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Don’t you hate blog posts that start like this, with such an exaggerated claim? So do I.

Oh well.

I could have said this post will make you rich and famous, but I’m holding back.

Still, there is one chapter, in the New Testament, that I think is majorly huge–without it Christianity as we know does not exist.

And here’s the chapter. Ready?

Acts 10.

Bet you didn’t see that coming. Bet you thought I was going to pick something about Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, or resurrection. But I didn’t, did I?

Without Acts 10, you don’t go to church on Sunday, have summer youth missions trips, hymnals, cathedrals, Vacation Bible School, or Contemporary Christian Music. Heck, since so much of western culture reflects nearly 2000 years of Christian influence (and dominance, for ill and good), you could say that without Acts 10, the west as we know it doesn’t exist.

How is that? Before Acts 10, followers of Jesus were almost exclusively (maybe entirely) Jewish. From Acts 10 on, Gentiles come pouring in as equal members. So, it’s a big deal.

In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter has a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. On that sheet were all sorts of animals considered unclean in Judaism. A voice told Peter to “kill and eat.” Even though Peter was hungry, he said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Peter was a good Jew who stuck to ancient Jewish law about not eating “unclean” animals.

Peter was also a bit clueless at first about what this vision meant, but he would quickly understand that the ritually unclean animals in the vision symbolized Gentiles. At a time when maintaining ritual purity was a major concern (to distance Judaism from Roman culture), a vision like this was bound to signal a major transition.

No wonder Peter was confused.

Why, after all, would God cancel out a law that God himself had commanded the ancient Israelites to keep?

In the Old Testament, for Gentiles to be accepted by God, they had to convert to the Israelite faith, which meant believing as Israelites believed and also acting as Israelites acted–i.e., keeping the law of Moses, especially the part about men getting circumcised. That way of thinking was in full force during the time of Jesus and what we see here in Acts 10.

So, this is a big deal.

Next, Peter traveled to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Cornelius told Peter that he, too, had had a vision, telling him to go fetch Peter and bring him to Caesarea. Now the tumblers are falling into place, and Peter understands that the good news of Jesus is not to be limited to Jews.

So, Peter does what apostles tend to do: he began preaching. The heart of the matter is found in verses 44-48. As Peter was speaking, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Don’t pass this by too quickly.

Earlier, in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit also fell on all who were present, but they were all Jews. Now here in Caesarea, you have Pentecost 2.0 and the Spirit also falls on Gentiles.

This is also a big deal.

In the Old Testament, the Spirit fell occasionally on major leaders, like Moses or the prophets. A couple of the prophets do speak of the Spirit one day falling on everyone–but by “everyone” they meant all Jews.” The Spirit falling on Gentiles were not part of the picture.

Even Jesus’ preaching was focused almost entirely on his fellow Jews, although we see hints of widening the scope here and there. Read the Gospels and see how “Israel centered” they are.

The first few chapters of Acts continue this Jewish focus of the gospel. The focus here is that many Jews were beginning to follow this Jesus fellow, and zealous Jewish leaders reacted by putting these followers of Jesus to death, the Apostle Paul (known there as Saul) being their most famous hit man.

But here, in Acts 10, the focus shifts entirely from a Jewish intramural squabble to a much larger question: “Pentecost, with normal everyday Jews receiving the Spirit of God, was enough of a paradigm shift. But now, the Spirit seems to be out of control, falling on Gentiles, too.”

Peter then went back to Jerusalem to explain things to the Jewish leaders (and I imagine he was rehearsing his speech all the way), who caught on right away: “Then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

We might read this and think “no duh” but don’t be fooled: this was a revolutionary insight that changed everything. What the church today may take for granted–being overwhelmingly Gentile–was inconceivable at the time of the first followers of Jesus.

With the Gentiles now welcomed as part of the family of God–as Gentiles, without converting to Judaism first–much of the drama not only of the book of Acts but of Paul’s letters (especially Romans and Galatians) becomes clear:

If Gentiles are equal members of God’s family, what do we do about all that stuff in the Old Testament where God tells the Israelites to maintain their purity, and that Gentiles were not welcome as long as they remained Gentile? 

In other words, what in the world (literally) is God doing? Much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, is taken up with answering that question.

The bottom line:

In Acts 10, Israel’s story ceased being “Israel’s story” and was opened up to Gentiles. In order to do that, the old rules had to give way to a new and unexpected chapter. The Spirit is given to all.

Without Acts 10, you don’t go to church on Sunday. So, yeah, exaggerated blog post titles aside, Acts 10 is sort of a major moment.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.