Saturday, March 16, 2024

Discernment in Acts of the Apostles

Exploring Discernment in the Book of Acts as it Relates to Receiving Gentiles and Hellenist Jews into the Early Church

Aaron S. Robertson

March 2024


The paper focuses on the Church’s process of discerning the way forward regarding key questions and disputes it encounters in the Acts of the Apostles (also known as the Book of Acts, or simply, Acts) as they relate to bringing Gentiles and Hellenist Jews into the fold. Along the way, the paper draws on both Christological and ecclesiological insights to support this discernment process. The paper’s thesis, then, is that the following passages in Acts clearly demonstrate how the early Church discerned the path forward with expanding and welcoming non-Jews and Hellenist Jews.

Four passages/pericopes will be summarized and explored. These are, in order by both chapter/verse and appearance in the paper: “The Need for Assistants”; Saul’s journey to conversion and his approval by the Apostles; Peter’s preaching to, and baptizing of, the Gentiles, and his defense of this to the Church; and the Council of Jerusalem and its effects on the Church. While there may certainly be other noteworthy passages and pericopes in Acts offering illuminating examples of early discernment in line with the paper’s thesis, space considerations for this specific study will prevent exploration beyond the four just identified.

To keep uniformity of scriptural translation, all references in the paper come from the version of the Holy Bible found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the citation of which will only be given once at the end in the Reference section. Because the paper is solely focused on Acts, only chapter and verse are given throughout, rather than citing the name of the book each time a reference to it is being made. The paper will conclude by briefly tying together analysis of the four passages/pericopes regarding discernment in line with its thesis.

Operating definitions of “discernment” for this study

Before continuing to examine the selected scripture passages, it is fitting to provide some general understanding of the word “discernment” and its variants. Keeping some sort of operating definition(s) at the forefront will help both the researcher and reader stay focused on what is attempting to be conveyed by this study. Following are three definitions taken from non-academic lay sources for “discernment.” They are: “the ability to judge people and things well” (Cambridge University Press and Assessment, 2024); “the ability to understand inner qualities or relationships” (Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2024); and, the third of five definitions offered by this reference, “the trait of judging wisely and objectively” (, Inc., 2024). Taken together, the themes emerging here are judging and understanding, and this will be the author’s primary operating definition here.

“The Need for Assistants” – 6:1-7

At the center of this pericope is a growing conflict between the Hellenist Jews and the Hebrews, whereby the former are complaining that, “…their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1), whereas, apparently, the Hebrew widows are not being neglected. Now, both groups are Jewish, but the reason why this pericope is examined in this study is because the situation here still pertains to how the Church is discerning the inclusion of those considered outsiders – being heavily influenced by Greek culture and philosophy, save for polytheism, the Hellenist Jews were often looked at by their Hebrew counterparts as being different; their Jewish identity somehow watered down, not correct, erroneous. They are, for all practical purposes, outsiders in the eyes of the Hebrews, broadly speaking.

The Apostles, wishing not to get involved in managing the daily distribution because they feel they are called to focus on prayer and the preaching of the Gospel (6:2; 6:4), instead call for the, “…select[ion] from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task” (6:3). After the seven men were chosen, they were brought to the Apostles, “…who prayed and laid hands on them” (6:6).

Identifying and selecting these seven men for this important role demonstrates considerable discernment from most notably an ecclesiological perspective. Undoubtedly, from a Christological point of view, there is a moral mandate here, insofar as Jesus would want – indeed, expect – the Church to take care of all widows. His commandment to love one another, if nothing else here, covers that. Far more prevalent in this pericope, however, is discernment over how the Church continues to grow, move forward, and best serve those in need. Here, the Apostles recognize their unique calling to a life of prayer, preaching, and leading the Church. They realize they are not called to handle this type of work, and perhaps, presumably, they do not possess the skills for, nor the interest in, this job, anyway. They judge wisely that this is not for them. So, they delegate the task out by asking that seven men of reputable character, specifically, “…filled with the Spirit and wisdom…” (6:3), be selected, and the Apostles, in turn, will formally appoint them to the role with their blessings. Going through this process enables the Church to grow by getting more people active and utilizing their own unique skillsets, talents, and interests for the betterment and welfare of the Church and those she serves.

“Saul’s Conversion,” “Saul’s Baptism,” “Saul Preaches in Damascus,” “Saul Visits Jerusalem” – 9: 1-30

Still another exemplar of discernment can be found in the conversion of Saul/Paul, and how the Church grapples with this surprising development, given Saul’s notorious reputation for persecuting believers. The opening two verses of chapter 9 are poignant in describing Saul’s hatred for the Christians: “Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains” (9:1-2). As he is on his way to Damascus (9:3-9) with an entourage in search of believers, Paul is blinded by a light coming from the sky and hears the voice of Jesus asking him why he (Paul) is persecuting Him. Paul remains blind for three days and does not eat or drink anything (9:9) until he is baptized by the disciple Ananias (9:10-19). Both men have visions of the other, that Ananias will come along at the command of the Lord to baptize Paul. Upon Ananias laying his hands on Paul, “Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength” (9:18-19).

The conversion of Paul is rich in Christological insights. For starters, the facts that Paul hated Christ and His followers, even actively participating in the martyrdom of Stephen, further reinforces, in quite a profound way here, that no one – no sin – is beyond God’s love, forgiveness, and healing. This is who God is. He is always trying to reach us, including, and perhaps especially, the most hardened of hearts. Additionally, Paul’s conversion also simultaneously demonstrates how God has a plan – a truly meaningful and profound purpose – for all. It is up to everyone to cooperate with this grace, however, and Paul here certainly discerns and responds to God’s unique plan for him. Here, not only does God forgive Paul of his horrible sins, but He specifically purposes Paul to become an apostle, that he may go out into the world, as far as he can, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, the one he at one time so despised.

From both Christological and ecclesiological perspectives, Paul becomes known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, this is part of God’s unique plan for Paul, but it is also His plan for the Church, utilizing Paul’s gifts and talents, and certainly aided by His grace, to specifically work to bring non-Jews into the fold. From more of an ecclesiological aspect, Paul’s conversion also demonstrates how those in the Church wrestle with God’s call for Paul. There is certainly fear and distrust among the disciples at first (9:26), given Paul’s reputation, and it takes the trustworthy Barnabas to bring him to the Apostles (9:27) to assure them of Paul’s good intentions and faith. After hearing all this, the Apostles, “…took him [Paul] down to Caesarea and sent him on his way to Tarsus” (9:30).

Peter’s preaching to, and baptizing of, the Gentiles, and his explanation of this to the Church – chapters 10 and 11

In Chapter 10, the reader learns about Cornelius, a Roman solider who is, “devout and God-fearing along with his whole household…” (10:2) and, “…who used to give alms generously to the Jewish people and pray to God constantly” (10:2). The chapter opens with the “Vision of Cornelius,” in which the centurion is visited by an angel, who shares with Cornelius that, “Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God…” (10:4) and instructs him to go and visit the apostle Simon Peter, who is staying in the town of Joppa (10:5). The next day, Peter has his own vision (10:9-33) preparing him for the upcoming visit by Cornelius and his men. In his vision,
He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky. A voice said to him, ‘Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.’ The voice spoke to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.’  (10:11-15)
The following verse, 10:16, notes that this occurred a total of three times before the sheet made its way back up to the sky. Peter wrestles with the meaning of the vision, but it soon becomes apparent to him that God is talking about the Gentiles. He meets Cornelius and a small crowd of Cornelius’s “…relatives and close friends” (10:24) that Cornelius had assembled for this very special occasion of meeting Peter. Peter addresses the crowd, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean. And that is why I came without objection when sent for. May I ask, then, why you summoned me?” (10:28-29).

At this point, Cornelius explains the vision he had and how he was instructed to summon Peter and listen to what he (Peter) has to say. Peter then gives a speech (10:34-43). Key points from Peter’s speech, for purposes of this paper, include, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (10:34-35), and, “To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

While still speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon all who were present and listening (10:44), and, “The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God” (10:45-46). In response to their amazement, Peter responds, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” (10:47). After saying this, Peter then orders these Gentiles, “…baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48).

Chapter 11 opens with “The Baptism of the Gentiles Explained.” This pericope, in which Peter explains his actions to “…circumcised believers [who] confronted him, saying, ‘You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them’” (11:2-3), constitutes the bulk of the chapter (11:1-18). Peter recounts his vision, explains Cornelius’s vision, and how he had, “…remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the holy Spirit’” (11:16). Peter then reasons, “If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?” (11:17). In the end, Peter wins the Jewish believers over. “When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God, saying, ‘God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too’” (11:18).

“Council of Jerusalem,” “James on Dietary Law,” “Letter of the Apostles” – 15:1-29

The Council of Jerusalem was called to deal with a situation that arose in which there was confusion and debate as to whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to first convert to Judaism to be saved. More specifically, this controversy homed in about circumcision, with some (15:1) arguing that male Gentile converts would first need to be circumcised according to Mosaic Law to be saved. This argument appears to have come largely from Pharisee converts to Christianity (15:5). To settle this dispute, the Apostles and presbyters of the Church met in Jerusalem to discern together, with Peter (15:6-12) and James (15:13-21) addressing their brothers in faith with their arguments against the requirement for circumcising male Gentile converts to Christianity. In the end, a letter was written by the Apostles and presbyters to settle the dispute. It was written for the entire Church, with representatives selected, “…in agreement with the whole church…” (15:22) to deliver and share the letter. The ending to the letter reads:
It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.  (15:28-29)
It is James who makes the case for the avoidance of these meats and unlawful marriage in his address to the Council (15:13-21).

Combined analysis of Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and the Council of Jerusalem

There are considerable Christological and ecclesiological links that can be mined between Peter’s meeting with Cornelius and the Council of Jerusalem. Chapter 11, verses 2-3, in which Peter faces the, “…circumcised believers [who] confronted him, saying, ‘You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them,’” is comparable to Jesus entering the homes of Jewish sinners and tax collectors and dining with them, as well. Just as Jesus Himself befriended, loved, and dined with sinners to call them to new life, Peter is doing the same here. He has discerned, through a combination of reason, the aid of his faith, and certainly with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Jewish sinners who are circumcised are no different – no more special, no greater than – to the Lord than Gentile sinners. Both groups are God’s children, human beings made in His image; and God desires that all His children be saved. Furthermore, it is known that Jesus, Himself, ministered to Gentiles, and certainly Peter would have remembered the words of Jesus in the Great Commission, instructing His followers to go out and make disciples of all nations. From a Christological standpoint, then, Peter’s actions meeting with Cornelius and company, and his follow-up defense of it to the Jewish believers, reaffirm that Jesus truly did come to save all humankind. He is Lord of all, Jew and Gentile, and His love and mercy are freely given to all who believe in Him.

The conclusions arrived at by the Church at the Council of Jerusalem serve to ratify Peter’s individual actions and explanation, and hence, his own Christological understanding, regarding Cornelius and his companions. The Apostles and presbyters, having assembled to thoughtfully debate and discuss – to discern, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – together the way forward for the Church regarding Gentile converts, reason that it is not necessary for them to be circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic Law to be saved by Jesus. Indeed, it is a great hindrance. God has revealed Himself to both Jew and Gentile, and He desires that all His children be saved. As Peter states during the Council,
And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  (15:8-10)
In the end, as previously stated, the Council asks only of Gentile converts “…to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage” (15:29).


The paper attempted to make the case that the preceding four passages/pericopes in Acts clearly demonstrate how the early Church discerned the path forward in relation to its expansion and the welcoming of non-Jews and Hellenist Jews into its fold. In doing so, several rich Christological and ecclesiological insights have been mined. Christological understandings gleaned or reinforced in this study include Jesus wanting – really, expecting – the Church to take care of all widows; the fact that no one – no sin – is beyond God’s healing love and mercy; the fact that God has a unique purpose, or plan, for all; that all are God’s children, human beings made in His image, and He desires that all His children be saved; and that Jesus truly did come to save all humankind as Lord of all, Jew and Gentile, with His love and mercy freely extended to all who believe in Him. Ecclesiological observations made here include the Church learning how to get more believers active by utilizing their own unique gifts for its betterment and those she serves (specifically, the seven assistants, but also Paul); the Church correctly grappling with God’s unique calling for individual believers (specifically, Paul); and the Church correctly arriving at the conclusion after thoughtful discernment that requiring circumcision for Gentile converts would be a great and unnecessary hindrance (Cornelius, Council of Jerusalem).

Reference Dictionary, s.v. “discernment.” Accessed March 6, 2024. Thesaurus, s.v. “discernment.” Accessed March 6, 2024.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Acts of the Apostles. Accessed March 1, 2024. Dictionary, s.v. “discernment.” Accessed March 6, 2024.

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