We turn now to one of the great crisis chapters in the book of the Acts, which deals with the conversion of the first Gentiles. We have been following the ministry of Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. But our Lord had commissioned them to go to the uttermost parts of the earth. On a number of different occasions before He left them to go back to Heaven, he laid out His program for world evangelization. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” was part of His commission (Mark 16:15). Again He commanded them: “Go ye therefore, and [disciple] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Lastly He bade them begin at Jerusalem, then go to Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The amazing thing is that not only months, but years went by, before they carried out the last part of the program. So slowly may good men, even godly men, apprehend God’s plans and act in accordance with them. We do not read of any apostles going to the Gentiles with the gospel message until one of the Gentiles actually sent for Peter and asked him to come. That is the way God came in and rebuked the dilatory methods of these dear servants of His. Somebody might say, “The apostles were slow to understand His program.” There can be no question of it. In Galatians we find years afterward that the apostle Peter had to be withstood at Antioch because of his attitude toward Gentile Christians. The apostles were not infallible. Some say Peter was the first pope, but he himself made no such claim. He was a man of God, an apostle of Jesus Christ; but a man of like passions as ourselves, and was subject to the same mistakes and blunders. God had to reach out beyond Jewish limits, stirring the heart of a Roman soldier to get Peter to go to the Gentiles with the gospel.
Cornelius’s Vision (Acts 10:1-8)
In these verses Cornelius is introduced to us and we learn something of his spiritual condition and the command given to him. He was captain of a Roman cohort of a hundred men and was stationed in the city of Caesarea, not far from Joppa. He is described as a devout man, God fearing, and we are told all his family shared with him this fear of God. Many people have, I think, mistaken Cornelius’ condition. There can be no question that he was already a regenerated man; that is, born again, Of all unsaved men we read, “There is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11).
Although Cornelius had turned to God, he was not a proselyte to Israel. Had he actually become a proselyte to Israel, he would have been recognized as on the same ground as a Jew, but Peter spoke of him as one in whose house it was not lawful for a Jew to eat bread. So Cornelius was a pure Gentile, standing outside of the Jewish circle. But he had doubtless been influenced by what he had heard and seen in the testimony of his Jewish neighbors and had given up the idolatry of his fathers. That he had turned to God in repentance was very evident; he was born again.
More than this, we are told a little farther on that an angel of God appeared to him in a vision and said, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” That is significant in illustrating this man’s spiritual condition. In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews we read that without faith we cannot please God; therefore if this man pleased God and God accepted his prayers and almsgiving, it is evident he had already turned to Him. What was lacking? He was like other people who turned to God before Jesus came. He did not have the light and knowledge that came through God’s Son. He knew God as Creator and prayed to Him; the new nature manifested itself in his almsgiving. But he had no assurance of salvation, and he could not have it until he received definite word from God, for assurance comes by the Word of God. So the angel said, “Send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side.” The angel of God knew exactly where Peter lived. It is a good thing God knows where we are living. “He shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. And when the angel which spake unto Cornelius was departed, he called two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually; And.. .sent them to Joppa.”
Peter’s Preparation (Acts 10:9-18)
Before the servants of Cornelius reached the apostle, God had to break down his prejudices in order that he might be ready to go into a Gentile home to proclaim the gospel message. “On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew night unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour.” The flat roof of a house in the Middle East forms a good place where one may retire in order to be alone for quiet and meditation. Peter prayed so long he became hungry. In that condition he fell into a trance and saw a most remarkable vision: “He…saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners [by sheet is meant what we might call a vast tarpaulin of some kind], and let down to the earth.” It was a picture of the heavenly calling.
It was God’s way of showing Peter that He was going to give to all men the opportunity to enter into one blessed fellowship, to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. But in this sheet Peter saw all types of animals including four-footed domestic beasts, wild beasts, creeping things, and fowls of the air. The domestic animals would even include the ceremonially unclean hog. And creeping things, according to the Old Testament, were considered unclean. After hungry Peter looked on this heterogeneous collection of beasts and birds and creeping things, he heared a voice say, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.”
Peter, though a Christian, was still very punctilious as to clean and unclean food and he rebelled, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” Notice the contradiction implied in that expression, “Not so, Lord.” In one breath Peter acknowledged Him as “Lord” and in the same breath he refused to do as he was commanded. I wonder if some of us are like this. We know what His will is for our lives, we confess Him with our lips as Lord; but we draw back from full obedience and say, “Not so, Lord.” What a strange, incongruous thing this is! If He is not Lord of all. He is not Lord at all! And if He is Lord, it is not for us to say, “Not so,” but to give him wholehearted obedience. Peter thought he was being obedient to the express word of God, which in the old covenant forbad the eating of unclean animals. He did not yet realize he had passed completely out of one dispensation into another.
Our Lord Jesus Christ had said, “Whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats” (Mark 7:18-19). By this He did away with the ceremonial distinctions as to clean and unclean meats. So God answered Peter, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common [or unclean].” And in order that this might be impressed on his mind, the same vision was given to him three times and then the vessel with its strange company of beasts was received up into Heaven.
What a remarkable picture! It illustrates how God can now receive in grace all kinds of men and women. I have heard my mother tell that when my own dear father was dying, this passage was running through his mind and he kept repeating, “A great sheet and wild beasts, and—and—and…” He could not seem to remember the next word but went back and started over, and once more came to that same place. A friend bent over and whispered, “John, it says, “creeping things.’” “Oh, yes,” he said, “that is how I got in. Just a poor good-for-nothing creeping thing, but I got in—saved by grace.” No matter how low, vile or utterly useless and corrupt or unclean, the soul that trusts Jesus is in the sheet let down from Heaven and will have a place in glory by and by.
Peter meditated on this vision. God had to give him a special revelation to prepare him for his ministry to the Gentiles. He had to show him there is no longer any difference between Jew and Gentile. All stand on common ground before God; all have to be saved by grace. “While Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate, And called, and asked whether Simon, which was sur-named Peter, were lodged there.”
Peter’s Journey (Acts 10:19-33)
After the three men approached Peter with their request he did a most unprecedented thing for a Jew: he invited them in and gave them lodging. The day before he received the vision he might have thought these Gentile strangers utterly unfit to associate with. It is delightful to see the confidence with which he went on to carry out the Lord’s command and give the gospel message to a Gentile family.
When he reached the house of Cornelius a whole company of Gentiles eagerly waited to hear his message. Peter and the few Hebrew Christian friends who accompanied him were the first to proclaim the gospel to a strictly Gentile audience. As Peter came in, we get an idea of the spirit of Cornelius when we see this devout Roman soldier bowing down at the apostle’s feet. Think of it: A Gentile centurion, a Roman soldier, bowing down reverently before a Jew who had once been just a poor fisherman! It shows how grace was working in Cornelius. Peter reached out to him and said, “Stand up; I myself also am a man.” He meant, “I have no right to such reverence as this. Do not put me in a place that does not belong to me.” Would that those who profess to be his successors acted in the same way!
And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together. And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
Peter’s faith had laid hold of the import of the vision and he was ready, with confidence, to give the gospel to these Gentiles. What a delightful state of affairs, to find a whole company waiting eagerly for the Word! It was not necessary to advertise a meeting to be held in the house of Cornelius; everybody was there ahead of time, waiting for the preacher.
Peter’s Sermon (Acts 10:34-43)
I think it was easy for the preacher to preach that day with such an enthusiastic audience before him. “Then Peter opened his mouth.” I like that. If any young preachers are reading this, let me caution you—Don’t mumble! Open your mouth and give out the Word so people can hear.
“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” He had learned his lesson. He had learned that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call on Him, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. “But in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” That is, wherever a man is found, in all the world, who turns in repentance to God and takes the place of a lost sinner and trusts God for deliverance, He will make Himself responsible to give that man light enough to be saved.
Peter was the one sent to convey the message to Cornelius, “preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” That epitomizes the message of the gospel. Into a world torn by the effects of sin, trouble, distress, bloody warfare, grief, pain, sorrow, and death, God sends His messengers, “preaching peace by Jesus Christ.” When we trust that blessed Savior, we have peace with God; and when we learn to bring our daily troubles to Him, the peace of God keeps our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. This is the message the world needs today—peace through Jesus Christ.
“That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power
who went about doing good” (italics added). These last five words epitomize the life of Jesus. He has left us an example that we should follow in His steps. Let us never be content with a mere intellectual faith or the thought that we belong to this or that church, but be sure that ours is the faith which worketh by love. Let us too go about doing good.
“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree.” The Jews did not understand their actions and He Himself prayed for them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Let me say a word here. Because the Jewish people long ago had part in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, do be careful not to entertain the unworthy thought that we Gentiles have a right to blame them. The Lord prayed for them, for their forgiveness. The Gentiles were as guilty as the Jews. He prayed for them too. We need to remember that through Christ being immolated as the great sin offering, God is able to proclaim peace to all men everywhere who will trust in Him. God raised Him from the dead and that was God’s token of His satisfaction in the work His Son had accomplished, for Jesus “was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.”
Him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead (Acts 10:40-42).
Let us never forget that unless we know Christ here as Savior, someday we shall have to face Him as Judge.
Peter then came to the very climax of his message in one wonderful verse: “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” The word was so clear, the gospel was so plain, and it was all so simple, that Cornelius and his household understood what they heard.
The Effect of the Sermon (Acts 10:44-48)
Peter preached the word and, while he was preaching, Cornelius and all his household received the message in faith. Peter did not have to urge and plead and entreat. He preached the word and the whole congregation broke down. God, who reads the heart, saw that every one of them received and believed the message that Christ had died for them, and their sins were remitted. God set His seal on them by giving the same Pentecostal blessing that He had given at Jerusalem to His own blessed disciples. We are even told that they spoke in tongues. This is the second occasion when this strange gift was given, so far as the record goes, though the same things may have occurred in Samaria. We are not told they spoke there in tongues, but they may have done so.
Peter, when he saw the evident blessing of the Lord, turned to the little company of Hebrew Christians who had come down with him from Joppa and he said, as it were, “What shall we do about it?” God had received them and given evidence that all were forgiven. “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” I have heard people say sometimes that if you are baptized with the Holy Ghost you do not need to be baptized in water. It is not a question of what you need—it is a question of what God has commanded. So Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name, or by the authority, of the Lord Jesus.
They were so radiantly happy now that they asked him to stay with them for a while. I can just imagine what a delightful time they all had together as day after day people gathered around Peter and he opened up the Word. He told them more about God’s wonderful grace and led them into the marvelous truths of the gospel. Yet all the time in the back of Peter’s mind was the burning question-How am I ever going to square myself with the home assembly? How will I ever tell them? As we consider the next chapter we will see Peter’s presentation of the case to the brethren at Jerusalem.