After a chapter describing the conversion of Saul (chapter 9), the account in Acts has returned to Peter and his work in following Jesus’ mission into the world. He healed a man and raised a woman from death in the name of Jesus and many turned to the Lord at that time.
The mission of Christ through the Holy Spirit continues to drive the narrative of the book and Peter remains in the narrative, staying in Joppa, a coastal town and Gentile populated.
- 1-8 – The vision for Cornelius – God has come to you
- 9-23 The vision for Peter – God has come to the Gentiles
- 24-48 Peter sees the Spirit delivered to Cornelius
- 11:1-18 Peter defends his decision to baptise the Gentiles
1-8 – The vision for Cornelius – God has come to you
Cornelius was a non-Jew. Living in Caesarea where Philip had reached back in Acts 8:40, he was the leader of an Italian army. If you could think of the gospel as a kind of plague (a very good and helpful plague) then it is spreading to the shores of the Mediteranean Sea and has the potential to travel to another continent.
But Cornelius is described as a “God-fearing” man. He loved his neighbour by giving generously to those in need and he loved God, demonstrated by his regular prayers. These are both received by God as a ‘memorial offering’. Psalm 20:3 describes God remembering the offerings offered to him. The same sense may be applied here – the Lord sees what the man has done and keeps it in mind.
One issue to grapple with here is the notion that God seems to be responding to the good religion of a man, while the doctrine of grace and sin tells us that we are all hopeless until God first approaches us. The man’s faith is quite basic – he showed love for other people as himself and he revered God. The wisdom books say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the man did not know Christ. He does not know God and how He has acted in this world for salvation – this is what will enrich the man’s life. Without the gospel, he is a man fumbling in the dark. With the gospel of Jesus, he can confess Him as Lord and receive the Holy Spirit.
The man received a vision from God and responds with immediate obedience. The main point of these verses (1-8) is that God blessed Cornelius – God called Cornelius – God has come to Cornelius.
9-23 The vision for Peter – God has come to the Gentiles
“As they were on their journey…” – the next stage of this narrative occurs while the servants of Cornelius were approaching. This means that God had not prepared Peter first and then sent for Cornelius. Rather, God called Cornelius for action knowing that Peter still needed to be prepared. God is confident about the outcome and is acting in the lives of two men in parallel. While He is working on moving the heart of one man to call Jesus Lord, he is working on the heart of another to call Jesus Lord of ALL!
“I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Dt 14:3-20; also Lev 11:4-8; 13-20; Eze 4:14). The description that Luke gives of the animals are not specific enough to conclude if they were actually unclean but the response from Peter and the point seems clear. Although Peter is preaching the new gospel of Jesus, he is still thinking like a Jew. This is not a bad thing. The New Testament unravels the ramifications of the gospel over time. Peter needs to learn something for the first time that we have been brought up to know.
“While Peter was still thinking about the vision…” – verse 17 and 19 both describe a long thought by Peter about this vision. The vision and message happened three times (v16), giving him time to soak it in and ponder what he saw. The timing is perfect for the visitors to arrive and teach Peter about the implications of the gospel to the whole world.
“The next day Peter started out with them…” – this will be the second day since Cornelius received the vision and a day after that (v24) Peter will arrive to give Cornelius life. These “third day” events are no coincidence. Cornelius is about to be reborn on the third day just as Saul received his sight again on the third day. We shouldn’t look for some application for us along the lines of only doing good on the third day or whatever, but we should observe what the bible is showing us – that these all occur as planned acts of God with echoes of Jesus’ resurrection – the very reason we can all be born again.
24-48 Peter sees the Spirit delivered to Cornelius
“Cornelius met [Peter] and fell at his feet in reverence.” – this helps us to see the primitive understanding that Cornelius has of God. When he falls at the feet of Peter, he treats him as a revered man rather than a simple servant of the Most High.
“Against the Law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” – These “laws” are reflected in Jn 4:9; 18:28 and Acts 11:3. Although the Old Testament did teach the people of Israel to have nothing to do with the foreigner, it also commends Israel for welcoming the stranger. It seems like the laws of the Jews had overlooked the spirit of the law. But this is why Peter needs to be taught to love the Gentiles rather than to do it naturally.
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favoritism…” – Peter begins a short speech here to clarify what this current passage is about – Peter has been taught that God does not show favoritism.
“But accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” This is a true gospel statement. God absolutely does accept people from every and any nation who fear him and does what is right. And what is right is to respond to Jesus with acceptance and repentance. So, Peter does the logical thing of inviting Cornelius to know Jesus. This is an important point: the ‘good man’, Cornelius, needs to know Jesus. Peter describes the gospel next and it’s worth bullet-pointing what elements he includes…
- God sent the good news to the people of Israel
- The good news is about peace through Jesus Christ
- Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
- Jesus ministered in the area of Judea.
- Jesus was baptised by John and commenced his mission.
- He healed and did good
- He worked against the power of the devil
- God was with him.
- The apostles are witnesses of all that Jesus did.
- Jesus was killed by the Jews on a cross
- But God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day
- Jesus was seen by the witnesses whom God chose to see him.
- These chosen witnesses were the disciples who ate and drank with Jesus after the resurrection.
- These disciples were commanded to preach and to testify that Jesus is the one God had appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
- The Old Testament prophets testified about this Jesus.
- They said that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
That is the gospel that Peter preached to Cornelius: God sent Jesus to the Jews. The Jews killed Jesus but God raised him from the dead. Chosen witnesses of God have been commanded to preach and testify in the same vein as the prophets: that all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. This is the same format Peter followed when he preached in Acts 2. That sermon occurred on the day that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all who believed. This sermon in Acts 10 occurred on the day that the Holy Spirit was given to Cornelius, a Gentile. Verses 44-46 are reminiscent of the day at Pentecost.
“baptised with water.” After the Holy Spirit had been clearly given (speaking in tongues was a clear sign to Peter and his company that the Spirit was given – it doesn’t follow that no gift of tongues shows no Spirit given), Peter had no reason to refuse the water ritual – a merely human act which invites people into the shared community of believers. This little passage helps us to have a sober view of baptism. It is overshadowed by the real transaction which is the giving of the Holy Spirit. It is still performed as a sign of unity in the faith.
11:1-18 Peter defends his decision to baptise the Gentiles
I won’t write about these verses. Peter clearly convinces his brothers in Jerusalem that God is inviting the Gentiles to eternal life with them. This will be a sticking point for many pages of the New Testament. It is a hard thing to grasp, that God loves the world and is saving sinners for eternity. While I am technically a Gentile, I catch myself sometimes wondering how God can love so and so or such and such. They are very brief thoughts but they hark back to my self-righteousness – this is not the gospel. We need to learn with Peter and the Jews that God does not show favouritism (James 2).
The one gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the same gospel across the globe. Across the globe, there is no other gospel.
- Know the gospel – it’s all about Jesus. Peter’s recital of the gospel was fluid yet full. Fluid because he didn’t stick to the same practiced words each time. Full because it was more than Jesus dying for sins. It was an ancient promise fulfilled by God that Jesus is Lord and eternal life can be found in his name. Do you know the gospel fluently? Confidently? Can you articulate it in your own words so that it makes sense and is true to the name of Jesus?
- A good man who loves his wife and kids and neighbourhood still needs to hear that Jesus is Lord. God saw that Cornelius was a good, God-fearing man, and he worked everything out so that he would hear the gospel.
- God does not show favouritism. Any race. Any mental state. Any gender. Any religion of origin. God desires all to hear and respond to the name of Jesus. How does this impact you? Do you shy away from some people and favour others? How can you work on that? How can we improve as a church in reaching everybody for the gospel?