I have titled this message in my own files “The Reception of Cornelius” for even everything that happens to Peter at first in our text is with a view to this Gentile man and all the Gentiles that are going to follow him into the Christian church.
Many Jews followed a custom of prayer three times a day, as Daniel had (6:10), and here is some evidence that such a structured life of devotion is not a bad thing. Here was Christ’s apostle following a pattern. More prayer that way, and, if there is a temptation of rote praying, then still that is better than no praying at all, for one can at least fight the battle when one is at prayer, which one cannot when one is not!
That Peter should have felt so hungry as to ask for food to be prepared may itself indicate that God was already at work preparing the scene, for noon was not a customary meal time for Jews of that era. They typically ate a light meal in the mid-morning and a more substantial meal late in the afternoon.
These are the three kinds of animals familiar from the OT law. Many of them were apparently unclean animals, perhaps all of them were.
I have read of a minister who used this particular piece of history to good effect in counseling. A woman had come to him who was struggling with God’s will in a particular matter. She knew what she was supposed to do but found a great unwillingness in herself to do it. The pastor left her in his office with this verse open before her. “I’m leaving,” he said. “You stay here until you cross out one or the other: ‘Not so,’ or ‘Lord.'” A good way to think of our temptations and our obedience. If he’s the Lord the discussion is over! Only if he is not our Lord and Master, can we say, “Not so!”
Now here is the question. When did God declare these foods clean? In Mark 7, you remember, the Lord Jesus, the Lord had a conversation that was prompted by some Pharisees noticing that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating a meal without having observed the ceremonial washing of hands that preceded the meal. This was, by the way, a Jewish tradition; it is never required in the Law of Moses. In his remarks Jesus made a point of saying that it isn’t what enters a man from the outside that makes him unclean but what comes out of him. And then Mark, for the sake of his Gentile readers, adds the application: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” Well, yes, that was the implication of what he said, but it does not appear that Jesus himself ever abolished those practices during the days of his ministry. That came later, especially here in Peter’s vision.
Peter needed to be made ready for the next great leap forward in the progress of the kingdom of God into the whole world. Jews did not enter Gentile homes (again, this was Jewish tradition, a tradition that was neither taught nor suggested in the OT Law). The vision had specifically to do with food, but Peter did not miss the point that what was being addressed was an issue far more sweeping than what food one could eat. He tells us this himself in vv. 28-29. The vision had more to do with people than with food, but food was a particularly clear way to make the point because Jews saw their food laws as one of the ways in which separation from Gentiles was effected and their distinction from Gentiles manifested. You can see quite easily the practical connection between the matter of food and of entering a Gentile home. If you went to the home you might have food set before you that you couldn’t eat; what a social disaster that would be. But the Lord is telling Peter to feel free to enter the home and eat whatever is set before him.
Immediate events confirm the lesson of the vision.
These Gentiles understood the difficulty a Jew would have in acceding to their request so they gave their message in a form most calculated to produce a “yes” from Peter.
In fact there were six other men, as Peter says in 11:12, and they will serve in an important role as witnesses.
The attitude all of us should have before the preaching of the Word of God!
There are many ways in the Bible in which the right relationship to God is described. Faith, of course, but sometimes faith’s effects are used instead, as here. We turn away from such descriptions as somehow endangering sola fide, but we must take care to hear the Bible. We must and, if we have faith, we will be also God-fearers. And, also God lovers, as Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians: “a curse on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus.” It is exactly this fullness of presentation and description that is being threatened today in the PCA in my judgment. You have a movement of people who say that they have rediscovered grace, what the rest of us have lost sight of. But, in talking with this people and listening to them, I discover to my dismay that the grace they have rediscovered leaves little or no room for a great deal that the Bible teaches and emphasizes. They do not want to hear emphatic presentations of the believer’s duty, or of the necessity of God’s children fearing him as well as loving and trusting him, or of the accountability of every Christian life to the judgment of God, or of the threat that is so often spoken in the Word against believers who do not, as here in Peter, “do what is right.” No, we want grace, absolutely we want grace, but we want the grace that also loves and supports and insists upon obedience and the fear of the Lord. Anything less is not grace at all, it is just empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the techniques we use today to seek our own will and our own pleasure rather than to submit ourselves absolutely to the will of God.
I am very worried by what I see in this regard in our own church. Folk who use the term “grace” as a shibboleth to exclude or to marginalize folk who cheerfully hold to what mainstream evangelical Christianity has always held to be the whole counsel of God — grace, faith, obedience, fear, love, judgment all together, all having their perfect work in forming in God’s children the full stature of Christ.
Put in the margin of your Bible here: “The outline of Mark.” Mark’s Gospel, you know, was Peter’s really, Mark being more the amanuensis and here we have a summary of Peter’s preaching which is almost a perfect outline of the material of his Gospel. This is a summary, of course. No doubt even this sermon was much longer, with Peter adding lots of detail and providing Scriptural interpretation from Moses and the Prophets. There is a beautiful simplicity in Peter’s presentation of the Gospel (like what you find in the early creeds) — the story of Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection has enormous power and is, finally, what must be believed. It may be that the epistles provide the full explanation of the gospel, but as one early father put it: “The Gospels supply the wool…the epistles weave the dress.”
It is interesting, after all, to remember that the doctrine of the justification of sinners was not given a truly satisfactory statement until the Reformation, some 1500 years after Pentecost, but many knew that Jesus was their Savior and that because he had died for their sins in their place.
Notice, here, we have “believe in him” which is clearly not a different thing but the same thing from a different viewpoint as “fear him and do what is good” in v. 35.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit was the divine indication that these people, believing in the message as they obviously did, were received, even though they were Gentiles. And note the response to this on the part of the circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter but who had not received the vision as he had. It astonished them — so far was it from their expectation — that Gentiles would have been so favored.
In other words, if God has welcomed these Gentile believers, can the church do otherwise than welcome them herself. The question, in context, is directed to the Jews with Peter. And, as 11:3 makes clear, what is being contemplated is nothing less than baptism being given to uncircumcised people!
Literally Peter asks if anyone can “withhold the water”, which seems to suggest that the water would be brought to them not them to the water, suggesting in turn sprinkling or pouring rather than immersion as the mode.
What we have then in this paragraph is the narrative of the decisive turning point in the history of the kingdom of God following Pentecost. That fact is demonstrated by the repetition of this history in the next chapter as Peter reports it to the Christians in Jerusalem. Caesarea was a predominantly Gentile city. It is so great a change that it requires God’s leading and direction — his Word comes straight from heaven — and it required Peter’s involvement as the leader of the Apostolic Company. “Upon this rock…”
Now, we accept that Gentiles belong in the church as Gentiles — after all that is quite easy for us to believe for most of us are Gentiles! But, as I pointed out last Lord’s Day evening, there is a lesson for us too. For the problem that Peter and the Jewish Christians faced is faced by us Gentile Christians too — for that problem was primarily a problem of loyalty to a culture rather than the embrace of any new theological principle. True, the food laws themselves were in the OT and had to be cancelled, and, no doubt, that first ham sandwich went down hard! But, much more than that was the matter of prejudice regarding peoples that aren’t like us, ways of life that are different than ours. God does not show favoritism, but it is very easy for us to do!
Now it is no longer Jew nor Gentile, but it can be a hundred other distinctions: race, socio-economic class, education, appearance, dress, musical or artistic culture, place of residence, background, etc.
You know how powerful these forces, these patterns of life and association are by looking at American churches: how similar the people are who belong to them: economically, racially, socially, even more and more, chronologically. This reality is so deeply ingrained that missiologists have attempted in this last generation to put a happy face on a fact that seems impossible to change: they call it the homogenous unit principle (HUP) and argue that it is easier to build churches if you build them for particular types of people, churches that will feel comfortable to folk because everyone there is like themselves.
Your deacons will confess to you the constant battle they have in their own hearts not to look down upon the poor who come to them for aid; how easy it is to forget how destitute we all are before God when left to ourselves, how foolish we have all been with the resources God has entrusted to us, how ill-prepared we are to face the judgment seat of Christ in this respect.
Peter is going to show us himself how hard it is to eradicate these prejudices — forms of our pride and self-protection as they are — for even after all of this in Acts 10, we will find him later withdrawing from Gentiles in order to preserve his place in the eyes of Jewish Christians in Antioch.
Now, the point of Acts 10 is that these prejudices are sinful and are to be put to death in our hearts because God does not play favorites and so we cannot either. He judges a man or woman strictly according to that person’s faith and obedience, nothing more nor less. That is to be our judgment and, of course, having been rescued from ourselves as we have been, we must also extend to those who do not yet believe a charity that hopes the best for them and seeks the best for them. This is what Christ showed us and the Apostles — the wiped the dust of their feet off against people only when faced by an intransigence in the presence of the light, refused to cast their pearls only when they knew they were dealing with swine, a situation that occurs only under very specific circumstances and ones we do not that often face.
The early church was full of society’s rejects in the first few centuries. And that was a magnificent testimony to the Gospel’s power. A unichrome church the world can account for easily enough — like-minded people gathering together because they are comfortable with one another. But a group of people that cross all the lines that almost always keep people apart, that requires an explanation!
Illustration of Lloyd Jones, the successful young doctor with a sterling career ahead of him, shortly after his conversion, leaving a down-town London theater with his sophisticated friends, dressed to the nines, encountering a Salvation army band and realizing that these were his people!
I regard this, the entire session does, as an outstanding weakness in our church and our testimony. We cross some lines but not nearly enough and not nearly powerfully enough. We don’t have enough poor in our church — something very spiritually important for richer people like ourselves (it changes our view of our possessions to be rubbing shoulders with those who have much less); we don’t have enough folk of other races, charitably arguing politics but holding hands in prayer and gospel work (all of which increases our sensitivity to others).
I wish I could tell you how we might change this. I pray that the Lord would show us. I want you to pray too. For it is not possible, it simply isn’t, to forsake culture. Culture is inevitable. We can’t all suddenly sing like we are in a black church and hope that blacks would flock to us because they love our music. They would think us ludicrous and they would be right. We cannot suddenly begin to add folk dancing to our worship when we would all be utterly unable to appreciate it, so alien to our experience as it is. Nor, I think, is that what is being taught in Acts 10. It is precisely not that Jews and Gentiles must embrace a common culture, but that they must respect the culture of one another and absolutely refuse to allow it to prove a barrier between them. It is certainly not being taught that we must relax our doctrinal standards or our understanding of what the Christian life is to be. People today are doing this on all fronts: in order to gain folk from everywhere they are refusing to take stands that might offend or put off these people, even if they are the very stands required of us in the bible. No, these standards are to be maintained at all costs, but they only.
Actually, I think the Reformed faith, with its strong doctrine of sovereign grace, is better suited to this catholicity and unity than other forms of Christianity. Andrea, a Lutheran representative to the conference at Monbeliard in 1586, a conference called to seek reconciliation between the Lutherans and the Reformed, refused to take Theodore Beza’s hand. He offered to shake his hand as a mark of love toward him as a fellow man, but not as a fellow-Christian. But Beza was perfectly happy to shake Andrea’s hand as a fellow-believer. Paul Gerhardt, the 17th century German Lutheran said that he could not regard Calvinists, so far as they are Calvinists, as Christians. But I have no such problem with Gerhardt, indeed, we love to sing his hymns in this church. It is not hard for us to believe that he is a recipient of divine grace even if he doesn’t understand the doctrine of grace as we do.
Well, if even matters of great doctrinal moment do not have to effect our unity at at least some level, how much more other matters can be held with less determination and cannot be allowed to keep us apart from believers who might otherwise walk with us. The parachurch, of course, has done a much better job of this than the church, but then, they have an easier time of it, requiring, as is right, much less of their workers than a church must inevitably require of her members and taking a much smaller place in the life of her workers than a church takes in the life of her members. Still I am grateful for the parachurch for providing such opportunities of unity for us which would be much more difficult to find otherwise.
The Balkanization of American culture — its being broken down into “groups” of every kind has made this goal of Christian unity even more difficult to achieve, but it has also made it so that if achieved it will be a noticeable witness of the power of the Holy Spirit to bind people together as one in defiance of what otherwise keeps them apart.
Most of us have had experiences of this unity across the lines that separate human beings and have felt the delicious power of the gospel in those experiences and have wanted to have much more of that as a result. In India in 1975 I experienced this to a very great degree. I found myself having everything in common with folk whose culture was as different from mine as could be — appearance, race, language, food, music, family life, housing, entertainment, dress, wealth, etc. — all completely different. Yet, I found that we were brothers in actual fact — talked immediately with true sympathy and understanding about the things that mattered most to us, which were the same things; had shared the same experiences of God and faith; had the same loyalty to the Bible, the same hopes for our lives.
One weekend the four of us American seminary students went touring with a local Indian pastor our own age. We spent that Friday night in an Ashram. Now, the folk in that Ashram were his people, the Indian pastor’s people, culturally. They were Indians, spoke the same language, looked the same, were familiar with that country and its customs where we found them all strange and alien. But, he was with us and we were with him over against all of the rest of those folk there — for we shared a common faith and experience of God and Christ that transcended everything else. We all sat there disgusted by what we saw, the eating of a miserable meal, the belching afterward, the humming, the reading of the Gita. They may have been Indians, but he was primarily a Christian and he looked upon all of this as alien to him. It was entirely natural for us to gather in our room that night and pray, Indian and Americans, feeling like it was we against them! It’s easier to see and feel that in an Ashram where you feel that you have entered the Devil’s own lair. But, we are in the Devil’s lair in American culture, and we need to feel our oneness, our kinship, our unity with all other Christians, and show it to the world as that which they cannot manage to achieve but which Christ has achieved in us.
Remember his prayer, the night of his betrayal: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me…” We can begin by praying that the Lord would lead us to our own Cornelius and give us grace to prove ourselves one with him.
That we would have our own occasions to say of folk very different from ourselves, what Augustine used to say of his friend Alypius, “we are washed in the same blood!”