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"Upon Them, As Upon Us"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
May 14, 2008
Theme: Peter's ministry to the household of Cornelius demonstrates the full opening of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
In our day, we're so used to the message of the gospel being available to the Gentiles that we easily forget what a remarkable thing it is. But even Paul said that it was a wonderful “mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:9); that “the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” with the Jewish people (v. 6; see also Romans 11:11ff). Our passage this evening tells us of how this remarkable event was made “official”.
We can hardly grasp today what a tremendous transition it was for Jewish believers to now accept that Gentile believers could be saved by the Messiah also. But a hint of this transition began to be given when the resurrected Lord Jesus commissioned His apostles (Acts 1:8), then when He sent His servant Philip to evangelize the Ethiopian nobleman (8:26-39), and finally when he called the apostle Paul (9:15). Peter's struggle—along with those of the Jewish believing community—shows us what a difficult transition this must have been. But the fact that God called Peter to pave the way helps on the one hand demonstrate a continuity of the apostolic witness in Jerusalem with that of Paul to the Gentile world; and also helps prepare the church for it's ecclesiastical recognition of salvation by faith alone through grace alone (as told us in Acts 15).
I. GOD'S MERCY TO CORNELIUS (10:1-8).
A. We're told of a "certain man in Caesarea named Cornelius. Caesarea had become a major headquarters for Roman military rule in the region (see also Acts 23:23-24); and as it happens, this man was a "centurion"—a leader responsible for a regiment of 100 Roman soldiers. It's worth noting that every time a centurion is mentioned in the New Testament, he is presented favorably; and often as someone who is involved in an important event in the Bible's story (Matthew 8:5-13; 27:54; Mark 15:44-45; Acts 21:32; 22:25; 23:17, 23; 24:23; 27:43; 28:16). This particular centurion was leader of what was called "the Italian Regiment". But what's more important, he is described as a man who was "devout" and one who "feared God with all his household". He demonstrated his devout character in that he gave generously to the needs of the Jewish people; and that he prayed to God—as best he knew the God of Israel—"always".
B. The man's reverence toward God could not save him; but it demonstrated the grace of God upon his life—a grace that found expression in that God provided him with the message of the gospel that would save him. As the man prayed at the third hour of the day (i.e., around 3:00 PM; which, according to Acts 3:1, matched the hour of prayer that the Jewish people observed), an angel of the Lord came in a vision. He told Cornelius to call for Peter—who, in the providence of God, had already been kept in Joppa for such a time as this (Acts 9:43). The best manuscripts do not contain the addition that Peter would tell him what to do (vv. 6 and 32); but it is clear from 11:14 that the angel did say this.
C. Cornelius immediately sent three men—two who were his household servants, and one who was a trusted soldier. These men were, no doubt, entirely sympathetic with Cornelius' reverence toward God. Caesarea was approximately 35 miles north of Joppa; so, these three men probably left late in the afternoon or early evening, slept along the way, and resumed their journey in the morning in order to arrive to Peter at about mid to late afternoon the next day.
D. This illustrates to us that no man—not even a very devout man—is saved merely by his religion. He needs to hear and believe the gospel. But it also shows us that God, in His great mercy, will send His servants to proclaim the gospel to those who have been appointed to believe it unto salvation. It seems clear that Cornelius knew at least something of the message of the gospel from 10:37; but God sent Peter to provide a clearer understanding so that Cornelius and his household could believe accurately and savingly.
II. GOD'S MESSAGE TO PETER (10:9-16).
A. As the three Gentile men who were sent by Cornelius made their way to Joppa, God was already at work preparing Peter for their arrival. The day after Cornelius sent them, Peter was up on the roof the flat house of Simon the Tanner—praying at about the noon hour and waiting for lunch. In the providence of God, Peter was hungry; which helped increase the impact of the truth God wished to communicate to him. (Perhaps the old saying that the way to a man's heart is through is stomach has more truth to it than we realize!)
B. Peter fell into a "trance" (ekstasis; rather than the usual word for vision, horama) in which he saw a sheet descend from heaven containing all kinds of animals—both clean and unclean to a Jew. God commanded Peter to rise, kill and eat; but Peter resisted—not wanting to eat anything "unclean" in violation of the Jewish law (Lev. 11). God told him, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." To drive the reality of this principle home to Peter, God gave him the vision three times—perhaps just to make it clear to him that it wasn't only because he was hungry!
III. GOD'S COMMISION OF THE GOSPEL (10:17-43).
A. As Peter thought on the meaning of this vision—apparently immediately after the third vision had been given (see 11:11)—the three men arrived. It was then that the Holy Spirit made clear to Peter that the vision he saw was about something greater than just food. It was meant to open Peter up to the fact that God was about to show His love to the Gentiles; and that whomever God declares to be "clean" must not be called "unclean" by the Jewish believers. Peter was told by the Spirit to go with them "doubting nothing; for I have sent them."
B. As Peter went down from the roof of the house to meet them and ask why they came, it must have been startling to hear the answer—that a godly Roman centurion, with a good reputation among the Jewish people, had been instructed by God to send for him and hear a message from him. Peter, no doubt, would have put this remarkable request together with the vision he had just been given.
C. Peter's openness to God's work in this situation is demonstrated in that he asked these Gentiles in and lodged them for the night. On the next morning, he took six Jewish believers with him (see 11:12) to go with him to Caesarea—making a total of seven witnesses. This was not only wise, but also providential; because these witnesses would prove later to be valuable in testifying of God's work among the Gentiles to their Jewish brethren.
D. When Peter came to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea (most probably a day and a half after they left; see v. 30), they found that not only was Cornelius and his household waiting for them, but also his relatives and close friends. The seriousness of the promise of God to Cornelius must have moved him to use his waiting time to gather those he loved together for this great message. He fell down before Peter in reverence (not in the sense of worshiping Peter, but in the sense of realizing that he is a messenger sent from God). Peter humbly lifts Cornelius up, and assures him that he is a man like himself.
E. Peter tells Cornelius of how strange this event felt to him. He knew that Cornelius was aware of what an offense it is to a Jew to be in the home of a Gentile; but he assured Cornelius that God has shown him that he is not to call any man common or unclean. It must be that Peter was thinking much about the vision God had given him as he made his way to Caesarea. When Peter asked Cornelius why he sent for him, Cornelius related the vision he had received from the angel; adding that he obeyed the vision immediately, and that "therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God." What a marvelous way God works to prepare, not only His preachers, also those to whom the preachers are sent!
F. Given this situation, Peter simply "opened his mouth". The remarkable work of God through all of these circumstances came home to Peter powerfully; and he testified that he now knew "in truth" that God shows no partiality but shows grace to all those who seek Him (see Isaiah 64:4). He proclaimed God's gospel of "peace through Jesus Christ" to the household of Cornelius—highlighting (1) that God had anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit, (2) that He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, (3) that the Jews in Jerusalem crucified Him, (4) that God raised Him up on the third day and showed Him openly, (5) that he and the other apostles are witnesses of these things—sent by God to testify of them, (6) that God has ordained Him to be the Judge of the living and the dead, (7) and that the universal testimony of the prophets is that whoever believes on His name will receive the remission (i.e., forgiveness) of sins.
IV. GOD'S SPIRIT UPON THE GENTILES (10:44-48).
A. The point at which the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles in Cornelius' home is crucial to note. It was when belief on Jesus' name was stressed—to underscore that the Spirit came upon them in response to an inward faith, and not an outward ritual. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word; and the result was that Peter and the other believing Jews who saw it were astonished to see the Spirit come upon the Gentiles as He had also come upon the apostles—with the inclusion of speaking in tongues (see Acts 2:4ff).
B. Peter took the lead; and asked (rhetorically, of course) whether anyone could forbid "water" to these believing Gentiles "who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" so that they could be baptized. And at his command, they were baptized in the name of Jesus. Note that the clear manifestation of their salvation—i.e., the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in response to their faith in the message preached—came before baptism. A demonstration of God's continued work in Peter and in the other Jewish men is shown in the fact that they stayed with Cornelius and his household for "a few days".
V. GOD'S PRAISE FROM THE BELIEVING JEWS (11:1-18).
A. The transition that this remarkable event required in the thinking of the Jewish believers is shown in the reaction of those in Jerusalem. They heard that the Gentiles had received the word of God; and that, no doubt, was something that they would welcome with cautious joy. But that Peter and the others would have stayed in the home of Cornelius—and even go so far as to eat with them—was too much to take!
B. Peter had to account for this. He did so by basically retelling the story of all that had happened—from the trice-repeated vision he saw on the roof, to the meaning God gave to him of the vision; and from the immediate arrival of the men from Caesarea, to the Spirit's clear statement that these men had been sent by Him, and the instruction to go with them "doubting nothing"; and from the beginning of Peter's sermon to Cornelius' household, to the falling of the Spirit upon them "as upon us at the beginning"; and even of Peter's recollection of the Lord's own promise that "John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (11:16; see also 1:5). When it was all over, Peter placed the question before his Jewish brethren; "If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" (v. 17). It may be that Peter's natural, Jewish impulse would have been to do so; but he realized he could not stop the work of the Spirit.
C. The conclusion was inevitable. The Jewish believers became "silent" at the hearing of these things. It may be that they, too, had to have a little time to take it in. And then, at last, they glorified God; saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life."
* * * * * * * * * *
Thus began the great adventure of the gospel of Jesus Christ going out to the Gentile world. It would not be long after that that the Lord would call forth His appointed 'apostle to the Gentiles' in Acts 13:1-3. Peter would later speak of this incident in defending the grace of God toward the Gentiles (Acts 15:7-11).
Praise God that the good news has reached even to us!!
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