I’ve noticed that many people misunderstand and misinterpret many things in the book of Acts when they don’t have some foundational understandings of a few simple terms used in Acts. Here they are:
Jews: from the word Judah, Israelites descended from the southern kingdom. Religious and cultural usage
Hellenists, Greek Jews, Grecian Jews: Jewish people who have scattered to the ends of the Greek (Roman) world after the return from the exile in Babylon and Persia. They either did not return to Israel or left sometime afterwards. They spoke as their primary language Greek or some other tongue; Hebrew was a second language to them.
Converts to Judaism: Gentiles who chose to believe in Yahweh. They were circumcised and followed all the customs of Judaism. They were by blood Gentiles but in every other way Jewish.
God-fearing Greek, worshippers of God: Gentiles who chose to believe in Yahweh but not assimilate to Jewish customs or laws; uncircumcised.
Gentile: NOT Jewish in any way.
Why Do These Definitions Matter?
This matters because most readers of Acts are Gentiles, but all the beginning events happened to Jews. In fact, the first true Gentile convert to Christianity was Cornelius in Acts 10. Every single believer before that was either a Jew or a convert to Judaism. Many people mistake a few Gentile-sounding names earlier in the book for Gentiles when in fact many of the believers who joined the church early on were Hellenistic Jews; Jews by birth but with Greek culture. They had Greek names, spoke Greek and came from the Greco-Roman world and were in Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost.
I view this as a big deal because Gentiles today take for granted what truly happened early on. If it weren’t for God taking Peter to Cornelius’ house and the conflict in Antioch that led to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 we’d all be expected to convert to Judaism to be Christ-followers. Every single Gentile who followed Jesus before Acts 10 was a convert to Judaism. Every single one.
If we hope to ever bring Jews into the fold of Christianity, we must understand that we Gentiles are “grafted in” to this tree that has always belonged to them. There are a different set of rules for Jews and Gentiles. Not for salvation–Acts makes it clear that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus for both Jew and Gentile, but for obedience. Gentiles are not bound to obey the Law, Jews are. Again, they aren’t bound to obey the Law to be saved–Paul makes it clear that obeying the Law never saved anyone.
No, Jews are bound to obey the Law because they always were, and still are, God’s chosen people. They are called to be holy (set apart) so that the world would come to know their creator through them.
So I hope these definitions help. I know they will probably change the way you understand Acts, or at least the first 15 chapters. The Hellenistic widows in Acts 6 weren’t Gentiles, but Greek-speaking Jews. Steven wasn’t a Gentile, but a Jew with a Greek name. And it matters because we Gentiles are playing in the Jews’ back yard; not the other way around.