Defining a Christian Acts 10:23-48


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Acts 10: 23 – 48

We considered last time how the Lord brought Peter to an understanding that the church would now incorporate Gentiles as Gentiles, that is, that non-Jews who believed in Jesus would not have to become Jews to be Christians. We now proceed to see how Peter translated that understanding into ministry in a Gentile’s home.

Text Comment

v.24     The party of 10 – Peter, the three men who had come from Cornelius and the six Jewish brothers (11:12) – had set out northward on the coastal road to Caesarea. The journey would have taken nine or ten hours of actual walking, so it would have been the following day on which they reached their destination.

v.25     Cornelius’ action reveals his state of mind, his keen interest in knowing what Peter could tell him about God and salvation.

v.27     Like any truly believing and spiritually interested person, Cornelius was concerned not only that his own family hear what Peter would say but his friends also. What is important is that it is unlikely that all of these people were God-fearers, Jews in all but circumcision. Some of them were simply interested Gentiles and had little or no connection to a synagogue.

v.28     Peter, as we saw last time, would have agreed with that taboo just a few days before.

v.33     Cornelius knew that God would speak through him – as he said, he expected to hear from Peter the Word of God – but he did not know what God wanted him to know.

v.34     Peter began by reciting the lesson of the previous few days, the new realization to which the Lord had brought him and he put the point both negatively and positively.

v.37     Now, they would have known something, they would certainly have heard about Jesus of Nazareth. What they did not understand was how Jesus related to them. This is what Peter had come to tell them. Peter’s address to Cornelius was, in effect, what he had been preaching to the Jews. The message had not changed for a Gentile audience, but Cornelius had not yet heard it. Now what follows, from v. 37 to v. 43 is, as has long been noted, in effect an outline of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s Gospel, as you know, was really Peter’s Gospel. We are told that early and often by early Christian writers. Mark wrote it, but Peter was the source of its content and, for all we know, much of its wording. No one knows, of course, precisely how the Gospel was written; if, for example, Mark collated the account of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord, as he had heard that account given many times in Peter’s preaching and teaching or if Mark wrote the Gospel himself with Peter as his editor. Now no doubt Peter spoke at much greater length. What we have here is a precis of his address to Cornelius, his family, and his assembled friends. But as an outline it is uncannily like the outline of the Gospel of Mark. In other words, Mark, as we have it, was the story that Peter told, no doubt many times, as he preached Christ to others.

v.39     By referring to the Lord’s death on a tree, which isn’t the natural way of speaking about the cross, Peter skillfully drew attention to the theological significance of Christ’s death. Hanging on a tree was the fate of those who were punished for their crimes. Jesus’ death was the death of a sinner, the death of someone paying the penalty of sin, not his sin, of course, but ours.

v.41     Johann Albrecht Bengel, the brilliant German Lutheran commentator of the 18th century, comments on this verse: “his kingdom is a kingdom of faith, it must be spread by witnesses.” That is, it was necessary that the spread of the gospel happen in a way that was faithful to the gospel. The gospel is the offer of peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ and so it is faith that is required from the outset. Only a very few ever saw. Jesus could have showed himself to everyone, the Roman emperor included, but then his kingdom would be a kingdom of sight, not of faith. As to why Christ wanted faith from us and did not prove himself to the world, did not demonstrate visibly and incontrovertibly that he was Savior and Lord of all, all we can say is that real faith, real trust is what we also demand and expect of our friends and our loved ones. It is the glue of any true, genuine and happy personal relationship. Nothing that can be proved in the lab or with a photograph is of any real importance in personal relationships. Faith and love are, at the last, almost the same thing! It is also worth remembering that virtually everything of any importance that any human being knows, he knows because someone else told him it is so.

v.43     The message Peter was bringing had been, in fact, the message of the ancient prophets as well. This is fundamental to the outlook of the New Testament. The good news of Jesus Christ can be found throughout what we call the Old Testament. There it was reality based on the prospect, now it reality based on the retrospect, but it is the same reality.

v.45     Notice the “everyone,” that is both Gentiles and Jews, all people irrespective of race, ethnicity, nationality, language or any other way in which human beings are distinguished and divided from one another. They are alike here: sinners needing salvation, human beings who must face the judgment of God, forgiveness available for them all, but only through faith in Jesus Christ.

v.46     The baptism of the Holy Spirit was the divine confirmation that these people, believing in Jesus as they did, were accepted by God as his people even though they were Gentiles. The sins of these Gentiles had been forgiven as their own sins had been. The fact that the Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were astonished at what they were seeing explains why such a demonstration of divine approval was necessary. These people were being received as Christians without circumcision; that is, without becoming Jews first. That had never happened before; they were completely unused to the idea. So far, every Christian had already been circumcised before being baptized. Such would be the case no longer.

v.47     The fact that they were speaking in other languages was proof that the same divine acceptance had been granted to Cornelius and his company as had been given to the Jews on the day of Pentecost.

v.48     In other words, Christ had received these people, the Holy Spirit had descended upon these people with his baptism of power, and if God had received these folk, who are we to refuse to receive them? Water baptism, the sign of membership in the community of God’s people, the body of Christ, was then given to them. God himself had already baptized them, so the church obediently followed suit with the sacrament. As Jesus had said before leaving the earth, the apostles were to make disciples of all nations and baptize them. Well, here were obviously some new disciples, hence their baptism.

Having heard what they heard and having experienced what they had experienced, no wonder they wanted Peter to stay and tell them more!

The central question that must be answered by the church in every succeeding generation is simply this: who and what is a Christian?  What is it that distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian? What must be true of a person in order for God’s exceeding great and precious promises of salvation and eternal life to be fulfilled in his or her life? Don’t suppose that everyone knows the answer to that question, even in the Christian church, for the fact is very different answers have been given to it and are being given to it today.

There are many in a number of Christian churches who would answer that question by saying that a Christian is someone, anyone who has been baptized and belongs to a Christian church. And in a purely formal sense, that may be true. In one sense someone who belongs to the Christian church by baptism is a Christian. However, as the Bible makes emphatically clear, to be a Christian in that sense is not at all the same thing as being saved, or having one’s sins forgiven, or having an inheritance in heaven. That is, baptism, in and of itself, does not make anyone a Christian in the more important sense of the term. Or, the question might be answered nowadays in another way. People are also likely to say in our day and time that it is up to the individual man or woman to decide what it means for him or for her to be a Christian. After all, who are we to impose our definition on someone else? Indeed, in many segments of the church today, even in some that would describe themselves as evangelical, there is an unwillingness, a reticence, a hesitation to draw clear lines and make universal statements that apply to anyone and everyone all the time. That, of course, is not the invention of our own day; for a long time now there have been those who have been quite willing to let each and every person decide for himself or for herself what a Christian is. In a pamphlet entitled Who are Christians, published nearly a century ago, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool – just 20 years after J.C. Ryle, the champion of the biblical gospel, had been the bishop of that same diocese in Liverpoolput it this way:

“…no men of Christian life and goodwill [that was his way of saying “no nice people”] should be excluded from the fellowship ‘because they cannot express their faith in our terms.’ [Cited in Murray, 205-206]

He wished to exclude no one and there are many in the church today, especially the Western church, who agree that it is a mistake to insist on a single definition of a Christian. In fact, they find the whole question uninteresting. Their concern is not to distinguish Christians from non-Christians but to find ways of uniting Christians with the practitioners of other faiths and of no faith at all.

But, of course, what we want to know and what we need to know is not what you think or I think or someone else thinks a Christian is, but what God says a Christian is. As the Bible never tires of reminding us, one can be a Christian in one sense and not a Christian in every sense that genuinely matters for time and eternity. Or as Paul put it, “Not all Israel are Israel.” The brute fact is that a great deal of the Bible was written to combat unbelief in the church, among those supposed to be the people of God who thought themselves members of God’s people or, in our terminology, Christians. Those people didn’t think they were without God and without salvation, but God said they were. Their outward membership in the community of Israel and, later, their outward membership in the Christian church was no guarantee that they would live forever.

If it were the case that the Bible itself did not give a clear answer to the question: “What is a Christian?” we would have to tolerate a breadth of opinion on that subject. But if, in fact, that question is asked and answered in the Bible, clearly answered, repeatedly and emphatically answered, then we can know what a Christian is and we are responsible for thinking and acting accordingly. You see, knowing what a Christian is, we know who a Christian is, and who is not a Christian.

The fact is, some of the great turning points in the history of the Christian church have been moments when this question was pressed upon the consciousness of the church: precisely who and what is a Christian? The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was one such moment. The Great Awakening in the 18th century was another. In both times it had been generally assumed that virtually anyone and everyone was a Christian!

When the gospel was rediscovered in England during the Great Awakening, the lifeless churchmen who were confronted with the message of the New Testament powerfully preached by a new group of preachers were aghast. They took it as a matter of course that if a person were baptized, as virtually everyone was, he or she was a Christian. Indeed, for most of them, to be an Englishman or an English woman was the same thing as being a Christian. But then came George Whitefield and John Wesley, the great preachers of the Awakening, saying that it was not so, preaching the same message we find here in Peter’s address to Cornelius. One astonished hearer said to Wesley, “Sir, if this be Christianity, I never saw a Christian in my life.” For him, being a Christian was entirely a matter of going to church, if only occasionally, and not committing any serious crimes! An English bishop objected similarly:

“Why do you talk of the [recent] success of the gospel in England, which was a Christian country before you were born?”

Wesley replied,

“Was it indeed? Is it so at this day? … If men are not Christians until they are renewed after the image of Christ, and if the people of England, in general, are not so renewed, why do we [call them Christians]?” [Cited in Murray, 158]

An obvious question and one often raised in the Bible. The fact is, as in England in the 18th century, the church in first century Palestine was complacent in its Judaism. Every Jew thought himself or herself to be a member of God’s people, but as the Gospels make clear, most of its membership was unsaved. They may have been members of the covenant community in an outward sense, but they did not bear the marks of the genuine people of God. These people belonged to the community of God’s people but they lacked real knowledge of God themselves, the proof of which being that when the Son of God himself came among them, they didn’t recognize him and they rejected him. He told them that they were not right with God and they hated him for it. And so it has always been, the non-Christians in the church, those who think themselves Christians but who are not, despising those who actually are. So, said Whitefield of the situation in his own day, “In our days to be a true Christian is really to become a scandal.” [Journals, 32; cited in Murray, 169] What he meant was that everyone thought himself or herself a Christian and so was deeply offended to be told that to be a Christian in truth one must be what they were not and one must do what they did not.

So let me put the question once again: who and what is a Christian? One of the fascinating features of this passage is that it provides several different definitions of a Christian, or, better, several different parts of the definition of a Christian.

Peter gives us one part of the definition in v. 35. A true Christian, a true disciple, a true child of God, someone who has been accepted by God is “anyone who fears him and does what is right.” If you remember, this is the way Cornelius had been described when first we met him in 10:1-2. It is also what Peter said about him in v. 31. Cornelius was a devout man who feared the Lord and whose life was marked by good works. That made him a true child of God, a true disciple of Christ, a Christian in other words. Throughout the Word of God this is one way in which real believers are described: they are people who revere God – who take God’s majesty, power, wisdom, love, and mercy seriously – and who serve him in the world both by worship and by the care of others.

Peter gives us another part of the definition of a Christian in v. 43. A Christian is everyone who believes in Jesus and so receives the forgiveness of his or her sins. But what does that mean? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Well, Peter tells us. He had just given the assembly in Cornelius’ home an account of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah whose appearance was prophesied by the prophets of God, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest. More than that, he is Lord of all. He is the King of Kings. What is more, he is the judge of all the earth, the one who will weigh every human life in the balance. In his life and ministry he demonstrated his love and compassion for men and then he died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sin. After his death he rose again triumphant over both sin and death. It is through him, and him alone, that one can find peace with God and the forgiveness of sins. So, to believe in Jesus means that one believes that this is who Jesus is, that  this is what Jesus did, and that this is what he and he alone will give to those who trust in him.

To be a Christian means that a person really does believe all this about Jesus. “A confession of essential doctrines [is] the sine qua non of recognizable Christian identity,” [Packer, in Murray, 136] and the doctrines that must first and foremost be confessed from the heart are those concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. That explains why when Peter had to explain to his first Gentile congregation what the good news was all about, he gave them the contents of the Gospel of Mark.

Paul will later write that “God our Savior…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” [1 Tim. 2:4] To be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth about Jesus is the same thing in the Bible. There is such a thing as truth and the most important of all truth is the truth about Jesus Christ the Savior of the world. So Christian faith is at one and the same time intellectual and relational; it is both knowledge and personal commitment. That, in a nutshell, was Peter’s sermon that day in Cornelius’ house. Do you want to know about God, about eternal life, about your life in this world – what it means, how it ought to be lived –? Well, you must begin here with Jesus Christ, who he is and what he did. This was a day of long attention spans. And this was a subject of riveting interest to this group of people. I think we can safely assume that Peter went on for some hours filling in the short outline that we are given in vv. 34-43. It only takes an hour or so to read the Gospel of Mark.

But his subject from start to finish was Jesus Christ! Of course it was. It had to be. If the history Peter repeated to Cornelius really happened – the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (and Peter had seen it all with his own eyes!) – and if the good news of peace with God has been entrusted by God himself to his people to be spread throughout the world, then the relevance and authority of the Christian message is automatically established by the fact that it is true! Any other message about the meaning of life, any other offer of hope or salvation other than that to be found in Jesus, must be false on its face, because it contradicts what God has said and what God has done.

A Christian, in the crucial sense of the term, is therefore someone who knows that this history is true, that it actually happened and has accordingly committed his or her life to Jesus, that is, is counting on what he has done for his or her own eternal life and is intending to serve and honor him by doing his will. A Christian is someone who has, as Dr. J.I. Packer puts it, “a belief and behavior commitment to Jesus Christ.” Not one or the other, but both together; belief and behavior. [Taking God Seriously, 19] Whether we define a Christian by what he or she knows and believes – as in v. 43 – or by how that faith shapes his or her behavior – as in v. 35 – a Christian is someone who is personally, profoundly, and permanently committed to the person of Jesus.

We don’t, of course, presume to know the heart of another human being. We cannot judge whether a person who claims to believe in Jesus and to fear God really does so. We can’t even always tells whether a person’s way of life, his or her behavior, his or her good works, are actually the overflow of his or her reverence for God and love for him. Some whom we think of as Christians prove not to be. We know that. It is not ours to judge. But we do know what a Christian is. We know who and what a Christian is. And we can explain that definition to others, as Peter did, and, more to the point, we can apply that definition to ourselves and judge ourselves by it. We may not know anyone else’s heart, but we know our own, if only we will be honest with ourselves. Do you and I fear God and do we do what is right and do we believe – really believe – in Jesus Christ? Peter did; Cornelius did; do you?

“The health of the church has always been in proportion to the extent to which, in her teaching, the difference between Christian and non-Christian has been kept sharp and clear. Once the line is blurred spiritual decline is a certainty…” [I. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 296]

In a day when the church was in terrible decline because the line between a Christian and a non-Christian had been virtually erased, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s friend and associate, wrote:

“If a man know nothing of the power of sin, of law, or of grace, I do not see how I can call him a Christian. It is there that Christ is truly known. The knowledge of Christ is to know his benefits, taste his salvation, and experience his grace…. If you do not know the practical purpose for which he took flesh and went to the cross what is the good of knowing his story? … He is given us as our remedy, or, in the Bible’s phrase, our salvation. … How often Paul declared to his believers that he prays for them a rich knowledge of Christ. He foresaw that we should one day leave the saving themes and turn our minds to discussions cold and foreign to Christ.” [Cited in Murray, 155-156]

Well, “discussions cold and foreign to Christ” sums up a great deal of what is being thought about and talked about even in the church in our time, at least the church in the western world.

But it was not so that day in Cornelius’ home. Those happy folk were brought face to face with the happy news of eternal life and with the only tremendously satisfying explanation of the meaning of life. All because they were introduced to the one person who could grant sinful human beings peace with God and in whose service human life finds its true fulfillment. Becoming a Christian is not simply to change one’s religious opinions. It is to be overtaken by a new understanding of reality and by acquaintance with the God/Man himself, Jesus Christ.

As John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, put it in one of his poems:

What think you of Christ? is the test,

To try both your state and your scheme;

You cannot be right in the rest

Unless you think rightly of him.

As Jesus appears in your view,

As he is believed or not;

So God is disposed to you

And mercy or wrath is your lot.

What is a Christian? A person whose whole life is dominated by a commitment to Jesus, the Savior of the world and the King of Kings. Amen.