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THE FIRST GENTILE CONVERT

 

Scripture references are to the King James (Authorised) Version

 

Question: Who was the first Gentile convert to Christianity: the Ethiopian chamberlain or the centurion, Cornelius?

 

Answer: Early in Jesus’ three-and-a-half-year ministry, He instructed His disciples to direct their preaching work firstly to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10: 5-7). That He did not completely ignore the Samaritan population – indirectly related to the Jews – is shown (1) by His interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well and His residing for two days at her village (John 4: 4, 7, 9, 39, 40, 41, 42); and (2) His stated intention on a later occasion to enter a Samaritan village en route to Jerusalem (Luke 9: 51-56).

 

In fact, Jesus had already hinted to the disciples that their mission-field would at length expand into the Gentile world (Matthew 10: 16-18). Note also His exchanges with the Roman Centurion and the Syro-Phoenician mother, both Gentiles (Matthew 8: 5-10; Mark 7: 24-26). Hostile Jews, however, were not as tolerant as He, accusing Jesus of being a Samaritan, the worst insult they could muster (John 8: 48).

 

Samaria and Beyond

After His resurrection, Jesus expressly authorised the disciples to preach in Samaria and the ‘uttermost part of the earth’ (Acts 1: 8). And so we find Philip the Evangelist[*] in the city of Samaria, where there lived an expatriate Jewish-Christian community from Jerusalem. There he preached, with evident success (Acts 8: 1, 4, 6-13).

 

Leaving the city, he sets off for the desert region of Gaza and encounters the Ethiopian chamberlain, who is riding in a chariot, reading aloud. The account is at Acts 8:

26 And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. 27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, 28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? 31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. 32 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. 34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.

 

The Queen’s Officer

Was this chamberlain a Gentile? Seemingly not. The following commentary comes from The Expositor’s Bible (G.T. Stokes, D.D.; 1891) pp. 411-414:

[T]his typical African convert . . . was an Ethiopian by birth, though he may have been of Jewish descent, or perhaps more probably a proselyte, and thus an evidence of Jewish zeal for Jehovah. He was an eunuch, and treasurer of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He was like Daniel and the three Hebrew children in the court of the Chaldæan monarch. He had utilised his Jewish genius and power of adaptation so well that he had risen to high position. The African queen may have learned, too, as Darius did, to trust his Jewish faith and depend upon a man whose conduct was regulated by Divine law and principle. This power of the Jewish race leading them to high place amid foreign nations and in alien courts has been manifested in their history from the earliest times. Moses, Mordecai and Esther, the Jews in Babylon, were types and prophecies of the greatness which has awaited their descendants scattered among the Gentiles in our own time. This eunuch was treasurer of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. Here again we find another illustration of the historical and geographical accuracy of the Acts of the Apostles. We learn from several contemporary geographers that the kingdom of Meroe in Central Africa was ruled for centuries by a line of female sovereigns whose common title was Candace, as Pharaoh was that of the Egyptian monarchs. There were . . . large Jewish colonies in the neighbourhood of Southern Arabia and all along the coast of the Red Sea. It was very natural, then, that Candace should have obtained the assistance of a clever Jew from one of these settlements. A question has been raised, indeed, whether the eunuch was a Jew at all, and some have regarded him as the first Gentile convert. The Acts of the Apostles, however, seems clear enough on this point. Cornelius is plainly put forward as the typical case which decided the question of the admission of the Gentiles to the benefits of the covenant of grace. Our history gives not the faintest hint that any such question was even distantly involved in the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian. Nay, rather by telling us that he had come to Jerusalem for the purpose of worshipping God, it indicates that he felt himself bound, as far as he could, to discharge the duty of visiting the Holy City and offering personal worship there once at least in his lifetime. Then, too, we are told of his employment when Philip found him. “He was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.” His attention may have been called to this portion of Holy Scripture during his visit to the temple, where he may have come in contact with the Apostles or with some other adherents of the early Church.

But one might ask, If the Ethiopian were not a Gentile, and the conversion of a proselyted Jew was not unusual, why is this encounter singled out? Perhaps it was to underscore the fact that the good news of the Kingdom had indeed overflowed its original Judaean confines, in fulfilment of their Lord’s prediction. It was an important development, and the church leaders in Jerusalem seemed to regard it this way, despatching the Apostles Peter and John to confirm the new disciples in the faith (Acts 8: 14-17).

 

God’s Favour to the Gentiles

Coming now to the conversion of Cornelius, unambiguously stated to be a Gentile (Acts 10: 1). The events surrounding this truth-seeker and Peter’s extraordinary vision of the unclean food – clearing the way for his ministry to this outsider – are narrated across the entire chapter of Acts 10. The outcome was that Cornelius and those in his house confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and received the holy spirit, manifested by their speaking in tongues (10: 44-48).

 

Proof that the conversion of Cornelius marked the first official entry of the Gentiles into the Church derives, in part, from the complex, moving drama set out in Acts 10 – that here was an event without precedent, a sea change in the dealings of God with His people. Added to this is the ‘astonishment’ of Peter’s associates, who had accompanied him – perhaps with misgivings – to the home of Cornelius, and who witnessed what occurred. Then there is the response of the leading lights of the church in Jerusalem, when the news reached them. We are told that ‘the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also [emphasis ours] received the word of God’. Whether they were initially pleased with the outcome or not the text does not say (Acts 11: 1). However, we learn from 11: 2-4, that the event was considered to be so out of the ordinary that a number of the converted Jews, partial to aspects of the Mosaic Law, objected to Peter’s having consorted with the ‘uncircumcised’. Old habits died hard.

 

To Peter had been given the privilege of unlocking the Gospel door to the Gentiles on this occasion. But it was Paul who would become known as the ‘apostle of the Gentiles’ (Romans 11: 13).

 

The admission of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, into the Christian church in AD 36, also signified the end of God’s special favour to the Jewish nation.

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[*] Although it’s easy to get confused in this regard, this Philip is different from the Apostle of the same name, the latter mentioned as one of the Twelve in Matthew 10: 1, 3, and elsewhere. The ‘evangelist’ Philip was one of seven deacons listed in Acts 6: 1-6; he is further identified as having four daughters ‘which did prophesy’ (Acts 21: 8, 9). That he was not an Apostle is evidenced by his lacking the power to confer the gifts of the spirit. For not until the Apostle Peter had laid his hands on Philip’s converts did they receive it. See Acts 8: 15-18.

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Picture: Peter baptising Cornelius by Francesco Trevisani (1709), copyright-free, Wikipedia commons

 

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