I just watched a brief video by Marc Turnage at the Jerusalem Perspective website called Character Sketch: Cornelius the Centurion. It’s about 5 minutes, 25 seconds long, so when I started watching the presentation, I knew it wasn’t going to reach much depth.
That’s too bad, because I really wanted to hear something new about Cornelius that would help me in my current investigation as to the status of a Gentile who directly worships and relates to God without necessarily being part of a Jewish communal setting (or a traditional Christian venue, for that matter).
In other words, was Cornelius and his Gentile household chopped liver, even after receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45), or did (does) God consider the Gentiles as having some sort of value in their (our) own right?
Before someone complains that I’m being too “whiney” again, I’ll say straight out that I think a Gentile can have a direct relationship with the God of Israel through faith in and by the merit of Rav Yeshua and his symbolic, atoning sacrifice. Moreover, I think even before Cornelius had his vision which resulted in him sending messengers to the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:3-8), I think God had regard for the Gentile Cornelius. In fact, the wording of verses 1 and 2 as well as the angel’s message from verses 3 onward tell us so.
Cornelius was devoted to God as expressed through his prayers and acts of tzedakah (charity) to the Jewish people, and God responded kindly and valued Cornelius. God was about to do Cornelius and his household a big favor. He was about to have Peter deliver the good news of Rav Yeshua to them.
According to Turnage, in the late second temple period in Roman-occupied Judea and in the diaspora, from a Jewish point of view, there were three types of people:
- Jewish, either by birth or conversion
- Pagan Gentiles wholly divorced from God
- God-fearing or God-worshiping Gentiles who viewed God from the perspective of Abraham and Isaac (but not Jacob)
These God-fearers existed on the fringes of Jewish community, attending synagogue, hearing the Torah read, rejecting (according to Turnage) the pagan Greek and Roman gods, and swearing devotion only to Hashem, God of Israel. However, this was not as far as they could go in approaching God. They were just missing one last piece of the puzzle.
Turnage compares the vision of Cornelius to Peter’s where Peter does an amazing thing. He says “no” to God. Specifically, he tells God he won’t obey the directive to kill and eat unclean or non-kosher animals.
Turnage states what is obvious to me; that the vision was never about food but rather about people, specifically non-Jewish people. This was God’s lesson to Peter that God Himself did not consider the Gentiles unclean or common. He also states this is obvious proof that Peter never saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as somehow ending his status as a Jew and his relationship with the Torah mitzvot. Again, that seems entirely obvious to me but is something of a revelation coming from a more traditional Christian.
God backed this up in the aforementioned Acts 10:45 by showing Peter and his Jewish companions that even the Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit, something that was thought only to be available to the Jewish people by covenant promise (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) up until that moment.
Peter was forced to realize that Gentiles were not common or unclean, that they (we) were indeed, through God’s grace and mercy, and by the merit of Rav Yeshua, also able to access the covenant blessings of God, even though we were not named participants in the New Covenant.
During the legal proceeding to formally establish the status of Gentiles in Jewish community we see in Acts 15, Peter testified to his experience with Cornelius as proof that the Gentiles were not common and unclean, and that God accepted them (us) to the degree that they (we) also can receive the Spirit of God upon hearing the good news of redemption brought about by Rav Yeshua. We who were far off have been brought near or at least nearer (Ephesians 2:13).
Turnage was clear that none of this meant that the Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua, even after receiving the Spirit, were required to observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews. We lack the sign of circumcision (for males) that would be required for conversion to a proselyte and that would obligate us to the mitzvot. Cornelius was not circumcised, neither was his household (interestingly enough, unlike the non-Hebrews in Abraham’s household (Genesis 17:27).
In this case, it wasn’t necessary, since God’s plan for worldwide redemption required that both Israel and the rest of the nations of the world were all to be redeemed while maintaining their own national and ethnic identities.
Turnage rightly states that the challenge of the “first century church” (his language, not mine) was not convincing people to believe in Jesus, it wasn’t a theological challenge, but rather, an ethnic and sociological dilemma. How would it be possible to mix both Jews and Gentiles, two groups that are difficult to put together, into Jewish community and covenant life?
Paul was always attempting to solve that puzzle as we read in his many epistles including Romans and Ephesians, but also in 1 Corinthians 7, according to Turnage:
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
–1 Corinthians 7:17-20 (NASB)
Since Turnage uses circumcision as the dividing line between Jews and even the believing Gentiles, and since that dividing line includes obligation to the mitzvot for the Jews but not for even the believing Gentiles (remember, Cornelius received the Spirit and was not previously or subsequently circumcised), then, based on the brief record we have of the life of the Centurion, we non-Jewish disciples of our Rav have no obligation to the mitzvot either.
We have no information about how Cornelius’s life changed after Acts 10. Perhaps in many ways, it didn’t change much at all, at least from a day-to-day lived experience. He probably still prayed continuously. He probably still did great works of charity for the Jewish people. But additionally, he also probably thanked Hashem for the good news of Messiah, the indwelling of the Spirit, the promise of the resurrection, and a place in the world to come, which indeed, Cornelius lacked before the revelation of Moshiach.
For Turnage, the central focus of being a believer rests back in 1 Corinthians 7:17-20. Are you going to obey God or not?
The question of obedience is an interesting one because Turnage assumes quite casually that to obey God for a Gentile does not require observance of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jewish people.
Just as we are not required (our males) to be circumcised in order to have a life with God, because of not being circumcised, not converting to Judaism (because it’s not required of us), we also do not have to observe the mitzvot that indicate an individual is Jewish.
We don’t know what Cornelius did with his life after the revelation of Rav Yeshua. It would be easier if we did have some record to see how he changed from God-fearer to Messianic disciple.
But I didn’t write this missive to answer the “mystery of the Gentile mitzvot”. I wrote it to establish that through the example of the life of Cornelius, Gentiles are not considered common and unclean to God. Quite the opposite if God allows His Holy Spirit to dwell within us. We Gentiles have a relationship with God just the way we are.
Oh, I could embed the YouTube video of Turnage’s brief presentation directly into this blog post, but I don’t want to take web traffic away from the Jerusalem Perspective site. To view the video, you’ll have to click the link I provided above.
One more thing. I chose the “featured image” at the top of the page because finding something that looks interesting and somehow represents Jewish mystic visions isn’t all that easy.