When Peter is questioned about the baptism of the Gentiles, he convinces the Jerusalem leadership by sharing his experience of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles (Acts 11.12-18). Just as the Holy Spirit came upon the Jewish Christians at Pentecost, God gave the Gentiles the same gift of the Spirit. Peter says to the Jerusalem leadership, “if God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11.17). By sharing the story of the gift of the Spirit being given to the Gentiles, Peter convinces the Jerusalem leadership that since God is the one who baptizes (11.16), if God has baptized the Gentiles in the Holy Spirit, then God has also called the church leadership to allow Gentiles to be baptized into the body of Christ, the church.
As a result of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church, the Jerusalem Council issues a letter to the Gentile Christians informing them of the expectations of the church. The letter tells them to “to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15.20). This letter represented the Jerusalem Council’s decision about “how closely this rapidly growing movement would remain related to Judaism” (Van Voorst 292). The expectations and requirements outlined in this letter illustrate that the church leadership would not require Gentile Christian converts to become Jewish, but they would require them to respect Jewish tradition and uphold a few select essentials (Van Voorst 292).
Even though the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is a foreign concept to the contemporary church, these experiences and decisions of the early church in Acts are relevant in thinking about any divisions in the body of Christ. Because the Gentiles were marginalized and unwelcome in the early church, this story can be applied to the story of any group of people who is marginalized and unwelcome in our churches today. The contemporary church should be open to hearing this story in Acts, a story of the outsiders becoming insiders, of the marginalized being welcomed into the center, of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit transcending even the deepest human divides. And as today’s church hears this story, the story of the Gentiles just might transform the church’s understanding of the excluded and marginalized members of the church and of society. Ultimately, Acts serves as a reminder that God is the one who gives the gift of the Spirit, who chooses and calls God’s people; the church’s role is like that of Peter in this story—simply submitting to the movement of the Spirit and humbly proclaiming, “who are we that we could hinder God?” (11.17).