Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Message God Sent...
by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger
Texts: Acts 10:1-48; Isaiah 61:1-11
I. As we continue our series on the Book of Acts, we come to a new section of Luke's account, in which we find the gospel spreading throughout Palestine, beyond the confines of Jerusalem.
In all of this we see with increasingly greater clarity, the fulfillment of our Lord's promise recorded in Acts 1:8, namely, that the disciples would be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. As one commentator puts it, "The time had come for the gospel to cross the barrier that separated Jews from Gentiles."(1) The great promise of the Messianic Age was coming to pass--God's kingdom was now being extended to the Gentiles through word and sacrament in the power of the Holy Spirit--just as we have seen happen with the Jews.
In Acts 10 and 11, Luke describes one of the most significant events yet, a kind of Pentecost for the Gentiles. Though this great moment had been anticipated in Acts 8 with the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch through the evangelistic efforts of Philip, here we see something more substantial. The Ethiopian was a single convert, but now we learn that the Word of God was indeed to go to the Gentiles as God's mighty arm is shown to all nations, races, tribes and tongues.
There are four issues to keep in mind here which serve as the background to Luke's account of God's purposes.(2)
1. The resistance on the part of a number of Jewish Christians to the idea of Gentiles being brought into the church (cf. 10:14; 10:28; 11:2-3, 8). This is a theme that will plague the church throughout its early years, as Jews and Gentiles struggle over the place of the Mosaic Law in the Christian church. This is, of course, the theme of Paul's letter to the Galatians.
2. Luke is clear throughout this whole section, that it is God who takes the initiative to bring the Gentiles into the church, as is indicated by God's miraculous intervention to bring this to pass. (10:3; 11-16; 19-20; 22b; 30-33; 44-46; 11:5-10, 13, 15-17). In fact, one higher-critical commentator dismisses this section of Acts as mythological because of the stress upon God's sovereignty. If true, this man argues, this would leave little place for human initiative in seeking, since it is God who is described as acting sovereignly to bring his purposes to pass apart from human willing.(3)
3. It is very important to take note of the fact that it is not Paul, but Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem Apostles, who is the human instrument in opening the door to the Gentiles (10:23; 34-43; 47-48; 11:15-17). Peter's subsequent wimpiness in this regard surfaces when he is later confronted by Paul.
4. Last, Luke describes in Acts 11 the Jerusalem church's subsequent acceptance of the Gentiles' conversion to Jesus the Messiah apart from any allegiance to Judaism. This will become clear when we get to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council.
This is important because it demonstrates quite clearly that the salvation of the Gentiles was not an after thought on God's part, as our dispensationalist friends argue. This spread of the gospel beyond the confines of Israel was God's very purpose from the beginning. There are not two peoples of God--Jew and Gentile, each with separate redemptive plans. There is one people of God, ethnic Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT. In this case, we see that it is God's sovereign purpose to call not only Jews but also Gentiles to be members of the church, the mystical body of Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is what the prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah had foretold all along.
Thus, as we work our way through Acts 10 there are a number of things to which we will turn our attention this morning.
1. First we will look at the visions given to both Cornelius and Peter.
2. Second, we will look at Peter's meeting with Cornelius.
3. Third, we will look at Peter's sermon to those in Cornelius' house and then,
4. Last, we will look at the activity of the Holy Spirit and the Pentecost of the Gentiles in response.
II. In verses 1-8, Luke begins by recounting Cornelius' vision.
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Cornelius was a common name in the first century and the man we meet here is said to be a member of the Italian Regiment, a group of archers who were freedmen from Italy and who were awarded Roman citizenship as a result of their military service. A centurion was a non-commissioned officer equivalent to today's rank of captain, and who commanded a group of soldiers numbering somewhere between 300-600.
This man Cornelius, is described as by Luke as "devout and God-fearing" as is all his household. He was "one who fears God," which "is Luke's way of identifying a special class of Gentiles throughout Acts." God-fearers rejected paganism, and may have had some lose connection to Judaism, but were not full proselytes. A "God-fearer,"as in the case of Cornelius, was likely Luke's way of describing "a deeply religious man." In the words of one commentator, "it seems that we must understand Cornelius to have been a Gentile who, having realized the bankruptcy of paganism, sough to worship a monotheistic God, practice a form of prayer, and lead a moral life, apart from any association with Judaism." God had prepared his heart, and it was specifically to this God-fearing man that God sovereignly directed the advance of His Word.
And so, according to Luke, God sends an angel--a messenger--who appears to Cornelius in a vision. His response was certainly understandable--fear. "What is it, Lord?" Cornelius asks. To which the angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God." The angel then instructed Cornelius to send for Peter, who was, as you may recall, staying in Joppa with Simon the Tanner. Cornelius immediately did as he was told, and sent for Peter.
III. Next, Luke recounts for us Peter's vision in verses 9-16.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." 14 "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Since Peter had been staying with Simon the Tanner, who would certainly have been regarded by the members of the Sanhedrin as "unclean," we can gather that Peter was becoming increasingly unconcerned about obedience to the ceremonial law. But it would still take special revelation from God to move him to minster directly to Gentiles.(4) It is one thing to be a follower of Jesus Christ and see that the Law cannot justify. It is another thing, for Peter the Jew, to fully understand how Gentiles fit into God's purposes.
And so around noon on the day after Cornelius' vision, Peter is up on the roof of Simon's house, and apparently because of low-blood sugar, becomes drowsy and eventually falls into a kind of trance during the noon prayer hour. It was then that Peter saw a vision (literally "a certain object like") a sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. On this sheet, were all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds of the air. This represents both those animals, which according to Leviticus 11 were forbidden from human consumption, such as Rabbit and pork, as well as those which were okay to eat, such as beef. Then, Peter hears a voice which instructs him to "kill and eat." Peter's response is what we would expect of any orthodox Jew who kept dietary laws. "Surely, not, Lord! I have never eaten anything unclean." The voice, presumably that of our Lord, instructs Peter "do not call anything impure that God has made clean." This of course, recalls to mind our Lord's words as recorded in Mark 7:17-23. After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him `unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods `clean.') He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him `unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean.'" Peter would soon come to realize that these words had a far wider implication then simply what he was, or was not, allowed to eat. Not only was Peter not to regard certain animals as unclean, but since Peter as a Jew was convinced that Gentiles were "unclean," and therefore like animals with cloven hoofs to be avoided, God was now telling him that all justified sinners, including Gentiles, were no longer to be regarded as "dirty" simply because they were Gentiles. And so after this happened three times, the sheet was taken back to heaven.
IV. In verses 17-33, Luke moves on to describe the meeting between Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea.
This part of Luke's account begins in verse 17, with Cornelius's messengers arriving from Joppa. 17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them." 21 Peter went down and said to the men, "I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?" 22 The men replied, "We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say." 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
While Peter was still apparently in a kind of daze, struggling to come to grips with what he has just seen and heard, the messengers from Cornelius arrive, and began making inquiry about Peter's whereabouts. At this point, the Holy Spirit told Peter that men were looking for him, and that they have been sent by God to him. Peter, upon hearing who they were, invited them in. A Jew inviting Gentiles into his dwelling is in itself significant.
The second part of this section begins in the latter part of verse 23, with the description of Peter's meeting with Cornelius. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. "Stand up," he said, "I am only a man myself." 27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?" 30 Cornelius answered: "Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, "Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea." 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us."
Once Peter arrives at Caesarea and enters the house, Cornelius' reaction is to fall at his feet to offer him "reverence," a term describing homage that men pay to deity, angels or kings. Cornelius obviously attributed the presence of Peter to God's action and is so moved by all that has transpired that he falls at Peter's feet. But Peter, realizing that these actions, though sincere, are not proper, orders Cornelius to his feet. According to Luke, Peter immediately realizes that there was a sizable group present, and Peter the Jew, was now quite uncomfortable in a room surrounded by "dogs." And so Peter recounts for them that Jewish law not only made it sinful to eat unclean food like the Gentiles, but that it was sinful to enter into Gentile homes, touch their possessions or even accept Gentile hospitality. And so Peter and Cornelius begin to compare notes.
The fact that Cornelius' vision is recounted three times in this section alone by Luke is significant. Cornelius' messengers to Peter recount the vision, Cornelius himself recounts the vision to Peter in verses 30-32, and later in chapter 11, it is retold by Peter to the Jerusalem church. This is important because it indicates not only how Peter is to act toward the Gentiles--God has shown me that I am not to regard anyone as unclean because of their race, but indeed, this reveals how God regards the Gentiles, for we all--Jew and Gentile stand in the presence of God.
This favor of God towards the Gentiles is also seen in the fact that Cornelius is given a vision from an angel of God--something which only happened previously to Jews. The language Luke uses for Cornelius' vision mirrors the language used to describe the previous angelic visitations to Mary and Ananias. Even the words addressed to Cornelius by the angel reflect that which was appropriate to a devout Jew-- "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up before God." If there is no difference in piety between a Jew and a Gentile--at least from God's perspective, clearly Peter will have to re-think things, as will all those in the Jerusalem Church.
At once it becomes clear to all that God has ordained this meeting, and that Cornelius and his companions, cannot wait to "listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us."
V. And so Peter now begins to speak to those assembled in verses 34-43.
34 Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39 "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Here, again, we find yet another instance of apostolic preaching, though this time adapted for a Gentile audience. Luke points out that Peter literally "opened his mouth," (The NIV notes Peter "began to speak) which is indicative that what was to follow was of great significance. The great age of everlasting righteousness, foreseen by Isaiah and recounted in our Old Testament lesson this morning, Isaiah 61, in which the Messiah would at long last preach the good news to the poor and proclaim freedom for the captives and realize for the prisoners was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. And now, here stands Peter, in a room full of Gentiles, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, as the gospel spreads ever farther in the power of the Holy Spirit. Though anticipated by the prophets, Peter makes explicit, what was until this time a great mystery. "This is the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling you the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all."
As Peter begins to explain the gospel to his hearers, three things clearly emerge. First, there is a clear stress placed upon the fact that this is the message that God has sent. Thus it is God who has revealed these things to his people. He is the active party in this and Peter is one of those chosen to receive this message. Second, the gospel is proclaimed to Israel, its intended recipients. But the gospel is not only to be proclaimed to Israel, for the prophets have foretold that the gospel would go out to the nations--to the ends of the earth. And last, Peter emphasizes that this same gospel applies to the Gentiles, for Jesus Christ is Lord of All and God does not show favoritism.
This becomes clear in verses 37-43, as Peter begins to recount the events surrounding our Lord's life and death, making sure to add a bit more explanation about things of which they have no first hand knowledge. There is a striking parallel here between Peter's sermon--Luke is likely giving us a summary of a much longer message--and the basic pattern of Mark's Gospel. Like Mark's gospel, which Christian tradition has often assumed to be drawn largely from Peter himself, Peter begins with John the Baptist, moving on to describe our Lord's anointing with the Holy Spirit, then making reference to our Lord's activities in Galilee and Judea. Next Peter stresses our Lord's crucifixion, resurrection and the fact that eyewitnesses saw our Lord alive. Peter concludes by giving an eye-witness account that Jesus himself had commissioned Peter to preach the gospel, declaring that Jesus Christ "is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead." In fact, Peter is not alone in this, for "all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." For Peter, preaching the gospel is recounting what Jesus has done as well as contending that our Lord's resurrection is proof that his message is true, since he was in fact, a witness to it. He repeatedly attempts to demonstrate how Jesus is the one of whom the Old Testament prophets had spoken-- though here with a Gentile audience he appeals to no specific Old Testament text. Peter is clear that Jesus is the judge of all men and women, and that no one's sins will be forgiven, unless they believe in Jesus' name--that is, they trust that Jesus' death upon the cross is their only hope of heaven, and believing, know their sins are removed. But we miss an important point, if we fail to notice that here, Peter is quite intentional-- everyone who believes will be saved, even Gentiles not just Jews, if they trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
VI. As proof that the great missionary age of Christianity had begun, Luke recounts in verses 44-48, that as Peter was preaching to them, the Gentiles standing before him received the Holy Spirit and were subsequently baptized.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
During Peter's sermon, the blessed Holy Spirit, "came on all who heard the message," another clear instance of the Spirit working through the word. Missing in the NIV is the force of the original, in which Luke makes clear that the Spirit came upon them, while Peter was preaching that forgiveness of sins is "through the name" the of Jesus. Thus the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles in Caesarea, exactly as he had come upon the Jews gathered in the temple courtyard at Pentecost. Indeed one writer calls this account the Pentecost of the Gentile world.(5) The Jews with Peter were astonished! God has poured out his Spirit upon all flesh-- including the Gentiles. For, as the Spirit came upon them, Gentiles began to speak in tongues and praise God. And these Jews along with Peter were now witnesses to all those back in Jerusalem, that God had indeed intended to save the nations in the great messianic age which was even then beginning to dawn. Having received the Holy Spirit, Peter asks "can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?" And so Peter ordered all of them baptized in the name of Jesus.
But notice here that there is a reversal of sorts. Whereas in Acts 8 we have seen baptism occur prior to the reception of the Spirit, here we find that the Gentiles receive the Spirit prior to being baptized--a rather telling argument against baptismal regeneration, as though God rewards a human act by giving the gift of the new birth to those who meet certain conditions. In this case it is clear that baptism is a sign and seal of the prior gift of the Holy Spirit, so that the one who possesses the sign and seal of baptism, is assured of the reality of the thing signified, which is regeneration and the forgiveness of sins. Since the Gentiles receive the Spirit by God's sovereign act, how can Peter and the others refuse to apply to them the sign and seal of that reception, which is baptism. As we will see in coming week, Peter appeals to this fact when making his case to the other apostles in Jerusalem, that God has indeed accepted the Gentiles into his kingdom.
Amazingly, this section ends with a simple, easily overlooked comment which indicates the magnitude of what has just happened -- "Peter stayed with them for a few days." Peter had not only received Gentiles into his dwelling here he is, staying in the home of a Gentile soldier, an enemy of Israel. Much has changed--not only for Peter but for the whole of Christ's church. So much so that the apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 2:19 and following, "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit." Indeed we miss the whole point entirely if we think that this is merely about whether or not we can eat Bacon. For once the Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his family, we who were foreigners and aliens, are fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household. This is the message that God has sent first to the people of Israel and now to the very ends of the earth. This is the year of God's favor seen by Isaiah. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, Jew and Gentile, and there is now forgiveness of sins for everyone who believes in his name.
Blessed be the name of Lord, Amen!
1. Longenecker, Acts, p. 383.
2. Longenecker, Acts, p. 383.
3. See Ernest Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 362.
4. Longenecker, Acts, p. 387.
5. Recounted in Longenecker, Acts, p. 394.
Dr. Kim Riddlebarger is a graduate of California State University in Fullerton (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.) where he worked under Richard A. Muller. He is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches (URCNA), a regular contributor to many publications such as Modern Reformation and Table Talk, and has authored four books. He is the senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, and also co-hosts the White Horse Inn radio program.