When the Holy Spirit first came upon the house of Cornelius, those in attendance were amazed. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:44-45). Why were “those of the circumcision” amazed? What made this event astonishing? As it turns out, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the calling of God is something that many in the early New Testament times did not believe would happen. However, as we will find out, it has always been God’s plan to offer the gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation to all men, Jews and Gentiles alike.
The reference to those of the circumcision applies primarily to the Jews who had become Christians, and now received the Holy Spirit. The fact that these people were Jewish by heritage helps to explain their astonishment. Until this moment, the Holy Spirit was primarily received under very special circumstances by others written about in the Bible before Christ. Since the establishment of the ancient Houses of Israel and Judah, most, but not all, of the people who received the Holy Spirit in Old Testament times were of the House of Israel, but now the Holy Spirit was offered on a larger scale to those outside the Houses of Israel and Judah. For this reason the Jews were amazed – other than circumcised Gentiles who had become Proselytes and part of the community of Judah, they didn’t think that people with a non-Israelite heritage would be given the Holy Spirit. This event was a revelation of one of the mysteries of the Bible, that salvation will be offered to the Gentile, just as it is to the Jew and the Israelite.
In another Q&A about the presence of Arabs in Jerusalem at the Day of Pentecost, we learn that until the moment when Cornelius received the Holy Spirit, only Jews, Proselytes who had converted to Judaism, and Samaritans (compare Acts 8) had received it. We stated: “It is… NOT correct to conclude that only native Jews were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost in 31 A.D, when the New Testament Church of God began. There were also Proselytes in attendance, including Arabs… Paul, after his conversion, went to Arabia (Galatians 1:17) and stayed there for a while, perhaps, as Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible suggests, to associate with those Arabs who had been converted on the Day of Pentecost.”
Because of these facts, it is easy to see how Jews of that time might come to the conclusion that only Jews and Proselytes might receive the Holy Spirit. That is why the event of Cornelius receiving the Holy Spirit is so momentous.
Even Peter was confused and amazed by this revelation. He received a vision about it, showing him that “‘What God has cleansed you must not call common’” (Acts 10:9-16). Initially, Peter did not understand the meaning of this vision and was perplexed by it. Shortly after receiving the vision, Peter traveled to meet Cornelius, who wished to hear the Gospel preached. Being Jewish, Peter knew that affiliating with Gentiles was condemned by Jewish tradition (compare a later event in Galatians 2:11-12), and to be in this situation with Cornelius must have put him out of his comfort zone. Regardless, after witnessing the Holy Spirit coming upon the house of Cornelius, he understood that the salvation offered to man extended to those who historically had been considered unclean.
When the Jews at Jerusalem heard of this event, they were outraged. However, after explaining the revelation of the mystery to them, they too were enlightened to the depth of the plan of God. “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18). The mystery of the inclusion of Gentiles in the plan of salvation was being revealed. No longer was it limited to the Jew, Israelite, and Proselytes, but it was now made available to all those willing to repent of sin, and become baptized. It still took some time for this young Church to come to the realization that physical circumcision was not a requirement to become part of the Body of Christ, but the process of accepting Gentiles as fellow brethren had begun.
Peter began revealing the mystery, and Paul continued. As he wrote letters to the churches and delivered his ministry, Paul revealed the mystery that the gift of salvation is extended to Gentiles as well as Jews, Israelites, and Proselytes. To the Church of Ephesus he wrote about how this mystery, “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6), was not made known to the sons of men in other ages, but was now revealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 3:5). The fact that now Gentiles could become part of the same spiritual body had immense significance then and it is just as significant now.
We explain this as follows in our free booklet, “The Mysteries of the Bible,” chapter 4:
“… the mystery of Christ not only relates to who and what Christ was and is, but also, what Christ does… God must reveal this mystery to us in His Word, and He does reveal it.
“Ephesians 3:1–7 explains: ‘For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of his power.’
“The mystery of Christ includes the fact that Jesus Christ is selecting people from all nations to be placed in His spiritual body, His Church, to become fellow heirs of God’s promise—the inheritance of the Kingdom of God. God the Father gives the Spirit of His Son to all those whom He wants (Galatians 4:6)—not just to those who are physical descendants of the tribes of Israel and Judah (and even the modern identity of Israel and Judah is a mystery to most people).
“In Colossians 1:24–28, Paul sheds further light on the mystery of Christ—that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, lives in all whom God the Father has called, and that He is making us perfect to attain to His glory in God’s Kingdom.
“He tells us: ‘I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints [‘the initiated’]. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Jesus Christ.’”
Paul explains the analogous mechanics of this mystery to the Romans as well. He writes about salvation of the Jews and the Gentiles, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:11). He then proceeds to explain how Gentiles have been figuratively grafted onto a growing root and thereby becoming partakers of the gift of salvation offered to spiritual Israel (compare Romans 11:13-26). It is clear in reading this explanation that God intended for all mankind to be saved. This was already made clear in the Old Testament symbolism of the two unleavened loaves of bread at the Day of Pentecost. Please review our free booklet on “The Meaning of God’s Spring Holy Days.”
Paul realized the significance of this mystery, that no man is excluded from the potential of being saved. “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:27-28). We see the inclusive nature of these statements, that “every man” is included in the plan.
It is also interesting to note that even though the apostles revealed this mystery that Gentiles are included in the gift of salvation, it is referenced by Jesus Christ. He was aware of the wide-ranging effect of His inevitable sacrifice extending to the Gentiles. “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus reveals the inclusiveness of the plan of God to include other followers in His plan, referring to the Gentiles, and bring everyone together into one spiritual body. (Compare Ephesians 2:11-18 and our free booklet, “Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians,” explaining this passage.) Even though this was a mystery to the early Christian churches, Jesus Christ knew that this was part of the plan from the beginning.
The mystery of the salvation of the Gentiles was a huge revelation to the early Church. The impact is massive in that all of mankind is included. It is amazing to reflect on the absolute mercy offered. God does not show partiality to man (Acts 10:34), and making the gift of His Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation available to all who turn to God is proof of God’s grace.
Lead Writers: Eric Rank and Norbert Link