The report of the phenomenal events recounted in chapter 10 had spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish Christian community. That is more evidence of how unprepared the Christian community – at this point entirely Jewish – was for this dramatic change, that Gentiles would belong to the church as Gentiles. This was news! And it was not greeted with pleasure by everyone. The most conservative element of the Jewish Christian church was displeased. At least that is what the phrase “circumcision party” seems to mean. “Circumcision party” is the ESV’s translation of the phrase “those of the circumcision.” It could conceivably refer to all Jews, but if so, the phrase seems hardly necessary since every Christian was at this point “of the circumcision” in that sense. What is more, Paul uses the same phrase clearly to describe people of a fiercely and exclusively Jewish commitment in Gal. 2:12. The criticism of these folk led to a public gathering at which Peter explained in detail precisely what had transpired and what it meant.
That we are given the whole story twice, first in chapter 10 and then again in chapter 11, is proof of the importance of this history. Luke, remember, had a very primitive word processor, something like Word 1.0. He had no italics type, no way to put certain sentences in bold type, or to capitalize a word or phrase. Emphasis was primarily achieved by repetition. Why the emphasis? In the first place, the full freedom of Christian Gentiles from the ceremonial requirements of the Law of Moses – and especially those laws as they had been recently interpreted and expanded by the rabbis – would prove to be the great issue and controversy of first century Christianity, leaving its mark on virtually every page of the New Testament. When he wrote Acts Luke knew very well how divisive this issue had been and still was. In the second place, it is not too much to say that Luke’s destiny, yours and mine, and that of the entire world hung in the balance in that meeting in Jerusalem. Was the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ going to overspread the world or not? Was the gospel going to be hampered by its attachment to Judaism or was it to be set free to make its way to the four corners of the earth unencumbered by what would have been for almost everyone some strange customs difficult to adapt to?
v.3 There can be no doubt about the issue: Cornelius, though a God-fearer, was not a Jew in the ways that mattered most, circumcision and the observance of the food laws. That made close contact with him, such as would happen at a meal, a violation of the laws of purity, at least as the rabbis had interpreted those laws. Peter, of course, would have had no difficulty understanding the objection that these folk were raising. He would have raised it himself just days before. So Peter explained precisely how he came to do what he had done against the whole weight of his former habit: to enjoy fellowship with Gentiles in their home and to welcome them as fellow Christians.
I have not yet mentioned the fact in these sermons that, among the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, there is a comparatively early text of the book of Acts – scholars refer to it as the “Western” text – that is considerably longer than the text accepted as the most reliable, the text that serves as the basis of the English translation of Acts that you have in your hands this morning. Indeed, the Western text of Acts is fully a sixth again longer than the text that underlies your English bibles. In some cases it is thought to conserve some historical information of interest, but, more often than not, its additions seem clearly to result from a scribe’s effort either to provide an explanation or to resolve a possible misunderstanding. The Western text of the book of Acts, for example, considerably expands our verse 2 to avoid the impression that Peter had to break off his missionary work in order to defend himself against criticism being voiced in Jerusalem. It reads that Peter had wanted to get back to Jerusalem for some time and returned there only after spending time strengthening the brethren throughout that part of Palestine. He returned to Jerusalem to tell the brothers there what the grace of God was accomplishing elsewhere. Only then did he have a dispute with the members of the circumcision party. The Western text exhibits a tendency to avoid anything that seems to put Peter in a bad light or in any way undermine his authority. But it seems clear that, in fact, there was a sense in which Peter was called on the carpet and compelled to justify himself. His authority was not absolute and his decisions were not above being questioned.
In any case, in defense of what he had done, Peter simply recounted what had happened. He tells the story from his own perspective, so he does not start with the vision to Cornelius, the first thing to have happened in chapter 10, but with the vision that he had himself been given.
v.8 Peter disarmingly admits that he had been of precisely the same mind as those who were now criticizing his actions.
v.11 The “at that very moment” highlights the impressive way divine providence forced upon Peter the recognition that God himself was making an important point!
v.12 It was obviously important that Peter was not the only witness of the events now to be described. Six other Jewish Christian men were there and had heard and seen everything in Cornelius’ home. Seven men telling the same story meant, at the very least, that the facts were not in dispute, however much the interpretation of them might continue to be.
v.17 In other words, this was the Gentile Pentecost. Only the Spirit of God could do what he did and the fact that he did it to and for these Gentiles settled the issue. It is the Spirit of God who will now define the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom and those boundaries will no longer separate Jew and Gentile as before they did. The implied warning is that these Jewish Christians who were suspicious of what Peter had done must take care not to find themselves opposing God’s plan and purpose. [Peterson, 348]
v.18 It appears at this point that the entire church happily acquiesced in this development and that the full inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian church was now assured. We will learn, of course, that not everyone was persuaded – certainly not everyone was at this meeting – and controversy on this point would dog the church for years to come. Such is the power of long-observed customs to produce deep-seated prejudice.
What we have in these 18 verses is an account of Peter bearing witness. Something remarkable had happened. Something quite unexpected had happened, but something so dramatic, so obviously the work of God that it required a fundamental readjustment of Peter’s worldview. What had happened was obviously not for Peter alone. A great turning point had been reached in the history of redemption, in the history of the salvation of the world. So Peter had to tell others what God had said and what God had done. That is what a witness does; he tells others what he himself had seen and heard.
Up to this point Peter had simply assumed, being the Jew that he was, knowing the history of the kingdom of God as he did, seeing the work of the Spirit among the Jews as he had, that this would be the way the gospel would continue to advance. He certainly knew that he was to evangelize Gentiles. The Lord had told his disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. He knew Gentiles would be added to the body of believers in Jesus. But he had assumed that as Gentiles became believers in Jesus they would be both circumcised and baptized and begin to live as Jews. That is what every Christian so far had done, at least so far as we know. Also so far as we know, The Lord Jesus had never explained to his disciples that the distinction between Jew and Gentile was going to be abolished as a condition of the gospel’s advance into the Gentile world. He had never said in so many words that the most distinctive features of Jewish life and behavior – in particular, circumcision, the distinction between clean and unclean foods, the Saturday Sabbath – were not to be required of Gentile believers.
I do not know, no one knows why the Lord had not himself prepared the ground. It is easy to think that had he done so the transition would have proved easier than in fact it turned out to be. Perhaps this was a communication that had been entrusted to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the implications of this change were so significant that the church needed to struggle through the crisis over Christian identity, so that every succeeding generation of believers would understand what the gospel is and what it is not. In any case, God did make it perfectly clear, by the events recorded in Acts 10 and repeated by Peter in his witness to those events in Acts 11, that no longer was it necessary to become a Jew in order to be right with God.
What we learn here is that what really should distinguish a child of God was not ethnicity or even certain customs of worship and devotion, but something deeper, more fundamental, something a Gentile could have just as well as a Jew. If you and I should be experts on any subject, it should be the subject of what makes a person a Christian; what is the deciding factor in salvation. And this chapter is a sophisticated lesson in just that subject!
I said last week that what the gospel requires is a faith and behavior commitment to Jesus Christ. I also said that Cornelius seems to have been a believing man prior to his meeting Peter and hearing from Peter an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To call a man “a devout man who feared God with all his household,” to say of a man that God had heard his prayer and that his alms were remembered before God, to say that he was a man who did what is right, and to witness Cornelius’ enthusiasm at Peter’s arrival and his eager readiness to hear what Peter had to say, suggests to me that Cornelius was a believer in the same way that Zechariah and Elizabeth or Joseph and Mary or Simeon and Anna were believers even before the Lord Jesus appeared. Yahweh was their God and they were Yahweh’s people. They loved and trusted the Lord even though they, as yet, did not know how the prophets’ great promises of redemption were to be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the language of the OT Cornelius was a man “who called on the name of the Lord” and so was saved. We are told in the Old Testament on more than one occasion that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved and Paul uses that same phrase in Romans 10 to describe faith in Jesus Christ.
Now don’t mistake me here. We are certainly not saying that Cornelius was a virtuous pagan and for that reason he was saved. Some have tried to argue that because Cornelius was a devout man who feared God and gave alms to the poor and was then granted salvation by God, we are being taught that right-minded pagans who had reverence for God can also be saved without knowing about Jesus or without putting their faith in him. They take Cornelius as an example of a virtuous pagan and use him as proof that you don’t have to be a Christian to go to heaven and live forever.
But Cornelius was not a virtuous pagan. He wasn’t a pagan at all. He was a man whose faith was biblically informed. He was a man who revered and served the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was a lover of the one living and true God, Yahweh. His faith was the faith of Abraham, Moses, and David. His Scripture was the Bible, or so much of it as then existed. The reason he so willingly received Peter’s message is that it was nothing more than an account of that redemption for which belief in the ancient Scriptures had prepared him. Cornelius already feared Yahweh; what he learned was that Jesus is Yahweh! That was an essential discovery but it was only filling in the missing information. We are hardly being taught here that the true-blue Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or animist or, for that matter, secular humanist can be saved by his reverence for his gods or for his God or for life or whatever. The difference between them and Cornelius was that he, like other faithful Jews, was already fearing and trusting in the true and living God. All he needed to learn was that that same God had entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth. In that sense Cornelius’ history of salvation, his personal spiritual journey, seems to have been very similar to Peter’s own.
Indeed, we do not know and cannot say when precisely Peter himself was saved, when, as we would put it, he became a Christian. Christian theologians from the earliest years taught that OT saints deserved to be called Christians. Abraham was a Christian in the most important sense of the term. The apostle Paul certainly teaches that. So was Moses, so was David, so was Isaiah. So were multitudes of simple Israelite folk who loved and served the Lord. The New Testament makes very clear that people who had a faith and behavior commitment to Yahweh in the ancient epoch were saved in precisely the same sense and in the same way that people are saved today. We know more than they did about how salvation was accomplished by the Son of God, we know that Yahweh came into the world as Jesus of Nazareth, but they trusted the same God, the same divine grace, the same promise of redemption that we depend upon today and they sought to serve and honor the Lord in their lives because they loved and revered him. In that sense and so far as we know, Peter was a Christian before he ever met Jesus. He was a disciple of John the Baptist and John’s true followers were certainly Christians in that most important sense. Remember, at this point the term “Christian” hadn’t been invented yet. That comes later in this same chapter. “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” [11:26] The thing itself existed long before the name, and, indeed, long before Jesus appeared in the world.
What makes this point important is Peter’s statement in v. 14. He says there that the Lord had told Cornelius in his vision that Peter would “declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” Does that suggest then that Cornelius was not saved, no matter that he was devout and feared God, no matter that God had heard his prayers and remembered his alms? Some fine commentators think so – that Cornelius was not yet a saved man – but I don’t think so and for several reasons. [cf. Stott, 198-199]
- First, in v. 17 Peter says “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” He is clearly talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a demonstration of the Spirit’s presence and power that had just been duplicated in Cornelius’ home. But, of course, Peter did not believe in Jesus for the first time on the day of Pentecost. Nor had the other believers upon whom the Holy Spirit fell that day. They were already disciples of Jesus, many of them had been for several years, and, at least in some cases, had been real believers in the Lord for some time before that. Perhaps a number of them had been born and raised in believing homes. Peter’s “when we believed” seems to mean only that we received the Spirit because we were believers in Jesus, not at the very moment at which we became believers in Jesus. In other words, the descent of the Spirit did not mean that the people on whom the Spirit fell had become Christians at that very moment.
- Second, in v. 15 Peter makes a point of saying that the Holy Spirit fell on the company in Cornelius’ home when he began to speak. Not at the end of his address, after they had processed what Peter had said. Not in response to the kind of appeal that Peter had made at the end of his great sermon on the day of Pentecost: “repent and be baptized everyone one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” No, the Spirit fell as Peter began to speak. The Spirit was, in other words, confirming the acceptance of these folk before they even received Peter’s account of the life and work of Jesus Christ. That certainly suggests to me that Cornelius was already a believing man when Peter arrived at his home and before he began to speak.
- Third, the descent of the Spirit itself, that powerful demonstration of his presence and blessing, both at Pentecost and at the home of Cornelius, was just that, a demonstration. It did not always happen when a person became a believer. So far as we know, it didn’t happen in Jerusalem after Pentecost even though thousands more became Christians in the months that followed. It was not the salvation itself. Very soon we will be reading in Acts of multitudes of people who became followers of Jesus who did not experience such a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. Such a demonstration, in other words, was not the experience of salvation itself. It was the demonstration that the Holy Spirit was present and working. So it had happened in Samaria since Jewish Christians would otherwise have been suspicious of Samaritans becoming Christians. The Spirit removed all doubt that God was at work among them by giving them the same demonstration he had given at Pentecost. And now in the same way Cornelius and his household, Gentiles all.
Now what is the significance of all of this? Just this. We all know from the repeated teaching of Holy Scripture that salvation is the gift of God and the work of God in any person’s life. It is a salvation accomplished by Christ and received through faith. What is more, it is a salvation promised both to believers and their children and fulfilled in the life of whole families together. We have that emphasis here, as when we read in v. 14 that the Lord told Cornelius that Peter would tell him a message by which he would be saved together with his household, a reality of divine grace that we encounter throughout the book of Acts as we encounter it in the church everywhere we look throughout the world. The conclusions we may draw from this certainly include these:
- Christ is the only savior of sinners and faith in him the only way of salvation. We have already been told that in no uncertain terms in Acts 4. “There is one name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” The fact that Cornelius was apparently already saved but still needed to know about Jesus Christ is explained by Cornelius’ need to know both that Jesus Christ was the God whom he had come to fear and worship, love and serve, and that the redemption of sinners promised in the ancient Scriptures was in fact the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross.
- The salvation that Christ accomplished and which now is being published to the world, is the same salvation that was always available to those who trusted the Lord, loved him, and sought to serve him. The New Testament is full of evidence that our salvation is the same salvation as that of Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or Hannah, or even Jabez, now in heaven wondering how his simple prayer could have made a man millions thousands of years later! The NT says many times that Jesus was the Yahweh of the ancient Scriptures, now come in the flesh. Cornelius now knew that.
- Salvation, the only real salvation to be found anywhere in the world, is a salvation that requires real faith in God, as God is revealed in his Word. More to the point, that salvation, that deliverance from sin and death is now received through a personal faith and behavior commitment to Jesus Christ. Cornelius actually had that commitment before he even knew who Jesus was, because, like the OT saints before him, he made that faith and behavior commitment to Yahweh, the living God, only later to learn that Jesus of Nazareth was Yahweh in the flesh.
- But, supremely, the lesson of this history is that it is that commitment, that personal faith and behavior commitment to Christ that is required of any man or woman, boy or girl who would go to heaven and live forever. That this is so is demonstrated all the more powerfully in Cornelius’ case because he had it before he ever knew the facts and the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry and that commitment was only stronger and more joyful the more he learned about Jesus and what he had done for sinners. Surely it’s fascinating that the first Gentile congregation to be baptized and enrolled in the Christian church was already a believing group of people!
How much you know about the Bible or the Christian faith is not the issue, though, of course, if you do not care to know what the Bible contains it does not appear that you have Cornelius’ mind or heart or commitment. He couldn’t wait to learn what Peter had to tell him. He wanted to know more, which is why he pled with Peter to remain with them for some days.
How you come to faith in Christ isn’t the issue either. Cornelius’ personal spiritual history was certainly unusual by our standards. Indeed, there would be very few, I suspect, in our day and age whose spiritual history could approximate Cornelius. There have been stories of people among unreached populations who seemed already poised to accept everything that missionaries declared to them about Jesus and salvation. We’ve heard of the dreams in Muslim lands that have brought men across great distances to find a Christian to learn what the gospel is. But even then, that wasn’t precisely Cornelius’ situation. He had much of the Bible and he already believed it.
People come to Christ in all manner of ways. Some are raised in the faith, as may have been some of Cornelius’ children, believers from their infancy or youth. Some come to faith by sudden conversion. Others come gradually, being drawn under the gospel’s spell over a period of time. In fact, in many cases we can’t even tell when it was that a person became a Christian or when he or she was saved. That was true in the OT and it is true today. When did Jacob or Joseph become a true believer or a Christian? People argue about that. Was Jacob a believer before he left home? Or was it at Bethel when he saw his great vision of the ladder connecting earth and heaven? Or was it at Peniel where he wrestled with the Lord? When did Peter become a true believer? We don’t know. And it is a question more interesting than important. What we need to know is not when a person became a believer or by what means he came to faith in Christ. What we need to know is that a person has a faith and behavior commitment to Jesus, the living, active kind that Cornelius had. And even more to the point, we need to know that we have that kind of commitment.
Almost all of you are Gentiles. You have something in common with Cornelius. But the challenge of this text, its personal and eternal importance to you and me is this: Cornelius, Gentile that he was, had a faith and behavior commitment to the Lord. He believed, he repented of his sins (as we read in v. 18), and he rejoiced in the grace of God to him and to his family. That is what it means to be a Christian. Can you see yourself in Cornelius? Knowing that God is, that he has made promises to his people, loving him for doing so, seeking to serve him and others in his name, rejoicing then to learn more of what he has done for sinners and precisely how he made for them a way to heaven. Cornelius wasn’t simply the first, or one of the first Gentile Christians, he was an example for all who would follow and who would want to know how to be Christians themselves. That is why his story is repeated at length!
We are told nothing about the rest of Cornelius’ life. Did he remain a soldier? Did he tell his story at the dinner table a thousand times till his children rolled their eyes every time he began it again? You can ask him about it when you see him in heaven. What matters is that he lived the rest of his life as a Christian. Luke is not giving us a theological account of conversion – indeed, his account leaves many questions unanswered – he is showing us what a Christian is and does so we can see ourselves in this man, or, if we can’t, we can see clearly what we must do: believe, repent, love, serve, and rejoice; which is to say, commit!