For an adult male, the rite of circumcision was painful. In addition to the pain, Roman and Greek men regarded circumcision itself as disgusting. The combination of those two facts discouraged some men who viewed Judaism favorably from becoming Jewish proselytes.
Becoming proselytes was much more attractive to women than it was to men. In Paul's mission trips among the Gentile population, he always began his work in a new place at the Jewish synagogue. [God's promise was that the Jews would hear the message about Christ first. See Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 15:24; John 4:22; Acts 13:46; Romans 1:16; 2:9,10.] Some influential women who were not Jews associated themselves with the synagogue. [See Acts 13:50; 17:4,12.]
An identifiable group existed who favored Judaism but who did not submit to circumcision. While the God and moral teachings of the Jews appealed to them, social attitudes toward circumcision, and (in some places) the Jewish people, did not appeal to them. Though they studied in the synagogue, they were not proselytes. The degree of attraction this group felt for Judaism varied. Some of the wives who became proselytes likely influenced their husbands toward Judaism. Some of the men who were Godfearers likely influenced their wives and families to become proselytes.
This group's existence is more apparent in the Greek than in the major English translations. Acts refers to them as "fearers of God" (Acts 10:2,22,35; 13:26) and "worshippers of God" (Acts 16:14 [a woman]; 17:4 [stated in contrast to leading women]; 17:27; and 18:4 [Greeks were among those listening in the synagogue]). These are references [with the Lydia exception] to men who had a significant interest in Judaism but who were not proselytes. The Roman centurion (Luke 7:2-5) whose slave Jesus healed may have been such a person. Cornelius (Acts 10) is stated to be such a person.
How did the Jewish people regard the Godfearers? The common Jewish view was Gentiles were not bound by the law of Moses. God specifically made the covenant with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac (Genesis 17:1-14). God gave the law specifically to the nation of Israel [Abraham's descendants through Isaac]. See Exodus 19:1-6; 20:1,2; Deuteronomy 4:1; 5:1-12; and common references to Israel in Deuteronomy.
The Jewish position: Godfearers were included under the covenant God made through Noah. The basic requirements were (1) establish courts of justice; do not engage in (2) blasphemy, (3) the worship of other gods, (4) murder, (5) incest, (6) adultery, (7) theft or robbery, or (8) eating the flesh of a living animal [see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Second Edition (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1993) p. 517.] Godfearers who observed this covenant would live in the world to come.
Obviously, many Godfearers found the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ appealing. They already believed in the God who sent Jesus. They studied the scriptures in the synagogue. They were acquainted with God's promises. Being Christians permitted them to declare their faith in God and His moral teachings while avoiding the disgrace of circumcision and the negative racial attitudes [in some areas] toward the Jews. Acts indicates people from this group at times responded quickly to the gospel [see Acts 13:44-49; 17:10-12].
The response of Godfearers to the gospel of Christ was a source of friction between the Jewish community and the Christian community. As the number of people who were not Jews increased in the Christian community, the tension grew. Even some Jewish Christians were concerned about baptizing [without Jewish instruction] those who were idolaters into the Christian community [see Acts 15:1-5]. The tension grew to the point that some Jewish teachers in the Christian community declared invalid the salvation of people (a) who were not Jews and (b) who had not been instructed by Jewish teachers. [That tension is the primary concern of the book of Galatians.]
Peter and Paul defended the validity of these people's salvation. In Acts 10:34,35, Peter stated it was God's intent to accept the one "who fears God and does what is right" in every nation. God welcomes such people. Paul declared that a person became a descendant of Abraham by sharing Abraham's faith rather than his genes [see Galatians 3 and Romans 4].
As you consider those who were among the first to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ [and who believed in Jesus' power before his death], keep the people who "feared God" in your awareness. These people were among the most receptive when they learned of the resurrection of Jesus.
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 1, Lesson 6
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