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I'm confused about how to interpret Acts 11:17, especially because of Bible translation differences.

The Bible in Basic English (translation)

If then God gave them, when they had faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the same as he gave to us, who was I to go against God?

ASV (similar to other translations)

If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?

When Peter says "them", is he referring to Cornelius or to the 120 from Acts 1-2 or both? I'm asking with questions about how this impacts Baptism of the Holy Spirit in particular.

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First, in my judgement, the ESV and NIV give good representative (and accurate) translations at least of this verse.

  • NIV: So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God's way?"
  • ESV: If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

Now to the question at hand: Was Peter referring to the incident in Acts 1 where the 120 believers received the Gift of the Holy Spirit, or the incident in Acts 11 where Cornelius and his family received the gift of the Holy Spirit?

It is clearly both. Let me use an expanded version of Acts 11:27 to show why:

  • So if God gave them [Cornelius and his family as per Acts 11] the same gift [The Holy Spirit] he gave us [the 120 in Acts 1] who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ …

That is, Peter is using the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit (as evidenced by their display of the supernatural gift of tongues) by gentiles to prove that the Gospel was not limited to only Jews as it might appear to have been in Acts 1.

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I prefer Greek. Sometimes translations make a big difference, not here.

Anaphoric & "Biblical" hermeneutics...

Peter's reference to "them" is called an "anaphoric" reference (as opposed to cataphoric) because it references something that happened earlier. Because he speaks of them as Gentiles and Cornelius would be the only so far in this same writing by Luke, a "Biblical Theology" (the name for this hermeneutical method) would say that surely Peter is talking about Cornelius.

When Peter says, "When we believed," he says specifically "in the Lord Jesus Christ", not, "when we believed and received the Holy Spirit." They all "believed in Jesus Christ" at different times, but they all had. The Greek does not specify any point in time for any one person's belief, nor do main English translations.

Putting it together

The "we" refers to Peter and other Jewish Christians who had believed in Jesus at their different respective points in time, those at the Day of Pentecost having received the Holy Spirit because of whenever they believed Jesus before.

The "they" most likely refers to Cornelius, who both believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit baptism about the same time because the Holy Spirit had been given by that point in time.

The main point via silence

That said, hermeneutics call us to let the clear things remain clear, the vague things remain vague, the anaphoric and cataphoric remain such, and the unstated remain unstated.

So, the main point includes that "they" does not specifically specify Cornelius... because, though it "Biblically" must be Cornelius, this isn't about Cornelius; the main point is what Peter says outright: To have different privileged access to Jesus and the Holy Spirit based on ethnicity would interfere with God's work.

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