16. The Conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:36-48)
The way in which the Old Testament law had been twisted and distorted by Judaism, distortions that were held by the apostles as well as unbelieving Jews, was the focus of our last lesson. The revelation which Peter received in the vision from heaven was then a correction of an error in Peter’s theology.
But something changed, too. There was a dispensational difference. The message was short, but it signaled a difference: “What God has cleansed, is not to be unclean to you” (Acts 10:15, my translation). While all of the animals on the sheet which Peter saw may not have been unclean, some of them probably were. What had God cleansed? When and how did this cleansing take place? Let us begin at the beginning (of the Bible), and see how and why God changed the rules as to what men could eat.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, and a special garden in which He placed Adam and Eve, God gave man permission to eat only that which was from green plants:
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so (Genesis 1:29-30, NIV).
When the Lord God placed this couple in the Garden of Eden, He prohibited one fruit, on penalty of death—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17, NIV).
This one forbidden food (among the things which came from green plants) became the focus of Satan’s temptation. Notice how getting Eve, and then her husband Adam, to eat this forbidden fruit was Satan’s goal. Note too the frequency of the references to “eating” (and food) in Genesis 3:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” 4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” 20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:1-24, NIV).
Adam and Eve were given the freedom to eat of every green plant, with the exception of the one forbidden fruit. It would seem as though Eve supposed that the reason God prohibited this fruit was because it was “bad”—poison, perhaps. Satan sought to distort the situation so as to make God look bad for having forbidden it. It was when Eve perceived the fruit to be good—good to look at, good to eat, good to make one wise—that she came to believe Satan’s lie. How could a good God forbid them from what was good? A good God could prohibit a poison fruit, but not a delicious, edible fruit.176 And so she ate and then gave to her husband. The consequences were a loss of innocence and of fellowship with God. Satan got to “eat dust” and Adam to “eat bread produced by the sweat of his brow.”177
And so it was that in the beginning men were not given permission to eat any meat but only fruits and vegetables, with the one initial exception of the forbidden fruit, and then the consequential exception of the fruit of the tree of life, which would have enabled them to live forever.
The fall of this couple in the garden was the beginning of woes.178 Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4), and then the whole earth became corrupt, necessitating the flood (Genesis 6). When God gave Noah instructions concerning the number of animals to bring into the ark, God commanded that two of every unclean animal be brought “on board,” and that seven of every clean species be taken on:
18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive (Genesis 6:18-20, NIV).
1 The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3 and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.” 5 And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. 6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, 9 male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah (Genesis 7:1-9, NIV).
The purpose for the extra clean animals seems to be to provide animals which were to be used for sacrifices to God:
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done (Genesis 8:20-21, NIV).
As God accepted the sacrifice of Noah, He made a covenant with him never again to destroy every living thing (Genesis 8:20-22). Immediately after this, God changed the rules as to what men could eat. Now, man could not only eat that which was produced by green plants, but all animal flesh as well. The only requirement was that its blood must be drained from it:
3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it (Genesis 9:3-4, NIV).
It appears as though only the clean animals were acceptable for making a sacrifice to God. This would explain the necessity for more “clean” animals than for the “unclean.” As for men, they could eat “unclean” animals, it seems, until the time of the exodus and the Mosaic Covenant. It was at this time that the “unclean” animals were carefully distinguished from the “clean,” and only the clean were to be eaten by the Israelites:
43 Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. 44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. 45 I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. 46 “‘These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. 47 You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten’” (Leviticus 11:43-47, NIV).
The specific definitions of “clean” and “unclean” animals are provided in the rest of Leviticus 11 and are repeated in Deuteronomy 14. Interestingly enough, while the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions were to be observed by all the Israelites, these did not apply to the “aliens” among them:
20 But any winged creature that is clean you may eat. 21 Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21, NIV).
Israel was to distinguish between the “clean” and the “unclean” in the food that they ate, but true cleanness was a matter of the heart and of one’s obedience to the law of God, in spirit and in truth. When the nation Israel refused to obey God, they would be sent out of the land and intermingled with the Gentiles, where they would be forced to eat that which was unclean. This would be an evidence of their sin and of their divine discipline:
“Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.” Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:12-14, NIV).
1 Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor. 2 Threshing floors and winepresses will not feed the people; the new wine will fail them. 3 They will not remain in the Lord’s land; Ephraim will return to Egypt and eat unclean food in Assyria. 4 They will not pour out wine offerings to the Lord, nor will their sacrifices please him. Such sacrifices will be to them like the bread of mourners; all who eat them will be unclean. This food will be for themselves; it will not come into the temple of the Lord. 5 What will you do on the day of your appointed feasts, on the festival days of the Lord? 6 Even if they escape from destruction, Egypt will gather them, and Memphis will bury them. Their treasures of silver will be taken over by briers, and thorns will overrun their tents (Hosea 9:1-6, NIV).
As we saw in our last lesson, temporary cleansing was provided for in the sacrificial system. It was not the ceremonial uncleanness which ultimately defiled the people of God, but their own sin:
But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (Isaiah 59:2, NIV).
God provided a temporary solution for both the ceremonial uncleanness and the sins of the Israelites. The annual “day of atonement” (Leviticus 16) provided an annual cleansing of the sins of the nation. But the full and final cleansing was yet to come, that which would be brought about by the Messiah (e.g. Isaiah 4:2-6; Jeremiah 33:7-9; Ezekiel 33:22-38).
When Jesus came to the earth, He thus could be expected to speak with reference to the “clean” and the “unclean.” And so He did:
Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at table. And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you” (Luke 11:37-41).
“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” … And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:14b-15, 17-19).
In both these cases Jesus rebuked the externalism of the Pharisees, which looked to outside appearances and not to the heart (cf. Luke 16:15). And in both, He spoke of uncleanness as something which comes from within a man (from the heart) and which works itself out (external acts). Indeed, the Pharisees were not even so concerned with a man’s actions as with the cleanness of cups and eating utensils and with the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus, like the prophets before Him, pointed to man’s sin as the source of defilement, not dirt nor that which was ceremonially unclean.
Mark179 tells us that Jesus did even more than point to the heart as the source of sin and defilement. Mark says, parenthetically (as the translators render it), that Jesus declared all things clean. As I understand this statement, it was made after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The disciples undoubtedly did not understand that Jesus was pronouncing all things clean at the time Jesus spoke these words. But they did look back on this incident and see that He had pronounced all things clean. The actual cleansing took place at the cross, but the pronouncement was made before the cross (for only afterward would it be understood, and applied, and this incident with Peter in Acts 10 & 11 was probably the key factor in this). The cleansing which Christ accomplished at Calvary not only cleansed the sins of men but potentially all that sin had defiled:
11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant … It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence (Hebrews 9:11-15, 23-24 NIV).
Because the blood of Christ accomplished full and final cleansing, for the sins of all who would believe in Christ and for the entire creation, the need for the distinction of “clean” and “unclean” things, as required by the Mosaic Covenant, was no longer required. To this change the New Testament writers consistently bear witness:
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:13-23, NIV).
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:16-23, NIV).
To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted (Titus 1:15, NIV).
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. 10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:9-14, NIV).
This cleansing was not for Jews only; it was to include all whose heart was turned to God and who would proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah. Indeed, this cleansing was so complete that it would bring near to God those whom the law would have kept at a distance. And to this the prophet Isaiah (and the rest, Peter will tell his audience in Acts 10:43) bore witness:
3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:3-8, NIV).
1 “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ 2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations—3 a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; 4 who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat; 5 who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’ Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day. 6 “See, it stands written before me: I will not keep silent but will pay back in full; I will pay it back into their laps—7 both your sins and the sins of your fathers,” says the Lord. “Because they burned sacrifices on the mountains and defied me on the hills, I will measure into their laps the full payment for their former deeds” (Isaiah 65:1-7, NIV).
On the basis of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 56, is it any wonder that in the Book of Acts we would read in chapter 8 of the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, and that in chapter 10 we would hear of the conversion of a Gentile, Cornelius, a man whose worship God had found acceptable (cf. Acts 10:4)? Not at all! Indeed, we should expect to read what is recorded in Acts. And so we do.
The cleansing of which the prophets foretold, which Jesus both announced and accomplished, and of which Peter is forcefully reminded, is that which makes possible the menu of heaven in the eternal state. This is described in the last chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation. It is a description of the new Jerusalem, which descends from heaven:
And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. And the city has not need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads (Revelation 20:22–21:4).
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).180
From the above we may then suggest that the “menu” of what God taught was acceptable to eat was a clue to what God was trying to teach His people. When God put Adam and Eve on the earth, He gave them instructions as to what they could eat, and what they could not eat. When the Noahic Covenant was instituted (in Genesis 9), the rules changed, so that meat could now be eaten. And when the Mosaic Covenant was inaugurated, the distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” meats were defined. It should thus come as no surprise that with the institution of the New Covenant, the food laws should be changed again, to reflect the new covenant which was inaugurated. Indeed, the changing of the rules should cause us to look for a change. Jesus pronounced the change in His earthly ministry. He made provision for the change in His sacrificial death and resurrection. And He instituted the change by means of this incident with Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11.
All of this backdrop helps to explain the biblical and historical context of our passage. Peter was providentially led away from Jerusalem, first to Samaria (8:14-25), and then later to Lydda, and finally to Joppa. His willingness to touch the dead body of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-42) and to stay in the house of Simon the tanner (9:43) was evidence of a change in Peter’s practice, if not in his theology. But a thorough-going change of heart and mind required a divine revelation. Only this would suffice to convince him that he should accompany the three men to Caesarea to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile.
The revelation which Peter received informed him that the Lord Jesus had, in His sacrificial death, accomplished a cleansing, a cleansing which (as Jesus had earlier indicated in Mark 7) made obsolete the ceremonial food laws. If their observance was distorted by the added interpretations and prohibitions of Judaism, even the basic distinctions, as defined by God in the law, were now set aside. True cleansing was internal, a cleansing from sin. True cleansing came through the cross, not through ceremonial cleanness. And so these convictions, which Peter held to so strongly, must be set aside.
But the application of this revelation extended to people and not just to foods. Peter grasped through the revelation of the Holy Spirit (10:19-20) that he was not to call men unclean. And finally he grasped that he was not to let his concern for ceremonial cleanness keep him from association with Gentiles and from proclaiming Christ to them. The full thrust of the lesson is yet to be learned. Peter has been convinced to associate with these Gentiles and so to keep them overnight at Simon’s house. He has also become willing to go to the home of Cornelius. But he is not yet certain what he is to do, once he arrives. All he knows (so far as I can tell) is that he is to go to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, without reservations, and there to speak some word.
After the explanation offered by Cornelius (10:30-33), Peter realized that he was brought to this home (with a good sized group gathered) to speak whatever God had commanded him to say. (Only later, in 11:14, do we learn that Cornelius was assured that Peter would speak words by which this Gentile and his household would be saved). Peter realizes now that it was the gospel which he was to preach. This may seem obvious to us, but I believe it was indeed a revelation to Peter. Peter thus proceeded to proclaim the gospel, in its simplest terms. This gospel is recorded in verses 36-43.
“Proclaimed by Peter, Accepted by the Gentiles, and Witnessed to by the Spirit”
36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)—37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. 39 “And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 “God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 “Of Him all the prophets181 bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed,182 because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Recently a friend suggested to me that I attempt to summarize the gospel in a paragraph. It is a noble task and well worth the effort. Peter has done just that in the paragraph above. He has distilled the essence of the gospel in but a paragraph. What is it that one needs to know in order to be saved? Well, here it is. Let us look at the gospel as Peter has summed it up.
Characteristics of Peter’s Message
As we pause to consider Peter’s message as a whole, several important characteristics of this sermon should be noted and then kept in mind when interpreting and applying it:
(1) Peter is preaching the gospel. At the beginning of this episode, Peter seemed only to know that he was to go to the house of Cornelius and that he was to speak whatever God commanded him to say. But from Acts 11:14 we know that Cornelius was told that Peter would speak those words which would explain to him how he and those of his household could be saved. Peter’s words, recorded in Acts 10:36-43, are the gospel. We are assured of this because it was immediately after hearing these words that the Spirit fell upon those gathered as proof of their salvation. Peter’s words were the gospel.
(2) Peter is preaching the gospel to Gentiles. These were Gentile “God-fearers,” men and women who recognized that the Messiah and God’s salvation would come through Israel. But they were “uncircumcised men” (Acts 11:3) whom the Jewish believers felt were not an appropriate audience for Peter’s preaching, something which they will be sure to let Peter know about when he returns to Jerusalem.
(3) Much of the gospel Peter preached was material that was not new to his audience. Peter’s words, “you know” in verse 37, supplied again by the translators of the NASB in verse 38, indicate that some, perhaps much, of what Peter was saying was not new. The question which these Gentiles had183 was, “What must we (as Gentiles) do to be saved?” They had some knowledge of what the Jews in Jerusalem had seen and heard, but the gospel for the Gentiles was an uncertain thing.
(4) The gospel Peter was preaching was exactly the same message which was preached to the Jews. This is not a “Gentile version” of the gospel, but the “Jewish version” of it. Peter is repeating that gospel message which he had been preaching to Jews alone (Samaritans included here, as half-Jews). We shall later learn (in Galatians 2) that there is no separate gospel for Jews or Gentiles, but one gospel, by which all come to Christ. Peter was preaching the same message he had preached everywhere, but especially to the Jews in Jerusalem and to the Samaritans. There were no changes made for the Gentiles.184
(5) The gospel Peter preached was received before Peter had any chance to finish his sermon. I have marveled at the brevity of this message of Peter’s. How concise he was, I thought. And then I realized that this was only his introduction. Look at Peter’s words of explanation to his Jewish brethren as recorded in Acts 11:
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15).
Peter did not get to finish this sermon! This brief summary of the gospel was merely his introduction, merely his beginning place. He began by summarizing the gospel, much of which his audience knew. He seems to have been planning to go on from here, spelling out and explaining the points he had summarized as he developed his message. He never got that chance. Who knows what Peter would have said had he continued? But what he did say was enough. He summarized his gospel preaching as he had proclaimed the good news to the Jews, and that was all that the Gentiles needed to know and to believe in order to be saved. They heard Peter, they believed the message, they were saved, and thus the Spirit descended upon them.
The Gospel According to Peter (and all other apostles)
Noting the characteristics of Peter’s presentation of the gospel in a more general way, let us briefly look at the particulars of the gospel which Peter outlined.185
(1) The gospel is that which was promised to Israel by the Old Testament prophets, which was introduced by John the Baptist. The gospel that Peter preached was the “good news,” but it was not “new news.” It was the news that that which Old Testament personalities (like Joseph, Moses, and David), rituals and ceremonies (like the annual Day of Atonement—Leviticus 16) foreshadowed. It was the good news of which the prophets of old foretold. John the Baptist was, in essence, the “last of the old time prophets,” and thus it was both appropriate and necessary that he be the one to introduce Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. The gospel had its roots in the Old Testament and its fruits in the New Testament.
(2) The gospel is the good news of the person of Jesus, who was the promised Christ (Messiah), and who is Lord of all. Central to the gospel is the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the man, who was also the Son of God, the Christ. The gospel is the good news of the His coming, earthly ministry, death, burial, and resurrection. Without Christ, there is no gospel. Christ is central in the apostolic gospel.
(3) That Jesus is the Christ has the testimony of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, the witness of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the apostles. The certainty that Jesus was the Messiah was to be found in the many complimentary sources of testimony to Him and to His identity as Messiah, the Christ. All of the prophecies of the Old Testament pertaining to His first coming were precisely and fully fulfilled in Him (something which is evident in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, as found in Acts 2). John the Baptist also pointed to Him and proclaimed that He was the Son of God, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The deeds which Jesus did were proof of His identity (cf. Luke 4:16-21, citing here Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 7:19-23). The apostles too bore witness to His teaching, miracles, death and burial, and His resurrection. They ate and drank with Him after He had been raised from the dead (Acts 10:41). It was on the basis of His work, as well as His commission, that the apostles went out, preaching Christ “to the people” (Acts 10:42).186
(4) This same Jesus is coming again, this time to judge the whole world, including the living and those who have died. This Jesus was not only raised from the dead and is now being proclaimed as “Lord of all” by the apostles and the saints, but He is coming again. If Jesus’ first coming was not to judge or to condemn (cf. John 3:17; 8:11), His second coming will be for judgment and condemnation for all who have rejected His salvation:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds, to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:25-29).
(5) Everyone, Jew or Gentile, who believes in Him will be forgiven their sins and thus will be saved from divine wrath. If the “bad news” is that judgment has been given to the Lord Jesus, who is “Lord of all,” men need not suffer the wrath of God for their sins because the Judge is also the Savior and the Sacrifice. The “Judge” has been “judged” for our sins. He has died in the sinner’s place, bearing God’s wrath. All who acknowledge their sin and who trust in His sacrifice, His “cleansing” will be saved from the judgment (of unbelievers) which is to come. This was the promise of the Old Testament prophets, as Peter had preached in his first sermon (cf. Acts 2, especially verses 16-21 which refer to Joel 2:28-32).
(6) This salvation, which Jesus has provided, is available to all who would believe and not just to Jews. Peter said,
“… everyone who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).
The full implications of this have not yet hit Peter, and it is yet to impact the apostles and the church in Jerusalem, but Peter said it, and it was true. This is only that which the prophets themselves promised:
“AND IT SHALL BE, THAT EVERY ONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED” (Acts 2:21, citing Joel 2:32; cf. also Romans 10:13).
(7) The message of the gospel, its orientation and its emphasis, is not the same as the “gospel” which is so often preached today. The gospel which is proclaimed here by Peter is God-centered, not man centered. The emphasis is not on “what God can do for you,” but on who God is and what He will do to sinners who reject Him. It is that He is “Lord of all,” to whom all must bow the knee (cf. Philippians 2:9-10). It is a gospel which focuses on Christ, on man’s sin, and on the day of judgment to come, as well as on the cleansing and forgiveness of sins which He has accomplished at Calvary. It is a gospel which sounds almost “foreign” to the ears of contemporary Christians, who have often adapted the gospel to the point where it is hardly recognizable as a gospel, if indeed it is still the gospel.
(8) The gospel which Peter preached was all that was needed for Cornelius and his household to believe in order to be saved. All of the essentials of the gospel which Peter proclaimed were present, for the moment that Peter’s audience believed, the Spirit of God descended upon them, as proof of their salvation. There was nothing missing in this gospel. Nothing needed to be added. It was sufficient to be saved. Anything which we add to this gospel is not the gospel itself.
(9) The gospel which Peter preached produced exactly the same results as were described as taking place at Pentecost. I believe that those circumcised Jewish saints who accompanied Peter were also present at the first Pentecost, and that they are here giving testimony to the fact that another pentecost has taken place, or, as one writer has said,
“The event was not so much a second Pentecost, standing alongside the first, as the participation of Gentile believers in the experience of the first Pentecost.”187
The result was a further dimension of a truth which Peter was beginning to grasp, and that is that the gospel makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles.
(10) The gospel, when received, was followed by baptism and not by circumcision. Just as Peter had called for converts to bear testimony to their renunciation of Judaism (with its works-oriented righteousness) and their identification with Jesus as the Lord and as the Christ of God by baptism, so he ordered these saints to be baptized as soon as the Spirit had borne witness to their conversion. The Judaisers would require circumcision; the gospel requires baptism. One does not need to become identified with Judaism and the Law of Moses, but only to be identified with Christ, and with His death, burial, and resurrection on behalf of sinners.
As we come to the end of this chapter, we must realize that we are not yet at the end of the episode, which concludes in chapter 11. But we can come to some preliminary conclusions. Let me highlight some of these as we close this lesson.
(1) While the conversion which the gospel produces may, in some ways, produce instant changes, other changes come harder and over a longer period of time. When we are saved we move from darkness to light, from judgment to salvation, from death to life. But we must also note that even in the case of the apostles (Peter, in particular), his theology changed gradually, and some of his sins and prejudices lingered on for a long period of time—longer than we would like to admit. Salvation changes our status with God instantly, but it does not instantly eradicate all sin or error or prejudice. Peter is now an apostle, but he is not infallible, nor is he free from all of the errors of his past. So it is with us. God changes some things instantly, and others gradually (through the process of sanctification). Let us reckon with this reality in our own lives and also as we deal with others.
(2) God does not distinguish between Jews and Gentiles in the church. Jewishness and Gentileness is not an issue in the gospel. Gentiles do not have to become Jews or proselytes to become Christians. The gospel is the same, for Jews and Gentiles. Christians are Christians, and there should be no artificial distinctions such as, “Jewish Christian” and “Gentile Christian.”
(3) One of the great barriers to the proclamation of the gospel today, as in the days of the New Testament church, is racial prejudice. That was the problem with Israel, as personified in the prophet Jonah. That is still the problem today.
(4) If we are to be saved from the wrath of God on sinners, the gospel which Peter preached (along with all the rest of the apostles and the saints of all ages) is the only gospel by which we can and will be saved. This word from Peter to the household of Cornelius is the gospel. Any deviation from it is a deviation from the true gospel. Let us beware if our “gospel” differs from Peter’s gospel.
Have you received the gospel, my friend? Have you acknowledged your sin and the frightening reality that this Jesus whom we find in the gospels is going to return, to judge all who have rejected His gift of salvation? Have you received Him as Israel’s Messiah, and more importantly, as God’s Messiah, predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament, and witnessed to by the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the apostles? Have you come to believe that He died for your sins, and that He was raised from the dead for your justification? If so, God does not distinguish you from any other saint, of any other race or social status. But the one distinction God will make is the distinction between those who have trusted in His Son and those who have not. This is the most important distinction of all. Which are you, a forgiven sinner, who has trusted in Jesus as your Savior, or one who has rejected Jesus and who awaits divine wrath? I pray that you are, like Cornelius, a saint, saved by the blood of Jesus.
176 This same reasoning is still being applied to some of God’s prohibitions. It is applied to the “unclean” foods of the Mosaic Law. God forbade the “unclean” foods because they were bad for man, we are told by some. I think not. If they were bad for man, why would God later, in Genesis 9, allow man to eat all animals?
Another instance, in the New Testament, is God’s prohibition of women taking the leadership, in asking questions, in public speaking, in leading and teaching (1 Corinthians 14:34-36; 1 Timothy 2:9-15). “Why,” we are asked, “would God prohibit a woman from blessing the church with her teaching or leadership?” It is not that women have little to contribute. They have much to contribute, if they were allowed to speak and lead publicly. But there is no real test of a woman’s obedience to God unless what is prohibited is of value, just as the forbidden fruit was.
I can imagine Eve thinking something like this: “Just imagine, here is a wonderful tree, producing a delicious and nutritious fruit, but God has said that it must not be eaten. What a waste! It isn’t right for God to withhold from us that which would be such a blessing.” This logic is repeated day after day. Sex is a wonderful gift, but God restricts its use to the bounds of marriage. Some would say that if it is really a delight, it would be wrong to withhold it. But here is the test of obedience--doing what God says, at personal cost or loss, only because He has said so.
177 God cursed the ground on account of the sin of Adam and Eve. Is this one reason why the offering of Cain was rejected, because it was the fruit of the ground, the cursed ground. That which men could not eat, that which had not been given for man’s food, was fit for offering to God, and in the process provided clothing to cover man’s nakedness. Should Cain have reasoned thus, and so offered God an animal (blood) sacrifice? Perhaps so.
178 It is interesting to note that even in the beginning, sin is described as something coming forth from the heart, and not something merely external. Cf. Genesis 6:5-6; 8:21.
179 It is generally held that the source of Mark’s gospel account was Peter.
180 Notice that in heaven Jews and Gentiles are both present, but they are simply viewed as those whose robes have been washed, those who serve God. No emphasis is made on “Jews” per se, but there is emphasis on the fact that Gentiles are present, though without discrimination or distinction. And while the Gentiles are present in heaven, there is no unclean thing or person present. There is no longer any need to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” in heaven, for the unclean is excluded from heaven.
181 “We cannot be certain what prophecies Peter may have had in mind, but possible texts include Isaiah 33:24; 53:4-6, 11; Jeremiah 31:34; Daniel 9:24).” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 193.
182 “The amazement of the Jewish-Christian believers present with Peter at this Gentile Pentecost is due to the fact that the Jews held that the Divine Spirit could not be communicated to any Gentile, or be bestowed upon anyone who dwelt beyond the promised land.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 149.
183 Note that in 10:4 it is the “prayers” of Cornelius which are referred to as being acceptable to God, but in 10:31 the angel told Cornelius that his “prayer” (singular) had been heard. I believe Cornelius was aware of the coming of Jesus and of some of the gospel. I believe his prayer was a petition, asking God what he needed to know and to do to be saved. Peter’s coming to Cornelius was, to a great extent, for Peter’s benefit (and for the apostles as a whole), but it was also to inform Cornelius that the “gospel” which the Jews must believe to be saved was exactly the same “gospel” which he must believe to be saved. As a Gentile, he was not sure what differences there might be. There were, in fact, none.
184 With one exception. The Jews were accused of rejecting Jesus and of putting Him to death (with the collaboration of the Romans). The Gentiles are not accused of putting Jesus to death, though we know that they would have done so, if they had been in the sandals of those Jews who lived in Jerusalem.
185 “The main body of Peter’s speech (vss. 36-43) is strikingly parallel to the outline of Mark’s Gospel.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 146.
186 Up to this point, “the people” must almost exclusively be the “Jews,” including the Samaritans in this category.
187 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 216.