted in God’s word and possessing a humility to accept that we do not have all the answers and may need to change. Peter later found it all too easy to revert back to the familiar (see Gal 2:11-12); often, this is the case with us too. Radical change will shake us, but God shakes us ‘so that what cannot be shaken may remain.’ (Heb 12:27) We personally benefit from this change – maybe there are others out there who will benefit from further changes if we are brave enough to listen to the Holy Spirit and move forward.