Studies in Acts
Lesson 18: The First Gentile Christian
There are some things that can come into our lives that change things forever. After such an event, nothing will ever be the same again. It may be something wonderful – the day you meet the person who will one day be your spouse, or the birth of your children, for example. Or it may be something tragic – the death of a loved one, or losing a job or something like that. But the end result is the same: things are changed forever in your life. Such a time came into the life of the early church about 8 years after it began on the day of Pentecost. And even though it was something good, it did bring changes that were hard to accept at first. Here in Acts chapter 10 the scope of the church begins to widen – the first Gentiles enters the group. The Christian movement before this, even though it was based on faith in Christ, was distinctively Jewish. For example, Jesus Himself was Jewish. All of the apostles were Jewish. In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry, with only one exception, was carried out among Jews. Jesus went out of His way to refer to the Gentile woman who in Matthew 15:21 through 28 who was asking Him to cast demons out of her daughter. In verse 24 and again in verse 26 He told her that his ministry was limited to Israelites. (the story does go on to say that in His grace He did heal her daughter.) He told the Pharisees that He did not come to annul the law, but to fulfill it. After the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, most of the additions to the church were Jews. It is interesting to notice that even in this chapter, years after the day of Pentecost, Peter and the other Christians are still observing Jewish customs and habits – prayer at the sixth hour, etc. Now there had been some preparation for this in Philip’s preaching in Samaria and in the Ethiopian eunuch in chapter 8, but so far, no hard and fast Gentile had been admitted – the others had been almost accidental.
The first thing we see in the passage is the story of two different men in verses 1 through 23. First there is Cornelius, a Roman soldier, in verses 1 through 8. And then there is Peter, the consummate Jew in verses 9 through 23. But we will see them discover that they have much more in common than they ever dreamed!
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment (2) a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. (3) About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in saying to him Cornelius! (4) And when he observed him he was afraid and said, “What is it Lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. (5) Now send men to Joppa and send for Simon whose surname is Peter.(6) “He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what to do. (7) And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continuously. (8) So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
At this point Cornelius was what the Jews called “a proselyte of the gate.” A full proselyte was a person who “converted” to Judaism – took up all the rituals and rites and observances. But “a proselyte of the gate “was a person a person who adopted the Jewish belief in one God, etc., but was still a gentile in the way he lived. At this point Cornelius was only “praying” and “giving alms” according to verse 2. But that verse also says he was “a devout man.” In fact, he was apparently so devout that his testimony affected those around him. According to verse 7 there was “a devout soldier among his personal servants. This tells us two things. Evidently was what today we might call “a good witness. And second it tells us that he was a highly-ranked soldier. Verse 1 says he was a centurion – in charge of 100 men. Cornelius is an example of what Paul refers to in Romans 1 – everyone has a basic knowledge of God. (John said the same thing in chapter 1 of his book. But at this point he wasn’t saved, – just “devout” – following all the light that he had. Jesus said “you must be born again” not to a reprobate, but to Nicodemus, the best that Judaism could produce. Paul was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” and, as touching the law, perfect. But because he was pursuing his “God consciousness” God gave him more light.
I said in the beginning of this lesson that this chapter is a story of two different men. Cornelius is one of them, and Peter is the other. His story is given in verses 9 through 23. We don’t need to go over it in detail, because up to this point the book has centered around him and his activities. We know about his life already, but let me just touch on a couple of other things. Like Paul, he was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” but at this point he is beginning to see a wider view of God’s work in the world. At Pentecost, he had said that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh.” In the last verse of the previous chapter he had lodged with “Simon the tanner,” even though tanners were abhorrent to the Jews.
So, in contrast to Cornelius, who was walking in all the light that he had, Peter did not fully understand all the light that he had, but he fully enjoyed what he did understand.
The second subject of this chapter is two manifestations that these two men had. The first one was to Cornelius in verses 3 through 6.
(3) About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in saying to him Cornelius! (4) And when he observed him he was afraid and said, “What is it Lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. (5) Now send men to Joppa and send for Simon whose surname is Peter.
In the last part of verse 4 God informs Cornelius that He is aware of his past religious activities (aren’t you glad that he is aware of those things?) And then in verses 5 and 6 he tells him what to do next. The fact that He specifically promises that “he will tell him what to do” shows that Cornelius may have been wondering what he should do. And this is evidence of the “God shaped vacuum” within all of us. – his prayers and alms evidently had not filled that void.
Then in verses 9 through 16 there is God’s manifestation of himself to Peter. Verse 9 shows the intermingling of time
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour
It is interesting to notice that while Cornelius’ men were on the way God was preparing Peter to receive them. Then verses 10 through 12 show the intermingling of circumstances
Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance (11) and saw heaven open and an object like a great sheet, bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth (12) in it were all kinds of four footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things and birds of the air.
Notice that it was while Peter was hungry and waiting for food that this vision occurred. And this reminds us again that God often uses the ordinary circumstances of life in communicating with us, or setting the stage for communication. And incidentally, Peter’s Jewishness is still showing. The sixth hour is one of the hours for prayer.
And then in verses 13 through 16 there is the interchange of ideas
And a voice came to him, “arise, Peter, kill and eat.” (14) But Peter said, “Not so, Lord,” For I have never eaten anything common or unclean. (15) And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” (16) This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
First there is the command to eat these things that had always been off limits to Jews in verse 13. But immediately Peter refuses. This is typical of Peter – an oxymoron: “Not so, Lord,” How can you say “not so Lord” to someone you have just said “no” to? But of course, the disturbing thing about Peter is that he is so much like us! So, verses 15 and 16 say that the command was
Repeated two more times. So that was a total of three times, even though Peter was still calling him “Lord.” It is interesting to know that the phrase “you must not call common” is “do not make common in the Greek text. IN other words , “it is no longer common in God’s sight. If it becomes common it will be because you have made it so. Now we need to think for a moment about the intention in this command. It was not just a matter of food specifically – these were primarily health laws, but they had become symbolic of Judaism as a whole. But the real issue was the breaking down of the exclusive nature of Judaism. And obviously, this was perplexing to Peter.
Now we have seen the two manifestations and the two men” who had received them. So, the third thing we have in the chapter is the two ministries in verses 17 through 48. First there is the invitation to minister in verses 17 through 22. It all begins with the introduction is in verse 17
Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, Behold the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate.
Notice the interaction again – “while Peter wondered . . .” Then in verses 19 through 22 we have the information that Peter wants: First he gets some information from the Holy Spirit in verses 19 and 20.
While Peter thought about the vision, the Holy Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. (20) Arise therefore and go down and go with them, doubting nothing, for I have sent them.”
Then he gets information from the visitors in verse 22:
And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.”
And so in verses 23 through 33 we see Peter’s involvement in the ministry Verses 23 and 24 tell how he traveled to Cornelius’ house. And then in verses 25 and 26 an interesting thing happens:
As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him. (26)But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up, “I myself am also a man.”
This shows an even further break-down in Peter’s prejudice – he realizes that he is no different from this gentile.
Then in verses 27 through 33 we have a review of the circumstances that brought Peter and Cornelius together – almost word-for-word repetition of what we have seen up to this point. And then again in verses 34 through 43 we have the information which Peter gives to Cornelius and his friends. The truths we are going to look at here were probably just beginning to come together for Peter himself.
“Then Peter opened his mouth and said I perceive that God shows no partiality.” And the message is typical of all apostolic preaching – all about Israel, Jesus, the crucifixion, and resurrection. First, he talks about the universality of God’s love in verses 34 and 35
“Then Peter opened his mouth and said I perceive that God shows no partiality. (35)But in every nation God shows no partiality whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.
Then in verses 36 and 37 he talks about God’s use of the Jewish nation
The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ, he is Lord of all” (37)”that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached.
Then in verses 38 through 41 he talks about the uniqueness of Jesus of Christ
“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.(39) “ And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree (40) Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly (41)”not to all the people , but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.
The first aspect of His uniqueness was His anointing. Notice again the consistency of Judaism with Christianity – the prophets witnessed this new truth in advance. Then His accomplishments are listed in verses 38b through 42. First His general good works are listed in verses 38b and 39a
But of course, the most important thing about Him was His crucifixion, detailed in verse 39b
And God validated that by His resurrection in verses 40 and 41
Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly (41)”not to all the people , but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.
Now with all of that as background, in verses 42 and 43 he tells them about the unusual offer of God
And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be the judge of the living and the dead (43)To him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”
Notice again the emphasis on the consistency of Judaism and Christianity – the prophets witnessed this new truth in advance verse 43 says. And the bottom line is that now salvation is offered to people of every nation and background. Finally, in verses 44 through 48 we see the interruption of Peter’s ministry. (notice “while Peter was still speaking these words) First there is the activity of the Holy Spirit in verses 44 and 46
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word . . . (46) For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered
What happened here is that the Holy Spirit took the simple gospel message of Peter and made it plain. Peter didn’t need to say any more. Notice that the gift of tongues occurred before baptism or the laying on of hands. And this reminds us of the deliberate lack of order in the reception of the Holy Spirit during this transitional period. At Pentecost there was no laying on of hands, but tongues and fire (chapter 2) In Samaria (chapter 8)there were no cloven tongues of fire or speaking in tongues, of fire, or speaking in tongues but laying on of hands. When we get to chapter 19 we will see no fire, but tongues and laying on of hands (at Ephesus). Also notice the purpose of the tongues in verse 46 (not an unknown prayer language) So that is the activity of the Holy Spirit. But in verses 45 through 48, we see the activity of the believers:
The original believers who came with Peter were blessed – verse 45
And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Notice the specific reason for their blessing –“because the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gentiles.” Also new believers were baptized in verses 47 and 48.
Then Peter answered (47)” can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (48) And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
In conclusion, here is another example of the importance of obeying the Word of God, regardless of how it fits our traditions or assumptions. Of course, we need to remember that this is a transitional book, and therefore some previously acceptable attitudes were now done away with. But the principle is the same. It is summed up back in in verse 15:
What God has cleansed you must not call common.