John Stott summarises well the theme of this chapter when he writes, “The principle subject of this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the conversion of Peter.”1 Peter learned that grace trumps race. And I would suggest that many in the church of our day are in need of a similar conversion.
“Pride and racism are intolerable evils and must never be accepted by the church of God. All who are in Christ are one in Him, be they rich or poor, black or white, male or female, learned or unlearned. All true believers are brothers and sisters in Christ. In Christ there are no distinctions of race, sex, or social class and none should exist among us.”2 Peter was converted to this outlook. May his testimony be used to strengthen his brethren through this study (cf. Luke 22:32).
As a Jew, Peter was a product of his times and of his culture. One of the cultural sins from which he suffered was that of racism.3
Peter had been inculcated with the idea that Gentiles were dogs. He was raised with the Jewish prejudice that, when leaving Gentile territory, a faithful Jew would shake off the dust from his feet. A faithful Jew would not eat with a Gentile or have a Gentile in their home. A faithful Jew would not eat with utensils made by Gentiles unless they were first cleansed. Of course, the law of God did not prescribe any of this, but the self-righteous Judaist culture of New Testament times had done so.
Peter, no doubt, understood that Gentiles could become Christians, but he probably assumed that they would first have to become Jewish proselytes. In reality, he was raised to believe in a form of salvation by race plus grace.
In the chapter before us, Peter came to see that Gentiles could be saved in the same way as Jews—and that in fact they could be saved completely apart from any Jewishness. It is for this reason that Stott believes that this chapter is more about Peter’s conversion than Cornelius’.
Of course, we have already seen Gentile converts in Acts. In chapter 8, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch was converted through Philip’s witness. Significantly, however, he continued on his way to Ethiopia.
In this chapter, however, we have a case in which a Gentile was converted and then seen in fellowship with Jews. And what follows in chapter 11 is very much connected to the events here in Caesarea. There we see the recognition of the predominantly Jewish church that Gentiles are admitted—without first becoming Jewish!
We see in this chapter that “in God’s providence, the time had come to reconcile Jews and Gentiles in the church.”4 God’s grace is clearly demonstrated to be for Jew and Gentile. Grace in this chapter trumps race.
From the events that took place here, the pace of world evangelism picked up dramatically. In fact, soon a predominantly Gentile church would be sending out missionaries through which the world—including South Africa—would receive the gospel (see Acts 13).
Before we proceed, let me just say that, even today, the pace to reach all nations needs to quicken. There is still much ethnocentrism in the church at large, and this must be overcome by grace before we will hasten the pace to reach every race, tribe, kindred and tongue. May God use this chapter to encourage us to do so.
A Searching Gentile and a Saving God
This is a beautiful story of God’s amazing grace in saving a sinner and in sanctifying a saint. In this account we see the hand of God in the affairs of men for the purpose of redeeming them. It is a beautiful picture of sovereign grace.
The chapter opens with an introduction to one of God’s sheep from “another fold” (John 10:16).
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
We are encouraged here that God will do whatever it takes to bring into the fold everyone for whom Christ died. The account of Cornelius’ conversion clearly shows us this. What do we learn about Cornelius from this text?
Religious but Lost
We see, first of all, that, while devoutly religious, Cornelius was lost. Acts tells us that he was a “centurion.” Tacitus describes the qualifications of the centurion like this: “Centurions are desired not to be overbold and reckless so much as good leaders, of steady and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive to start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their posts.”5
As a centurion, Cornelius was captain over 100 soldiers in a cohort (regiment) of 600, which itself operated within a legion of 6,000. He was, further, a devout God-fearer. This simply means that he had left his pagan religion and to follow Yahweh, though without having proselytised to Judaism. As a result, he impacted his household for the true God, aided those in need and perhaps in a special way helped Jews (see v. 2—“the people”; v. 22). And he was one who prayed.
Longnecker sums up this man’s religious status well when he writes, “It seems that we must understand Cornelius to have been a Gentile who, having realized the bankruptcy of paganism, sought to worship a monotheistic God, practice a form of prayer, and lead a moral life, apart from any necessary association with Judaism.”6
Again, it would appear that he was not a full proselyte. That is, he had not been circumcised and so he was what was termed a “proselyte of the gate.” He had thoroughly embraced Judaism. He did, however, live up to the light that he had. And God was about to give Him a lot more light. God rewards those who seek Him!
Like most centurions in Scripture, Cornelius was apparently a very noble man. And yet, in spite of this nobility, he was lost. He was, as we know from the text, not far from the kingdom, but on the outside nonetheless.
Charles Erdman highlights a very important principle when he writes,
It is almost startling to note the character of the men who are described in The Acts as needing the salvation that can be found in Christ alone. This section of the book narrates three notable conversions: that of the Ethiopian prince, of Saul, and of Cornelius, but all of these were godly men; they were not only of irreproachable morality but they were zealously religious. Are such men lost? Is it absolutely necessary today for men of this character to experience a “new birth”? These narratives seem so to affirm, and they remind us of the words spoken by our Lord to the great teacher of Israel: “Ye must be born anew.”7
Lost but Loved
Though he was lost, Cornelius was loved by God. He was a sheep whom God intended to rescue.
The text makes reference to “the ninth hour,” which equates to 3:00 PM. This was considered the most important prayer hour of the day (see 3:1). Since he was a man who “prayed to God always,” we can assume that Cornelius was in prayer at “the ninth hour” when he “saw clearly in a vision an angel of God.” The angel bore an important message for Cornelius: “God will save you, but first you must hear the gospel” (v. 6; 11:14). The shadows had been fulfilled, and he now needed to embrace the substance.
Cornelius, the text informs us, lived in Caesarea, while Peter presently resided in Joppa. Interestingly, a recent Time magazine article relates an interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, which began in Or Akiva, the modern name for Joppa. The same article makes reference to the interviewer moving with Netanyahu from Or Akiva (Joppa) to Caesarea in the space of ten minutes.
In the Time article, Or Akiva is described as “a working-class town south of Haifa where chickens roam the dusty streets,” where people “worship Bibi [Netanyahu] and believe he is the only man who can lead Israel.” By contrast, Caesarea is described as “the ancient port city” where the interviewer attended “a party at the regal home of a movie-theater magnate, where young people wear the latest fashions and do not clamor around Bibi.”8
It seems like little has changed. Even in New Testament times Caesarea was a sprawling metropolis when compared to the far smaller and more rural Joppa. The major difference, of course, is that in New Testament times it would have taken far longer than ten minutes to travel from Joppa to Caesarea.
Given the instruction to send a delegate to Joppa to find Peter, Cornelius did not hesitate. One cannot help but contrast his far humbler attitude with that of Naaman in 2 Kings 5, who initially refused to bathe in the Jordan River to be cured from his leprosy. Cornelius was humbler and wiser!
There is a lesson here: When God seeks you, don’t hesitate! Cornelius immediately obeyed the angel and sent a delegation for Peter.
Cornelius sent “called two of his household servants and a devout soldier” to find Peter. The servants acted as his official representatives, while the soldier was sent along, no doubt, for the protection of the servants.
The Good Shepherd loves His sheep and searches for them. He calls them. Cornelius was seeking God. But, of course, he was only seeking because he was the one being sought! Those who are dead in their sins will never turn toward God until God first turns toward them. This is not to say that we should not exhort people to seek the Lord. By this means, we may be fulfilling God’s purpose in seeking them.
Don’t simply wait for God to begin obviously working in those lives for which you are responsible. Parents, teach your children to read the Bible, to memorise Scripture, to pray, and to do what is right. As you teach them these things, and as they seek God, you may find that God has been seeking them first!
Meanwhile, back in Joppa, Peter was still in the house of Simon the tanner.
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.” Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?” And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
Don’t miss the fact that Joppa was the same place to which, centuries earlier, another famous preacher, Jonah, sought to flee in disobedience to God’s Word. The Lord called Jonah to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in Nineveh but, refusing, he sought refuge in Joppa. Now, the Lord appeared to Peter in the very same city and gave him the very same commission.
In this case, however, as we well know, the outcome was very different. Prejudice needed to be overcome, but already there is some progress by virtue of the fact that Peter was staying with a tanner.
Righteous but Confused
Peter was clearly a righteous man, but he was still confused about some of the Lord’s unfolding revelation, as clearly seen in vv. 9-16.
The text informs us that Peter was on the roof of the house, spending time with God in prayer. There is much prayer being lifted to God in this text. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Lord chose this particular time to send His worker into the harvest (see Matthew 9:35-38). Do we pray fervently for gospel and mission opportunities?
There is a question that is implicit in the story before us. “Peter has responded boldly to the challenges of sickness and death; how will he respond to the challenge of racial and religious discrimination?”9
As Peter prayed on the roof of the house, “he became hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance.” Greek scholar A. T. Robertson suggests of the term “trance” that, “more exactly, ‘An ecstasy came upon him,’ in which trance he passed out of himself. . . . It is thus different from a vision.”10
While in this trance, Peter saw a sheet being lowered from heaven, crawling with all sorts of animals considered unclean under Mosaic law. When the Lord instructed him to eat, he initially refused. Again, Peter had been raised as a Jew, and as such he had never eaten anything deemed unclean by old covenant law. But here the Lord expressly abrogated that law.
Of course, the abrogation of the dietary laws was simply illustrative of a greater principle. Peter had always considered the animals on the sheet unclean, but God told him not to call that unclean which God Himself had cleansed. The real lesson, however, was that Peter must not call Gentiles, whom God intended to save, unclean. If God declared them clean by virtue of the cleansing blood of Christ, Peter dared not consider them unclean.
The shadows of the Mosaic law had been fulfilled in Christ, and the ethnocentric element of Judaism had therefore come to an end. After all, the Seed had been protected and had prevailed. Therefore, it was time for all nations to be discipled.
Robertson notes that, “in a real sense Peter was maintaining a pose of piety beyond the will of the Lord.”11 There is often nothing stronger than social custom. “This symbol of the sheet was to show Peter ultimately that the Gentiles could be saved without becoming Jews. At this moment he is in spiritual and intellectual turmoil.”11
Confused but Correctable
Peter was confused, to be sure, but he was not beyond correction. If the instruction to eat the formerly unclean animals had shocked him, what followed was even more startling.
In vv. 17-23 the Lord instructed Peter to leave Joppa and to travel to the house of a Gentile in order to preach the gospel to him. Once again, this went directly against the social custom with which Peter had been raised.
In New Testament times, Jewish social contact with Gentiles was strictly forbidden. Of course, there is nothing in the Old Testament that expressly forbids such contact, though wisdom dictated as little contact as possible in order to avoid the danger of idolatry. “It was imperative that Israel be kept separate from her idolatrous neighbours, and such restrictions would hinder social intercourse with them.”13 While this was certainly important, the Jews of New Testament times had taken the matter horribly overboard.
Peter, then, was being presented with something of a predicament. Everything inside of him no doubt screamed, as it had with the unclean animals, that he could not have contact with Cornelius. But he seems to have learned his lesson well, for while he initially objected to eating the unclean animals, he had no hesitation in travelling with Cornelius’ delegation back to Caesarea.
Just as Cornelius had been prepared for the encounter with Peter, so the Lord had prepared Peter for his encounter with Cornelius. We see this in the way in which he received these strangers. He was somewhat bewildered, but open to more light. Such is the Christian life.
Much of the Christian journey is a process of pieces falling into place. The word “wondered” in v. 17 speaks of being completely at a loss as to which road to take. Peter was confused as to the purpose of the vision he had received, but more light was immediately given, and the pieces fell into place.
Of course, God could have saved Cornelius in any number of ways. He could have used any of his servants to preach the gospel to the centurion. But His purpose dictated that Peter do so. “God . . . wanted Peter there to observe first-hand Cornelius’s salvation. Only then would he be fully prepared to accept Gentiles into the church.”14
A Fervent Pursuit and a Faithful Preacher
In vv. 24-43 we see the fervent zeal of Cornelius to hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we see a faithful preacher who proclaims that truth.
Hungry to Hear
First, we have the record of Peter meeting Cornelius, and we read of Cornelius’ determination to hear the Word proclaimed.
And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?” So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”
Verse 24 paints a wonderful scene of people anticipating the sermon (cf. Nehemiah 8). It is also quite evident that Cornelius, the unsaved seeker, was telling others about the possibility of being saved.
When Peter arrived and met Cornelius, he immediately declared to him the gospel. He evidently had learned his lesson from the earlier vision. He did not treat Cornelius as somehow beyond salvation, and did not require him to submit to Jewish rituals in order to experience God’s grace. Further, when Cornelius bowed to him he refused to receive any credit beyond what he was due. As Stott says, “Peter refused both to be treated by Cornelius as he were a god, and to treat Cornelius as if he were a dog.”15
Peter made an interesting claim in v. 28 when he said, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation.” You may wonder by whose law this action was deemed unlawful. Certainly there is nothing in the Old Testament that forbids such interaction. Evidently, even as an apostle, Peter was still influenced by unbiblical cultural mores.
We would do well to examine our own hearts in this regard. South Africa is infamous for its former apartheid policy, which was thoroughly unbiblical. Shortly after I moved to South Africa a man I met learned that I was a pastor. He immediately told me that he was also a Christian, and then informed me that the policy of his church was “no blacks.” When he asked what I thought of that I told him it was shameful.
I think, in stark contrast, of another man who was a member of our church until his death. In his later years he reflected on his own mistreatment of the black South African population with great shame.
Ethnocentrism in any form is shameful. Despite the cultural norms of his day, Peter had come to understand, and expressed, the biblical position: “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for” (vv. 28-29). Those who will reform according to God’s Word must be forever done with any form of ethnocentrism.
When Peter expressed his willingness to preach God’s Word to Cornelius and those who had gathered in his house, the response was one of eager expectancy (v. 33). The hungry had gathered to hear, as they always do.
Let me ask at this point, how hungry are you? True seekers (i.e. those being sought) will have an unquenchable thirst until their thirst is quenched with the water of life, and their hunger will be unsatisfied until they partake of the bread of life.
Happy to Herald
Having experienced a great transformation by the power of God’s Word, Peter was all too happy to share the gospel with those who had gathered to hear it.
Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”
Charles Erdman’s insight is very helpful as an introduction to this section: “The first great qualifications needed by Christian witnesses are a willingness to speak to anyone to whom they may be sent, and a sympathy so broad as to welcome as brothers believers of every race and nation.”16
Despite the claims of some interpreters, v. 34 does not contradict the doctrine of election; rather, it clarifies that election to salvation is without reference to anything external—including ethnicity. As Bengel says, “God’s attitude to people is not determined by external criteria, such as their appearance, race, nationality or class. . . . God is ‘not indifferent of religions but indifferent of nations.’”17
Our evangelistic and missions worldview must include all nations without distinction. I remember being told years ago by a pastor in the United States that he joined a particular church, and soon after joining went around the neighbourhood with one of his fellow pastors. They knocked on one particular door and a black man answered. They spoke for a while and then he invited the man to church. As they walked away, his fellow pastor informed him, “We don’t do that around here.” When he asked what that meant, he was told that they didn’t invite black people to their church.
The great irony in that account is that same church actually supported me as a missionary when I first came to Africa!
Peter had come to understand that no nationality was beyond the saving grace of God. “But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (v. 35). The phrase “accepted by Him” indicates that “a Gentile would not have become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Evidently Peter had not before perceived this fact.”18
There is no indication here that a person can earn his salvation; instead, “whoever fears Him and works righteousness” indicates signs that God is at work in his heart. It means that a person is “’marked by a favourable manifestation of divine pleasure.’ . . . When the heart hungers for God and for righteousness, it is the welcome time for salvation.”19
In other words, all those whom God is seeking will be saved and the fruit will be evident. Let’s not be pessimistic and unbelieving when someone shows signs of life. Do what you can do encourage the full birth of what may seem like birth pangs.
Notice that Jesus is said here to be “Lord of all.” We should understand “all” to be a reference to “all kinds of people.” That is, Jesus is not only the Prince of people for the Jews but for all the Israel of God.
In vv. 37-42 Peter recites the historical facts with respect to the public ministry of Christ as well as His crucifixion and resurrection, and includes reference to His ascension and return. I doubt that this was his entire sermon. More likely, this is Luke’s synopsis of the content of the message. There are at least two things worthwhile noting here.
First, Cornelius needed to have some blanks filled in. As a God-fearer he would have been somewhat familiar with the Old Testament. He needed to see that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled its foreshadowing.
Second, observe that, when preaching the gospel, the facts are essential! Our belief is rooted in historical events. It does matter—eternally—whether these events actually occurred.
Peter makes an interesting claim in v. 43 when he says that “all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” The truth is, it is not a simple thing to find where in the prophets this is mentioned. Howard Marshall perhaps sheds some light on this matter:
At first sight this is a strange statement. Prophecies of forgiveness by the Messiah are hard to find, and the allusion to “all the prophets” seems highly exaggerated (cf. Luke 24:27). The solution to the problem lies in two statements. Fist, in the Old Testament forgiveness is associated with the name of Yahweh, “the Lord.” It is the prerogative of God; those who seek the Lord find that he will abundantly pardon them (Isa. 55:65f). Second, the effect of the resurrection is that Jesus is exalted and receives the title of Lord (Acts 2:36). The conclusion is obvious: by virtue of his exaltation Jesus has received the prerogative of God the Lord to dispense forgiveness of sins (cf. perhaps Stephen’s prayer, Acts 7:60). What is asserted of God in “all the prophets” can now be asserted of the exalted Jesus.20
The key to Cornelius’ eventual belief appears to lie in v. 43. As Longnecker notes,
It was this reference to “everyone who believes in him” that seems to have broken through the traditional barrier between Jews and Gentiles and to have encouraged Cornelius and those in his house to be bold enough to think that they together with Jews could receive the blessings promised to Israel.21
Before leaving this point it must be noted that Peter himself seems to have had a bit of an epiphany while he was preaching. This apostle was growing in grace and knowledge. Oh, that we might as well!
Baptised Gentiles and Believing Jews
The chapter closes with the record of Cornelius’ conversion—and that of his household—and baptism.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
The apostle to the Jews was used of God to open the door irreversibly for the Gentiles. The middle wall of separation was being torn down, no longer stone by stone, but rather with the sovereign and gracious wrecking ball of the gospel.
Verses 44-46 record a spectacular manifestation of the genuineness of this conversion. What we have recorded here is really the Pentecost of the Gentile world. As at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out and the Gentile converts began to speak in tongues. This was further evidence that there was no distinction between believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
We should note that the Lord did not wait for Peter to give an altar call to save His people. It seems, in fact, that He saved them while Peter was still preaching! Wherever the Word is faithfully preached an invitation is extended to believe.
The crowd gather in Cornelius’ house was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (v. 45). The Jews in the house were “astonished” at the outpouring of the Spirit. It was now clear to all that Gentile believers were accepted by God in Christ in the same way that Jewish believers were—quite apart from the Mosaic rituals. But as Longnecker writes, “Undoubtedly the sign of tongues was given primarily for the sake of the Jewish believers right there in Cornelius’s house. But it was also given for Jerusalem believers.”22
No doubt word of this encounter would have travelled back to Jerusalem—in fact, at the mouth of Peter himself. If there was any question back in Jerusalem as to the status of Gentile believers, this report would effectively had wiped any doubts away. Alexander notes that this manifestation was “a type of the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, whose alienation had for ages been secured and symbolized by differences of language.”23
At Pentecost, Peter had assured his Jewish audience that God’s gospel promises were for them and for their children (Acts 2:38-39). It was not clear that those same gospel promises were also for the Gentiles and their children. Peter had faithfully used the keys entrusted to him (Matthew 16:19) and the pace of the Great Commission was about to pick up steam.
The key to the kingdom is the gospel of Jesus Christ. How faithful will we be with the key? Opportunities to use the keys abound; will we pick up the pace and faithfully preach the gospel to those in need of grace?
Finally, in vv. 47-48, we see the spiritual unity of Jewish and Gentile believers. In reality, unity was already a reality because of the gospel, but in these closing verses we find two practical evidences of this unity. Gentile believers were identified as “the real deal” by these two things.
First, there was baptism. Peter immediately recognised that baptism could not be withheld from Gentile converts, that it was, in fact, essential for these converts to be baptised. The fruit and evidence of the Spirit had been clearly manifested in their lives, and they could not therefore be refused admission to fellowship.
The question of when a convert should be baptised is one of some debate among believers and churches. Our own church is, admittedly, probably a little over-cautious. We want to see real evidence of faith in someone’s life before they are baptised, and such evidence is here present, but it is interesting that, throughout Acts, converts are generally baptised immediately upon their profession of faith.
The second evidence of unity was in brotherhood. Having been baptised, Cornelius and his household opened their home to Peter (v. 48). Peter entered into sweet fellowship with these Gentile converts. He still had a lot learn (see Galatians 2) but was well on his way to overcoming ethnocentrism by the grace of God in the gospel. He was happy to identify with these believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ.
“All barriers came down, as evidenced by Peter’s acceptance of an invitation to be a house guest for a few days. This implies the eating of food that was not kosher, and in fact it led to a change of misconduct when he returned to Jerusalem (11:3).”24 And not only that, but Peter was fellowshipping with a Roman soldier! He was fraternising with the oppressors! The gospel does strange things to our politics!
God’s grace, as is clear both from this chapter and subsequent history, is for every people group on the planet. The Great Commission is the means to reach them. Over the centuries this mission has ebbed and flowed in intensity. I think that we are placed very well for the pace to quicken again. Let us step up the pace both here at home as well as abroad. May God give us the grace to reach every race at a more deliberate pace.
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 186. ↩
- Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995). ↩
- Though “racism” is a legitimate English word, it is perhaps not the best term to define the sin that it describes. In point of fact, there is only one race—the human race—and “ethnocetricism” or “ethnic prejudice” would probably be more suitable terms to use. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 1:290. ↩
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 82. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:385. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 96. ↩
- Richard Stengel, “King Bibi,” Time magazine, 20 May 2012, 22. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 184. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:135. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:137. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:137. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:295. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:294. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 189. ↩
- Erdman, The Acts, 98. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 190. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:141. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:301. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 185. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:393. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:394-95. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 192. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 186. ↩