Gentiles, Proselytes, and the Gospel
According to certain religious groups, all Christians should seek to be immersed by the Holy Spirit (as the apostles were in Acts 2), and thereby gain the “God-given” ability to speak in tongues and possibly perform other miraculous feats. In an attempt to defend the doctrine that Holy Spirit baptism should be expected by believers even in the twenty-first century, some have alleged that the outpouring of the Spirit upon the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) was not done for the purpose of demonstrating to the Jews that the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles in the hope that they would enter into fellowship with Christ and the church (see Miller, 2003). According to one individual who wrote our offices, proof that Gentiles were converted to Christianity before Acts 10 is found in Acts 8. Since the Ethiopian eunuch was converted prior to the events that took place in Acts 10, Cornelius’ Holy Spirit baptism obviously was not intended to show the Jews that Gentiles were henceforth candidates for discipleship. Rather, the events recorded in Acts 10 supposedly are just an example of what happens when sincere believers yield control of themselves to the Holy Spirit. What can be said about such matters?
First, Luke never indicated in Acts 8 that the treasurer from Ethiopia was a “Gentile.” On the contrary, he implied that this eunuch was either a Jew or a proselyte when he stated that he had “come to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27). At this point in time, the eunuch was not yet a Christian; he had not yet heard and obeyed the Gospel (cf. 8:34-38). Thus, while he had in fact gone “to Jerusalem to worship,” such worship was not with the church in Jerusalem. It seems obvious that the reason he was reading from the Old Testament book of Isaiah when Philip approached him, and the reason he already had traveled hundreds of miles from Ethiopia “to Jerusalem to worship,” was because he was either a Jew or (more likely) a proselyte. On the possibility of the eunuch being a Jew, respected biblical scholar J.W. McGarvey stated: “It was not uncommon for Jews born and reared in foreign lands to attain to eminent positions, such as this man enjoyed, and especially in the department of finance...” (1892, p. 152). The other (more probable) possibility is that the eunuch was a proselyte—a convert to Judaism—just as one of the early servants in the church, Nicolas of Antioch, was a proselyte (Acts 6:5). The Ethiopian eunuch was a worshiper of Jehovah God, like the Jews and proselytes who were in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost “from every nation under heaven,” including “Egypt” and “parts of Libya” (Acts 2:5,10). In the book of Acts, a distinction is made between proselytes and Gentiles. For example, when Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch of Pisidia, they encouraged Jews and devout proselytes “to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). But on the next Sabbath, Paul and Barnabas turned their attention to the Gentiles (13:42,44-48)—i.e., those who were not full converts to Judaism.
What Bible students must understand is that the eunuch from Ethiopia was not considered a “Gentile” in the sense that Cornelius and his household were Gentiles (Acts 10:45). Cornelius and his household were uncircumcised Gentiles who were considered by the Jews to be unclean (Acts 10:28); proselytes, on the other hand, were granted fellowship by the Jews (i.e., they were not unclean; cf. Acts 2:10; 13:43). Following the conversion of Cornelius and his household, “the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, ‘You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’ ” (Acts 11:1-3, emp. added; cf. 10:45). How did Peter respond? Did he react by saying, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been teaching the Gospel to, and fellowshipping with, unclean, uncircumcised Gentiles for years.” Did he defend his actions by reminding the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem that Philip already had converted an unclean Gentile from Ethiopia? No. Instead, Peter informed his brethren that God had just used him (cf. Acts 15:7) to implement a monumental, permanent change within the early church. He stated:
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, “John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God (Acts 11:15-17)?
What did his Jewish brethren understand him to mean? What was their response? According to Luke, “They became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’ ” (Acts 11:18, emp. added).
At a later meeting, following the apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, Peter spoke to the apostles and elders who had gathered in Jerusalem regarding whether or not a convert to Christianity needed to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses. He stated:
Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they (Acts 15:6-11, emp. added).
James later would add concerning Peter’s comments: “Simon [Peter] has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name” (Acts 15:14, emp. added).
Based upon these statements, it rightly can be concluded that the Holy Spirit overwhelmed those in Acts 10 for the purpose of showing the Jews that all Gentiles were valid candidates for entrance into the kingdom of Christ. The miraculous outpouring of the Spirit on that occasion is not something that Christians should seek for themselves today. It served a specific purpose—which Peter and others acknowledged. Any attempt to circumvent this purpose for Holy Spirit baptism in Acts 10, including the allegation that Gentiles (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch) long before Cornelius had obeyed the Gospel and become members of the Lord’s church, is indefensible in light of reason and revelation.
McGarvey, J.W. (1892), New Commentary on Acts of Apostles (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-day Miracles, Tongue-speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2572.