The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Israel’s history. Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and were written in the 20 years before Jerusalem was under direct siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55 and brings hope to the Judeans during the time of the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they have suffered enough and will return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 and gives encouragement to the Judeans who returned to Jerusalem after the Exile.
Today’s reading is from “Second Isaiah,” and the prophet speaks for Yahweh (“LORD” – all capital letters in the NRSV). In Chapters 40 to 48, the LORD calls Israel the LORD’s “servant” (v.1) and a “covenant to the people” (v.6) called to “bring justice to the nations/Gentiles” (v. 1) and be a “light to the nations” (v. 6).
The book called “The Acts of the Apostles” was written by the author of the Gospel According to Luke. The first 15 chapters of Acts are a didactic “history” of the early Jesus Follower Movement starting with an account of the Ascension. The last 13 chapters describe Paul’s Missionary Journeys – not always consistently with Paul’s letters.
Today’s reading is a speech by Peter that is a synopsis of Luke’s Gospel. It is given in the context of the conversion of a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, to being a Jesus Follower, and follows Peter’s dream in which he is told that “what God has made clean [referring to foods], you must not call profane” (Ac. 10.15). The story about Cornelius is intended to show that being a Jesus Follower is not inconsistent with Roman citizenship and is available to persons who are Gentiles.
The issue whether Gentiles could be Jesus Followers was finally decided at the so-called Council of Jerusalem (described in Acts 15) attended by “the apostles and elders” (Ac.15.4). At the gathering, Paul and Peter argued in favor of baptizing Gentiles. James decided (reluctantly) that Gentiles could become Jesus Followers and did not have to be circumcised or keep all the Kosher rules.