Acts 10 – Almsgiving as a Gentile Sacrifice?

In a previous post, I sided with the consensus view that there were God-fearing Gentiles in Synagogues in the first century, although I am hesitant to describe this as a semi-official class, nor do I think there was a significant number of these Gentiles. Part of my reason for this is the controversy which developed as Paul’s mission began to have success among the Gentiles.  If there was one or two Gentiles who wanted to worship in the Synagogue with the Jews that was manageable.  But by the time Galatians is written, there are so many Gentiles accepting Christ that some begin to wonder about their relationship to the Law.

Cornelius, however, is described as a pious Jew.  He performs “acts of kindness” not unlike Tabitha in Acts 9:36.  Since the Angel tells Cornelius that these acts of kindness have come before the Lord, it appears that there is some connection between his efforts and his vision.

The giving of alms was thought to atone for sin in Second Temple period Judaism, (in addition to the Sirach texts below, see Tobit 14:10).  This is important since he is unable, as a Gentile, to worship in the Temple. His only access to an “atoning sacrifice” is through prayer and alms – the equivalent of sacrifice for a Jew (Witherington, Acts, 348).

Sirach 3:14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins,

Sirach 3:30 As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.

Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, but as a second command he said “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:28-34).  This reflects the common thinking of first century Judaism.  The importance of charity and love as a practical outworking of the shema is seem in the many commands in the Old Testament concerning treatment of the poor.

As Ed Sanders points out, this love of neighbor and stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions: do not slander, oppress, rob, etc. (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 231).  If one’s heart is right before God, then one will take care of the poor; alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious there is a heart-problem.

This story resonates with the Hebrew Bible in many ways. Like Elijah or Elisha, Peter is going to a righteous outsider. Cornelius’s righteousness is expressed in terms of the Hebrew Bible and the Covenant with Israel. Cornelius is on the boundary between what it means to be Jew or Gentile.  He is a “model Jew” compared to Herod Agrippa or Simon the Tanner, except he is a Gentile!

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Acts 10 – Almsgiving as a Gentile Sacrifice?

  1. The God fearing Jews would see acts of kindness being displayed and positive actions, and because of those acts I believe that it encouraged them to act in a Christ like manner. Jesus said the second greatest command is to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe he had to proclaim that because people will hate and bring evil upon other individuals because they are jealous. Loving others is a Christ like action that needs to be displayed whether the other person is showing it or not. If you truly follow God and have a heart for Him, you will desire to have action that are loving. Now, it is not just based on actions but also what we say and what we do all together. The ones who are right with God are the ones who want to be a help and be the light of the world to all the ones walking in darkness. Because we are right with God and our hearts are shining for him, do not talk with gossip and do not allow evil talk to come out of your mouth.

  2. Up until now I did not fully understand the significance of Peter’s vision and the visit to Cornelius that follows. While reading this blog post, I was reminded of the parable Jesus tells of the prodigal son. Other New Testament stories also highlight the rituals of cleanliness and standards for purity within the Jewish culture. This vision and the subsequent message to visit and eat with those considered unclean was essentially asking a good Jew to commit one of the most horrendous crimes. No wonder Peter was confused! Was God really telling him to do the very think he believed he should not do?

    Peter states that he now knows that God does not show partiality. Not only is God not partial to some Jews over others (which probably would have been a shock in itself – think the Pharisees). But God is also not partial to one race or nation over another. What a radical statement. What Peter is learning here is that God views Jews – pure, clean, law-keeping Jews – exactly the same as he views the Gentiles – who were not even allowed into the temple.

    Throughout Israel’s history, she was the promised, chosen nation. Now God explains that he values all equally. This fits with the overarching theme of the book of Acts: the gospel goes forth unhindered. Jews and Hellenistic Jews, and even Gentile believers are to make up the New Israel.

  3. Cornelius’ actions as a God-fearing Gentile are at the heart of what Judaism and Christianity are about. Cornelius serves faithfully in the only way he is allowed to, by giving to people who are in need. But more importantly than that, he does it with a right heart before God, so much so that he receives a vision from God. Whether or not his almsgiving “atones for his sins,” I believe that it is his heart before God that is important. This idea of kindness towards those that are in need is at the heart of Christianity.
    We see this idea throughout the New Testament, a lot coming from Jesus while He was on the earth. But it also reminds me of James 2:14-17. James talks about how if we claim to have faith, then the way that we live our lives should be evidence of that, otherwise what good is it to have faith. If we aren’t moved to action when we see others in need, then how can we say we have a living faith in us? Cornelius understood this principle. He had a faith in God, and his faith moved him to sacrifice of himself to meet the needs of others. It is this kind of faith that makes him stand out among others in Acts, despite the fact that he is a Gentile.

  4. As Long mentions, “Cornelius is a ‘model Jew’ compared to Herod Agrippa or Simon the Tanner,’ except he is a Gentile”. This is interesting to me to think about how he modelled the behavior of common thinking of first century Judaism, even though he was a Gentile. I believe that Cornelius sets a great example for what Christians should be like today as well. Unfortunately, there are some people in the church who can take salvation for granted and not exactly live their lives in a way that God calls us to, which involves loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Or, some Christians might live a lifestyle that reflects the love of Christ, however, their hearts might not be in the right place. They might help others because they feel like it will make them a good person and feel better about themselves, not necessarily because they want to model Christ’s behavior and share the love of Christ. As Christians, we should strive to love those around us because we have a servant heart and genuinely want to help others, rather than doing it because we feel like it is a necessity and that we will look like a good person because of it. Cornelius sets a great example of what it looks like to serve others through his charity and love to the poor. God knew that Cornelius’s heart was in the right place while serving others, which is something that, as Christians, we should all strive to do.

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