I feel very blessed to have a primary doctor who is a woman who really cares about her patients. But earlier in the history of our nation, this was not an option.
Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (1821-1910), was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States and America’s first woman doctor. She began her practice in 1851 in New York, but not without having to overcome some big obstacles. Her first hindrance was finding a place to rent for her practice – no one would even rent her a room once she mentioned that she was a doctor. Finally, after weeks of trudging the streets, she was able to rent rooms from a landlady who asked no questions about what Elizabeth planned to do with them.
But when the office was set up, for some time she had no patients. Some Quaker women finally became her first patients, but then she faced another barrier – no hospital would allow her on it’s staff. In 1853, Dr. Blackwell was finally able to open her own clinic in one of New York’s worse slums, announcing that all patients would be treated for free. Again, for several weeks no one showed up.
Then one day a woman in such agony that she didn’t care who treated her, staggered up the steps and collapsed in Elizabeth’s arms. This woman was treated and recovered, and she told all her friends about the wonderful woman doctor. After that, her practice gradually expanded, later moved, and became a branch of the New York Infirmary on East Fifteenth Street, which is still there today. And women doctors are now an accepted part of American medicine.
In my personal Bible study time this week, I’ve been reading about another pioneer, not in the medical field but in the work of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those in the Gentile world. Jesus Himself had made it clear that the truth of who He was and what He came to do was not only for the Jewish people. In Mark 16:15, Jesus said the Gospel was to be preached to “all the world,” not just to the Jews. He said to His disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”
Now was the time for this to begin, and yet for that to happen God had to do a major work in the apostle Peter’s life. As a Jewish man, he had accepted the prevailing understanding of the Jewish nation that they were called by God to remain completely separate from Gentiles. While the Old Testament did teach that the Jewish people were to be a separate people, the early Jewish leaders took this command well beyond what God had intended. In an attempt to build a fence around the Old Testament Law so people wouldn’t even come close to breaking God’s commandment, they had come up with an almost unending list of oral traditions the Jewish people were to live by. These extra-biblical rules were taught by repetition to the young Jewish men, then later (around A.D. 200) written down in the first major work of Rabbinic literature called the Mishnah. This “oral Torah” included laws related to every aspect of the Jewish life: agriculture, relationships, ritual purity, the Temple, the Sabbath, Jewish festivals, fast days, and other holidays.
Because of the “oral Torah” that he had been exposed to since his youth, Peter would have nothing to do with Gentiles, whom he considered unclean. The oral traditions he had grown with prohibited him from being a guest in the home of a Gentile, inviting a Gentile into his home, eating food prepared by a Gentile, and even required purifying any cooking utensils purchased from a Gentile before using them. So God had some essential lessons to teach Peter in Acts 10.
The chapter opens with a vision given to a man named Cornelius. Scripture tells us he was a Roman centurion, not a Jew but a devout man who feared God with all his household, prayed continually, and showed generosity in giving alms to the needy. But since Cornelius was a Gentile God-fearer and not a circumcised Jew, all of his good works were not enough to make him acceptable to the Jews – or to earn salvation – so Cornelius needed to hear the Gospel. And God chose Peter to be His spokesman.
As Cornelius was praying around 3pm, the Lord sent a vision of an angel with a message. His prayers had been heard, his alms had ascended as a memorial before God. He was instructed to send some men to Joppa to bring Peter to his house. This seeker did exactly as he was instructed by the angel, called two of his servants and a devout soldier who attended to his needs, and sent these three men to Joppa to complete their mission.
While Cornelius’ servants were in route to Peter’s house, the day after this vision, Peter too was having a time of prayer. And as with Cornelius, God sent a vision to Peter. In it he saw what looked like a sheet with all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds in it. He also heard a voice, saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” But unlike Cornelius, Peter resisted the message. Instead of saying, “Yes, Lord,” he responded, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean. The voice spoke again, saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Apparently Peter was still not convinced, because verse 16 says, “This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”
Even after seeing this vision three times, the Scripture says Peter was “inwardly perplexed.” But the Spirit spoke some clear instructions. “And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.’”(Acts 10:19-20 ESV). The three men from Cornelius arrived, and this time Peter obeys. He got some of the brethren to accompany him and then left with the entourage for Caesarea and Cornelius’ house.
In the meantime, Cornelius had called together some of his relatives and close friends. At the sight of Peter, the first thing Cornelius did was to bow down at his feet in worship. Verse 26 says Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”
After sharing with those gathered what God had shown him, the next words out of Peter’s mouth reflect a changed heart. He says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
And for the first time, a group of Gentiles hear the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ, believe in Him and receive that forgiveness. The men who had accompanied Peter were amazed, as they observed God confirming pouring out the Holy Spirit on these new Gentile believers, in the same way as He had been poured out on the Day of Pentecost. This chapter ends with Peter asking those who accompanied him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”(Acts 10:47) There was apparently no objection, because Peter then commands these new Gentile believers to be baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ.
So why is this chapter of Acts so important? It teaches us two major truths concerning salvation:
- No man or woman is saved by their good works. If that weren’t true, this whole chapter could have been left out of the book of Acts. Being a God-fearing man wasn’t enough to secure a relationship with God in Cornelius’ life, and it isn’t enough in our lives. (For more on this, check out my article on Cornelius at the following link, https://hopeandlight.blog/2019/05/29/are-you-a-god-fearer-or-a-born-again-christian/lives)
- Salvation is available to anyone who believes, Jew or Gentile (non-Jew). God does not favor any one group. His Word makes it clear that He desires all men and women to come to a knowledge of the truth and be born again. In 1 Timothy 2, we are urged to pray for the lost, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
I am grateful that God was able to open the apostle Peter’s eyes to the truth that the good news of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection was for all people. This was the turning point in the early church, as it moved out to continue fulfilling the commission Jesus had given the apostles. This commission to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth wasn’t just for these leaders of the early church. It’s also our calling, that all who are willing may be saved.
Because God enabled Peter to overcome his prejudice against Gentiles, the Gospel was available for me when my heart was ready to move past a works-based faith in Jesus to believe in salvation by grace through faith. For this, I am eternally grateful.
Yes, I’m grateful to have a doctor who is a woman (and also a Christian), who understands the emotions I face in dealing with a long list of chronic illnesses. She has been a God-given blessing in my life. But I’m even more grateful that Peter overcame his prejudices against Gentiles and partiality toward Jews and was a pioneer in spreading the Gospel to the Gentile world. If you are a Christian who is not from a Jewish background, you too should be grateful that the Lord was able to overcome Peter’s limited understanding and swing open the door of the Church to Gentile believers. Grateful enough to allow God to reveal any prejudices in your heart that are hindering you from being the witness He is calling you to be.