Healing the “Us” vs. “Them” Divide: The Role of the Spirit in Inter-Ethnic Cooperation

By Dr. Enoch S. Charles

The Acts 10 record of the meeting between Peter, the Jew, and Cornelius, the Gentile, demonstrates how the Holy Spirit breaks down dividing walls of hostility between two different ethnic groups.[1] In the beginning of chapter 10, an angel appears to Cornelius, the pious Gentile (God-fearer), instructing him to invite Peter to his household. The experience of the Angelic visitation (vv. 3-6) at first terrifies Cornelius, but soon it becomes reassuring for him to know that God has remembered his prayers and good works (v.4). Cornelius readily obeys the heavenly messenger and sends for Peter (v.7).

But it is Peter who would need more spiritual-moral transformation than Cornelius for this inter-group encounter. Though a disciple and apostle of Jesus Christ, Peter’s Jewish heritage and religious understanding prevents communion with the Gentiles (especially going to a Gentile’s house and eating with them). So, the Spirit of God works in Peter in order to bring them together.

First, through the vision recorded in Acts 10:10–17, the Holy Spirit prepares Peter to receive the men sent by Cornelius. Peter’s imagination gets stirred by this interesting vision as the Holy Spirit “uses the symbolism of clean and unclean food.”[2] This vision meets Peter at the point of his bodily hunger, and captures his imagination in a powerful way.[3] The vision also disturbs his psychological makeup and deeply-rooted moral sentiments because God instructs him to eat everything that God has provided and not discriminate between clean and unclean (vv. 13–16). Moreover, this experience seems to trigger the reasoning part of Peter’s brain and changes the posture of his heart to receive the word from the Spirit instructing him to go without hesitation with the men coming to meet him (vv. 19, 20). Peter cannot discriminate or show no distinction (v.20; cf. Acts 11:12; 15:8, 9).

The Spirit of God, through this vision and direct instruction, touches Peter’s imagination, affections, and intellect. The Holy Spirit patiently works a holistic moral transformation to cultivate within Peter the virtue of hospitality necessary for this important inter-group encounter. Peter, in obedience to the Spirit’s promptings, then hosts his Gentile guests at the place he is staying. He then becomes their guest and travels with them on the next day to Cornelius’s household in Caesarea.

Cornelius greets Peter with great reverence (v.25). Peter’s words to Cornelius and his household portray the gravity of the situation: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (v.28). This transformation in Peter has thus begun the healing of the “Us”–vs.–“Them” divide, as he takes this important step of visiting a Gentile home.

After seeing Cornelius, and hearing his side of the story, Peter declares: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34–35). Now Peter is convinced that God is impartial, always hearing the prayers and remembering the good works of the Gentiles. While Peter is still sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the household of Cornelius, the Spirit of God falls “upon all who heard the word” and the Gentiles begin to speak in tongues and praise God (vv. 44–46) just as Peter and other apostles experienced in Acts 2.

Touched and transformed by whole experience, Peter exercises his intellect and offers his own constructive moral reasoning, saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v.47). The Gentiles are baptized in water and Peter and his Jewish friends stay with the Cornelius clan for several days (v.48)—a new era of Jew-Gentile hospitality and friendship begins.

In the next chapter, Peter stands up and justifies his extraordinary visit to the Gentiles before the Jewish believers who question the legitimacy of his table fellowship with the Gentiles (Acts 11:1–18). Luke also records Peter’s recounting of the same incident at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:7–11), which leads to a major breakthrough in the ethnic relations of the first century church.

Here, Peter says, “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (vv. 8–9, emphasis mine). For Peter, the Gentiles’ receiving of the gift of the Spirit with the speaking of tongues removes every barrier to inter-ethnic cooperation. Peter is now convinced beyond doubt that God does not show partiality or discriminate based on ethnicity and he himself cannot therefore discriminate between us and them.

The Spirit-led Peter-Cornelius encounter, while fostering the Jew-Gentile table fellowship, also brought a huge shift to the identity and language of the early church. New Testament scholar, Aaron Kuecker, points out that, prior to Acts 15, no non-Israelite had ever been called a “brother” to the Israelites. Of the 96 times the word adelphoi (meaning “brothers”) appears in all the Gospels, it refers to no non-Israelites until Acts 15:23.[4] Acts 15:23, in the opening words of the letter from the Jewish apostles and elders regarding the non-imposition of Jewish circumcision and other food laws on the believing Gentiles, specifically, addresses those Gentile believers as adelphoi for the first time! This language clearly implies that those Gentile believers are now considered part of the same community of the Jewish believers of Jesus.[5]

Thus, after the Spirit’s coming on the Gentile believers (Acts 10:44–46), the Spirit-baptized Jew and the Spirit-baptized Gentile, both having tasted the pure, self-giving love of God through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), can now open themselves to each other, forming the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural koinōnia of God in Christ.

Moreover, it is the same Spirit’s gracious and transformative empowerment that brought unity not only between different ethnic groups (Acts 10) but also between believers from different religious traditions (Acts 19) and between people within the same ethnic setting (Acts 2, 4-5).[6] In a sense, the Spirit’s coming in Acts is the solution to every relational problem–within the same ethnic group or between different ethnic groups.

There is just one timeless solution what fallen humanity needs: receive the Holy Spirit!

[1] This piece of writing is a short adaption from the blog author’s chapter, “Healing the ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ Divide: Toward a ‘Renewal Natural Theology of Inter-Group Cooperation,'” in The Spirit and Social Justice Global Interdisciplinary Perspectives: Scripture and Theology, eds. Antipas Harris and Michael Palmer (Lanham, MD: William Seymour Press, 2019), 276–304.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 454.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 205. Bruce sees a correlation between Peter’s hunger and the vision on food.

[4] Aaron J. Kuecker, The Spirit and the ‘Other’: Social Identity, Ethnicity, and Intergroup Reconciliation in Luke-Acts (London: T & T Clark, 2011), 187.

[5] Kuecker, Spirit and the ‘Other,  213.

[6] Murray Dempster, “The Church’s Moral Witness: A Study of Glossolalia in Luke’s Theology of Acts” Paraclete 23 (Winter 1989): 4-5.