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17. Peter is Called on the Carpet (Acts 11:1-18)

Introduction

Can you just hear these words from the brethren to Peter: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Those who regard Peter as a “pope” surely must agree that he does not command a great deal of respect from his “circumcised” brethren in Jerusalem on his return from Caesarea. In our text Luke portrays Peter as a man who is in “hot water,” who is being “called on the carpet” for evangelizing Gentiles. One can almost see these “circumcised saints” (they were believers, weren’t they?) standing at the gates of the city, with fire in their eyes and their hands on their hips, waiting for Peter to arrive. Can you imagine someone looking Peter squarely in the eye and greeting him with the words, “You have a lot of explaining to do!” I do not think many expected Peter to be able to talk his way out of this situation.

Peter himself had referred to his actions as illegal, at least as far as the Jewish interpretation and application of the Old Testament laws of ceremonial cleanness were concerned (Acts 10:28). It was a risky thing for Peter to accompany Gentiles to the house of a Gentile—and then to be their guest for several days.

Peter’s initial refusal to partake of anything “unclean” and his reluctance to have any fellowship with Gentiles is an important clue to the deep rift which existed between Jews and Gentiles, a rift which had a strong impact on the church. Peter’s change of mind and heart becomes a turning point for the church in Jerusalem in its attitudes and actions toward Gentile converts. We come in this lesson to the conclusion of the incident involving Peter and his Jewish companions and Cornelius and his Gentile companions. The Jerusalem saints confront Peter, hear his defense, and reach their conclusions. The importance of the decision reached here can hardly be overemphasized.

The Structure of the Passage

Our text falls rather neatly into three parts. In verses 1-3, Luke records the arrival of Peter in Jerusalem and the charge of misconduct leveled against him by his brethren. Verses 4-17 are Peter’s step-by-step account of how God had not directed him to the house of Cornelius, but how God had saved all those gathered, and had baptized them with His Spirit, concluding that he could do nothing other than to follow God’s lead. Verse 18 records the conclusion which Peter’s brethren reached pertaining to the salvation of the Gentiles. The structure of our text can thus be summarized:

  • Verses 1-3 The Charges Against Peter
  • Verses 4-17 Peter’s Explanation
  • Verse 18 The Church’s Agreement

A Historical Overview of the
Events Leading to this Incident

Before we turn to the confrontation of Peter by his Jewish brethren, let us pause to recall how Luke has brought us to this point in time in the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel. The Old Testament had much to say about the salvation which God was going to bring about, both for the nation Israel and for the “nations,” the Gentiles. The covenants of God, the rituals and ceremonies of Judaism, and the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets all spoke of a coming time of cleansing, of salvation, and of a coming day of wrath, after which God would restore fallen men and a defiled creation, bringing about the “kingdom of God.”

John the Baptist, as the last of the Old Testament prophets, introduced Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” At His baptism, Jesus was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit who descended upon Him, and at this time the Father also bore witness to His identity. Jesus presented Himself to His people as their Messiah, a thought which they immediately welcomed, until they came to realize that His kingdom was not the kind of kingdom they wanted. It was a kingdom for saved sinners. It was a kingdom which included the Gentiles. It was a kingdom of which He was King, in which He was preeminent. It was a kingdom where self-serving people were not going to be present.

Jesus ministered, providing healing and deliverance for many and thereby demonstrating that the power of the Holy Spirit was upon Him. Jesus taught, explaining the Law as the prophets of old had done, showing what God was trying to teach men through it. He also spoke of the coming kingdom of God which He was to establish by means of His two comings—the first to provide forgiveness of sins and to reconcile lost sinners to God, and the second to judge those sinners who have rejected Him and to rule the earth in justice.

Opposition to Jesus and His teaching continued to increase, culminating in His crucifixion, orchestrated by the religious leaders of the nation Israel, and with the consent and collaboration of Rome (the Gentiles). Jesus died, was buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead. He spent forty days, appearing to His disciples over this time, and even eating with them. He then commanded them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, after which they were to go forth to all nations, proclaiming the good news of the gospel and making disciples thereby of all the nations.

On the Day of Pentecost, when all of the apostles and a number of others were gathered together in one place, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, baptizing them and enduing them with power, which was manifested in their speaking in the foreign tongues of those who would gather to hear them. That day, thousands came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, as a result of the preaching of gospel and the outpouring of the Spirit. The gospel continued to be proclaimed, with many more coming to faith in Jesus, but with growing opposition from the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. When the apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s refusal to cease proclaiming Jesus as the Christ created a crisis. The advice of Gamaliel seemed to prevail, resulting in a “wait and see” approach on the part of the religious leaders. The emergence of Stephen as a powerful preacher once again brought the opposition to a point of explosion, resulting in the stoning of Stephen. Paul played a role in this execution.

A great persecution broke out against the church, causing the saints to scatter from the city of Jerusalem to the regions of Judea and Samaria (8:1ff.) as well as to more distant lands (11:19ff.). Luke has chosen to deal separately with these two evangelistic thrusts, taking the Judean and Samaritan campaign first. This fits the geographical scheme of the book laid out in Acts 1:8:

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The apostles responded to word that the Samaritans were being saved by sending Peter and John to Samaria, where they prayed for the new converts to receive the Holy Spirit. After they had finished their task, Peter and John set out for Jerusalem, preaching to many Samaritan villages as they went. Philip, on the other hand, was directed to the desert, where he was used in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. He then went on to Caesarea. Saul’s conversion is then reported, for he will be the driving force behind the evangelization of the Gentiles, just as he was in the persecution of the church and thus of Christ.

In Acts 10 we find Peter in Lydda and then in Joppa, where he stayed with a tanner named Simon who lived by the sea. It may be that Peter never made it back to Jerusalem, or he may have made this trip which brought him to Joppa after a return to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Peter is in Joppa when he receives his vision from God, informing him emphatically and repeatedly (three times) that what God had cleansed he was not to regard as unclean. The meaning and application to this vision soon became clear, as the three emissaries from the house of Cornelius arrived at the door to Peter’s house. The Spirit directed Peter to accompany these Gentiles and not to be “up tight” about doing so.

Upon his arrival, Peter found a large group of Gentiles gathered at the home of Cornelius, all waiting to hear the words which God was promised to speak through him, words which would inform them of what they must believe in order to be saved. Before Peter had even gotten warmed up, the Spirit fell upon all the Gentiles who had gathered. Peter had already given them the simple gospel, and they believed it. The Spirit fell upon them so that a kind of “second Pentecost” occurred. Since these folks were now saints, Peter commanded that those who had been baptized by the Spirit be baptized with water. As God had witness to their salvation (in their baptism of the Spirit) so they must bear witness in water baptism.

After a short stay with these saints, Peter headed home to Jerusalem. But Peter was not nearly as welcome in Jerusalem as he had been in Caesarea. There were a number of circumcised Jews who viewed Peter’s actions as a direct affront to Judaism and a sinful concession to the heathen Gentiles. Thus, when we come to chapter 11 we find this angry group confronting Peter, demanding an explanation for his actions. That is what Peter will give them.

The Charge Against Peter
(11:1-3)

Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”188

One can well imagine how word of Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius must have quickly reached Judea and Jerusalem. There was already much concern on the part of the Hellenistic Jews that Christianity was doing away with some of the “sacred” elements of Judaism, like the Temple and the Law of Moses (Acts 13). How much more would there be protest over the bringing of Gentiles into Judaism, and without circumcision!

But this opposition was not coming from unbelieving Jews who sought to protect Judaism from the influences of Christ and His apostles. This opposition came from none other than the saints.189 More than this, it appears to have come from the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, including Peter’s colleagues, the apostles.190 Reports began to reach their ears about what Peter had done and what had happened. Predictably, these reports were fragmentary accounts, for Peter’s full account would satisfy their concerns. The parts of the story which did reach the apostles and brethren must have been those which were of greatest concern. They had heard that the Gentiles had been saved, that they had received the word of God (verse 1). They had heard too that Peter had gone to them, and that he had actually eaten with them. They were shocked. They were amazed. They were angry. They were waiting for Peter, so to speak, with their hands on their hips, ready to scold him the moment of his return. In their minds, Peter had a lot of explaining to do, and there was little chance he could talk his way out of this blunder. He had gone too far.

The rendering of the New Jerusalem Bible aptly catches the tone of this anger and frustration with Peter:

The apostles and the brothers in Judaea heard that the pagans too had accepted the word of God, and when Peter came up to Jerusalem the Jews criticized him and said, “So you have been visiting the uncircumcised and eating with them, have you?” (Acts 11:1-3, New Jerusalem Bible).

Is it not amazing that there was no rejoicing over the salvation of these Gentiles, but only anger? Contrast this response of the apostles on hearing of the salvation of the household of Cornelius with that of Barnabas to the salvation of those at Antioch:

22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

We may also contrast the response of these brethren to the earlier actions of the apostles in response to the report of the salvation of many Samaritans:

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-15).

Why then this strong reaction to the conversion of Cornelius and those Gentiles who were gathered with him in his house? Let us pursue this question by looking closely at the characteristics of the opposition which are evident in our text:

(1) Those who opposed Peter were “circumcised” men, among whom may have been Peter’s fellow-apostles, as well as other believers.

(2) It was the salvation of these Gentiles that really angered the “circumcised saints.” The report that reached them, which made them mad according to verses 1 and 2, was that Gentiles had been saved as a result of Peter’s ministry. The principle concern seems to be that the gospel was preached to the Gentiles by Peter. The secondary matter seems to be that Peter “fellowshipped” with them. Thus, when Luke informs us of the conclusion which the brethren of Peter reached, it was that “God had granted the Gentiles, too, the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

(3) The “circumcised saints” are distressed, it seems, because these Gentiles were saved and received as brethren as Gentiles, rather than as proselytes.191 Judaism had always left room for a few “converts” to the faith by way of becoming a proselyte. But this meant that the “Gentile” was really no longer a “Gentile” at all, but a Jew, for becoming a proselyte meant circumcision and placing oneself under the Law of Moses. Gentiles were only accepted and acceptable to Jews as Jews, but never as Gentiles. Peter did not command that these Gentile believers be circumcised, but that they be baptized. They were received into the faith as Gentiles. Judaism tended to think that salvation came to Israel; but it resisted the fact that salvation was also to come to the world through Israel. God’s salvation was to come both to the Jews and through the Jews. In assuming ownership of God’s blessings, rather than stewardship of them, Israelites (even believing Jews) tended to think that salvation was for Jews alone, rather than “to the Jews first.” What a difference there was between God’s way and Israel’s way in this matter of salvation.

(4) It appears that there is a connection, a link, between the salvation of the Gentiles and the fellowship which Peter and the others had with them. There are two elements involved in the opposition of the “circumcised saints,” as I understand the text. First, that Gentiles were saved as Gentiles. Second, that Peter and the others ate192 with these Gentiles. What relationship do these two elements have to each other?

I have come to a tentative conclusion which I submit for your consideration. I think the Jewish Christians somehow had assumed ownership of the gospel, as though salvation belonged to the Jews but was not available to the Gentiles.193 They did not like the Gentiles, and thus they twisted the Old Testament laws concerning “clean” and “unclean” to justify their distance from the Gentiles as those who were unclean. Prejudice was thus practiced in the name of purity—something which still happens today.

The connection between these two elements is that the saints realized one thing, and that was that “what God cleansed, man must not regard as unclean.” The cleansing of which God spoke was the cleansing which Jesus accomplished on the cross of Calvary, the cleansing of sins, through the shedding of His blood. If a Gentile was saved, then a Gentile was also clean. And if a Gentile was clean, one could not refuse to fellowship with him. Salvation required fellowship. No wonder they were angry at the salvation of these Gentiles. They knew that salvation requires fellowship, and they did not want fellowship with Gentiles. The gospel removed any excuse for the Jews to regard themselves as superior to Gentiles and thus to justify their practice of segregation, all neatly explained as the observance of God’s laws pertaining to holiness.

As I understand the sequence of events which took place at the house of Cornelius, it went something like this. First, Peter went to the home of Cornelius and found a large group gathered there. He then talked with Cornelius and heard his account of the way God had led him to invite Peter to his house. Peter then preached the gospel, and the Holy Spirit baptized these new saints. Peter then commanded that they be baptized with water, as a testimony to their faith. Only after this was Peter invited to “stay on,” and thus he stayed with Gentiles and ate with them. But how could he have done otherwise? They were now saved. They had received the Spirit the same way that the apostles had at Pentecost? How then could Peter distinguish these saints from himself and refuse to eat with them? They were saved in the same way, by means of the same gospel, and baptized by the Spirit in the same way. Peter could no longer distinguish what God refused to distinguish.

(5) The apostles seem to be angry that Peter acted independently from them and their approval, and that he did what they would not have allowed, if consulted. Peter was an apostle, and thus his actions set a precedent, one which the “circumcised saints” did not like. Peter committed them to a course of action they thought was wrong.

(6) Peter’s actions were a kind of first-fruits of things of come, of the end of an era for Israel, and the beginning of the times of the Gentiles. This was a hard thing for a Jew to accept. Israel was to be put “on the shelf” for some time, because of her disobedience. It was one thing for the apostles to speak to their Jewish brethren, and to warn them of God’s judgment on Jerusalem and on them, but it was another to welcome the Gentiles as full brothers in the faith. Israel’s replacement was near, and the Jewish apostles were not all that excited about it.

There was a painful reality looking the apostles in the face. Israel’s time was nearly up. The times of the Gentiles (cf. Romans 11) were at hand. And not only was the nation Israel passing from the scene, with their leadership in “being a light to the Gentiles” ending, but the ministry of other men was about to eclipse the apostles as well. The leadership of the church in Jerusalem is moving into the hands of the elders (cf. 11:22, 30; 15:1-4). Men like Paul and Barnabas will be taking the lead in the evangelization of the world. The days of the apostles are numbered, and they seem to sense this, and to resist it (at least initially), to some degree.

(7) If Peter’s actions aroused his own brethren to anger and to action, one can expect that his actions also brought about a strong reaction from the unbelieving Jews, especially those of the Pharisee party. One wonders if Peter’s preaching to the Gentiles and accepting them as Christians, apart from circumcision, did not cause a great uproar among the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem. Was this not the same kind of opposition which Paul received in city after city, as he was followed and dogged by the Pharisaical Jews?

(8) The reaction of Peter’s brethren has much the same thrust and theology as the on-going opposition of the Judaizers, who are a part of the church, and who seek to bring it back under the practice of Judaism. Such are those who create the problem described in Acts 15, which resulted in the calling of the Jerusalem Council.

Peter’s Defense
(11:4-17)

4 But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6 and when I had fixed my gaze upon it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts194 and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7 “And I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Arise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 “But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 “But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10 “And this happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. 11 “And behold, at that moment three men appeared before the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 “And the Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings.195 And these six brethren196 also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 “And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa, and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14 and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’197 17 “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

Peter defended his actions by a detailed personal account of what had happened. Note some of the specifics of Peter’s defense:198

(1) Peter’s defense was based upon his experience,199 a full, sequential accounting of his experience.200

(2) Peter’s defense was based, in the final analysis, on what God had done and on the way God perceived the Gentiles.201 Peter’s conclusion was that he had to change his own point of view to God’s point of view, and to bring his own actions into alignment with God’s actions. He was compelled to see that God thought and acted differently than he, and it was he who must change, so as to bring himself into alignment with God.

(3) These are the essential elements of that which Peter learned from and about God in the incident concerning Cornelius:

  • God revealed to Peter that He had accomplished a cleansing, a cleansing which Peter (and the Jews) must also recognize, and thus cease from dealing with what God cleansed as though it were still unclean. The fact that this was repeated three times meant it was emphatic.
  • God commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, and Peter to go to the home of Cornelius, without reservation. By a clearly orchestrated, “networked” system of simultaneous guidance, God directed Cornelius to send for Peter, and, at the precise moment necessary, instructed Peter to go to his house without reservations. Peter was at the house of this Gentile, preaching to Gentiles, because God brought both Cornelius (and his guests) and Peter (with his six circumcised companions) together.
  • Cornelius and his household were saved, by believing in the same gospel he preached to the Jews.
  • The Holy Spirit dramatically bore witness to the salvation of these Gentiles by visibly baptizing them in the sight of Peter and the six Jewish onlookers, in just the same way as He had baptized Peter and the apostles at Pentecost.202 Peter shared with his brethren that seeing the Spirit fall upon the Gentiles, just as He had fallen upon the apostles at Pentecost, reminded him of the Lord’s promise of the Spirit’s baptism, as recorded by Luke in Acts 1:5.

The events surrounding the salvation of Cornelius and his household were all of God’s doing, to which Peter merely responded in obedience. God promised Cornelius salvation for him and his household, and they were saved. This salvation was the result of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and not a result of Peter’s persuasion. He was, indeed, interrupted by the descent of the Spirit. He was just beginning, and didn’t even have the chance to tell Cornelius how to be saved. Cornelius knew from what God had already revealed to him that he need only believe the words which Peter was to speak.

Peter ended his defense by pointing out the fact that the salvation of Cornelius and the other Gentiles was God’s doing:

“If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17).

For Peter to have done anything other than what he did would have been for him to stand in God’s way. Peter did not initiate anything, but rather responded to the clear directives and actions of God. Peter simply conformed to God’s way, obeying that which God had clearly revealed he must both think and do.

The Response of Peter’s Brethren
(11:18)

18 And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible catches the tone and the spirit of this matter, rendering verse 18 this way:

This account satisfied them, and they gave glory to God. “God” they said “can evidently grant even the pagans the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18, New Jerusalem Bible).

This one verse is vitally important, for it reveals to us what the real error was in the thinking of the Jews, and of Jewish Christians, too. It reveals to us what Peter’s fellow-apostles were really upset about. Take a look with me at what this one sentence says about the error of the apostles.

(1) The primary issue at stake here was the gospel, the salvation of Gentiles. The apostles’ conclusion does not mention food or eating. This was an important issue, and it would continue to be for the Jewish Christians, but it was not the central issue, for it is not mentioned in this statement.

(2) Fellowship (or food) was a subordinate matter to the gospel, and one’s practice in the matter of food was to be subject to the implications of the gospel. This is a lesson that Peter will forget, as we are told in Galatians chapter 2, but in his rebuke of Peter, Paul emphasizes that Peter’s error is a functional denial of the gospel.

(3) The apostles changed from grumbling to giving glory to God, from protesting against the actions of Peter to praising God. The prejudice of the Jewish saints kept them from rejoicing at the salvation of the Gentiles. Now, the grumbling subsides, and the Jerusalem circumcised saints give God the glory. Salvation is the Lord’s.

(4) The apostles now confessed as God’s purpose and grace the very thing which they had previously rejected: that God had granted salvation to the Gentiles, as Gentiles. This is not to say that they were only praising God that some Gentiles had been saved (something which should have been done, and wasn’t, at least initially), but that they had come to realize that God had purposed the salvation of the Gentiles as a group.203

Somehow even the apostles had retained the false conception that salvation belonged solely to the Jews. Salvation was for the Jews, but not for the Jews only. God’s purpose was to save the Jews and through them to reach the whole world. The Jews were not intended to be the “end” of God’s purposes, but the means. Because they failed in this stewardship, God would not only save the Gentiles, but He would use the Gentiles to save the world, and, finally, to bring the Jews back to Himself as well.

Conclusion

Our passage plays a crucial role in the Luke’s developing argument in the Book of Acts. It is now a matter of principle and of precedent that God has purposed to save the Gentiles. The fact that this truth was a frequent theme of Old Testament prophecy serves only to remind us of how “slow of heart” saints can be. Nevertheless, the truth is now out in the open, and in practical terms. The prejudice of the Jerusalem “circumcised saints” with regard to the Gentiles goes a long ways in explaining the refusal of other Jerusalem saints to preach the good news to Gentiles (Acts 11:19). And the precedent of Peter and Cornelius goes a long ways in explaining the response of the church at Jerusalem to news of the salvation of many in Antioch (11:22).

By implication, our text has a great deal to teach us. Allow me to conclude by suggesting some areas of application of this passage to our present day, as well as to these saints of old.

(1) The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church and in the life of the saint does not produce instant maturity, doctrinal accuracy, or spirituality. There are some who think that the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit instantly transforms one from a life of sin and failure to victory and spirituality. The Book of Acts strongly points in a different direction. We can see that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Then and there they were endued with power to proclaim the gospel. But they were not immediately delivered from their prejudice toward the Gentiles. They were not immediately in tune with God’s purpose and command that the gospel be preached to men of every nation. The slowness of heart of the saints, including the apostles, informs us that God does not instantly perfect His saints. That is why the process of sanctification is necessary. The Spirit of God works through processes as well as through immediate changes. We do well to remember this.

Going one step further, being “baptized by the Holy Spirit” is something which must happen to every believer, but it does Luke’s descriptions of “Spirit baptisms” in Acts should instruct us that it does not always happen at the same time, or in the same way. The visible baptisms are the exception, and not the rule. This is why Peter and his Jewish brethren were surprised by the Spirit’s falling upon these Gentiles, and why he had to refer back to his own Pentecost experience. The visible baptisms also seem to be more for the benefit of those witnessing the event than for the recipients of the baptism. The visible baptism of the Spirit served as undeniable proof of God’s salvation (cleansing), which the church was obliged to acknowledge and act upon.

Finally, we can see the difference between the “baptism of the Spirit” and “water baptism” from our text. Spirit baptism is the work of God, the proof and consequence (seldom visible) of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah. “Water baptism” is the believer’s public testimony to others of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. In some instances, water baptism came first; in others, Spirit baptism was first. Normally, the baptism of the Spirit happens (invisibly) at the point of salvation, and water baptism would shortly follow, as I understand the Scriptures as a whole.

(2) Our text points us to the gospel, its essence, and its necessary expressions. The central issue in the salvation of Cornelius is the gospel. If our text tells us anything it is that the gospel has priority. The gospel also has profound implications. If the gospel is God’s promise and God’s possession, then it is His to give, to whomever He chooses. The gospel was for sinners, Jew or Gentile. The gospel was God’s means of providing salvation for the whole world, and not just for the Jews. God’s salvation was for the Jews, but it was not for them exclusively. It was for them to accept and then to proclaim to the nations. Salvation was through the Jews, principally in that Jesus was a Jew, it was through this “seed of Abraham” (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:16) that salvation was made available for all mankind. Those who are saved have nothing to boast about, other than in Christ who saved them. And those who obtain salvation are to think of themselves as stewards of the gospel, with the responsibility and duty of sharing it with others. The grace of God which is evident in the gospel, is that grace which should characterize those who have obtained salvation through it. Thus, the saint should rejoice in the salvation of any sinner.

The gospel is not only the means which the Spirit of God uses to change men from sinners to saints, to bring men from darkness to light and from death to life; it is the means by which God changes men’s attitude toward others, removing prejudice and replacing it with genuine love. Said differently, the gospel is not only God’s provision for making peace between sinful men and a holy God, it is God’s means for making peace between hostile races. The gospel which brings peace with God also produces peace with men. This is spelled out by Paul in the second chapter of Ephesians. It is exemplified by Paul in many texts, but dramatically in Philippians chapter 1 and 1 Thessalonians chapter 2.

(3) The reluctance (or refusal) of the Jewish saints to preach the gospel to the Gentiles is strikingly similar to the reticence of saints today to carry the gospel to “sinners.” I think that we are just as selective in our evangelism as the Jewish saints were in their own day. The failure of the Jewish saints to evangelize the Gentiles was due, in part to their dislike of Gentiles, and in their reluctance to have fellowship and intimate contact with them. We are afraid that if we share the gospel with a heathen, we might have to accept that person into our fellowship, and even into the intimacy of our homes. It is a scary thought, isn’t it? To think that a drug addict or a homosexual or a pervert may profess Christ, would mean that we have no reason for keeping them at arm’s length.204 Those we want to keep away from are those whom the gospel might draw near. Why is it that we, like the disciples, are quick to tell our relative and friends about Jesus, and so slow to share Christ with those whose lifestyles we disdain?

Jesus told His listeners that when they gave a banquet, they should not invite their friends and relatives—those who could reciprocate—but rather the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:7-24). We should share our banquet, or food with those who are in greatest need, not with those with whom we would most like to associate, and who can best “meet our needs” in return. So, also, with the gospel. We cannot, we dare not discriminate with the gospel. It is not ours to withhold. It is not ours to hoard. It is for sinners, like us.

(4) Because the scope of gospel is universal, there is no biblical basis for categorically excluding any group or groups. I am aware of groups within Christianity who dogmatically believe that homosexuals, as a group, are excluded from the gospel because they have already fallen under God’s wrath. How is it, then, that Paul can refer to this group of sinners as those among other groups of sinners, all of which have had some plucked from their sin by faith in Jesus Christ, and specifically to speak of them as being “cleansed”?

Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

(5) Our text has much to say about the nature and the constituency of the church. The Lord chose to establish one church, not two. There must not be a Jewish church and a Gentile church, for this would deny the oneness which the gospel achieves. The divine nature of the church is evidenced by the fact that it is made up of those from all races, all social classes, all socio-economic groups. Sadly, this is not the way the church appears today. Indeed, the church growth movement seems to be suggesting that the most successful churches are those which acknowledge that “birds of a feather flock together,” thus advocating homogeneous congregations, churches made up of people who are alike. This is not consistent with the gospel. This may be a human dynamic, but it is not a biblical one. The gospel is such that it overcomes man’s differences and makes men one in spirit and truth. That which man cannot do, God does. The church is a miracle, for it brings men together as brothers who were born as enemies, and who would naturally continue to be enemies.

(6) In its simplest terms, holiness is being like God. Judaism (and other forms of legalism today) thought of holiness as being physically distant from “sinners.” It tended to think categorically—of Jews as saints and of Gentiles as sinners. Holiness, Peter learned, was not a matter of observing the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions, but of being cleansed from sin by the blood of Christ, and of being like God, in thought and deed. It is no surprise, then, that repentance and confession are fundamental elements of Christianity. Repentance acknowledges that we are sinners, opposed to God, who need forgiveness by God’s grace. And confession is “agreeing with God” in thought and deed.

How fascinating it is to read Peter’s two epistles, in the light of his experience with Cornelius. How much Peter spoke of holiness. How rooted Peter’s concept of holiness was in “being holy because God is holy” (1 Peter 1:16). How clear to Peter it was that Jesus was not only our example of holiness, but our standard of holiness. We are thus exhorted to act and think like Christ in this sinful world, and thus to be separate from sin (1 Peter 2:11-25).

May God apply the message of this text to our hearts and lives, by His grace and to His glory.


188 The rebuke of Peter by the his circumcised brethren (11:3) is likely based on the same “law” (or interpretation of it) as that to which Peter referred in Acts 10:28.

189 It seems reasonably clear that these “circumcised” opponents of Peter are true believers. This is based upon the assumption that the “circumcised” in verse 2 are the same group (or a smaller part of the group) mentioned in verse 1, the apostles and “the brethren who were throughout Judea.” It is this group of “circumcised brethren” who will conclude, in verse 18, that God has granted salvation also (in addition to themselves, as Jews) to the Gentiles.

190 Carter and Earle contend that the opposition to Peter’s actions came from a “circumcision party”:

“Upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter was met by a delegation of the anti-Gentile Jewish Christians. This was likely the Judaising party (Acts 15:1-5), which soon charged him with illegal association with Gentiles (vs. 3). These Jewish-Christian legalists did not attack the baptism of the Gentiles, perhaps because of the Lord’s command and God’s evident visitation of these Gentiles, but they made an acute issue of Peter’s breach of Jewish ceremonial law and custom . . .” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 153.

I think that it is just too early for this to be true. My question has to do with the apostles. The “apostles and brethren” heard that Cornelius and his household had come to faith. Where were they when Peter was accosted by this group, identified only as those who were “circumcised”? Were the apostles a part of this group? Were they somehow unaware of the accusations made against Peter? Or, were they standing by, keeping quiet, shuffling their feet? Or, worse yet, were they letting this group of the “circumcised” voice their own concerns and objections?

191 “It is clear that Christianity was accepted as a reformed Judaism, and not Judaism’s successor. . . Probably, too, as A. W. F. Blunt suggests, ‘such is human nature, they may have thought that such cases as that of Cornelius were likely to be few and exceptional, before the Return of Jesus took place, and that a minority of Gentiles on the circumference of the Church might be tolerated, especially as they might possibly in time go on to be circumcised through the influence of the Jewish majority.’ It required, indeed, a major readjustment of all thinking for a people, fiercely conscious of racial privilege and stirred anew by the thought that the Messiah of promise had appeared and spoken, readily to abandon the thought that a unique national destiny approached fulfillment.” E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company {photolithoprinted}, 1966), p. 97.

192 The matter of food did have a direct link to Gentile evangelism. Peter’s vision was about food. The levitical laws of clean and unclean had much to say about food. The decision reached at the Jerusalem Council had to do with food (cf. Acts 15:29, where three out of four prohibitions are food-related). So also in Galatians 2 Peter’s separation from the Gentile believers was related to food and eating with Gentiles.

193 In my opinion, this was one of the fundamental errors evident in the life and ministry of Jonah. Jonah was a picture of Israel, who thought that salvation belonged to the Jews, by virtue of the fact that they were Jews, and that salvation was inappropriate for Gentiles. No wonder Jonah was so mad at the salvation of this entire Gentile city! When, in Jonah 2:9, Jonah confessed, “salvation is of the Lord,” he meant (as the text should be understood), “salvation belongs to the Lord,” and thus it was God’s to give, and not Jonah’s to restrict. Jonah still didn’t like it, but at least he acknowledged that he was merely a steward of God’s grace, and not the possessor of it. It was not his to decide those on whom the grace of God should be poured out. And he was just as much the recipient of grace as they.

194 Wild beasts . . . is an added item, not mentioned in 10:12 (except KJV).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 153.

195 There is a textual question here, as pointed out by A. T. Robertson:

Making no distinction (meden diakrinanta). So Westcott and Hort (first aorist participle) instead of meden diakrinomenon ‘nothing doubting’ (present middle participle) like 10:20. The difference in voice shows the distinction in meaning.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 153.

196 This is a detail added here, but not specified in chapter 10. There we were only told that “some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.”

197 Notice that Peter sees a connection between “Spirit baptism” (as took place first for the household of Cornelius) and “water baptism” (which Peter saw as a logical necessity, after it was evident these folks were saved). It is also evident that they were saved before they were baptized. This certainly puts Acts 2:38 into perspective, showing that water baptism was not a requirement for salvation, but a necessary result of salvation. Speaking in tongues was God’s exceptional way of bearing witness to His salvation of certain people. Water baptism is viewed as the normal means by which men bear witness to their identification with Christ by faith.

198 Below is the evidence supporting the rightness of Peter’s actions, as outlined by Peter and summarized by Carter and Earle:

First, no sooner had the trance of divine origin been withdrawn than three men appeared from Caesarea inquiring for him in behalf of Cornelius, who had been instructed of God in a vision to send for him (vs. 11). Second, the Holy Spirit spoke directly to him, prompting him to accompany the messengers to Caesarea, and that without misgivings (vs. 12). Third, six Jewish Christian men accompanied Peter to Caesarea to testify to the divine leadings and approval in all the events (vs. 12). Fourth, by comparing notes with Cornelius, after arriving at Caesarea, Peter found that all the circumstances of the divine directions, both on his part and with Cornelius, perfectly corresponded. And fifth, he stated the object of the mission as being the salvation of Cornelius and his household (vs. 14), a most worthy mission indeed.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 154.

199 Note that Peter’s account begins with his experience, and not Cornelius’s, as in chapter 10.

200 Peter’s defense did not include a repetition of the gospel which he preached, for it was the same gospel that the apostles consistently preached, along with the others who bore witness to their faith. Notice that in the gospel presented by Peter in chapter 10, no mention was made of receiving the Holy Spirit or of Pentecost. Thus, one must conclude that a pentecostal experience was not seen as a requirement of salvation. How, then, can some insist that to be saved, one must have the experience of speaking in tongues?

201 A. T. Robertson aptly notes:

“It is noteworthy that Peter does not here repeat his sermon. ‘He rests his defence, not on what he said, but on what God did’ (Furneaux).” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 154.

202 There is a great deal of disagreement and debate over the phenomenon of tongues, as seen in our text, and its meaning. I would strongly differ with any who would attempt to argue that speaking in tongues is the normal and expected result of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. All who are saved have been baptized by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), but not all speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30). I understand that speaking in tongues is both a spiritual gift (which may occur in an on-going way), and an unusual visible evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in a very few, exceptional, cases in the Book of Acts, more for the benefit of those witnessing the event, perhaps, than for those experiencing it. This experience is a one-time event, which is not repetitive, for one is baptized with the Spirit but once (“one baptism,” 1 Corinthians 12:13). The fact that Peter and the others were amazed to see this baptism of the Spirit, and that they had to relate it back to the words of the Lord Jesus and their experience at Pentecost, is evidence to the fact that it was not the norm, but the exception. My grievance with some Pentecostals and Charismatics is that they attempt to make the exception the rule. My grievance with some non or anti-charismatics is that they seem hardly willing to accept the exceptions. For most Christians, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is unseen, but it is no less real. It is therefore a matter of faith (cf. Hebrews 11:1).

203 I do not know whether or not the apostles had gotten word of the salvation of the Ethiopian eunuch. I do think that they could have tolerated this conversion because it was but the conversion of one man. But it was not just Cornelius who heard the gospel from Peter’s lips, and it was not just this Gentile who was saved. A whole group of Gentiles heard the gospel, and all of them were saved. Here was reason for concern, the apostles reasoned. This was going too far.

204 I work in prison ministry, and I know that there are dangers which cannot be ignored. I know that there must be caution and wisdom. Nevertheless, there is also some element of risk. That is the very nature of faith. Faith in Christ is not free of danger, but it is freedom from fear.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Law