One of the first doctrinal problems encountered by the early church involved an attempt by certain Jewish Christians to graft the Mosaic law onto the gospel system as a means of divine justification. When Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch, certain Judaizers came from Jerusalem, contending: “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The church in Antioch dispatched these two brothers to Jerusalem to investigate the matter.
Again, certain believing Jews, who had not divested themselves of their Pharisaic baggage, affirmed: “It is needful to circumcise them [the Gentiles], and to charge them to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). After considerable discussion, Peter addressed the matter:
Brothers, you know that a good while ago God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us; and he made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith (15:7b-9).
Of special interest is the fact that Peter affirmed that God “made no distinction” between Jews and Gentiles with reference to the matter of salvation. In other words, both Jews and Gentiles were to be redeemed in precisely the same fashion.
Since it is the case that the record of that initial influx of the Jews into the church is recorded in Acts 2, and further, that the narrative of the first conversion of the Gentiles is detailed in Acts 10, it ought to be obvious that these two sections will have much in common in terms of what is involved in becoming a Christian. A comparison of these chapters is extremely rewarding. In fact, they must be studied in concert.
Preliminary to a consideration of such, however, we must mention two basic principles of interpretation:
- When two separate contexts treat a similar theme, though they will never contradict (because the divine Scriptures are harmonious), they very well may supplement one another, i.e., one record may contain details not mentioned in the other.
- If one account is clearer than the other in some particular, the more obscure must be brought into harmony with the more lucid record.
Let us focus upon several correlations between these inspired narratives.
The Function of the Holy Spirit
In both Acts 2 and 10 there is a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In each case, a primary thrust of this phenomenon was evidentiary in nature, i.e., it was designed to document the fact that God was initiating these events.
On Pentecost when the Jewish multitude assembled, they heard the apostles proclaiming the gospel in a variety of foreign languages. Taking note of the fact that these men were all Galileans, they were confounded and amazed, because they knew this was not a natural happening (cf. 2:5ff). That which they both saw and heard (v. 33) convinced them this event was God’s doing, and thus the apostolic message was divinely given.
For fifteen centuries the Jewish people had sustained a unique relationship with Jehovah. Even though the Old Testament had prophetically announced the international nature of the approaching kingdom of Christ (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Jeremiah 33:9), it was to be expected that there would be Jewish resistance to the acceptance of Gentiles into the church. Even the apostles would need some convincing (Acts 10:14-16).
Accordingly, as Peter began to detail the salient points of the gospel to Cornelius, the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon this Gentile and his household. This was powerful evidence of the fact that God wanted all men to be partakers of Heaven’s blessings.
Peter therefore asked: “Can any man forbid water that these should not be immersed?” Not a solitary objection was raised. And so the Gentile centurion was commanded to be baptized (10:44-48).
It is very important to understand that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” as that phenomenon was initiated both in Acts 2 and 10, was not a condition for anyone’s personal salvation. It was a miraculous authentication of divinely orchestrated events—unique to those occasions. It is thus not being implemented today as a means to any person’s conversion.
The Message of the Gospel
A second concurrence between Acts 2 and 10 is the fact that the same gospel message was preached on both occasions. On Pentecost the apostle declared that Jesus had been validated—as a man approved of God—by mighty works, wonders, and signs. However, the Savior was rejected by the Jewish nation, and he was crucified. But God raised him from the dead, and the Messiah is currently reigning at Jehovah’s right hand (2:22-36).
In his sermon at Caesarea, Peter proclaimed the same “word” which God had given to the “children of Israel,” namely the “good tidings of peace,” which came by Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. The apostle spoke of the Savior’s miracles and concluded by chronicling Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (10:34-41). The same gospel produced the same type of believers, among both Jews and Gentiles. It was a “common salvation” (Jude 3).
A consideration of the facts in Acts 10 reveals quite distinctly that the Gentiles were obligated to believe this gospel message if they would enjoy salvation. “To him bear all the prophets witness, that through his name everyone who believes on him shall receive remission of sins” (10:43). Peter’s later declaration confirms this: “God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe” (15:7). The divine plan of salvation includes the necessity of believing the historical facts concerning Christ.
In Acts 2, there is no explicit mention of the Jews being commanded to believe. It is clear, however, that they were obligated to exercise faith, and they did. How does one come to this conclusion? By simple logic.
First, if the Gentiles were required to believe, and God made “no distinction” between them and the Jews, then the Jews were obligated to exhibit faith as well.
Second, at the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, sincere Jews inquired: “What shall we do?” (2:37)—a question obviously prompted by faith. Further, “They that received [Peter’s] word were immersed” (41). “Received” implies their faith.
Peter emphatically charged the Jews, assembled on Pentecost, with having murdered the Son of God by the hands of lawless men. Because of their implication in this vile crime, the apostle commanded them to repent of their sins (2:38—the verb is in the imperative mood). Repentance, of course, involves a genuine change of attitude (a contrite sorrow for having done wrong), which results in a reformation of life.
When one examines Acts 10, he will not find any reference wherein the apostle commanded Cornelius to repent of his sins. Did this Roman soldier need to repent? Of course he did. He was a sinner (as evidenced by the fact that he needed salvation—see 11:14), and sinners must repent. May one reasonably conclude, then, that Cornelius repented—even though such is not particularly mentioned? Yes.
First, if the Jews were under constraint to repent (2:38), and God “made no distinction” between them and the Gentiles, then the Gentiles were equally compelled to repent.
Second, later on, in his interview with the brethren in Jerusalem, Peter rehearsed the events that had occurred at Caesarea. The Jewish saints were convinced by his testimony and exclaimed: “Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life” (11:18).
The meaning of that expression is: God has granted to the Gentiles the privilege of repenting so that they also might enjoy eternal life. And so, by simple logic—by harmonizing the records—the whole picture becomes clear.
The Design of Baptism
A comparison of Acts 2 and 10 reveals that in both instances the penitent believers received baptism. What sort of baptism was it?
Some, such as those who subscribe to the doctrine of ultra-dispensationalism, allege that the baptism of Acts 2:38 did not involve water—it was a “Spirit” baptism. However, there is no question but that the baptism administered to Cornelius was an immersion in water (see 10:47).
Well, inasmuch as God “made no distinction” between Gentiles and Jews in their salvation, it follows that the baptism on Pentecost (2:38) was water baptism.
Then this question engages the interest of many: why was Cornelius baptized?
Many—especially those of a Prostestant persuasion—will argue that the case of Cornelius represents a clear example of one who was saved before being baptized. It is alleged that the Gentile centurion received the Holy Spirit prior to his baptism; and so, obviously, he was God’s child before his immersion. It is therefore concluded that his baptism was merely to demonstrate that he was saved already. This reasoning simply will not stand, and for two reasons.
First, it is an indisputable fact that the Jews were commanded to be baptized “for the forgiveness” of their sins (2:38). If God “made no distinction” between them and the Gentiles, then Cornelius also was immersed “for the forgiveness” of his sins. If baptism had been required for the salvation of the Jews, but not for the Gentiles, there would have been a Hebrew outcry throughout the entire Mediterranean world. Obviously, the purpose of the baptism was identical in both cases.
Second, as noted at the beginning of this piece, the supernatural endowment of the Spirit upon Cornelius bore no relation to his personal salvation. The fact is, one may reasonably conclude that if God had not intervened, and authenticated the acceptance of the Gentiles with a demonstration of divine power, there would have been no water baptism for Cornelius. The Jews would have forbidden such (10:47-48). The order of events was thus perfectly logical.
When biblical contexts dealing with the same theme are brought together their harmony becomes wonderfully apparent. This “unity” of the Scriptures is one of its important evidences of divine inspiration.