In Acts 15:4 Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem to report in to the apostles and elders about “everything God had done through them” on their journey through south western Turkey, and the Gentiles’ enthusiastic response to their message resulting in their conversion to Christianity.
But, verse 5, “some of the believers (in the Jerusalem church) who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’”
The “believers” who’d travelled down to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas in verse 2, however, had seen personally how “the Gentiles had been converted,” verse 3, and it had NEVER required circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.
So who was right? Well, going back to the first ever Gentiles to become Christians – namely Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 – none of them were required to be circumcised or obey the law of Moses either. What stands out in their story of conversion to Christianity instead was Cornelius’ “prayers and gifts to the poor coming up as a memorial offering before God,” Acts 10:4.
And it’s those two words, “memorial offering,” that are so important, because they help explain why people become Christians. But how, exactly?
Well, a “memorial offering” goes back to the grain offering in Leviticus 2. When an Israelite brought an offering of grain to give to God, just a small portion of the offering was set aside for God, verse 9. This was the memorial offering, and God happily accepted it as representing the entire grain offering being given to him.
In describing the Gentile Cornelius as a “memorial offering” too, therefore, it meant God accepted him as representing the entire Gentile world. In other words, what happened to Cornelius in how and why he became a Christian would be the how and why all Gentiles in every age become Christians. Peter understood it that way too, because later on in Acts 10 he realized in Cornelius that God “accepts men from every nation who (just like Cornelius) fear him and do what is right,” verse 35.
In this one man Cornelius, then, we can pinpoint why people become Christians, no matter what century they live in; it’s always the same. What got the ball rolling for Cornelius in his conversion to Christianity, then, is what gets the ball rolling for everyone else in their conversion to Christianity.
So, what does get the ball rolling? Well, it was Cornelius being a “God-fearing” man (verses 2 and 22) and wanting to do what was right and good that started the ball rolling for him. Like Jesus, verse 38, he “went around doing good.”
Cornelius had a good heart that deeply respected God, which he expressed in his heartfelt desire to do what was right and good in God’s eyes.
And that’s what started that first Gentile – whom God accepted as a memorial offering representing all us Gentiles – on his journey to becoming a Christian. It was his good heart. For simply having a good heart, therefore, he was already well on his way to his conversion to Christianity. And so is anyone else through the ages in all nations who has a good heart.
And if this sounds somewhat shocking, it was shocking to those who heard it in Acts 15 too. Because this was totally different to what most of them had believed. That’s why the question of Gentiles being accepted as Christians without being required to obey the law of Moses or be circumcised had involved “much discussion” in Acts 15:7.
But Peter now knew in Cornelius that God accepted Gentiles and set them on their way to becoming Christians based on “knowing their hearts,” verse 8. And that was it. That’s all God needed in a person, just like the memorial offering was all God needed from a person’s grain offering. He didn’t need anything else, like circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.
A good heart, therefore, is the starting point of conversion to Christianity. And with that point firmly established in the story of Cornelius God then took Cornelius and his household on to the second part of their journey to Christian conversion, which he’ll do for all those with a good heart today as well, since Cornelius as a memorial offering represented all Gentiles “from all nations.” His journey is our journey too.
That’s why it’s so important that we talk about this second part of the journey to Christian conversion to those with a good heart today, because, like so many Gentiles with good hearts in the days of Paul and Barnabas, they will respond to it. More on this second part, then, in part 2….