"[God] confirmed that He accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us." -- Acts 15:8 (New Life Translation)
In its infancy, the Early Church was almost 100% Jewish. That should not surprise us. The people whom God inspired to write the books of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) had all been Jews. The promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was Jewish. Though it is said that people "from every nations under Heaven" (Acts 2) were among the 3,000 people converted on the Day of Pentecost, they were obviously not Gentile (or non-Jewish) pagans since they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a distinctly Jewish religious festival.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the very first believers in Jesus assumed that to be fully eligible for God's blessings, a person had to observe Jewish ceremonial rituals. Then, an episode at a Roman army officer's home in the coastal city of Caesarea called that assumption into question.
Acts 10 opens with God speaking to Cornelius, a "devout and God-fearing" Roman centurion. In a vision, God told Cornelius to send for a Jew named Simon Peter. He said Peter could be found in Joppa at the house of Simon the Tanner.
God began demolishing Peter's anti-Gentile prejudices as the men sent by Cornelius were making the 30-mile trip down the coast to see him. To do that, God spoke to Peter through a vision involving "clean" and "unclean" foods.
When Peter and some of his friends arrived at Cornelius' house and things began unfolding, Peter was bowled over. How the Gentiles responded to his message and God moved on them seemed to mirror the Day of Pentecost happenings (Acts 2). Indeed, the parallel was so clear that Peter blurted out, "They have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have" (Acts 10:47, underline added).
The passage of time strengthened Peter's conclusion about what he had observed in Caesarea. Thus, when he returned to Jerusalem, he told people there, "The Holy Spirit came on [the Gentiles in Caesarea] as He had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'" (Acts 11:15-16).
Later, before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), Peter told the story again. To that gathering of Early Church leaders -- all of whom were Jewish -- Peter said that God gave "the Holy Spirit to [the non-Jewish Gentiles in Caesarea], just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith"(Acts 15:8-9).
When Luke wrote the Book of Acts, he included a full narrative of Peter's visit to Cornelius' house along with Peter's two accounts of it. So, Luke must have felt the event in Cornelius' house to be crucial to understanding the Church's early days. Counting Peter's account in Acts 11, the story takes up 76 verses of Acts. Scholars note that is more space than is given to any other narrative in the Book of Acts. Over time, people started calling that event "the Gentile Pentecost."
What made the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a house full of people in Caesarea stand out? Why are the happenings at Cornelius' house described in detail when other seemingly significant events are passed over with summary phrases such as:
Well, there are at least two things that make this more than just a mind-boggling event:
As First Century believers accepted the validity of those two points, it precipitated a "sea change" in their thinking about who "the people of God" really were.
Peter came away from the episode in Caesarea with the unshakable conviction that Gentiles had not only been genuinely converted into Chreist-followers but that they also had experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Never in Acts 10, 11 or 15 does he hesitate or waver in declaring that he saw non-Jewish people receiving the fullness of all that God had for His people -- the in-filling of the Holy Spirit.
What Peter observed in Caesarea prompted him to join Paul in arguing at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) that Gentiles should be accepted into the Church without going through Jewish ceremonial rituals. The Council decided that Gentiles did not need to embrace Jewish culture in order to receive Jesus' saving grace and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Prior to this, there had been Gentiles who believed in Yahweh and worshiped Him while stopping short of participating in various Jewish ceremonial rituals. Those Gentiles were called "God-fearers." In the Book of Acts, they are mentioned in places such as 10:2, 22; 13:5, 16, 26; 17:4, 17, and 18:7. Sadly, these believing Gentiles were viewed as second-class citizens by observant Jews. At the Jerusalem Council, Peter said the event in Caesarea meant that God's promises being claimed by the Jews were valid as well for all Gentile believers.
Peter never called what happened in Caesarea "the Gentile Pentecost." But he came close enough to saying it so that people would later pin that label on it. Some details about the event in Caesarea differ from what is described in Acts 2, including the fact that it did not happen during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost nor was there the sound of a great wind. However, based on what Peter said later, it still can be considered "the Gentile Pentecost."
The rendering of Acts 10:47 in Voice translation says it well: "After all, it's obvious [Gentiles] have received the Holy Spirit just as we did on the Day of Pentecost."
-- Howard Culbertson,
Published in Illustrated Bible Life, a curriculum piece produced for teachers of adult Sunday School classes by The Foundry.
Acts 10: 44 -- While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 Some Jewish believers had come with Peter. They were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 They heard them speaking in languages they had not known before. They also heard them praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 'Surely no one can keep these people from being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spir it just as we have." -- New International Reader's Version
Explanatory note: Who are the Gentiles? Well, in Scripture, the word "Gentile" is a label for anyone that is not Jewish. From the Jewish perspective, a one-word synonym for Gentile would be "outsider." The plural form "Gentiles" is sometimes translated into English as "nations" or "peoples."