A proselyte is a convert, someone who adopts a new faith or religious life. In the Bible, there are proselytes to Judaism (see Matthew 23:15, Acts 2:11). It must have been quite a commitment to make such a change. Whatever else it involved, we know that the men needed to be circumcised!
The word proselyte comes from a pretty standard, non-religious, Greek word (προσερχομαι, proserchomai). This verb can mean to move towards, or to cross over. This seems to be the sense of proselyte: he or she is someone who has ‘crossed over.’
The New Testament includes major early church arguments about how to receive forgiveness from Jesus. In particular, how can Gentiles receive the blessings of Christ? Since Jesus is the Jewish Christ, it might be that non-Jews must submit to the Jewish law to receive Christ’s benefits. Some argued that the process for non-Jews looks like this:
Pagan → Proselyte → Trust Jesus
This makes some sense. God spent centuries teaching the Jewish people to be distinct and remain faithful to the law he spoke to them. How could the Lord so quickly change things? Acts shows the early Christians struggling with this. A serious test is in chapter 10, when God speaks to the Roman centurion Cornelius.
As the scene unfolds, God surprises everyone. Cornelius does not have to become a proselyte. In contrast, it’s as if the apostle Peter himself becomes the proselyte.
Firstly, about Cornelius. Upon hearing the gospel, God pours out his Holy Spirit directly on the Gentiles (verse 44). And the Jewish believers reacted with amazement that the Spirit was ‘even for the Gentiles’ (verse 45). God’s actions show the true process for pagans to come to Jesus:
Pagan → Trust Jesus
But what about Peter? How could he be said to be a proselyte? I think this is because Peter is the one who crosses over. Cornelius physically remains in his place (Caesarea) and Peter is sent by God away from the house he’s in. In some perplexity, Peter states to Cornelius that Jews usually don’t make this kind of trip (Acts 10:28). When Peter says it is unlawful for a Jew ‘to visit anyone from another nation’ he uses the proselyte verb προσερχομαι (proserchomai). But God made him do it!
This moment is a huge change for Peter, for the church, and for the world. From this point onwards, those who trust the Lord are ever crossing over to invite all people to faith in Jesus. Peter goes to Cornelius. Paul and Barnabas go to Crete and Asia Minor. And no one ever need become Jewish before bowing before the Jewish Christ.
It’s not that Peter changed his beliefs. He still announced Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that Jesus judges and forgives (Acts 10:39-43). Yet Peter – and all Christianity with him – had crossed over to become a faith that ignored cultural barriers. We have a ‘crossing-over’ type of faith and love for neighbour. In fact, it is against the work of God to grimly hold on to personal distinctives (see the word from God in the verse I quote below).
Peter became a proselyte to outreach, a proselyte to direct engagement and love, a convert to Jesus’ direct welcome of people of all kinds. Peter became a proselyte that we might become proselytes too.
What God has made clean, do not defile! (Acts 10:15)